Life as List

“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

Lull (lassitude?)

Pause.”

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.

 

Once a Shipwreck, Always a Shipwreck

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. 


Bon Voyage

I can think of few things I enjoy more than buying a new book at an airport. The thought of being trapped in the air inside a metal tube for hours with nothing to do but read or watch bad movies is thrilling. The more so with a brand new glossy book upon my lap. 

On my flight today I carry the story above. Garcia Marquez’s first formal forray into the novelesque: a literary rendition of a true-life shipwreck tale. The “actual” story took place here, in Colombia, where I often work and play. Marquez’s version was first published in installments in one of the main national newspapers. 

Which brings forth the question: why doesn’t installment writing happen anymore? Perhaps this blog will do something about that. 

But, for now, there is nothing but paper and plane. 

Survival of the Horniest

During a recent blissful Sunday afternoon on a London rooftop a friend dutifully informs me that, from an evolutionary perspective, our happiness is problematic. He then plops open the book he is currently logging around town to the page above. 

Writer Yuval Noah Harari makes a good point: our evolution is not based on survival of the fittest but, rather, on survival of the hungriest, indeed, the horniest. 

Those of us who are most adept at wanting and finding instant gratification have a better chance of surviving and reproducing out in the wild. But, we are no longer out in the wild.  

Here, in an urban context, the constant need for instant gratification becomes a burden, one that hinders our ability to execute long-term plans, which are key to obtaining hapiness’ less attractive but more discerning older cousin: satisfaction. 

Our biological need to get fed and laid is the reason why Mick Jagger et al can’t get no satisfaction. Perhaps the results would vary if we gave vegan sober abstinence a try. And a try. And a try.