this week's section, with some more fully fleshed thoughts to come later in the week, once we've all had a fair chance to get through to the end. We've already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it's time to talk about surfaces. I'm thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood's Tale, in which he purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 - 109]. It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood . . ." />

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
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  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
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  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
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Life Big Read: Surfaces

Here are a few thoughts about the beginning of this week’s section, with some more fully fleshed thoughts to come later in the week, once we’ve all had a fair chance to get through to the end.

We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 - 109].

It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.

This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” [95]

And this is true: right now I’m typing this entry on a unicum of my own–the Apple computer that Scott Esposito typed his George Perec Big Read entry into. Of course no one has any interest in this unicum, like the great majority of unica in the world, yet if I became famous enough there might be a market for a factory to mass produce copies of this computer to sell to a consumer market.

What this digression about unica forces us to think about are ideas of authenticity, rarity, and singularity. All objects are “authentic” in some way, and yet we don’t consider all objects authentic. Similarly, all objects can be rare and even singular by various criteria, but in practice we only use those terms to describe very few objects, or else they would become useless to us as descriptives.

My point here is that the concept of unica throws us back to the frames that dominate our society but are rarely seen, revealing them to us. It also takes us beneath the surface appearance of an item like “Napoleon’s hat” to help us understand just what that item is.

All this relates to Sherwood’s Tale because it is precisely these frames and definitions that are being exploited to con Sherwood. His willingness to participate in the con forces us to ask why he would participate, and the fact that an author has decided to write a book about the entire episode–presumably because people will find it interesting and buy her book–forces us to ask why people would find this story more interesting than many others.

And I think all of these questions get very much back to the heart of what Perec is doing here with all of these surface descriptions, strange tales, and immense-but-bizarre quests that give meaning to the lives of his characters. We have at least three of these quests in this week’s reading–the conclusion of the explanation of Bartlebooth’s, Appenzzell’s quest to live with the natives who flee from him, and Ericsson’s quest for vengeance. Each come to dominate all material and mental resources of the questor’s life, and each become, in their way, a prison. It is worth asking why and how as we read.

And as to that, I will leave you with a quote about Bartlebooth from this section:

That’s what struck Valene the most, his gaze which did not manage to meet his own, as if Bartlebooth had sought to look behind his head, had wanted to pierce his head to reach beyond it in the neutral asylum of the stairwell with it’s trompe-loeil decorations mimicking old marbling and its staff skirting board made to resemble wood panelling. There was in that avoiding look something more violent than a void, something that was not merely pride or hatred, but almost panic, something like a mad hope, like an appeal for help, like a signal of distress. [142]

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