Tuesday, January 24, 2012

`This I Find Unbearable'

You have to admire a reader equipped with sufficient enterprise to find something amusing in so dreary and obnoxious a writer as Jean-Paul Sartre. Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti quotes two characters discussing Hell in the Frenchman’s 1944 one-act No Exit (Huis Clos):

“GARCIN: Are there books here?

“VALET: No.”

The only infernal torment more insidiously cruel would be a library consisting exclusively of L'idiot de la famille and Saint Genet, comédien et martyr. Forty year ago, my professor of 18th-century English literature read aloud in class a characteristically opaque passage from Sartre’s L'étre et le néant devoted to the subject of holes. She tried valiantly not to laugh, but soon all of us were giggling. She and Mike read Sartre in the only spirit I find palatable.

The prospect of a bookless life (or death), however, is genuinely frightening. In 1997, at the age of eighty-eight, William Maxwell published an article in the The New York Times Magazine in which he writes:

“…when people are dead they don't read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke. One might as well be –”

The dash abruptly interrupts Maxwell’s thought, then he resumes in a more enthusiastic vein:

“Before I am ready to call it quits I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and Isaac Babel and Sybille Bedford’s The Sudden View and going through shelf after shelf of the bookcases, until I arrive at the autobiographies of William Butler Yeats.”

Even sadder than a bookless eternity is voluntary booklessness in this life. We inhabit an age of bookish wish fulfillment. If you can think of a volume, you can probably get your hands on it, often free of cost. Think of digitalized texts and interlibrary loan. Think of life without Amis, Boswell and Chekhov, without Xenophon, Yates and Zweig.


George said...

In one of Saki's short stories, an Englishman gets a tour of hell. The last stop is a room being prepared for a certain playwright--it has exhaustive reviews for all plays staged in England during those years, except for authors with names beginning in 'S'.

David Auerbach said...

I would take Sartre's occasional brilliance over Zweig's insistent mediocrity and Amis's asshattery (father or son) in a second, I must say. Les Mots is pretty wonderful. And I swear that if parts of L'etre et le neant weren't meant to be funny, well, Sartre must have been way too high on speed to not realize. He's not a favorite of mine, but I predict he will outlast Blanchot, Levinas, Derrida, and many momentarily more popular super-serious Francaises.

What I find saddest is the ever-growing trail of books, electronic and otherwise, I have yet to read, a trend which seems certain to continue and thus makes the finitude of my life very palpable on a daily basis. (The to-read list now numbers in the thousands.) Every unread book here or on my list is a memento mori screaming, "WILL YOU READ ME BEFORE YOU DIE?"