“Het leven is geen boek. Nergens begint het. Het is hier en daar en ginder, en alles gebeurt tegelijk. Een boek is anders. Dit boek begint in het huis der Van Geemen waar het altijd stil is, waar het riekt naar papier en inkt. (..) De Van Geemen verkiezen de stilte. Niet omdat die hun lief is. In werkelijkheid hongeren zij ergens diep in hun wezelhart naar den daver van het leven, maar zijn er bang voor.” Louis-Paul Boon, Abel Gholaerts (Manteau, 1944), Chapter 1, Paddenhoek, p. 1.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dated November 18th 2007. I am very happy with this one. Very happy indeed, so please – Do Click below to Read On!]
(amateuristic English translation: “Life is not a book. It begins nowhere. It’s here and there and yonder, and everything happens at the same time. This book begins in the house of the Van Geems where it’s always quiet, where it reeks of paper and ink. (..) The Van Geems prefer the silence. Not because they like it. In reality they hunger somewhere deep in their cowardly hearts after the buzz of life, but they are afraid of it.”
‘Abel Gholaerts’ is one of the first books I ever read. I guess I was barely 16. Looking for the quote I automatically started rereading it; sublime even when read without the spleen of somebody too young to read such a book.
Nothing good comes from reading books at a young age, life will never be able to fill in what is pointed to in such books. Life simply is too coincidental, too spread out and too everywhere. Life does not just begin nowhere, it also lacks the pointe and ends nowhere in particular.
Books on the other hand are bigger than life. Much misery, melancholy and spleen results from a life not able to live up to expectations expressed in even the most miserable of the big stories. That’s what language does in general; it creates a world in which everything seems to be like the real world but in which nothing real has a place. The great stories – those of Flaubert, Joyce, Boon, Faulkner (& not so many more) – come closest to providing a sense of the senselessness of it all.
But they still provide a sense and are therefore very much unlike life. Language is not life. It is not even life-like. Sure, it influences your reality but that does not mean it expresses any reality. Language is not here, not there, it is not anywhere at all in this world.
A lot of good would come from a general acceptance of this.
People would not lock others up because of a conflict that is only linguistic (any religious conflict for instance, God is eminently linguistic). Maybe people would not avoid life – sitting quietly in their language-knit little corners – when they would realize that the fears they have are, for the most part, purely linguistic fears. There’s nothing wrong with purely linguistic fears or desires, as sexual imagination clearly shows, but one has to understand it for what it is: something that borders on but is not interchangeable with life, as some sexual imagination clearly shows.
From the end of the book: “When he boasts that he could still write good books, but does not do it anymore because the world is not worth it, he says. The world does not understand me. Yes – and Germain forgets that it is he who does not understand the world.”
Books have little to do with the world. Only a very few words have to do anything specific with the world. This really is of the essence of what is to be understood – hard to understand maybe and almost impossible to explain for sure – if one wants to understand a world in which there is a phenomenon like language.
And when one wants to understand a book or a thought one needs to see that it will always have a beginning & an end. When something is said, something is invariably also meant. This meaning one can try to confront with the world – in some always chronically incomplete way – & this confrontation can lead to other thoughts and other books that impact life in a more beneficial way (but beware, the benefit will always have to be put in words again). But there is a sense in which the book or the thought can be appreciated regardless of this confrontation. Maybe this is the artistic sense and maybe all art is – indeed – quite useless. The irony is that you can even make a gospel out of Louis-Paul Boon 😉
What I wrote is much too deep but I stand by the thought: the universe of words is a completely different universe that that of actions and events. When they do touch – something they undoubtedly do – it is never straightforward. Many of our issues come from oversimplifying the relation between our language and our world. The recency of language probably explains why we have not been able to come to terms with it. The recency of “I” probably explains why we do tend to associate it as referring to a physical rather than to a linguistic item – more later, I guess.
[Whilst re-posting this I was listening to building noises as I did not apparently listen to anything when writing this in the first place.]