I am reading another French so-called new novel, this time from 1956, entitled ‘L’Emploi du Temps’ (The timetable/The Usage of Time), by Michel Butor. It is about a Frenchman who comes to work in a Northern industrial city called Bleeston possibly based on Manchester. There are passages concerning what he gets to eat as he goes around this town (this is the 1950s).
‘Il y avait un peu de soupe, un peu de poisson frit, quelques pommes de terre dures, la bouteille de sauce rouge sur la table our assaisoner, un petit pain rond de la taille d’une balle de tennis, une tasse de the, et our finir une patisserie justement nommee eponge, couverte de cette immanquable creme couleur de jonquille fanee, qui laisse dans la bouche un gout de colle.’
(There was a bit of soup, a bit of fried fish, some hard-boiled potatoes, a bottle of red sauce on the table by way of seasoning, a round little bread roll the size of a tennis ball, a cup of tea, and to round it all off a dessert with the name sponge, which is always covered in that cream that has the colour of a faded daffodil and always leaves the taste of glue in your mouth.)
No matter how unappetising this description, it manages nevertheless to give rise within me to a desire to eat sponge cake (the French translation of ‘eponge’, which is really just the word for the substance we mostly see in the bathroom, conveys the Frenchman’s bemusement as to the nature of this mysterious grey pudding}. Still, it is enough to do the trick for me. At the first opportunity I am at Greggs looking for the nearest equivalent for ‘eponge’. Nowadays it comes in the form of ‘Tottenham cake’. It is the same grey cake but given a gaudy pink icing top. This I have been programmed to like. I buy. I consume. Am satisfied.
I finally finished reading the Alain Robbe-Grillet novel ‘Les Gommes’ (The Rubbers or Erasers) last night. It had taken me many weeks. ‘Les Gommes’ is a French nouveau roman or new novel, a school of writing from the fifties and sixties which delights in painstakingly technical descriptions (at the time they were referred to as ‘chosiste’ or ‘thingist’, so much did they engage in the description of inanimate objects). This was a pretty good read but rather difficult for me when I would mostly rather snooze. It tells the story of a detective sent to investigate the murder of a man who is not in fact dead. The detective ends up killing the man, so becoming the murderer of the man whose murder he was investigating. What’s more, the man turns out to be his long-lost father, so making the novel an Oedipal story.
I am rather proud that I persisted in the reading of ‘Les Gommes’. These days I tend to drop texts that do not rapidly seduce me with their charm. And these days this is often depicted as a sign of high competence in itself. I was recently sent a book on how to talk about books I have never read by my friend Eileen, who has certainly got my number on this. It is as if being able to convince an interlocutor that one has actually read something when one has not is a preferable skill to actually having read the book itself. It may well be so. We live in a social world where convincing others is more important than convincing oneself. To be honest, when I am reading, half the time my mind is wandering anyway, so I am not picking up on the details. And yet, even when you are doing this there is a kind of backwash of words that will orientate your mind-wandering. It is like when you listen to a piece of symphonic music, where is your mind supposed to go? There is no meaning manifesting itself. It is just a colour-filter for your mind. The same old thoughts but in a new shade of green or purple. Maybe that way you make more sense of them, or, at least, another sense.
I got ants in a cupboard. People were surprised when I told them. It normally happens in Summer, they said. It must have been the top shelf with all the recent cake-making ingredients: various types of sugar (caster; icing; golden); flours (self-raising or idle); syrup and treacle; chocolate bits. Anyway, there were little detachments of ants making their way vertically down the cupboard unit. Intrepid scouts out in search of new territories invading various surfaces. They had even made the giant leaps across the grand canyon floor onto the table top on the other side of the kitchen.
I was told about ant bait. You set it down. They taste of it and find it good and so bring it back to their colony where the queen herself and her drones taste of the nectar. It kills them in their own home decimating the colony. The next day after application of the bait there was not an ant to be seen. They had all gone home to the back of the wall to die. I imagine their civilisation wrecked. Where there was life now was only death and decay. The pillars and topless towers fallen on one side. Boundless and bare the lone and level sand stretching far away. So was it for the ancient Sumerians. So will it be for us.
You wonder how the superior beings will destroy our humanoid colonies. What treasure would we bring back to our hearth and home only for it to destroy us where we feel we are most at ease? What technology concocted to bring joy into our hearts? Information? Communication? These twin nectars? Boundless Info-cation. The fruit of the tree of knowledge withheld from us from day one, or, rather, day eight. I always saw God the father’s interdiction as a terrible autocratic edict of enslavement. Now I am starting to get the idea.
We had an English teacher when I was about twelve. He didn’t last long. I don’t know why. He had a beard. We were reading something in class, probably Huck Finn or something, and the word lichen came up. He lookesd inquisitively into the class, screwed his face up and said ‘what is this stuff? Lichen (pronouncing it like-in) or lichen (pronouncing it lich-in)? I think we were astounded because teachers didn’t often avow their ignorance. Some boys put him right.
When the word lichin comes up today, my memory is only of that moment. The moment resonated so much that I don’t ever really know how to pronounce it and have to rehearse both pronouncitaions on my tongue. And when I am reassured as to its correct pronounciation I think of a way to remember. I say lichen like the word like, and I I say ‘I like lichen’ . That way, I’ll remember. But then I think I could be saying ‘I like lichen’ (lich -in), as if there were a fun verb ‘to lich’. That could just ss easily be the thing I remember. When you have a ludic turn of mind there is no most logical way to remember something. You might just as well remember the most illogical or nonsensical phrase as the one that most thrills. And once you start trilling the word lichen (lich-in) round in your head it starts to feel the natural way to pronounce the word. So one is destined to find progress in the correct pronounciation of words halting. I wonder if this extrapolates into life and moral choices somehow. You may go the way that is least equipped to empower you or make you wealthy or happy for strange ludic reasons. Contrariness.