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Recently Read…September 17, 2012

Small books, slim books, often with lots of white space on the page due to wide margins and generous leading, hold a certain promise.  They suggest a quick read, a snack rather than a meal.  But small books – like the two below – can often be high-powered distillations, full of suggestions rather than answers.

Both of today’s books deal with appetites and desires that become obsessions.  Elise Blackwell’s 2004 novel Hunger (my 2008 softcover edition is from Unbridled Books) centers on a man of many appetites (mostly women and food).  He’s a scientist at a Soviet institute dedicated to saving and studying the world’s plant seeds.  Hunger is set in Leningrad in World War Two at the time of the German siege, which lasted two and a half years at a cost of a million and a half lives.  As the siege and resulting famine wear on, the scientist is tempted and then obsessed by the very seeds he has circled the earth to gather and protect.  Blackwell’s taut language focuses on the visual and the physical.  Ideas and emotions are all embedded in objects and bodies.

Cold in the skin.  Cold in the bones of the arm.  Cold in the eyes.  Feet gone from feeling, from knowledge.  There was pain only in odd places, centered on a heavy, aching groin but otherwise intense in its asymmetricality, the finger of one hand, two knuckles on the other, a nostril’s interior, a shrapnel-sized piece of a jawbone, a small concentration in the kidney.

Jacques Bonnet’s recently translated book Phantoms on the Bookshelves is so slim it almost eluded my eye in the bookstore.  I’m a little wary of books that extol the virtues of books and plumb the curiosities that line the author’s library.  Was this tiny book going to be Alberto Manguel-lite?  No, as it turns out.  Bonnet (described as “a publisher, translator, and the author of novels and works of art history”) really uses books and he really know his books.  Early on he asks himself “But why keep tens of thousands of books in one’s private library?”  The answers – and there are many of them – make for delightful and sometimes thought-provoking reading.  It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book who isn’t impelled to head for the nearest bookstore as soon as possible with the intention of adding more books to their own library shelves.

My systematic acquisitions have come firstly from habits I have acquired as an eternal autodidact…[for example] by following a chain of affinities between different authors – for example, Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste led me to Tristram Shandy, Arthur Rimbaud sent me to Germain Nouveau.  Leonardo Sciascia to Luigi Pirandello, and Pirandello to Giovanni Verga.  Or perhaps a book by a single author has encouraged me to try and discover a whole body of literature.  Let me take the example of Pan again… That single book drew me first to read all the rest of [Knut] Hamsun’s books…Then I embarked on reading all the Scandinavian literature translated into French that I could lay my hands on…

One Comment Post a comment
  1. nicholas edger #

    I read this last week and promptly ordered both of these books. I enjoyed them, but, more curious is the brief story I want to recount.

    Having read Bonnet’s book, you’ll know he mentions Pan by Knut Hamsun on a variety of occasions throughout. For some reason this particular reference stood out for me amongst all of the many others. A few days ago I was reading Bonnet’s book on the train and had to pause mid-way through a chapter to alight; the place where I stopped was (another) section listing a variety of titles and authors, including Hamsun’s Pan. After leaving the train station I made my way to a clothes shop to return a pair of trousers that didn’t fit as well as I initially thought, and then, I went to my favourite second-hand book store. As I browsed there, drifting from left to right, past the the wall of drama and poetry towards fiction, I first came across Austerlitz by Sebald. I picked it up because the copy of that which I had read a few years ago was actually borrowed from a friend, and I had been meaning to buy it for my own collection for a long while. I then came across Hamsun’s novel Pan. I bought it, and I am currently enjoying it thoroughly.

    Thanks for the post, it has brought my attention to Hamsun (and again to Sebald).

    October 3, 2012

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