The match / in accordance with orders / communicated burning
Essay by Bruno De Wachter
This text is a translation from De lucifer / conform zijn opdracht / communiceerde verbrandend by Patrick Lennon.
I am the Verzamelde gedichten of Hans Faverey, more particularly the first edition, third printing, published by De Bezige Bij in March of the year 2000. I am also Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems by Hans Faverey, translated by Francis R. Jones and published by New Directions Publishing in 2004.
This is how I introduce myself to a reader who picks me up at the checkout counter of the library. He chooses the English translation and we look for a quiet place where we are both at ease – on stools between the book racks, on reading chairs between the papers and poetry, on a concrete bench behind a shrub in the courtyard or leaning against the windowsill, catching a view of the roofs of Brussels. ‘We have a half hour together’, I then say. ‘Are you comfortable?’ I enumerate the chapters I consist of – Poems 1 – Poems 2 – Chrysanthemums, Rowers – Lightfall – Silken Chains – Troublesome Gods – Against the Forgetting – Default – and offer the reader the possibility of opening me at a chapter of his choice.
At the end of the poem I fall silent, and make a gesture that resembles the turning of a page as an invitation to continue. A nod from my reader means a confirmation, but he can also ask me to repeat the poem, to pause or to begin a new chapter.
After a half hour of reading and being read, we walk back together to the checkout counter, chatting along the way. There is a big chance that we will run into another book in the corridor that is on the move with a reader – Bartleby, Four Quartets, or I am a Cat. I will then raise my hand, like a tram driver greeting a colleague going in the opposite direction. My reader retrieves his bag and coat at the counter, and grips my hand firmly before heading for the exit. ‘Bye, book. All the best!’ I eat an apple, have a drink of water, and wait for the next reader to pick me up.
This is how an afternoon typically unfolds during the project Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine by the Brussels-based Norwegian choreographer Mette Edvardsen. The title of the project is taken from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which sketches a vision of a future society in which books are banned. Montag, the protagonist, is part of a special ‘fire brigade’ that tracks and burns banned books. When he revolts against his own service, he is forced to flee and ends up in a resistance group that wanders the woods using former railway tracks. Each member of the group has set himself the task of memorizing word for word a classic work of literature or philosophy. They call themselves after their book titles (among others, Montag meets Republic, Walden and Gulliver’s Travels) and pass on the text from generation to generation, waiting patiently for the moment when the books will once more be able to appear in public.
Contrary to most visions of the future from the post-war era, Bradbury does not depict a dictatorial regime run by an authoritarian leader or a party elite, but a populist dictatorship driven to extremes. The author claimed that the impulse for the book was the influence of communication technology on human relations. In Fahrenheit 451 the power emanates from a sort of advanced, interactive version of television. It is never entirely clear who is pulling the strings. The books were banned by common consent; after all, they never posed a threat to a regime, but to the people themselves. ‘For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain: nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences or responsibilities.’ Books are of no immediate practical value and are not an effective form of entertainment. Whoever wants to read them must therefore either be crazy or suffer from a strange form of snobbishness.
In Mette Edvardsen’s project the context is of course of a different order, but the ambition is the same: a group of people has set itself the objective of each learning a book by heart. On specific days, generally in the context of an arts festival, the books are present in the local library and can be lent out for a half hour by interested readers. The project was launched for the Playground Festival in Leuven in 2010 and went on to travel through Europe. At each public performance, new books in the local language are added to two or three books from the original Brussels group. The result is an international network of ‘living books’ that keeps growing. I began as the Verzamelde gedichten of Hans Faverey in the former Pinto library in Amsterdam in the context of the Something Raw Festival 2012. Later I was Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems in the Ethnikí Vivliothíki tis Elládos (National Library of Greece) in Athens and in the Folkebibliotek (Public Library) of Trondheim.
During the latest edition of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels I was both the Verzamelde gedichten and Against the Forgetting. We had stationed ourselves in the Royal Library on the Mont des Arts, which has served as our home base from the start of the project – we regularly meet in the cafeteria on the fifth floor to study, read one another, or share experiences.
Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine is a project of indefinite duration and the practice is not so much a preparation for a performance as a goal in itself. The lending moments during the festivals give the public an insight into that practice. The living books know at least a half hour of text, sometimes an hour, sometimes two. A couple of books have already come so far that they can offer their readers the complete work, on condition that they want to hear it. I do not know whether I will ever manage to memorize the whole of Faverey’s Verzamelde gedichten, but in the meantime I know that it is possible. You do not even need to have an outstanding memory, just a fair amount of time and willpower. At present I know about eighty Faverey poems in Dutch – roughly ten per chapter – and another sixty in English translation. This did not require any exceptional effort, although it does of course demand hours of study, days of rest, and moments of repetition to let the poems sink deeper in one’s memory. During the meetings with readers I repeat the text so often that it remains engraved for a long time thereafter.
In the beginning I sometimes found it difficult to keep the poems apart; I had the impression that each image or line of Faverey’s could crop up anywhere in his work. That confusion gradually disappeared, probably because reciting the text obliged me to pay closer attention to the rhythm, and Faverey’s verses seemed a lot less interchangeable from a rhythmic than from a visual perspective or from the perspective of content. However, a consequence of the auditory learning method is that I cannot reproduce correctly the exact layout of the poems, as can be seen from the quotes I have used in this essay directly from memory, without checking the original.
Certain mannered expressions – so characteristic of Faverey’s language – also demanded time and effort before I could recite them in their entirety and without hesitation.
Thanks to sufficient repetition such expressions ultimately became completely natural – like mastering a stretching exercise after a while. Learning Faverey as a means of exercising your language, making it supple.
Between the study days I make use of any lulls to rehearse the poems in my head, whether waiting for a tram, cooking, going to the baker’s, or trying to fall asleep. It sometimes happens in spite of myself, and poems then impose themselves on me as a result of an occurrence in my immediate surroundings. An old man passes me on the footpath, the sun breaks through the clouds and I whisper:
There is a Faverey line for each occasion. Just as often, verses surface in me for no reason. At empty moments, when normally banal thoughts set in, because they happen to be the first in line in my mind, now lines from Faverey arise, like mantras.
The poems have become a part of me, or I have become a part of the text. I have smuggled a larger, more timeless universe into my body – it is the idea, roughly, that I do not fit in my suitcase, but my suit does, and I fit in my suit.
Whereby I have gained in eternity.
An important difference with an actor memorizing a stage text by heart is that I reproduce the text with a minimum of interpretation. Not to act: that is pretty much the only stage direction Mette Edvardsen gave ‘her books’. Just as you do not ask a mountain path why it first bends left and then right again, why there are stones on the path, why it goes down before it goes up again. You decided to follow the path, so you follow it, without constantly questioning it about its nature. I do not see that so much as an uncritical approach, rather as a critique that coincides word for word with its subject.
When a reader asks me for my favourite poem, a word of explanation or biographical idiosyncrasies of the author, I play for time and answer that I myself am the book and as a result cannot say anything about myself.
What always strikes me when I listen to the other living books is how different such an experience is from listening to someone reading aloud. The voice and the body out of which that voice comes seem much less like a conduit and seem rather to blend with the text. While a reading gives you the impression that the reader’s personal interpretation always echoes through, even in the most sober reading, when listening to living books you hardly question the minimal interpretation they give the text. It occurred to me several times, during long days in the library, that my mind wandered during the recitation of the poems and yet I continued on faultlessly – I can even say that I did so with no less inspiration, just as you can walk through the city while paying attention and thinking simultaneously. That just shows the extent to which the poems have become a part of my body instead of my thought. And a body is something you accept, more easily than text, for what it is, a natural phenomenon.
Another important difference between Time has fallen asleep and a public reading is the intimate nature of the meeting. As with a paper book, the reader withdraws with the living book. And just as with a paper book you sometimes have to find the right position – one or two hands; on a table, on the bed, or in the air – with a living book too there can sometimes be a small physical discomfort at the start. Reader and book cannot hide from one another. Relatively quickly – under the influence of the words that ring out in the space – a certain stability is found and the initial unease fades away. Some readers keep looking at the book; others prefer to look away while they listen, or close their eyes. Some rest, bent forward with their chin in their hand or their elbow on their knee; others sit up straight, with their head at a slight angle. Some sit absolutely still; others fiddle with their beard or run their hand through their hair. The reader’s attitude is never entirely passive, however, since he is offered the possibility of steering the course of action: he can introduce a pause, for instance, or ask to read more slowly, or jump to another chapter.
I discovered what that could lead to in Trondheim, where an Indian-Norwegian reader asked me to repeat the second poem I had recited. And again. And again. She then asked me for the first two lines, slowly …
… and repeated after me:
And then the first four lines:
She continued reading and studying me in this way, until she had memorized the poem by heart. ‘Thank you very much’, she concluded, before disappearing between the bookshelves with a smile on her face.
When I had to recite that poem later for other readers, I heard her voice reciting the same lines at the back of my mind, with the smallest traces of both Indian and Norwegian intonations, in duet with my own voice and its slight Flemish accent:
Today, six months after my last performance, I still know virtually all the poems, even though they do not emerge quite so spontaneously. I had forgotten the four or five poems I studied last – I had not studied them sufficiently to engrave them in my memory. Yet barely two hours of study were all that were necessary to know everything as fluently as before. However, if I do nothing, the text will gradually disappear from my memory, a lot faster than paper disappears. The project makes the poems more fleeting, more immaterial. You cannot literally put your finger on them like on printed words, and without ongoing practice they will gradually disintegrate. But paradoxically enough the project also makes the text more tangible, more physical, since it is borne by a voice coming from the depths of a memory, of a body, formed by the experience of years.
That embodiment of the text is so much in the foreground that I am continuously surprised by the recurrent question as to whether by studying Faverey I have acquired a new insight into his poetry. No, I am very sorry, no new insights.
However, my relation to Faverey’s poetry has changed radically – I can no longer even imagine how I read the Verzamelde gedichten before I started studying. And I can no more recall how clean and uncreased my paper original of the Verzamelde gedichten must have once been, before I started making such intensive use of it. It is now back in my bookshelf, in the poetry section, between the E of Emmens and the G of García Lorca, and between all those other paper books which, contrary to living books, have no life besides being-a-book, but remain dead on the shelf until they are picked up.