To fervent readers, in truth to any members of a cultured society, the burning of books is always shocking. Whether motivated by a desire to blot out the past, an exercise of social hygiene or an insidious attack on a particular writer, book-burning is a uniquely nauseating form of criticism. The burning of The Satanic Verses in 1989, lead by Bradford’s senior imam seemed somehow more alarming than the subsequent fatwa against its writer Salman Rushdie. It is impossible to think of book-burning today without a mental image of blonde-haired Nazis in 1933 rejecting their rich cultural heritage.
In Daniela Cascella’s Singed, the book-burning is not a public auto-da-fe but a more intimate concern: a house-fire. “The smell of singed paper haunts me”, Cascella writes, “The smell of singed paper haunts me with a song.” Although her conflagration is no atavistic urge to cleanse society, it still inspires an act of spiritual reconquest, an excercise of memory to recall what was lost, the absent voices–books and CDs–of her library.
“Could I turn the fire inward,” Cascella writes, “use the charred remains as material to write with?” Writing only from memory, from the voices that remain after literature and music, Singed is a wholly exceptional treatment. It is difficult to recall another book that combines erudition and melodic intonation in the same way; the closest is Clarice Lispector whose voice runs through this book with its repeated words and rhythmic gradation of sounds.
I once read that novice monks lose their voice in the first months of chanting the Divine Office. This marks the point after which a monk learns to sing lightly enough to sustain the extensive chanting of his office. “A scar from ear to throat: the mark of necessity, the mark of muteness through a great effort of voice,” writes Cascella. The force of a voice that arises from an unexpected or unthinkable situation, a house-fire that destroys literature, can become the voicing of an emptying, a clearing. I read Singed in a few days, while travelling around Berlin, marvelling at its precision, its extraordinary rhythm. It will add richly to my library, physical and internal, of discourses of muteness.
Okay, must read. I enjoyed Daniella’s En Abime a lot. I imagine that you saw the memorial sculpture of the book burning in Berlin, looking down into the empty library. If not, it doesn’t matter. I found it quite striking. Also the Holocaust memorial, all quite close to the Reichstag. Thanks for this stellar recommendation. I’d have read it already if I could have just gone to the bookshop to buy it. I’ll order it online and wait for it to arrive.
My pleasure, Des. I’ve got En Abime and its sequel to read; looking forward to both. Yes, I saw both memorials while in Berlin.
I find few things as emotive as the burning or destruction of books (which probably says a lot about me – perhaps because books symbolise the high point of civilization as far as I’m concerned). Nevertheless, maybe I should steel myself to read this.
Without this particular book-burning, we wouldn’t have this superb book. Of book-burnings in general I couldn’t agree more.
It is so interesting to read your response to this book as a reader. Daniela is a friend and writing mentor for me and her work serves as an inspiration to open up writing channels. This text is almost a handbook then, kindling if you like, to keep with the fire metaphor.
Yes, I can see that. I’ve kept it on my bedside cabinet and keep dipping in, a sort of dream-book.