John Self at his blog The Asylum once spoke of the chemistry between a book and its reader. That personal connection without which even the greatest book cannot sing. Whether a book speaks to you or not is an intensely personal matter, and perhaps a slightly random one too. I’ve read books I could tell were well written but that didn’t move me, and others which felt written for me personally but which I know others found dull or ordinary.
One of the most exciting things for me in literature is that feeling I sometimes gets that a book was written for me alone; that a paragraph or section was written with my thoughts in mind; that had I the talent I could well have written it myself.
I recently finished Raymond Radiguet’s Count d’Orgel. I didn’t take to it. Others have, but for me the chemistry was lacking. It had a foreword though which did resonate, and by one of those small coincidences that life is so full of was directly relevant to a blog post (this one) that I was already planning. Here’s that foreword:
Tis the good reader that makes the good book;
in every book he finds passages which seem confidences
or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably meant
for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility
of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as
in a mine; until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What got me thinking about all this was György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell. After the LRB Central European Classics event (which I wrote about here) I was browsing the new Penguin Central European range in the LRB bookshop. I wasn’t sure about the Faludy, so I flicked through the pages to get a feel for it. I opened it at page 135, and I read a passage that had I but the talent I could have written myself. It’s not a happy passage, but it’s a true one for me and not all truths are happy ones.
Here’s the quote:
Now again I could have screamed with despair. One day, twenty or fifty years hence, what did it matter, I would have to die and from then on it would be as if I had never lived. Billions of new variations of man would be born, but my variation would never, never return. I would rather be sick and miserable, a cripple suffering the pains of hell, than not be at all. Yet complete annihiliation was inescapable. God willing I should one day be given a place of honour in the Kerepes Cemetery of Budapest, there would be a marble column with my name on it in gold – but who would care? By the year three thousand everyone would have forgotten my name, by the year five thousand the marble column would have turned to dust, the cemetery would have disappeared under a wheat field, a heap of ruins, an industrial plant or the jungle, the language in which I wrote would also have disappeared and the nation to which I belonged would have died out. Even this second annihilation would not be the end. Then the sun would lose its heat, the earth collide with another heavenly body or explode, and Michelangelo’s statues and Beethoven’s symphonies would be flung after me into Nirvana.
I love the little “God willing” joke in that passage.
Now, as I say that’s gloomy stuff and I’m generally a pretty cheery fellow (as was Faludy I understand). What’s interesting though for me is that it’s a feeling I’ve often had. That realisation that not only will I end, but so will all memory of me, and then all memory of the civilisation of which I was part, and then the species and all evidence that life ever even existed. It’s a bleak and sobering thought. It’s a thought so large it’s hard to know what to do with it (but of course, it also leads to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what I do with it).
As La Rochefoucauld said, we cannot look directly at either the sun or death.
So, Faludy, writing years before my birth, wrote my nighttime terrors down on a page. The section just before that one speaks of waking up in the night panicked, and of rushing out to find company. I’ve done that in the past. It happens less now thankfully. Across this dizzying void though and this existential fear there’s an improbable miracle. That not only am I not the only one to have felt this (I never thought I was), but that someone wrote it down and left it there for me to find.
That’s a wonderful thing. And whether it’s a passage like that which speaks of secret fears, or a passage that speaks of hopes or dreams or deepest beliefs, there’s something quite magical in the fact that we can open a book and find within it ourselves.