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The Pleasures of Reading About Nothing

October 8, 2010

Poetry here lets you go to bed too late.
~Roland Barthes, Incidents

Incidents, by Roland Barthes, is a wonderful book. It was just re-issued in trade, lavishly illustrated by the photographs of Bishan Samaddar, and with a new translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan. It was written across several decades of Barthes’ life, with segments set in Paris and Morocco. By no means fiction, the narrative builds on a series of short essays, fragments, and prose poetry, creating a dream-like atmosphere of quiet moments and everyday life. The photographs echo these themes, choosing subject matter that any tourist would capture. Intentionally, the book is about nothing.

Which is to say, it’s about everything.

I tend to call books like this ‘quiet’, but maybe this is just the reaction of someone who’s spent an inordinate amount of time in the graces of science-fiction and fantasy. The book has a whole section about a popular dance club in Paris, but Barthes handles even this in subdued tones. There’s definitely something about French authors and quiet books: Francoise Sagan, Annie Ernaux, Jacques Poulin, Nancy Huston…the list goes on and on. You want to curl up with a good jazz CD and a bottle of whiskey, and drift away in sensuous, slow reading. Yeah.

The pay-off, for me, with these books, is that they don’t say much. There is no grand epic, lofty philosophy, or political point to be made. They aren’t practical. The only utility they offer is pleasant diversion and luscious prose. This may not be enough for the critic or dedicated reader. They certainly aren’t enough to justify their existance in a world where utility is measured by balance sheets, return on investment, and marketplace value. Thomas Merton once wrote, “Someday they will sell you even the rain”. In this sense, Incidents is truly incidental.

But in another sense, quiet books are more useful than what can be measured in those ways. Like jazz improvisation, they riff endlessly on the simple moments that make up our lives. They offer a mirror of the world that isn’t quite a shaggy dog story, isn’t quite as abstract as surrealism, but nonetheless proudly about nothing.

Proudly is the right word here. Quiet books are defiant in the face of conventional plot, theme and character development. They are first and foremost exercises in style. And reveling in gratuitous style is the main reason to read them.

Barthes was primarily a critic (Mythologies being one of his primary works), but this book was written to amuse himself. It leaps from moment to moment with a fractured, staccato rhythm that never upsets. You never get the feeling of mere pastiche. Even though most of Incidents is drawn from notebooks and journal entries, Barthes tightly controls his material.

I should note that Incidents is deeply caught up in Barthes’ internal dialogue concerning his age and his homosexuality, and some passages may be hard to get through. But even at his most graphic, there is a tenderness and romance that transcends the physical. Incidents is sometimes explicit, but never pornographic.

I think Barthes would have been pleasantly surprised by the photography accompanying his words. Barthes spent a lifetime studying and practicing photography (Camera Lucida his major work on the subject), and Samaddar’s work is crisp and dominated by the interplay of shadow and colour.

Some other books and authors that I consider ‘quiet’:

  • The fantasy work of Lord Dunsany, the best of which is available in a Penguin Classics edition
  • Anything by Jacques Poulin, but Autumn Rounds and Spring Tides are the best
  • Hermann Hesse, Knulp
  • The photography of André Kertész
  • John Berger, Here is Where we Meet
  • The books of Anne Fadiman are not quite quiet enough, but are occasional essays that will delight in their use of everyday subject matter as an entryway into larger subjects
  • Barry Lopez’s Winter Count is a beautiful short story collection filled with small moments and quiet joy
  • In A Silent Way, the Teo Macero produced Miles Davis classic record that’s as quiet as it gets

If you’ve been gorging yourself on bestsellers or ‘big idea’ books, you should give the quiet side of the street a try.

Shhhhh…

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