Uit: Slight Exaggeration, Adam Zagjewski, translates by Clare Cavanagh, MacMillan
Still in Paris: a warm, damp January. In the subway cars, many passengers read thick novels, even at peak hours when the reader’s head is encircled by the crowds of those who couldn’t get seats. Paris is, after all, the capital of the novel. Writing and reading novels is a serious business in this city. Patrons of the subway and the vast suburban railroads require enormous quantities of reading matter monthly. As the publishing houses know full well: they churn out new volumes nonstop. The great bookstores, for example the famous FNAC chain, then erect little shrines devoted to specific novelists, shrines built around a photograph of a given author, which is then encased by stacks of books … As in Proust, who describes Parisian bookstores after Bergotte’s death: he compares the fictional writer’s books to angels with outstretched wings, keeping watch over their maker’s soul. In Proust, though, this is a rare and marvelous moment—but for exclusively commercial reasons. And these novels, written with an eye to subway riders and suburban commuters, are quickly forgotten. New books appear. They’re rarely read twice. The bookstalls by the Seine overflow with thousands of yellowed novels from the last fifty or eighty years, novels that had their brief moment of fame, but must now soak and freeze beneath the naked sky—their fate isn’t much better than that of the clochards. Books of poetry, not to mention the poets themselves, are a different matter in Paris. True, you do sometimes come upon the same posters with brief poems in the subway cars that you find in New York, but hardly anyone seems to notice; they’re engrossed in their thick novels. (Once in Germany, when I presented my theory about easily forgotten novels, my neighbor at the dinner table hissed, ’Das ist Kulturpessimismus!’).