For some, it’s money in the bank or a case of Glenfiddich, but I’m with Jules Renard: “When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.” No matter how grim life grows, I’m assured of a little solace with a shelf of good books. I’m not certain if Renard refers exclusively to those he has not yet read. Topping that list for me is Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, a book I’ve been meaning to read for more than forty years. And Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which I’ve read only in excerpts. But the real treasure lies in the books I’ve already read. What a sense of contentment comes with the knowledge I can read Gibbon again, late-period James, Christina Stead’s novels and St. Augustine. Renard sets the precedent: “I no longer, or hardly ever, read new books. I only enjoy rereading.”
For now I’m reading books from both categories. Among the new, Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan (trans. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, Princeton University Press, 2017). And among the old, Leslie Stephen’s Hours in the Library (1874-79).
Renard (1864-1910) is one of literature’s nonpareils, a genuine human novelty. The lines quoted above are from The Journal of Jules Renard (ed. and trans. By Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, 1964). He survived a difficult childhood but has a way of reducing life to essentials and making it sound amusing if not terribly exciting. Elsewhere in his Journal he writes:
“I live like an old man. I read the papers a little, a few pieces out of books. I set down a few notes, I keep warm and, often, I nap.”
Renard was forty-six when he died of arteriosclerosis.