Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.

Admitting Light: Not Entirely

In Ancient Greece they used the lovely word diaphanes. You can repeat it for its pleasure alone, not knowing what it means, but feeling how it fills the mouth with clear air and opens it to the sun with its double a. It has survived in English as diaphanous and is found in the Romance languages, as diafan in Romanian, and in French diaphane. In Romanian it refers to something light and delicate, like a feather or a spring dress; the French usage puts greater emphasis on admitting light: not entirely, but noticeably. Porcelain can be diaphane, or an autumn leaf, or parchment, the old or aristocratic skin on one’s hands. Broadening this meaning one can also use diaphane to describe a silhouette (“it was beautiful, elegant, and diaphane“) or even sunlight seen in a particular way (“The sun was clear and diaphane, like white wine.”) (Despite their delicacy, both quotes are drawn from Sartre.

Marek Bieńczyk, Transparency. trans. Benjamin Paloff. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 (2007)

The Summer I Really Started Reading

I’d been given the task of clearing out Mr. Lace’s garage. For ten pounds. Mr. Lace lived in Finchley, a two hour journey involving trains and buses. A long way but ten pounds was a lot of money.

In 1980, LPs cost £2.99. With that ten pounds I bought Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and saved the rest to buy a knock-off Perfecto leather biker jacket from Portobello Road. I wish I still had that jacket but I left it in the Lewisham Wimpey after an Adam and the Ants’ gig.

Rearranging Mr. Lace’s garage changed everything. I’d always been a reader, at that stage mostly science fiction, or my father’s books. My father read American detective stories and Wilbur Smiths. Mr. Lace was American, another reason, apart from the ten pounds, I accepted the task of cleaning his garage, curious to see what an American would store. Americans were still exotic in London then, what little I knew of Americans, to me the land of Marvel comics and The Fonz.

Among bicycles of various sizes, empty jars, old copies of the Washington Post, boxes of mysterious machine parts, pallets of tinned goods, and spiders the size of my hand, I discovered two boxes of decomposing books. They were in such an awful state that the books on the top layer fell apart in my hands like ancient fragments of bone at a dig. But the next layer were slightly better preserved.

Entranced by my discovery I began taking the books from the boxes, they seemed to call to me, poor unloved books. They deserved some attention before they crumbled to dust. And so my reading acquired a new depth and voraciousness. I took all those books from the boxes, laying them out in the sun. Mr. Lace didn’t seem to mind. Every so often he’d look in on me, on my perch of an upturned tea chest, and throw me an encouraging wink. A task that should have taken three days took a week.

I’d dip into each book, reading the first two pages. If it caught my attention I’d read on for another ten pages or so. If still hooked, I’d put it aside in a pile that grew over the course of that week. The first book that snagged me so hard I had to finish it was The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. At the end of that third day, I tucked the book into my jacket, carefully, like a bird with a broken wing, and was grateful of the long train and bus journey home. I finished that story about a heroin junkie in Chicago on the way to Mr. Lace’s garage the next day.

At the end of that week, quite a pile of books had been stacked. After Mr. Lace gave me ten pounds, I asked if I might have the books, if he had no further use for them. Mr. Lace nodded, but prior to allowing me to put them gingerly into the black rubbish bag I had stuffed into my pocket that morning explicitly to bring these books home, he glanced over each title, sometimes with a nostalgic smirk. Over that long summer I read all those books, the start of my adult reading life. Amongst those glorious titles were In Cold Blood by Capote, The Thin Man, Sartre’s Nausea and The Story of O. That summer I went from sporadic reading to never leaving home without a book in the inside pocket of my knock off Perfecto biker jacket. Thanks to The Story of O, that summer also marked my transition from boyhood to horny teenager, but that’s a whole other story.

Moving Toward Muteness

  1. Forgive, please, this muddled post, more a dialogue with myself than intended for general readership but ‘published’ as a sort of Foucauldian attempt to overcome internal resistance.
  2. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “…. the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify….As soon as I express myself, I can only guess of the meaning of what I express-i.e. the meaning of what I am.”
  3. Lately I binged on Sontag’s essays. Central to her work are themes of alienation, negation, and a term she uses that I particularly embrace, disburdenment, in the sense of intellectual, or cultural disburdenment. How to refine one’s filters, to jar one’s pre-conceived narratives? Can it be done solely using cultural and intellectual expedients?
  4. Foucault in The Use of Pleasure talks of ‘technologies of the self’ as “models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformation one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object”.
  5. Lately I find myself moving toward muteness, different from silence; refraining from personal expression, not due to a failing of language, but out of a fundamental boredom with myself, not entirely rooted in self-absorption, more with what I signify as a heterosexual, white male (the lowest difficulty setting there is). If I am profoundly bored with much of the cultural outpourings of university-educated, middle-class, straight white men, what more should I add to the discourse but muteness?
  6. Remember the arm-wrestling match in The Old Man and the Sea? Mano a mano, in which the compulsion to settle into muteness struggles with a deep rooted urge to (re)create, to narratively recreate oneself.
  7. One of the fundamental claims Foucault makes of confession is that the confessor does not know the truth. “…silence, …. the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

Intersubjectivity and Magritte


The Song of the Violet (1951) - René Magritte

The Song of the Violet (1951) – René Magritte

The most terrifying of all Magritte’s visions was of a world of utter silence in which humans and objects have turned to stone, as in some Absurdist play.

Richard Calvocoressi

For the only consciousness which can appear to me in its own temporisation is mine, and it can do so only by renouncing all objectivity. In short the for-itself as for-itself cannot be known by the Other. The object which I apprehend under the name of the Other appears to me in a radically other form. The Other is not a for-itself as he appears to me; I do not appear to myself as I am for-the-Other. I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the Other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the Other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is for himself.

Jean Paul-Sartre