How to Begin a New Book with Great Ease

Is it possible, or even thinkable that I begin with anything other than a question, one that bears directly on the nature of beginnings? Frankly, I think not. Besides, I know quite a few people (well, some: faithful readers, an ordinarily silent and attentive company) who would be deeply disappointed were I, by misadventure, to proceed otherwise.

Mind you, in literature overly strident ruptures are little appreciated. The reader is a finicky being: a mere nothing puts him off and, more than ever, he now balks at diving into the unknown. How happy, by contrast, when he can, without excessive effort or risk of error, recognize a figure he takes (no matter if rightly or wrongly) to be familiar!

The phenomenon is easily verified. All you need is a little patience and attention; it suffices merely to open your eyes or to lend an ear.

As the years and literary seasons pass, a hack may well condemn himself for being his own plagiarist, for rehashing from book to book the same old lot, devoid of themes or characters, strung together with the same collection of thinning threads. And, there will always be, even among professional readers, well intentioned folks ready to baptize the “style,” the “stroke,” the “sleight-of-hand,” the “musicality” of these pale compositions forged in compulsive repetition. And yet, the author who is lavished with gratitude is he who offers every reader occasion to be clairvoyant or, all the better, perspicacious. The most obtuse take pride in immediately noticing, even prior to reading it in the newspaper’s review of books, that “Dupont had already entirely arrived in his first book” and that “Durand, no matter what he says, is always writing the same book.” Such discoveries are priceless. Under theses conditions, it is rather difficult to resist the temptation, the convenience of purported allegiance to oneself. How sweet it is forever to rework the same acre of familiar earth …

But yet! How I long to begin this new work with some proud declaration of rupture. Down with the past! Tabula rasa! Onward to new pastures! Exploration! Discovery! And, at last, if need be, like the great ones, delight in getting lost! In truth, for years now I’ve kept other slogans under wraps, the most deviant ones. Like this one, which came to me (I still ponder for what obscure reason) even before I agreed to publish, affixing it with my signature, the slightest writ:

“Wheresoever one might pretend to place me on the map of letters, I may already calmly retort: that’s where I’m not”

I fear, nonetheless, that the time has not yet arrived for me to unveil this type of declaration. Indeed, all my experience proves it: I may speak of nothing other than the writer and his vain pursuit of writing, and, to one day complete the work, proceed by no means other than indefatigably making believe I am assembling the scraps of the unfinished work.

“Curious choice, strange method,” you may well say, evidently burning, in your nascent solitude, to ask the questions that follow: “But what?! Does it not please you, like everyone else, to craft characters full of life, and stamina? Beings of flesh and blood that each of your readers (and perhaps even you, in your secret nights) would dream to have as father, brothers or lovers?”

Well, no, not quite. Were I forced to invent characters, I could imagine them engaged in no other activity than speaking, perhaps writing, but still more often, keeping quiet … Nothing of them would, in the end, lead to anything but language itself. Indeed, words alone could remain my only true heroes. Must I yet again apologize? My arc has but one string. If I dared, with your permission, yet well intentioned reader, I would happily make mine Maurice de Guérin’s confession:

“I read somewhere that thousands of animalcules easily swim in a drop of water; the circumference of my intellectual domain is, I believe, about equal to that of the drop, and I inhabit alone: have I not good reason to be happy, without further having to unsettle my rest with dreams of ambition?”

To which, piqued despite such ingenuity, your irony will of course promptly respond: “Take, if you will, once again, shelter behind the words of others to justify your tiptoeing. Guérin follows Amiel.… But when Maine de Biran? You undoubtedly plan in invoke them all.… Yet, this does not explain the second point in your profession of faith, where you evoke I know not what assembly of scraps.”

Certainly. But no great mystery here remains. The method, if method there be, came all by itself. I have not penned one single line (and I mean not one) unless it came as if I were assembling, in a quite provisional and quite improvised rhapsody, the scattered pieces of a great obscure work in the making. Thus (resignedly), for a long time my texts will bear the exterior appearance of the anthology, or florilegium. But the anthology is always judged precocious, the florilegium premature … Ah, I now see, dear reader, that your irony gives way to anger.

“True, so much absurdity leads to irritation, and those less patient than I would abandon you here to your puerile exercises. For, indeed, think of it! If it no longer troubles us to admit that our eyes receive light from stars that have for centuries been dead, I find it quite impudent of you to impose on us the opposite idea: we can already glimpse, by your account, the light of stars yet to be born! In what universe do you think you live?”

I live precisely in the only universe where, without scandal, an inversion of laws like those that rule the propagation of light may well take place: you have guessed it, the universe of the word.