The other day, a dear friend of mine gave me a book. I opened it to find a dedication written on the back of the jacket. “Dear P, I hope this book will touch you as it did me.” I smiled, thinking of my friend. Book dedications are so rare these days.
For a while I have been writing a novel. It is the first book I write, and I am still unsure I want to publish it. I remember how a famous German philosopher advised his friend, also a famous poet, not to publish anything before turning 30. “You should not do your education in public”, Hegel said.
The novel is quite autobiographical. A German or an academic would have called it a bildungsroman. I would have liked to write about something grander, but what else is there to talk about?
My friend, the same one who gave me the book, read my novel. Let’s call him C. C said he liked it; but he is my friend. We know how these things work.
The novel traces the adventures of a young man. He has finished university and, as most graduates, is disappointed, even a bit despaired. He wants to become a writer, but is afraid he might be too privileged to have something to say. His life feels weightless, abstract: little more than a game. When he was a child the world made sense, now he feels divorced from it. It does not contain the heaviness of true experience, which he has only felt for a brief time –just a glimpse. Before graduating he was in love. It was one of these irrational and intense romances that we go into knowing we won’t get anything good out of them. But he believes that profound feelings, even negative ones, are better than the general dullness of life; he regrets nothing. That is gone, however, and now he is back to the dullness. So he decides to go traveling, to look for “a great experience that will put [him] back in touch with life.” He is looking for life material, for something to write about. The adventure begins.
C made some corrections, very useful ones. He has the mind of a mathematician, and can distinguish right from wrong. So I read the entire book again, to edit it after his criticisms. I had an immediate feeling of estrangement. Who had written all those sentences?
The prose was stiff, dead. Words had become empty shells, containing nothing. Whose language is it? I thought. In the book I talked about my own experience, but I could not recognise myself in the main character. His name is also P. We used to be the same, but now he had separated to become something of its own. The whole book felt weightless, abstract.
I applied my friend’s corrections, mechanically, and let it rest. Perhaps Hegel was right, I thought. Then, I remembered C’s words: “I hope this book will touch you as much as it did me.”
What does it mean for a book to touch you?
I was fascinated by the image. I wanted my book to touch people. It seemed the perfect antidote for its weightlessness and abstraction.
Walt Whitman, the poet of American democracy, wrote the following verses in his Leaves of Grass:
Camerado! this is no book;
Who touches this touches a man.
So I spent the next few weeks thinking how I could make my book more touchable. C, who is a scientist, mocked me. He thought it was yet another one of my mystifications. “That’s just an expression. You cannot be touched by a book”, he said. “At most, you can touch the physical book. The cover and so on. Is that what you mean?”
“Evidently not”, I said. I’m not entirely a fool.
“Then the book itself is literature, ethereal. Words are not the things they represent. Whitman… You should not waste your time with these poetic esotericisms”. Sometimes he did not have a lot of patience.
He said that in his field no one invents implausible theories, “only someone in the humanities can have such bizarre thoughts. No wonder the dire state of contemporary literature. In science we make sure that things work.”
“But that is what I am trying to do”, I protested.
“Then stop beating around the bush. If you go down this path you will destroy everything that is good in your book.” He was a bit harsh, but he meant well. He’s known me for so long.
I kept thinking about Whitman. “Who touches this touches a man”. Which man?
There is a theory about reading that has always intrigued me. Some people believe that when we read Shakespeare we become Shakespeare. Like: we look at the poetry in Othello and we feel like we have written it. When we read the passage containing “I am not what I am” we are ourselves, but also Iago, and Shakespeare. Perhaps, for a very brief time —just a glimpse— this book, you and I are also one, my reader. Perhaps that’s where we touch.
Evidently, this theory upset C. He called me an intellectual moron, a term he’d never used on me before.
I couldn’t really solve the riddle. I was close to giving up.
Months later, I met Chiara, who asked me to write the text you are reading now. And now. She was putting together a magazine about books and wanted me to participate in it. “I want to remind people that books exist. That they can touch us like nothing else”, she said.
I was very happy to see that we shared a similar goal. I agreed to write a text. It was also a way of avoiding thinking about my novel, which was becoming more and more separate from me.
She wanted to know what I would write about. I tried to put on a convincing face as I spoke: “I would like to talk about the poet Mallarmé. He believed that the whole world existed in order to fit in a book. Homer had said the same, centuries earlier, when he claimed that the gods weave our adventures and misadventures so we have something to sing about. I know it’s a bit grand, but what else is there to talk about?”
She did not seem very convinced, but she let me do it. “Just make sure it’s not very academic, she said. Remember we want to move people, not put them to sleep.”
So I wrote this. I did not write directly about Mallarmé or Homer, but I like to think they are still here, with us.
Then I returned to the book I had written. There is a moment in the fourth chapter in which P, the young man, is remembering his lover during a bus trip. It’s a bit of a pathetic instance. He is thinking about how good sex used to be, how they could not keep their hands from each other. He is delighting himself with memories that become dimmer every day. Then he feels a shiver. Perhaps that was the great experience that was to reconcile him with the world. Perhaps it was in front of him all along. And now he can’t do anything about it: the trip must go on. All there’s left to do is witness how the separation increases.