My covid reading list

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The gloomy future which I was alluding to in my previous reading list is slowly but surely setting itself at ease in our daily lives. There is increasing massive and systematic surveillance, with France being particularly keen at leading the way towards a dystopian nightmare that we have been warned against so many times. One of the ironic tragedies of this great reset is that it will reset everything in its wake, including our literary heritage: Hugo, Lamartine, Bernanos (from the French side), Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut (from the English one), they all become obsolete in the built back better world of which they warned us against. I was afflicted to see one of the innumerable advocators of this new normal refer to Brassens to illustrate his dismay at how people would react like people to some random injunction of the time (wearing your mask in the train in between two intakes of peanuts, see this archive or the original). In the new normal, one can quote Brassens—possibly the most anarchist, rebellious, irreverent person who would have scorned what the society has come to—to support and ornate one's total immersion and perfect fitting into it. The culture is there, its understanding has gone. Will we be able to read such words as those:

Toi, l'étranger qui sans façon
D'un air malheureux m'as souri
Lorsque les gendarmes m'ont pris
Toi qui n'as pas applaudi quand
Les croquantes et les croquants
Tous les gens bien intentionnés
Riaient de me voir amené

at the same time as we celebrate the police taking away people who don't have the sanitary authorization in full order to have a coffee? Can we still read these words:

Les braves gens n'aiment pas que L'on suive une autre route qu'eux.

when we defend the uniform, compulsory and unavoidable new way of life for everybody?

The song actually quoted, les passantes, was not written by Brassens himself, though, but by the poet Antoine Pol, and is thus of rare purity, charm and innocence that is not usual in the blunt Brassens style. Our Brassens fan however, "une espèce de gredin n'ayant pas l'ombre d'un jardin", restored the irreverence by transmuting the metaphor of the poet into "les Cassantes" (?!). One should note that, however idiotic and a betrayal of the reference that it borrows from, the text is otherwise fairly well written (given the medium), with its author concluding that Pol and Brassens' understanding of the others in a public space is perpendicular to his own, which seems both true and honest. Interestingly, also Pol and Brassens failed to find each other, with Pol dying a week before their scheduled meeting where Brassens wanted to share his admiration and interpretation. There are countless such missed encountered, but in this new world, it seems that punctual, personal lost occasions will generalize to a civilization estranged from its past authors: what they had to say became suddenly antiquated, empty, at best decorative.

As an example of what they had to say, I could speak of «Un roi sans divertissement», which is definitively the masterpiece of my previous list. I have a different interpretation of the work than most of those I have read so far, of which I will write about when I have completed my survey of the work, including a probable second-reading as well as viewing the movie adapted from the novel, since it has been directed by the Author himself and thus could give further clues as to the intended meaning. Regardless, the ending where the protagonist eliminates himself by smoking a bar of dynamite, is one of the most powerful to any novel I know, for which the entire work seems to have been written as a prelude of a sudden and blunt revelation:

«Et il y eut, au fond du jardin, l’énorme éclaboussement d’or qui éclaira la nuit pendant une seconde. C’était la tête de Langlois qui prenait, enfin, les dimensions de l’univers.»

In those days where everybody seems to be agonizing to ensure one's immortality is maximized for all age groups, conditions and any other circumstances whatsoever, at any price this would cost, it is interesting to read from the previous world how one would, instead, contemplate one's own death as the escape to the unbearable weight of a meaningless or overdue life. This also reminds of the comte de Lasalle's famous declamation to Napoleon: «Tout hussard qui n’est pas mort à trente ans est un jean-foutre» (he would himself die at 34). Death used to be integrated to life, a punctuation, be it a full stop, an ellipsis, an exclamation or an interrogation mark. It is now, instead, a crime, an injustice, a loathing for which society as a whole as to be penitent, punished, vomited, chopped, blasted and immolated. It is no question anymore to take the dimension of the Universe, but to hate and condemn the others, who are responsible for infecting me, or my grandparents, or my uncle's friend's niece or the whole world.

Those are the open and bleeding injuries of a dying civilization. Raspail's vision got right the deliquescence, the moral corruption, the diarrhea of values and virtues that accompany this putrefaction. The mechanism itself, a mass invasion of countless Indian emigrants sailing through the Oceans on wrecks of metals and corpses to flood the cozy lifestyle of occidentals, is of little importance in the face of how sudden changes in people's opinions, convictions or even only culture and customs, can collapse at the speed of a succumbing old, venerable, but fragile and aging edifice. I've read it so long ago, it seems like I've known it my entire life. I should have, probably. There is crystallized in this book all the chemistry of bad-faith and hypocritical feelings typical of people who wish the best for everybody until the point where they suddenly wish the worst possible for the same people: humanity. It is no surprise the book and its author got such bad press. It is not well written, from the literary point of view, but it is all-too-well written from the political one.

Chinua Abebe's no longer at ease also captured perfectly, almost as well as Things fall apart, the estrangement from one's society (not to write "civilization), in this case, when it comes from after tasting another atmosphere, other places, different ways to do otherwise pretty similar things. When you do that, you're no longer at ease anymore. That's true. That's what this confinement did to us: we're no longer at ease. We won't be even if would all come back to exactly as it was (and it won't). Back to literature, the best part of the novel remains that from the poet:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Interestingly, the Spanish version took the liberty of taking the last line as its title (Me alegraría de otra muerte, which is also good). The French title, "Le Malaise", missed the point, I think. It starts like this but ends up in a mood closer to that of Eliot's lamentation, which although it does not use strong words, expresses strong feelings.

Covid is there to stay, so my reading list mutated into some endemic version of the previous theme, not to say directly of the previous Authors:

So what I'll be reading, as the world awaits its next swing into an emergency situation, features Giono again. An essay, this time, Les Vraies Richesses, to try getting as close as possible to the essence of the character, whom I believe I start to delineate, that is, an attachment to those virtues and values that nowadays are denounced under the vocable of reactionism: what is natural, timeless, solid as opposed to what is fleeting, modern, revolutionary (not to say disruptive). We know from Achebe that the status quo ante is illusionary. There is something deeper to these aspirations than mere nostalgia. I think Giono knows what it is and I want to read him write it.

Kary Mullis is one of the highly relevant figures in the covid crisis, whose death one year before the events did not even prevent to touch, given the breadth and impact of his views and declarations on medical science (see for instance [1]). He seems to be a sort of chemist version of Feynman. I've seen his TED talk: an instant classic. That he wrote such a book makes it an instant must-read at the top of the list.

Chinua Achebe's last item in the trilogy is to pay tribute to what we are doing here, when commenting on books that we haven't started yet: taking the time to think about, not the things themselves, but how to approach them. It's a trilogy, the two previous rounds of my reading list featured the first two opuses, so it's only natural to complete the tryptic. I can also thus venture what it will be about: some successful return to one's origin, breaking the spell of thermodynamics that things only worsen? I already know that although written last, it comes second in chronological development. The need for the Author to step back in time might be in pursuit of this sweet spot when things were better than before but also better than they are now. It's not clear which point would that be for one's personal life (that would seem to bring us back to the womb) but that looks like a much easier exercise from an historical perspective. In France, we even have a name for that: les Trente Glorieuses. Even those who were born after that (as is my case) still could feel the stimulus that exalted the whole country. Comparing with the same country today, who could say it wasn't better before? Actually, I know plenty of people who would venture the claim... Anyway, for our book, either something like that, or its stark opposite: an ill-fated ending for our African self. I can't wait to go back reading... maybe I'll start with this one, actually. It strikes me particularly that although neglected, African literature turns out to be of exceptional quality: I don't have a memory of a single disappointment in the few books I read, and it started early at school. I was in fact also recently reading Batouala, but it got confiscated by the police. This is for another story, though.

Basically the same idea of continuity goes for Jared Diamond. I was, besides, commenting last time how these other titles from the same Authors could be natural follow-up if things would endure. I am, as was also observed, late, but still faster than the turns of events, so the thematics still holds. It'll certainly still be that way so there will be time to go farther along this route, without forgetting to take the sideways to keep an eye on the wisdom from the past, however irrelevant it may quickly become. The great reset is for society and those who come after me. The time it'll take to switch me off, I'll still be able to keep in me this atmosphere from the past. The head underwater, but with lungs full of oxygen.

⇠ See also the previous reading list.