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Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

I’ve been reading DeLillo’s books for a long time now. The first time I heard his name was when I struck up a conversation with a man on a train in England at the end of the 1980s. He told me that I should really read DeLillo. But it was not until I was a summer student in New Mexico in 1991 that I came across White Nose and its ”airborne toxic event”. And then Underworld when it was published in 1997. I remember carrying around that heavy brick of a book with a photograph of the World Trade Center in the foggy background and St. Marks’ church in the foreground. There was a tiny bird high the photograph, superposed on the towers, that looks to us now like an airplane. DeLillo to me has always been a constant steady background presence. He has always been writing about how conspiracy and terror have such a large place in our contemporary consciousness. So when on one of my walks around town I saw his new book The Silence on the shelves at Shakespeare and Co. I immediately bought it. DeLillo finished this book just before our ”current situation” started.

It is a very slim volume, not more than 100 pages set in a mono-spaced font like it was bashed out on a typewriter. The events in the book take place over the space of a few hours. There’s a catastrophic event but the consequences are not an explosion or widespread destruction. Instead, almost every electronic device stops working. Screens turn dark. And here the event is not seen from the perspective of governments or nations but simply that of a few friends gathered around to watch a football game on TV; there’s a faint echo of the magnificent stadium scene at the start of Underworld. This time, however, people are at home.

DeLillo offers no clear explanations. Perhaps it’s a coronal mass ejection. They’re called ”Carrington Events” after the 19th century scientist who realised what was electrocuting telegraph operators around the world and lighting up the night sky was a big blob of charged particles coming in from the sun. Such an event would have had minimal impact 150 years ago, but today of course it would be catastrophic. Satellites observing the sun would give us a few minutes warning but there would be not much else we could do other than save the files and close the applications. But in DeLillo’s book there are hints that it’s not a natural event.

This is what the silence looks like now

You see, he is not really interested in explaining what happened. His question: what would we do if the screens went dark? What would happen to human consciousness when the current stops flowing? This being a DeLillo novel our friends speak in a complicated stream-of-consciousness diction comprising waves of technical language and terms. Sentences are pared down to a string of nouns. Almost all events take place in a single room; he’s not interested in outside. But what’s happening outside? “You don’t want to know,” a character informs us. One of our friends happens to be an Einstein scholar, a convenient person to have around in an an event like this in a DeLillo novel. And at one point, an uncanny prophecy:

“What comes next?” Tessa says. “It was always at the edges of our perception. Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere […] But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out. […] Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning? This is not the first time that these questions have been asked. Scientists have said things, written things, physicists, philosophers.”

Since Underworld DeLillo’s focus has narrowed right dow. There is no sweep of event, and the voices speaking are only echoing sounds that we have heard before. There’s no resolution, of course. We leave the book still waiting for the TVs to come back on again and for the smartphone screens to light up. And we start to imagine, just a little, what life without these devices might be like.

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

There is a certain segment of time and space here in Paris that fascinates me. It’s that period just after the second world war. Now, a few months ago, just before the portcullis gates swung down (on st. Patrick’s day of all days) I bought Robert Giraud’s Le Vin des rues. A few weeks before that, I discovered by chance the “Librairie Le Piéton de Paris” and following the excellent recommendations of the shop’s owner I bought Patrick Cloux’s “Au grand comptoir des halles“. Over the next few weeks of the lock-down I read both books very closely. They both describe postwar Paris lucidly and entertainingly.

Les halles in the 1960s (Robert Doisneau)

The back-story is well known: for centuries Les Halles was the beating heart of Paris with an enormous market which attracted vast crowds at all times of the day and night. It was at Les Halles that food and produce was bought and sold for all of France. Eventually the narrow streets proved too limiting for the endless deliveries and in the 1970s the wrought-iron 19th century marché was destroyed and operations were moved to a more modern and convenient location at Rungis. The destruction was filmed and photographed; a quick tour on YouTube and you’ll find it all. As well as the above-ground wrought-iron market halls, Les Halles contained enormous subterranean cellars and by the time all that was excavated and removed an enormous hole was left gaping at the centre of Paris, the famous trou des halles.

For quite a few years nobody quite new what to fill it with. There was even a western adventure movie about Custer’s last stand made featuring the hole and surrounding wreckage. Well, of course later there would be a underground railway exchange for the new rapid train nework (the RER) but what else? A shopping centre, Forum des Halles, which is universally unloved. Meanwhile, the parking lot where the produce trucks idled was transformed into the Centre Pompidou. To a person walking around Les Halles today there is almost no trace of the past life. The ouside of the shopping centre looks a little better than it did when I arrived in Paris; it is now covered by the ‘canopée’. In an interesting bit of architectural short-shortsightedness for a city with Paris’ climate the canopé is not actually waterproof. There is at least much more space there than there was before; it is is now open on both sides.

These details you could have found on the interwebs. What Cloux’s book aims to bring back are the people, the conversations, the circumstances, something that is lost in a bare rendering of facts. It is wonderfully evocative. I’ve already written about Jack Yonnet. Girard and Yonnet, togethether with the humanist photographer Robert Doisneau, are probably amongst the better-known characters from that period. But there are many others in there too. There is Claude Signolle, an expert on the occult. Signolle meets a shady character, a man claiming to be practising witchcraft, who shows him the book that he uses to make sure his incantations work. It is one of Signolle’s own books!

Reading Giraud’s Le Vin des rues just after Cloux’s book I understood why this text was so important as a description of that epoch. Reading Giraud is like listening to him talking to you in the Parisian argot of the 1950s (which is not always easy to follow). A simple as a conversation, colloquial, slangy. You could indeed imagine him in front of you on the other side of the bar with a glass of wine in his hand. Giruad describes how hard life was in Paris in the early 1950s and all the characters he met during his walks across the capital. He must have known every homeless person in the centre of Paris, all the people on the fringes of society that polite people would hurry past. It was Giraud who introduced these people to Doisneau who then photographed them with such success.

Robert Giraud, 1950 (Robert Doisneau)

Everybody in Giraud’s book is trying to turn a trick to stay alive. There is the man, for example, who lives in a tiny narrow apartment on the roof and who catches pigeons to sell to fancy restaurants, telling the buyers that they were were caught on country estates. Similarly, once the tourist boats have left, a group of shady characters make night trips onto the Seine to catch fish with explosives which are then brought right to les halles to sell. The there’s the blind girl Girarud helps by collecting cigarette butts for her which she sells on to another character who reassembles them into full cigarettes. Then there is a Giraud himself, who hangs around les Halles at midnight because that’s the best time to look for work, they always need a helping hand unloading the produce trucks and it’s good money, even if you have to work straight until the dawn. (Both he and Yonnet were casually brave during the war. Yonnet led groups of men around Paris into buildings where they would set up clandestine radio antennae to broadcast information to the resistance. An incredibly dangerous activity in occupied Paris and Yonnet had to kill one of his own men who was on the point of betraying them all the the Nazis. Giraud only escaped his Nazi death-sentence when the town where he was being held was liberated by the resistance; he went on to edit a newspaper for them.)

The end: le trou des halles

The worlds that Giraud and Cloux and Yonnet describe are a vast distance from the established literature of the time, even if the you could walk in less than fifteen minutes from Giraud’s bars in the rue de Buci and rue de Seine to the Boulevard St. Germain. I don’t know if Cloux’s book will be ever be translated into English. it’s a dense, lyrical text that took me long enough to read. It felt strange to read these books and to know that, while I was reading them, not a single bar or cafe was open anywhere in Paris.

Meeting Richard Powers, reading “The Overstory”

Meeting Richard Powers, reading “The Overstory”

At the intersection of great literature and science there is, mostly, an arid wasteland. This is even more surprising when one considers how deeply technology has shaped modern society and how successful the scientific method has been in furthering our understanding of the Universe. So I have always been interested in writers such as Richard Powers who are able to speak to both worlds; when I learned that Powers was reading in Paris at Shakespeare and Co. last September of course I planned to attend.

Arriving in the book-lined reading room at the rear of the shop I noticed that above where Mr. Powers’ would be sitting there was a large photograph of Walt Whitman. No man ever wrote better poems about what it felt like to be alive (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry) or which speak so clearly to us across the centuries. Whitman tells us how important it is experience the world with our senses as well as our intellect; When I head the learn’d astronomer speak reminds us that a complete apprehension of the natural world requires not only the intellect but also the heart. All these things are important to consider when apprehending Powers’ new novel, The Overstory, which is, at first sight, a book about trees. But it is really about the relationship between human beings and the environment they live in. A story, which, it has to be said, doesn’t seem to be turning out well.

In a forest

Simple rules lead to complex systems. That is a theme that Powers has returned to many times in the past two decades. And what could be a more complex system that than the biosphere itself? In his work he has already showed us how marvellous it is that complex organisms can arise from the simple rules at the heart of every cell; now imagine that idea amplified a million times to cover the Earth. The initial notion, he explained to us, was that he would write a book about trees. But where’s the story in that? The story should be one of people and trees.

There is no doubt that forests and trees have occupied a special place in human consciousness. In the forest gloom, anything may appear. Trees are alive, of course, and now it seems that they talk to each other too, although their words are spoken slower than any human language. In Powers’ book there are both scientists who try to decipher this mystery as well as poets and activists who react to it. Behind this, a sense of subliminal menace lurks. This is a natural consequence coming from standing still on a cliff edge and slowly and carefully hollowing out the ground beneath one’s feet — while at the same time gazing peacefully at the blue sky before one’s eyes. That seems to be a fair enough metaphor for our carefree attitude to the natural world over the last few centuries. The entire book is written in a clear and precise present tense in order to remind us that this is happening to us now in our world that we live in and not anywhere else.

An Irish forest. Not a real forest, but there are trees nonetheless.

Despite this, Powers’ book is optimistic. He still believes in the redeeming power of technology and digital communications, and salvation may perhaps come from the unlikeliest corners. At one one point a revolutionary intones that “the best arguments won’t change a person’s mind. the only thing that can do that is a good story.” But if only stories, like photographs, could be believed in today!

Powers discussed his book with us for an hour and then responded carefully and graciously to all our questions. Listening to him talk and thinking about his book and all the books I’d read I became aware of all the connections between all these books and the people that read them and write them. The evening passed very rapidly indeed: it had been much too long since I had spent an evening there. I met all manner of interesting people there: a Californian man who was a professional arborist; a television crew from South Korea; and simply people who read and appreciate the power of words and books. Many thanks to Shakespeare and Co. for organising such a wonderful evening!

Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Paul Auster’s work has a certain resonance for me. I first discovered his books in that distant summer of 1991 when I made my first trip to America. In fact, I bought “In the country of last things” at the famous Strand bookshop in Manhattan. I read it on my ten-day greyhound bus journey to Socorro, New Mexico where I spent a long six months as a “summer intern” (finishing in December!) at New Mexico Tech. It was a strange and mysterious experience to read that book about the end of the world as the countryside unrolled around me back to zero and dissolved into desert. In the next six months out there I discovered Moon Palace and the New York Trilogy. It seems strange now because the first places and last places I saw on this trip to America was Manhattan, the deserts of New Mexico, and finally San Francisco, and all of those places play a central role Auster’s early novels.

Some mysterious trees, seen in the desert.

By the time I had arrived in the deserts of New Mexico it was hard enough for me tell the difference between what happens inside books and what happens outside them. Here’s an example: in one scene in Moon Palace the central character is instructed to take a trip to a Brooklyn art gallery, keeping his eyes closed, and only open then when he arrives before a certain painting — “Indian by moonlight”. I had of course never heard of this painting but I was curious, what did it look like? In the middle of my stay in New Mexico I made a trip back to New York and I knew I wanted to visit that Brooklyn Gallery and see the painting. I phoned the gallery. Do you have a painting called “Indian by Moonlight” in your collection, I asked them. Yes, they said. Could I see it? Well — no. You see, they explained to me, it’s in a part of the gallery where there are no lights. We could take you down there, but you couldn’t see it. So, even if I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see the painting.

Well, as they say — years passed. And now I find myself living in Paris. A few months ago in our local bookshop I chanced on an enormous tome, 4321 it said, and it was by Mr. Paul Auster. It had been years since I had read any novel by Paul Auster. I hesitantly picked it up. I wasn’t frightened of big books, but yes maybe I have less time now, so I didn’t buy it just then. But I was curious. A few weeks later when I learned I had to make a trip back to the Salpé hospital, I knew that afterwards I’d have enough time to read it. And so I did, all one thousand words in around a week, comfortably installed on the couch in the front room.

Proust on the left, Orwell on the right

Perhaps you’ve heard the central conceit of the book: Mr. Auster imagines three other versions of approximately his own life. Four stories in total. Only, the other three lives are cruelly cut short: the other Paul Austers do not make it to the end of the book. One is struck dead in his youth, more or less, by a bolt of lightning, an event which Auster himself narrowly avoided. That must have been hard for Auster to write especially because their deaths seem at times arbitrary and capricious. So, the book is a reflection on the different paths that lead to a life. Starting with the same raw material, the same inklings and desires, talents and failings, what would we become? Each Auster makes slightly different choices, meets different people, becomes a different person.

Paris (a city, one character says, I have never heard anyone say bad things about) lies near the heart of the story. There are the familiar tropes about writing books and creating works of art in that glittering city and Auster manages mostly to stay away from cliche. The history of America after the war is finely detailed and it struck me just how turbulent and unsettled those times were. Assassination of one public figure followed another, JFK and MLK and RFK. We think that our times are difficult now!

Auster paints on a very broad canvas but despite the sweep of history this is not Dellilo’s Underworld. At first, seeing the size of the book, I wondered, would this be Auster’s big book, the career-defining masterpiece? In the end, I am not so sure. If there had only been one of the four stories in the book, would it have been as interesting? Are any of the stories interesting in and of themselves? Although, really, the fascinating aspect here is just how each of the four stories interrelate to each other. The different Austers swelter in impossibly hot New York summers or travel to Paris for a week or a month or for years. His mother becomes a famous photographer or is a portrait photographer for families and weddings or closes her studio and abandons her art. Reading the book, one cannot help wondering what are the inflection points in one’s own life that might have a led to a different outcome. We have each have innate talents and gifts, how are they expressed differently?

Where it all ends

Finally, there is only one thread and there is only one writer. We are in Rue Descartes, Paris. This, we are told, is where the book was finished. Auster must surely know Milosz’ poem Bypassing rue Descartes. Rational systems destroyed the cities of Europe and killed millions. Weighted against that, to protect us, tradition and custom. For Auster, I suppose, on one side is our innate nature, on the other, our environment. It is impossible to know all these alternate lives that we may have led. This book, at least, makes us think about them.