by Aashish Kaul
Sergei Dovlatov’s comic masterpiece The Suitcase begins with the author’s brief, pathetic conversation with a clerk at the Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (the ‘bitch at OVIR’, he refers to her in anger), conducted in the course of pointless, exhausting formalities that were involved in emigrating from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Dovlatov describes this exchange with characteristic satirical flourish, an exchange essentially about the quota of suitcases allowed to an emigrant. ‘Only three suitcases? What am I suppose to do with all my things?’ But a week later, while packing, he finds that he needs just a single suitcase, for he has given away all his books, which would not have been allowed through customs anyway.
So Dovlatov arrives in the United States carrying an old, battered, string-tied suitcase, and not a single book. And then, some years hence, just as for Beckett the dazzling Proustian universe rises from the banality of a teacup, Dovlatov opening the forgotten suitcase summons forth from its modest depths, from between a portrait of Karl Marx at the bottom and the photographs of Louis Armstrong and Joseph Brodsky on the lid, the grotesque spectrum of life in what was Soviet Russia. Each article from the Finnish crêpe socks to the Nomenklatura half-boots to an officer’s belt stimulates the exile’s memory (seemingly more voluntary than involuntary) to the point that the story of its acquisition comes tumbling forth in vivid detail and comic irony, albeit ultimately as pathetic as the article itself. The contents of the suitcase become the totems of the pathos of a life – of all life – in a totalitarian state, but their remembering is delivered with a touch so sure, light, and poignant that it charms and enlightens.
But I wonder about the other two suitcases, about all those books that could have been crammed into them and whisked away. Admittedly, it is as pointless to think about the books left behind by Dovlatov in his flight, as it is to speculate about the precise location of that bullet fired by Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black that misses its target. Dovlatov and Stendhal do not think these facts important for their respective narratives, and do not wish their readers to think over them. And yet, in at least Dovlatov’s case, the thought of all those books left behind troubles me, begs me to be stretched to its limit.
A lifetime of books. A lifetime of reading and writing books. How many suitcases would be enough?
For as far back as I can remember, I have felt a great need for movement (which is not the same thing as restlessness), and so I always took considerable pride in the fact that I had few possessions, nothing that I could not have packed in one or two suitcases, and left (for where?) at a moment’s notice. I owned a car, but that would be of help and not a hindrance when the time came to make a move. Consequently, when I turned to literature, movement and stasis became the pegs round which I wove my writing. I would like to believe that this preference for motion, and in turn for frugalness, lightened my writing, because in art, in literature, style is already a matter of ethics.
But the books were steadily growing, row upon row, shelf by shelf in a deep, wide oak bookcase. Not unmanageable, of course, nothing as spectacular as the personal libraries of great collectors containing many rare editions, and for whom the book is simultaneously a text and an artifact, but surely a matter to think, pre-empt, and plan ahead, books that were bound to fill more than a few suitcases when the moment of departure arrived. For I never did come around to using the tiny device that can hold at once the electronic simulations of countless books. Convenient, surely, but what then to do about that inexplicable feeling of being surrounded by books?
Movement, of course, is mostly a possibility. The periods of actual movement, even for great travellers, are interspersed with vast periods of stasis, of being at home. But it is precisely this possibility, this idea, this freedom to be able to leave, that is more important than the actual leaving, that first distinguishes the nomadic sensibility from that of the settler.
One of the great readers of all time, Jorge Luis Borges, repeatedly stressed the need to read less but reread more, or rather eschew reading widely in favour of reading deeply. Yet this man had read as widely as any other, but out of weariness or wisdom had chosen in the end to return to his favourite books and authors. In this sentiment there is already the need to find specificity of desire and expression in literature, the belief that the fundamental themes of literature can be deduced from a handful of books.
Alberto Manguel, an acclaimed collector himself who relocated to the Poitou-Charentes region of France from Toronto, Canada, purchasing and renovating a medieval presbytery so as to be able to house his 40,000 books, writes of the disappointment of his sixteen-year-old self when he entered Borges’s apartment for the first time to read to the blind writer. Expecting ‘a place overgrown with books’, he instead found ‘an apartment where books occupied a few unobtrusive corners’. Recounting those evenings four decades later in his book With Borges, he observed that for a man who called the universe a library, and who had imagined Paradise in the form of a library, the size of his own library came as a disappointment, perhaps because Borges knew that language can only imitate wisdom.
After almost a decade since I read this book upon its publication, I already find myself reading fewer new works while rereading continuously. I was never a voracious reader of contemporary literature, but with the increasingly high number of books being published each year, so many of them translated from disparate languages and deserving a reader’s attention, I confess I have given up any ambition I may have entertained of keeping abreast of emerging trends.
They say Joyce rarely forgot anything, and that Proust forgot everything easily. Borges was perhaps thinking of Joyce when he wrote his famous story ‘Funes the Memorious’. To have Joyce’s inhuman ability is surely an asset to a writer, but I am not sure whether the notoriously slippery Proustian memory is not of even better use to a certain kind of writer. For only that which is forgotten can be remembered with renewed vigour. It is for this reason that where Joyce presents or shows a scene, Proust narrates or recounts it. Then again, with a prodigious memory like Joyce’s won’t the pleasure of rereading be substantially diminished?
And it is a pleasure indeed to go back to one’s especial precursors, the books that have played a formative role in one’s development as a writer or as a reader. Try revisiting the essays of Stevenson, for instance, after your head is aching from reading all the Deleuze and Derrida that can be found on the market, and the pleasure will be almost palpable.
In the end, a writer will have to invariably take sides, choose the books and subjects and styles s/he prefers over others which, like the sleeping man in Proust who ‘holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds’, hold (contrariwise) her or him in place in the near eternity of literature.
For these books, five or six suitcases should be sufficient.