On living contemporaneously with peoples of the past: Two quotes, with a little context.

January 20, 2010

I’ve just started Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future (indeed, I read a bit of the opening of the first of the seven short stories therein on today’s Mattins). The second story—an excellent and extraordinary fantasy of the Eiffel Tower run amok—begins with a meditation on reading and bookmarking.

You know when you’re reading an author, and you get the sense you could reach across time and space, and shake their hand? Like if you met them in the street, or in a shop queue, you could talk to them, and get on famously, and not run out of things to talk about, because you would talk about books, and the reading of them, and the treasure of their stories. (Other writers I feel this way about: Gabriel Josipovici; and Yevgeny Kharitonov, sending up his own little fireworks in a locked room.)

Like Kharitonov, Krzhizhanovsky was banned from publication in his own lifetime, but through the kindness of NYRB Classics and the generosity of Joanne Turnbull’s translation, we can read him now. And so I excerpt thus, from the story “The Bookmark”:

The other day, as I was looking through my old books and manuscripts tied tight with twine, it again slipped under my fingers: a flat body of faded blue silk and needlepoint designs trailing a swallowtail train. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time: my bookmark and I. Events of recent years had been too unbookish and had taken me too far from those cabinets crammed with harbariumized meanings. I abandoned the bookmark between lines as yet unread and soon forgot the feel of its slippery silk and the delicate scent of printing ink emanating from its soft and pliant body wafered between the pages. I even forgot… where I had forgotten it. Thus do long sea voyages part sailors from their wives.

True, books had crossed my path here and there: rarely at first, then more often; but they did not read bookmarks. These were travelling signatures glued pell-mell into crookedly cut covers; along the rough and dirty paper, breaking ranks with the lines, brown-gray letters—the colour of military broadcloth—rushed; these reeked of rancid oil and glue. With these crudely produced bareheaded bundles, one did not stand on ceremony: shoving a finger in between the sloppily pasted signatures, one tore the pages apart the better to leaf through them, tugging impatiently at the raggedy, tooth-edged margins. One consumed these texts posthaste, without reflecting or delectating: both books and two-wheeled carts were needed then strictly to supply words and ammunition. The one with the silk train had no business here.

And now again: the ship was in port, its gangway down. Library ladders scanning the spines of books. The statics of frontispieces. Silence and green reading-room lampshades. Pages rubbing against pages. And, finally, the bookmark: just as it had been, all that time ago— except that now the silk was even more fade, and its needlepoint design covered in dust.

I pulled it out from under a paper mound and placed it in front of me—on the edge of the desk; the bookmark looked affronted and slightly grumpy. But I smiled at it with warmth and affection: to think of all the voyages we had taken together—from meanings to meanings, from this set of signatures to that. Now, for instance, I recalled our difficult ascent from ledge to ledge of Spinoza’s Ethics—after almost every page I had left my bookmark alone, squeezed between the metaphysical layers; then the breathlessness of Vita nova where, at passages linking one poem to the next, my patient bookmark had often to wait until the emotion that had taken the book out of my hands subsided, allowing me to return to the words. And I couldn’t help remembering… But all of this concerns only the two of us, me and my bookmark: I’ll stop.

Especially as it is important in practice—since any encounter obligates—to repay the past given us with some bit of the future. In other words, rather than tucking the bookmark away at the book of the drawer, I should include my old friend in my next reading; instead of a series of memories, I should offer my guest another bundle of books.

And Krzhizhanovsky’s discourse on the bookmark, and the process of reading, like a long journey (Sinclair’s walks, or Josipovici’s opposite of bicycling), reminded me of another piece of writing, that I had to hold in my head all day, and spend an hour tracking along the shelves, retracing those old journeys, back a decade to a dog-ear I had left in another house, another time, on another trip.

Albert Hourani, in his History of the Arab Peoples, quotes a legal and medical scholar of Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Latif (1162/3—1231), on the scholar as one of the ideal types of man. I copied it out then, in that house, and have done so again, now. Here you go:

I commend you not to learn your sciences from books unaided, even though you may trust your ability to understand. Resort to professors for each science you seek to acquire; and should your professor be limited in his knowledge take all that he can offer, until you find another more accomplished than he. You must venerate and respect him… When you read a book, make every effort to learn it by heart and master its meaning. Imagine the book to have disappeared and that you can dispense with it, unaffected by its loss… One should read histories, study biographies and the experience of nations. By doing this, it will be as though, in his short life space, he lived contemporaneously with peoples of the past, was on intimate terms with them, and knew the good and bad among them… You should model your conduct on that of the early Muslims. Therefore, read the biography of the Prophet, study his deeds and concerns, follow in his footstep, and try your utmost to imitate him… You should frequently distrust your nature, rather than have a good opinion of it, submitting your thoughts to men of learning and their works, proceeding with caution and avoiding haste… He who had not endured the stress of study will not taste the joy of knowledge… When you have finished your study and reflection, occupy your tongue with the mention of God’s name, and sing His praises… Do not complain if the world should turn its back on you, it would distract you from the acquisition of excellent qualities… know that learning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor; a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out…


  1. Thank you. That’s beautiful. Time travel is a superpower that anyone can cultivate.

    Comment by Matt — January 21, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Beautiful stuff. Thank you. And I LOVED ‘Memories of the Future’, too.

    Comment by JRSM — January 27, 2010 @ 6:06 am

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