“The Time when Bookstores Went Out of Business” is a label that fits the first few decades of this century. I’ve encountered more closing book shops than I care to count. Yet, as dispiriting as it is to do so, treasures can be found amidst the fallout.
Liberty Books on Clematis in West Palm Beach went out of business this past March, after faithfully serving the haphazard public on that haphazard street for many years.
Days before it closed, I entered its doomed space and purchased a few children’s books and George Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.” Perec, an established novelist writing in 1975, sets out to descriptively exhaust a single spot in the French capital without the use of narrative, history, metaphor, as he puts forth in the introduction:
“My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”
The short book is structured as a list of random, apparently disconnected events that happen at place Saint Suplice over a period of three days. Coffee, buses, church goings, church comings. Perec tells no story. But, precisely because there is no narrative, no point, the narrator becomes all important. What goes into the book is what he sucks out from the scenes about him. The Place Saint Suplice of three days in 1975 exists today because of Perec, the collector who itemizes its images.
A mere fifty pages in, Perec realizes that no place can become “exhausted,” only the observer. Nothing changes when everything changes. Cake boxes. Strollers. Rain. Without added meaning, life is a list that is ordered according to time, to the weather, to the writer and his way. Once Perec realizes this, the exercise is complete:
It is the mind of the viewer/writer/viewer that summons meaning from the procession of life.
The mind is the oyster is the world. Perec presents this and invites the reader to suck the oyster whole, be present to the taste of the texture that surrounds. In a few, few days, everything contained.
The buses, the Citroens, the Cambembert. The kids, the clouds, the suddenness of crowd. A quote:
“A bus, empty
Some Japanese, in another bus
The 86 goes to Saint-Germain des Pres
Braun art reproductions
Japanese on a bus. Lull. Lassitude. Wherever you go, there you are. On Clematis Street, anther bookstore closed. Pause? Lassitude.
O, the list goes on.
This week’s “Economist” magazine includes a review of a new biography on one of America’s greatest poets ever: Elizabeth Bishop.
Highlighted above is one of my favorite Bishop quotes, from her poem “One Art”:
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things feel filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster”
This for me has proven to be a year of magical thinking, a year of metamorphosing concrete barricades into trampolines via transformative thought.
Magical thinking works. Didion said it first. I look forward to going through her words.
So I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Relato de un Náufrago” (“The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”) in one sitting. I had my doubts when buying it beacuse I tend to find that all shipwreck stories are the same. Sun, thirst, hunger, dead fish.
Indeed, my favorite part of the tale was Marquez’s introduction, which included the stupendous description above of the Colombian historical context at the time the story was published (apologies to non-Spanish readers).
And, while no one can say that Marquez’s shipwreck tale is bad, it’s a story of sun, thirst, hunger, dead fish. It does interweave an interesting message, however, of the difference between the fear of dying and the fear of death.
Death, actually being dead, does not scare the narrator. Death is a form of salvation, the end of water hell. But the act of dying is immediate, terrifying hell. The options are not good: sharks, imagined carnivorous turtles, burnt lungs.
Fear of going through such terrible experiences keeps the narrator from letting himself die, no matter how much he claims to want the out of death. As a result, he stays alive.
With this story Marquez confirms that our extreme cowardice when faced with gore, pain, any form of death by dying is so effective that it finally makes us brave.