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Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dear Reader - Paul Fournel (translated by David Bellos)

In recent times I’ve reviewed a few books which lament the loss of the written word, writers being forced to modernise or books about writing (Eric Chevillard’s “The Author and Me) but nothing can hold a candle to “Dear Reader” by Paul Fournel.

As our “Afterword” points out, this is a novel which cannot be changed in any way, the editor can’t change sections, not even the punctuation, the reader can’t reinvent the work with different character names on their new gizmo eReader, the translator? Well they are well and truly stuck, it is impossible to recreate this work in another language (and note I’ve read the translated version)!! Why? Because it has been created to remain exactly as it was written. It contains 36 chapters, the first six all containing exactly 7,500 characters, including spaces, and each ending with the words, read, cream, publisher, mistake, self and evening. The next six chapters contain 6,500 characters (including spaces) ending with the same words, and so on down to the sixth set which consists of 2,500 characters (including spaces). Making the entire composition a “poem of 180,000 signs (including spaces)”. They “serve to narrate the fate of mortal man, they undergo attrition (melting snowball).” As Paul Fournel points out “anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the whole project.”

And the tale itself is the destruction of the book as we know it. Our first person narrator, Robert Dubois, is a publisher, who has sold his company to the highest bidder but still works in Dubois Publishing, reading books for a living:

The one under my cheek has a love theme: it’s about a guy who meets a girl but he’s got a wife and she’s got a boyfriend…I’ve read seven pages and I know the rest already. Nothing’s going to give me a surprise any more. For years I’ve not really read anything, because all I do is reread. I spend my time rereading the same brew that gets served up as literary sensations, lead titles, seasonal launches, runaway successes, flops and more flops. Paper for pulping, in trucks that set off at dawn and return at dusk full to the gunwales of obsolete new books.

This is a modern fable, a lamentation on the decline of books and the rise of the eReader (as the publishing house is modernising our narrator gets given one and calls it his “dear reader”), the death of publishing as we know it:

I’ve decided to take my dear reader out for a walk. I want it to see the world.
First comes the pocket test, which it fails miserably. It’s too big for the side pocket of my jacket, it’s too rigid to be stuffed into the slant pocket of my raincoat, and it would be simply futile to try and slide it into the inside pocket of my jacket. Even if it were small enough for that location, it would make me look as if I had Weismuller’s pecs, and its blunt edges would inevitably shred the lining in no time. You can forget about trouser pockets: given the weight of the thing, you’d soon find yourself on the street in flower-patterned underpants with your trousers around your ankles. Unless you also wore broad and sturdy braces…And when you think “braces”, you think “holster”. Might an adapted police model fit the bill? On the other hand, you can’t deny that a reader is somewhat more rectangular in shape than a Colt 45. I shall have to submit this sartorial problem to my tailor, Mr Hollington, who specializes in clothing the edito-architecural clan by providing its members with pipe-pockets, phone-pockets and cigarette-pockets, alongside special places for fold-out rulers, all kinds of pencils and pens, not to mention hip-flasks. For the time being, however, let us concede that the reader is an awkward customer, and that we shall need to raise from his grave some publishing genius who can reinvent the paperback version as well as the wheel.

This book is a hilarious romp through the world of publishing, editing, book fairs, signings and long boozy lunches. We have a writer who produces 20% of the publishing houses’ income, our narrator’s assistant, the new boss (sent in from the takeover parent company) who is hell bent on figures (it’s simple just don’t publish books that will sell less than 15,000 copies), unpaid foppish interns and a local restaurateur who has sold out to the Japanese and sushi.

This is not merely a tale of the decline of paper books, it is also a tale of the decline of a whole age, convenient food, efficient work practices, humanity and culture all sold for the mighty dollar.

Throughout we have smart observations on the everyday mundane:

It’s hard to believe the London Underground isn’t suffering from depression, because it plunges deep into the city’s dark belly and scurries along narrow tubes scarcely big enough for trains to get into. You dip your head instinctively so as not to bump the ceiling. It’s full of mini-skirted girls in high heels and beehive hairdos yapping away under the indifferent eyes of hatted Englishmen and turbaned Sikhs. I’m scanning the Guardian on my tablet and the girl sitting next to me reads along with me, with such a casual air of innocence that it makes me smile. I ask her if she’s finished the page so I can scroll down. She’s offended.

We also have the interns joining forces with the ageing Dubois to create a new internet generation start up to celebrate the written word, a place where instant gratification is the key, short sharp responses delivered to your iPhone, on-line books where you can change the character’s defining qualities, the future of publishing, it will make them rich!

It’s a paradox that I’m reading the translated version of this work, which the author demands that not a single character is altered, so therefore I’ve succumbed to the very decline that our author is lamenting. This is a laugh out loud book for lovers of writing and books made from paper, my edition being from the wonderful Pushkin Press “Collections” editions which are “designed to be as satisfying as possible to hold and enjoy”.

Do me a favour, don’t buy this for your eReader.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

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