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After reading Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ sometime back, I decided to read another Julian Barnes book. As ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ seemed to be the most celebrated book of his, I thought I will read that. Though it was a thin book at around 190 pages, I read it slowly across a week. Here is what I think.

Flauberts Parrot By Julian Barnes

‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is described as a novel. It also has a narrator called Geoffrey Braithwaite who tells the story in the first person. But the book is not really a novel. It is a love letter to Gustave Flaubert – the man who wrote such diverse books as ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Sentimental Education’ and Salammbô’. Some regard Gustave Flaubert as an innovator who broke away from the romantic school of writing and introduced a realistic school of writing in French literature. He himself, disputes it. He also gave a lot of importance to style – to finding the perfect sentence, the perfect word to describe exactly what he wanted. Well, how do I know all this? Am I an expert in Flaubert? No. Have I read his biography? No. Or have I read essays on him by his contemporaries? No. Then how? Well, I got all this from this book J For such a slim book, it packs in a lot of information. Information which we can use as a base to learn more about Flaubert. The title is based on the parrot which is a character in Flaubert’s short story ‘A Simple Heart’. The underlying story in the book is about how the narrator, who is a sixty-five year old retired doctor who has lost his wife, explores the real life origins of this parrot. Through the narrator’s words, Barnes explores different aspects of ‘things Flaubert’ – a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different, interesting perspectives, what would happen if a secret collection of Flaubert’s love letters to his fiancée (who is not suspected to have existed) are found, about the animals that Flaubert wanted to be, about critics’ opinions on Flaubert and how even if they are telling the truth they are missing the point, Flaubert’s opinions on trains and the important train moments in his life, the books Flaubert wanted to write but couldn’t, Flaubert’s life as told by his mistress and lover Louise Colet, how the narrator’s own life is connected to Flaubert and ‘Madame Bovary’, how Flaubert’s works and thoughts will make an interesting examination paper. The chapter on chronology was quite interesting because it provided a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different perspectives – the first was a regular chronology made up of the important events in Flaubert’s life, the second was made up of all the tragic and sad events in Flaubert’s life and the third was a collection of his diary entries across his life. The three versions read so differently that one felt that it is impossible to sum up a life with a chronology.

 

The blurb said that the book was a ‘compelling weave of fiction and imaginatively ordered fact’. So, I was expecting some fact and a lot of fiction. When I did some research and read a few essays on Flaubert and some of his letters from a different book, I discovered that there was more fact than fiction in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. For example, I discovered that Louise Colet is a real person. I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Enid Starkie, who is the critic whom the narrator Braithwaite has a problem with, is an actual Flaubert expert. This knowledge made me like the book more. Clearly Barnes is a lover of things Flaubert and has done his homework.

 

‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is not a book for everyone. If one is looking for a plot with a beginning, a middle and a surprising end, this is not that one. If one is looking for long, beautiful passages and philosophical commentaries on the modern world, like ‘The Sense of an Ending’ so beautifully provides, one won’t find them here. But as a love letter to one of the great writers of the 19th century, this book is unparalleled. It is beautiful, passionate, intelligent, literary and an absolute pleasure to read. I loved reading every page and every sentence in it. It was like reading a memoir, a biography, a collection of essays, literary criticism, all in one book. It is no surprise that it didn’t win the Booker though it was shortlisted (I don’t know a Booker prize winner which is similar to ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’), but it is also no surprise that it won the Prix Médicis (French readers would have loved it because of the theme of the book). If you like a book which is a love letter to a writer – a bibliophilic book and a literature lover’s dream – you will love this book.

 

I have fallen in love with Flaubert after reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. Now I want to read his short story ‘A Simple Heart’. And after that ‘Madame Bovary’ and after that ‘Sentimental Education’ and after that Salammbô’.

 

After reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, I read a few essays on Flaubert by his contemporaries – Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Henry James. I liked Zola’s essay very much. In a short space of around nine pages, Zola talks about his first experience of meeting Flaubert, about the differences between Flaubert the writer and Flaubert the person, about Flaubert’s views on modernity and progress, on how Flaubert worked on his prose, searching for the perfect sentence and the perfect word and how he would wait for days and weeks for it to arrive. It is a perfect essay and an education in essay writing.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book and from Zola’s essay.

 

From ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’

 

Is it ever the right time to die? It wasn’t for Flaubert; or for George Sand, who didn’t live to read Un cœur simple. ‘I had begun it solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of the work. So it is with all our dreams.’ Is it better not to have the dreams, the work, and then the desolation of uncompleted work? Perhaps, like Frédéric and Deslauriers, we should prefer the consolation of non-fulfilment : the planned visit to the brothel, the pleasure of anticipation, and then, years later, not the memory of deeds but the memory of past anticipations? Wouldn’t that keep it all cleaner and less painful?

 

You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on our point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did : he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

 

When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.

 

Nowadays we aren’t allowed to use the word mad. What lunacy. The few psychiatrists I respect always talk about people being mad. Use the short, simple, true words. Dead, I say, and dying, and mad, and adultery. I don’t say passed on, or slipping away, or terminal (oh, he’s terminal? Which one? Euston, St Pancras, the Gare St Lazare?), or personality disorder, or fooling around, bit on the side, well she’s away a lot visiting her sister. I say mad and adultery, that’s what I say. Mad has the right sound to it. It’s an ordinary word, a word which tells us how lunacy might come and call like a delivery van. Terrible things are also ordinary. Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional.’

 

…perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a  definite shape, which never needs be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

 

…when readers complain about the lives of writers – why didn’t he do this; why didn’t he protest to the newspapers about that; why wasn’t he more involved in life? – aren’t they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question : why isn’t he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer : it’s as uncomplicated as that.

 

Ellen. My wife : someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say : she did this because. Life says : she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.

 

‘The whole dream of democracy’, he wrote, ‘is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.’ That line often makes people edgy. Isn’t it perfectly fair? Over the last hundred years the proletariat has schooled itself in the pretensions of the bourgeoisie; while the bourgeoisie, less confident of its ascendancy, has become more sly and deceitful. Is this progress? Study a packed cross-Channel ferry if you want to see a modern ship of fools. There they all are : working out the profit on their duty-free; having more drinks at the bar than they want; playing the fruit machines; aimlessly circling the deck; making up their minds how honest to be at customs; waiting for the next order from the ship’s crew as if the crossing of the Red Sea depended on it. I do that criticise, I merely observe; and I’m not sure what I would think if everyone lined the rail to admire the play of light on the water and started discussing Boudin. I am not different, by the way : I stock up on duty-free and await orders like the rest of them. My point is merely this : Flaubert was right.

 

‘In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert’s feelings by means of such utterances; but what is the importance of the said gentleman?’

      This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed, except that the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert is different. He believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection – but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them b whatever means he can. For some this means no more than a trip to the supermarket and a loading-up of the metal basket; for others, it means being lost on a plain in Greece, in the dark, in snow, in the rain, and finding what you seek only by some rare trick such as barking like a dog.

 

From Emile Zola’s essay

 

My first visits to Flaubert were a great disillusionment, almost an ordeal. I arrived with a complete image of Flaubert already in my head, an image based on his work of a Flaubert who was the pioneer of the century, the portrayer and philosopher of our modern world. I saw him as clearing a new path, founding an orderly state in the province conquered by romanticism, marching into the future with strength and confidence. In short, I went expecting to find the man of his books, and I encountered a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories.

 

When he set himself to write, he began by rather rapidly writing a passage, a whole episode, five or six pages at the most. Sometimes, when a word would not come, he would leave the space blank. Then he would attack the passage again; and there would follow two or three weeks, sometimes more, of intense work on those five on six pages. He wanted them perfect, and I assure you that his perfection did not come easily. He weighed every word, examining not only the sense, but the structure. Avoiding repetitions, rhymes, roughness – that was just the coarse part of the job. He reached the point where he did not want the same syllables to occur in a sentence; often one letter exasperated him, he tried to find words in which it did not appear; or else he needed a certain number of r’s to make the period roll. He did not write for the eye, for the reader who reads silently to himself by the fireside; he wrote for the reader who declaims, who pronounces the sentences in a loud voice; indeed, this is the key to his whole working method. To test his sentences he would “bellow” them, alone, at his desk, and he was not satisfied with them until they had come out of his mouth with the sound he wanted them to have.

 

Have you read Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of Ending’ for a while, but I couldn’t get to it for one reason or another. Then the book club that I am a part of, decided to read the book for this month and so I finally got around to reading it. It is a slim book – my edition had 150 pages – and I read it in a day. Though I lingered on sentences, re-read passages and posted some of my favourite passages on Facebook, it still took me less than a day to finish. Here is what I think.

The story of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is told by a narrator in his sixties who looks back on his life. The book starts with a set of images that the narrator remembers. (It is a fascinating exercise to find out where the images occur in the main story.) The story continues with the narrator remembering his friends in school and the arrival of a new boy called Adrian who befriends him and his friends. Adrian turns out to be different from the other friends in the group, but still they get along well. The story goes on about how the narrator grows up, falls in love with a girl called Veronica, the weekend he spends with his girlfriend’s family, and how things don’t work between him and his girlfriend later though the silver lining was that Veronica’s mother was kind to him. The narrator further describes how later Veronica and his friend Adrian get together and how he responds to that news. One day he receives news that Adrian has committed suicide and he and his other two friends are shocked and meet to discuss it. Then the story moves through the further decades of the narrator’s life. Later after he has retired, he gets a letter from a solicitor saying that Veronica’s mother has passed away and has left him a few things which includes a letter and Adrian’s diary. The narrator is puzzled and his mind goes back to the past and he thinks about Adrian’s death and he goes on a quest to find out the truth behind Adrian’s death and what Veronica’s mother’s connection is to this event.

 

‘The Sense of an Ending’ is about memory and reality and on how the memories we rely on to tell our story is essentially unreliable, making us all unreliable narrators. It is also about how commonplace a normal person’s life is – on how we all do the same things and go through similar stuff with some changes here and there. The story which the book tells is quite interesting, and has a surprising ending which is only implied and leads to different interpretations. (I could think of two different interpretations.) But I also feel that the book is not just about the plot. It is also a meditation on life, death, history, culture, memory, change. My favourite parts of the book were the ones where Barnes uses the narrator to comment on all these topics and more. Starting from the first page, where he talks about time :

 

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

 

and the second page where he talks about memory :

 

I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.

 

these beautiful and insightful sentences and passages keep on coming. My highlighting pen was working overtime when I reached the end of the book. At one point of time I randomly picked a page which I hadn’t read and I found a paragraph there which was quite insightful. That was how good the book was. The balance between the beautiful passages, the insightful thoughts and the plot was perfect. I enjoyed reading every word of the book. I also loved the understated humour throughout the book.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson : most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.

 

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more than ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.

      But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

 

      How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

 

‘The question of accumulation,’ Adrian had written. You put money on a horse, it wins, and your winnings go on to the next horse in the next race, and so on. Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack – there, you just lose your original stake. But in life? Perhaps here different rules apply. You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too; and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.

 

You can find Andrew’s wonderful review of the book here and his interpretation of the ending here. Check out the comments sections in both the posts which have a fascinating discussion on the ending of the book. You can find Delia’s beautiful review of the book here.

 

‘The Sense of an Ending’ is one of my favourite reads of the year. I read Barnes’ ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of’ earlier this year and liked it, but I liked ‘The Sense of an Ending’ more. When it won the Booker prize, Barnes connoisseurs said that it was not his best work. If something which is not his work is this good, I can only imagine how his best work would be. I checked out his backlist and discovered that ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ has got a lot of raving reviews. I want to read that next. I am also intrigued by ‘Before She Met Me’ (because of the title) and ‘Talking it Over’ (because of the plot).

 

Have you read ‘The Sense of an Ending’? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ by Julian Barnes a few years back. I haven’t read a Julian Barnes book before – I had read bits and pieces of ‘A History of the World in 10 ½ chapters’ and liked it, but I hadn’t finished it. The first page of ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ started with this sentence – “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put.” It grabbed me and so I wanted to read the book as soon as I went home. I read a few pages and they were as good as I expected. But after that, somehow I got distracted and the book went into my bookshelf. A few days back I thought I will pick it up and give it the attention it deserved. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ is an exploration, contemplation and meditation on death. Julian Barnes talks about when he first got aware that he was going to die. He talks about his conversations with his brother on this topic. He talks about his parents lives and how they moved on. He also talks about writers and artists and musicians, mostly French – Jules Renard (I want to read his journal!), Stendhal, Montaigne (I want to read his essays!), Daudet, Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rossini, Ravel –  and what they thought about death and the works of art they created when thinking about death. I was actually quite excited that Barnes mentioned two of my favourite writers and composers – Maugham and Ravel – in the book. Most of the time he focuses on what Jules Renard said. On the way, Barnes also talks about God and whether God exists, on life after death and his own take on these topics. He talks about what philosophers and scientists think about it. He also talks about what the non-existence of God would mean to one’s fear of death.

 

Thus Barnes rambles on and on, on this topic, a topic which most people will be uncomfortable with. When I say rambling, it might look like I found the book boring. Far from it. The book was quite interesting. There were wonderful sentences and passages on every page. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book was about Barnes’ brother. It goes like this :

 

      Before he left England to live in France, my brother went to have his ears syringed. The nurse offered to test his blood pressure while she was about it. My brother declined. She pointed out that it was free. He replied that this might very well be the case, but that he didn’t want to be tested. The nurse, clearly not knowing what manner of patient she had in front of her, explained that at his age he might have high blood pressure. My brother, putting on a joke voice from a radio show transmitted long before the nurse had been born, insisted, ‘I don’t wish to know that.’

      ‘Nor did I,’ he tells me. ‘Suppose my blood was OK, then the test would have been a waste of time; suppose it wasn’t OK, then I wouldn’t do anything about it (wouldn’t take the pills, wouldn’t change my diet) but from time to time I’d worry about it.’ I reply that surely, ‘as a philosopher’, he ought to have considered the matter in the terms of a Pascalian wager. Thus, there were three possible outcomes : 1. Nothing wrong with you (good). 2. Something wrong with you but we can fix it (good). 3. Something wrong with you, but Sorry, mate, we can’t (bad). However, my brother resists this optimistic reading of the odds. ‘No, no. “Something wrong but we can fix it” = bad (I don’t like being fixed). And “wrong and unfixable” is far worse if you know than if you don’t.’ As my friend G. put it, ‘the evil is knowing it’s going to happen’. And in his preferring of ignorance, my brother for once resembled our father more than I do.  

 

Did you like it?

 

Another interesting anecdote I liked was about a CEO called Eugene O’Kelly, who is a high-achiever, but who suddenly discovers that he has cancer and has only three months to live. He decides to try to create perfect moments with his friends and family and unwind himself from the world.

 

For a book which was so wonderful, I had to push myself to get through pages sometimes. I don’t know why. This year I have read a few books which I got years back. I had to push myself while reading a couple of them. I didn’t like one of them as much as I expected to. I don’t know whether a book loses its freshness if it is not read immediately after it is bought and it resides in my bookshelf for a few years. It happens with newspapers. It is difficult to read yesterday’s newspaper. It is even more difficult to read last week’s newspaper. Last month’s newspaper – it is used mostly for packing or wrapping. But I thought that books were always fresh, unless they were on current affairs. ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ wasn’t on current affairs. It was on a deeper topic. I liked it. But I had to also push myself to read some parts of the book. I don’t know whether it was because the book had lost some of its freshness (or whether my mind had lost the fresh feeling it had for the book). Should I read books as soon as I buy them, in the future? Do you read books as soon as you buy them or do you put them in your bookshelf and let them age like wine?

 

I would like to read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ again sometime, atleast my favourite passages. If I survive till my sixties, I would like to read it again – I think the book will say some surprising and totally different things to me then.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from this book.

 

On God

      A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like, ‘I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God.’ This kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. Soppy, I cry. You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether He’s an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force, or a disinterested prime mover, or a clockmaker, or a woman, or a nebulous moral force, or Nothing At All, what counts is what He, She, It or Nothing thinks of you rather than you of them. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter whether God is just or benevolent or even observant – of which there seems startlingly little proof – only that He exists.

 

The Modern Heaven

We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment : the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it – doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfilment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, as a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral’s bell or the minaret’s muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism…

 

Individualism – the Twist in the Tale

Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism : from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms – the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self-fulfilment, self-indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways, we also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are ‘survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. The paradox is that individualism – the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists – has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction – that vaguely, Englishly, existentialist ego-hope of autonomy – could not have been further from the truth. I thought the burdensome process of growing up ended with a man standing by himself at last – homo erectus at full height, sapiens in full wisdom – a fellow now cracking the whip on his own account. This image must be replaced by the sense that, far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and that what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off. My ‘individuality’ may still be felt, and genetically provable; but it may be the very opposite of the achievement I once took it for.

 

On Wise Writers

I used to believer, when I was ‘just’ a reader, that writers, because they wrote books where truth was found, because they described the world, because they saw into the human heart, because they grasped both the particular and the general and were able to re-create both in free yet structured forms, because they understood, must therefore be more sensitive – also less vain, less selfish – than other people. Then I became a writer, and started meeting other writers, and studied them, and concluded that the only difference between them and other people, the only, single way in which they were better, was that they were better writers. They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing and particularizing – but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts. It’s not just writer either. How wise are philosophers in their private lives?

 

On Simplicity

…there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. The artist is saying : display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might mean becoming as a child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide. Do you need all those extravagances in the score, all those marks on the canvas, all those exuberant adjectives? This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.

 

Good News and Bad News

Would you like the good news first, or the bad? A sound tactic is always to choose the good – you might die before you get to hear the bad.

 

The Last Reader

We live, we die, we are remembered, – ‘misremember me correctly’, we should instruct – we are forgotten. For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning : fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a  title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. Stendhal, who in his lifetime wrote for ‘the happy few’ who understood him, will find his readership dwindling back to a different mutated, perhaps less happy few, and then to a final happy – or bored – one. And for each of us there will come the breaking of the single remaining thread of this strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader. At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then the reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others.

      My last reader : there is a temptation to be sentimental over him or her. Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in : your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?

 

Have you read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’? What do you think about it?

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