The thingness of books, especially of many books kept in a small space, stacked high without rhyme or reason, can become impressive. I worry about being oppressed by the books I own––quite different from being oppressed by the ownership of books. There are days when I am certainly very oppressed by the presence of so many books in such a small space. There is really no more room for me with them around, just as there is no room for more books with me around. Yet I keep introducing new books, and reintroducing books that have either fallen or been misplaced and have now been picked up or found, or those I have lent (both with relief at the extra space and with apprehension at never seen them again) and that have just been returned to me. So now: loads and loads of books everywhere, and the fear that they will all come falling down one moment as I am passing through (or edging through) or sitting or (worse) dozing in my armchair, and that I or (more so) that they might be injured in the fall. The idea of all those books tipping over or (even) a shelf detaching itself from the wall and crashing to the floor, is positively nerve-wracking. Every time a book is taken off the shelf, transposed or put back I feel I am pushing my luck. I have so far been unusually lucky in avoiding an avalanche of book matter. I do believe a little order goes a long way, and that the ordering of books and maintaining always some semblance of order are possibly the best way of obviating the clutter typical of book-laden apartments. One really cannot speak of a book collection without having taken stock and organized and subjected one’s books to a more or less logical and consistent access-and-retrieval system. And apartments where the number of books impedes one’s access to them and exceeds a sustainable human-to-book ratio, books attract a frightful degree of clutter in a category unto itself. If it were merely dust and cobwebs everything would still be manageable; but a book heaven that has not been whipped into shape invites its owner to let go of themselves, is an invitation to physical sloth, if not intellectual sloth and downright mental confusion (too many books in too much chaos too often proves deadly for a thinking brain). The typical flat where books predominate, hence a space dominated by books, sooner or later adapts to the physical dimensions of books and reconfigures itself to accommodate even more of them––that is, ceases to be a flat and becomes a library. The sole occupant of such a space is, properly speaking, sharing accommodation. Without realizing it, this inhabitant has already given up many of the advantages of living alone. For starters, there is the uncontrollable, self-begetting clutter. You can deceive yourself that you could straighten up any day, but the mess that comes with the preponderance of books is addictive and ineradicable. It takes considerable exertion of the will to alter this reality. Similarly you may claim to be free to move out any day, to leave the mass and cramped conditions behind, but the truth is only too material: you are not going anywhere as long as you hold on to this many books. There is finally, the sheer lack of space for independent thought. These towers of intellect are known for their diminishing effects. You feel dwarfed both physically and mentally, and when this inequality in stature becomes too great you are done for as an independent thinker. Intellectual inferiority won’t let you scale the shoulders of giants to see further than them.
“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.
—From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Gargoyles.
THE NEXT TIME he saw Pléiade Lafrisée was at a café-restaurant off the Place d’Armes. It would not occur to him until much later to wonder if she had arranged the encounter. She was in pale violet peau de soie, and a hat so beguiling that Kit was only momentarily surprised to find himself with an erection. It was still early in the study of these matters, only a few brave pioneers like the Baron von Krafft-Ebing had dared peep into the strange and weirdly twilit country of hat-fetishism—not that Kit noticed stuff like that ordinarily, but it happened actually to be a gray toque of draped velvet, trimmed with antique guipure, and a tall ostrich plume dyed the same shade of violet as her dress. . . .
“This? One finds them in every other midinette’s haunt, literally for sous.”
“Oh. I must’ve been staring. What happened to you the other night?”
“Come. You can buy me a Lambic.”
The place was like a museum of mayonnaise. This being just at the height of the culte de la mayonnaise then sweeping Belgium, oversize exhibits of the ovoöleaginous emulsion were to be encountered at every hand. Heaps of Mayonnaise Grenache, surrounded by plates of smoked turkey and tongue, glowed redly as if from within, while with less, if any, reference to actual food it might have been there to modify, mountains of Chantilly mayonnaise, swept upward in gravity-impervious peaks insubstantial as cloud, along with towering masses of green mayonnaise, basins of boiled mayonnaise, mayonnaise baked into soufflés, not to mention a number of not entirely successful mayonnaises, under some obscure attainder, or on occasion passing as something else, dominated every corner.
“How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.
He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens’—”
But she was frowning, earnest as he had seldom seen her. “La Mayonnaise,” Pléiade explained, “has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV—here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent. One might usefully compare Cleo de Mérode and the marquise de Pompadour. Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in.
“The sauce was invented as a new sensation for jaded palates at court by the duc de Richelieu, at first known as mahonnaise after Mahon, the chief port of Minorca, the scene of the due’s dubious ‘victory’ in 1756 over the illfated Admiral Byng. Basically Louis’s drug dealer and pimp, Richelieu, known for opium recipes to fit all occasions, is also credited with the introduction into France of the cantharides, or Spanish fly.” She gazed pointedly at Kit’s trousers. “What might this aphrodisiac have in common with the mayonnaise? That the beetles must be gathered and killed by exposing them to vinegar fumes suggests an emphasis on living or recently living creatures—the egg yolk perhaps regarded as a conscious entity—cooks will speak of whipping, beating, binding, penetration, submission, surrender. There is an undoubtedly Sadean aspect to the mayonnaise. No getting past that.”
Kit was a little confused by now. “It always struck me as kind of, I don’t know . . . bland?”
“Until you look within. Mustard, for example, mustard and cantharides, n’estce pas? Both arousing the blood. Blistering the skin. Mustard is the widelyknown key to resurrecting a failed mayonnaise, as is the cantharides to reviving broken desire.”
“You’ve been thinking about mayonnaise a lot, mademoiselle.”
“Meet me tonight,” a sudden fierce whisper, “out at the Mayonnaise Works, and you shall perhaps understand things it is given only to a few to know. There will be a carriage waiting.” She pressed his hand and was gone in a mist of vetiver, abruptly as the other evening.
Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; I don’t think you need any context to appreciate this passage.
This is not a review.
This book was recommended to me.
An experimental, philosophical novel.
I really wanted to like this book.
I had read the reviews & after being unable for a few years to buy it secondhand, I bit the bullet & bought it new.
The beginning is intriguing.
The concept of the book is dead simple.
The idea is this: Kate is a painter; she is the last person on earth, maybe; she is alone in a house on the Long Island beach
Markson picks up Kate’s dialogue in media res and trusts the reader enough to piece together what the heck is going on: she is the last person left on earth and is making her way through it as best she can, telling us her story as she goes.
Short declarative sentences loop feverishly around her brain, repeating themselves, correcting themselves, contradicting themselves, and filling in missing information many pages later.
The narrator’s voice rings true.
It is frustrating, repetitive, and does not offer much in the way of style and language.
No chapter breaks, no real paragraphs even.
Read at random.
This book received 54 rejections before finding a publisher. This I can believe.
Her little apercus are all about observation and remembrance, the real and the false, blah, blah.
(Joyce, Baldwin, Pynchon, Cortazar).
The book was meandering, rambling & jumped all over the place.
Not that oddness is bad.
It never centers on anything.
It’s the type of book best discussed in groups, since it does bring up some interesting themes—the fragility of memory and sanity, the ineffectiveness of language, the impact of philosophy and literature.
There’s nothing for the reader to latch onto and follow, other than the voice.
What about the subtext?
Like Wittgenstein said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”
I am mad. I am crazy. Yesterday I died but returned in time to write this.