This post was going to be about Alberto Manguel. I mentioned him the other day and decided to read his new collection of essays A Reader on Reading. I would love to meet Manguel. I envy him the space he has in France for his library. I liked parts of this book, but some passages read like a sixth-form essay. Perhaps I should try his other paeans to reading, A History of Reading (1996) or The Library at Night (2007). How much of a subject is “reading”?
In an essay called The Full Stop, he quotes Isaak Babel. “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.”
A 1963 novel by Georges Simenon, who has had several mentions here, illustrated the power of a comma.
Les anneaux de Bicêtre – The Bells of Bicêtre in the US, The Patient in the UK – is about a famous editor who is a stroke victim. He hardly utters a word in the book, because he can’t. It’s an odd pre-echo of the true story of the Elle editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, told in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Maugras’ detachment, followed in this case by an emotional re-engagement, is a classic Simenon (classic French) theme. His faculties are sharper than ever, but they are locked in. He regards the faces and activities around him from a great distance.
He is far happier than people think, or is happy in ways they can’t seem exactly to follow, and he is distracted by their fuss and concern, their obtuseness. They are always getting the wrong end of the stick. Saying just the wrong thing. Jumping to wrong emotional conclusions. He hardly minds.
In the same way a Simenon prisoner in the dock listens, from an equally great distance, to a judge’s inaccurate (even flattering) summing up of him and thinks: “Who is he talking about?”
Maigret, just because it is spring and he is feeling relaxed, fails for a day or two, to the bewilderment and serious concern of his colleagues, whom he regards, in his reverie, with contentment, to concentrate on the most elementary aspects of the job at hand.
A psychopath in equally sunny and benevolent mood decides to commit murder.
Pierre Assouline, Simenon: A Biography (Jon Rothschild, translator): “[Simenon] was capable of outbursts of rage if anyone tinkered with his commas without permission. While he considered the semicolon an affectation, he held the comma indispensable to the rhythm of the phrase. Its position could even change the meaning. He cited the last line of Les anneaux de Bicêtre as an example.” Lina is the troubled wife of Maugras.
“‘One day he would go to see his father in Fécamp, with Lina.’
“Without the comma, he explained, they are going off to Fécamp naturally, and the story has a happy ending. With it, they are still going, but there is a problem, and the happy ending disappears.”
My English translation does have the comma. Was it omitted in the French? Manguel has a chapter on editors who tinker with an author’s texts.
Twilight: Interior or Reading by Lamplight. My grandmother in St John’s Wood c 1909, by her father George Clausen. Leeds City Art Gallery, bequeathed by Stanley Wilson, 1940.