Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

The Intensity of Slow Reading

“[…] the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall sleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe.”

—Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Second Common Reader, p.258

This weekend I read Renee Gladman’s Morelia, a short book, in an hour, followed by a couple of hours in the garden in contemplation. This ‘sitting with’ a book one has finished is perhaps the finest part of reading. I reread and think often of Woolf’s encouragement to attend properly to what we read. Slow reading needn’t always mean to read slowly, but to reread, reflect and allow a book to return as a thing rather than a resource.