Words and Things

How can you know about literature if all you do is read books? Young academic, Erica Nahum, puts her books aside and sets off to pursue the great literary critic and theorist, Jacques Simon, across Paris.

It is 1991 and Simon is already ten years dead. She takes just one book, Simon par Simon, an autobiography in which most of the subject is missing. She will find the elusive Simon in Paris, she will uncover who he might have been: a writer who lived as daringly as he wrote, a secret lover, a novelist lurking behind the famous critic.

Navigating her way through the Paris of Jacques Simon, she dines with Derrida, she takes a lover, she discovers a Paris that is beyond the romanticised Paris of art and literature. 

Her pursuit of Simon leads her everywhere, but nothing is as it seems: not Jacques Simon, not the French lover, not Paris itself. In the end she must reconcile herself to the image of her writer as a tragic figure.

At the heart of Words and Things is the desire to understand the relationship of writing to writing, of ideas to lived experience, of literature to life.

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extracts from chapters 1, 9, 36.

She is alone. She can hear footsteps echoing along the passageway and the sound of a distant violin. Two backpackers ahead are disappearing at a brisk pace. The posters on the subway walls introduce her to life in the city. La Beauté Convulsive, an exhibition of André Breton and Le Surréalisme, is at the Centre Pompidou, an exhibition of Seurat has opened at the Grand Palais, and Prêt à Aimer (a dating agency!) beckons young garçons with pictures of doe-eyed and modestly seductive jeunes filles. There are sales at the department store BHV, the Rolling Stones are coming to Paris, and the United Colours of Benetton astonishes her with a full colour photograph of a just-delivered baby, wet from the womb. Soon the backpackers are gone, the violin is silent, the posters finished. She drags and bounces her suitcase (too large and too heavy!) up the last flight of steps and emerges into the brilliant light and noise of the city.

She is standing on the footpath above the Seine looking directly at Nôtre Dame. This is not the iconic vista of Nôtre Dame on the postcards — the view that emphasises the flying buttresses and the brow of the île below — but a partially obscured view of the façade. It is beautiful. She repeats that thought aloud ‘This is beautiful.’ It seems to call out for a first photograph, but fumbling in her bag for the camera might break the spell of the moment, so she simply stands there drawing it in – the symmetry of the cathedral façade, the blue-grey of the river, the quais, the ponts, the plane trees just bursting with fresh green. This is the confirmation she is seeking, Erica Nahum has arrived in Paris.

She stands there for a full ten minutes, luxuriating in the moment, until her tiredness, the noise of the city and the unexpected heat of the morning begin to take effect. She joins the throng of pedestrians heading along the Boulevard Saint-Michel and ten minutes later turns into Rue des Écoles. She pauses in front of the Sorbonne to pay her respects, then crosses the road and slips down a side street to her hotel, the Perpignan. Only later does she realise that she has crossed Rue des Écoles at the exact same spot where, late one afternoon in February 1980, Jacques Simon had inexplicably stepped out into the path of an onrushing van. The Salpêtrière hospital described his condition that night as stationnaire, but Simon was a dying man.

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Jacques Simon steps out into the street and hesitates, looks immediately left then right. It is not the morning for exchanging pleasantries, he feels, not the morning for hearing of someone’s trip to Spain, or the problems someone else’s daughter is having with the demands of her course. There are pedestrians ahead, going in the same direction, but he can avoid them. He will walk slowly and keep a safe distance behind. He turns into Rue de Vaugirard. At the Palais du Luxembourg there is a heavy police presence. The Sénat must be sitting. The traffic will be intolerable in the evening.

Outside the Odéon he pauses to light a cigarette. The seminars are not going as well this year. He doesn’t seem able to draw the same enthusiasm. The students are bright enough. Perhaps it’s him. He needs a break. He says that often, ‘You need a break.’ A week or two in the south away from all these demands. But the end of semester is ages away. The traffic lights are green as he approaches Saint-Michel, but he slows down. He knows he will not have time to get all the way across before they change again, and he does not want to run, and he does not want to get caught in the traffic like last time. He lets the lights turn red, standing back from the kerb. Others can stand in front.

He flicks the cigarette away as he crosses the Place de la Sorbonne. Then he arrives at his home that is not a home. How many times has he crossed the pedestrian crossing, walked the few metres along the narrow pavement, and stepped into that courtyard, this creature of habit, this devotée of routine? He delays his entrance sometimes, slips into the booksellers opposite. What is new on the shelves? The usual, the not-so-unusual. Does he really have to read them all? This particular morning he pauses outside, looks at the display in the window of Simon par Simon. There are no reviews yet, no decent ones, at any rate.

Inside, Erica finds an attendant in a small booth. He is reading a book and seems irritated by the interruption, but at the mention of Jacques Simon, he becomes at once helpful. She is in luck, he explains, as the rooms on the second floor, where Simon’s old office was, are all empty, awaiting a re-fit during the summer vacances. He insists on escorting her and they set off together, Erica one step behind on the stone staircase. The building is virtually deserted and each step echoes in the stairwell like a small, refined explosion.

Jacques Simon would have mounted the staircase when it was crowded with students and colleagues. He would have known them and they would have known him. She sees him on the stairs – the roman nose, the silver hair, the impeccable English clothing. There are greetings at every step. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Simon mounts the stairs deep in thought, head bent, the observed rather than the observer.

The second floor offices are open and empty. All the furniture has been stripped out and piled in the corridor outside. The attendant apologises for not knowing which office was Simon’s but the epoch of Professor Simon was before his time. They walk slowly past the offices, peering inside, and at one the attendant stops. Suddenly he decides that this had been Simon’s office. ‘Certainement!’, he pronounces confidently. Erica cannot see why, all the offices look the same.

She steps into the office. There is nothing much to see. Even empty, the office is dark and small, surprisingly small when she thinks of Richard’s office, which is large enough for modest parties. There is a desk outside that could have been Simon’s. She examines it, running her hand over the cracked and worn leather on the desktop, opening the drawers. Of course they are empty.

There are so many photographs of Jacques Simon at his desk. Most famous is the Cartier-Bresson, a pin-up photo of a youthful, handsome Simon, full of confidence. Leaning back in his chair, arrogant almost, cigarette in hand, boxes of his ubiquitous index cards on the shelves behind him. In Simon par Simon he included snaps of himself at work – at the Sorbonne, at home in the Quartier Latin, at the villa in the south. There is a sameness to these images, the desk, the chair, the piles of papers, the index cards, and Simon writing and smoking. For the writer, the desk is the most private space imaginable. To be photographed in that intimate space has to be a deliberate choice. Simon must’ve been saying, ‘Here, this is Jacques Simon. This is the writer at his desk.’

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Words and things. When words cannot express the things we have seen. It is literature that Erica is thinking of as she stands here, how literature struggles against realities like this, realities that simply defy writing. But also that literature does struggle, because the alternative to struggle is silence, and even when faced with the sense that it is impossible to write    or perhaps because of that    the effort to forge a literature from experience must still be made.

She doesn’t know who they were, but there were those who had written of this reality, passionately, convincingly or perhaps awkwardly, writing it however they could. There is no mention of them in this far corner of the Père-Lachaise cemetery, but they were also heroes of the Resistance: the writers who understood how writing could be the enemy of silence.

Jacques Simon had not been one of them. He had nothing to say about this experience. But she understood that. Simon had not missed the war, he’d had his own war, his battle with disease and incarceration. In La Peste, Camus uses the metaphor of the plague for the German occupation of France, describing the Algerian city of Oran in the grip of a pestilence, and Simon had a metaphor for the Occupation, too, the personal metaphor of his body in the grip of a disease, sealed off from the outside world for fear of contagion, just like the citizens of Oran. And there was something poetic about it, because the disease had occupied Simon’s body for much the same time that the Germans had occupied Paris.

Just as the Occupation was defining for the rest of his generation, Simon’s ‘war’ had been defining for him – a life in limbo, the threat of death lurking in the shadows on the x-rays. This had been essential in forming who Jacques Simon would ultimately become – incarceration, isolation. What could he do, apart from wait for it to end? And read literature, and learn to read literature, and learn to write, and fall in love perhaps, and pen love letters to a lost cause.

It was the experience of the sanatorium that turned Simon into the writer, that turned him into the sort of writer he would become. It was the disease, ironically, that gave Jacques Simon his chance. It was there in the sanatorium that he immersed himself in literature; there, his attitudes to it formed. So it was not an anomaly, that in Simon par Simon, Simon had dismissed that crucial time as the ‘unproductive life’, the life before the ‘life of the writer’. His silence was conscious. Life in the sanatorium, for all that it ultimately meant for the writer, had been deemed unworthy of his writing, because that was the writer he had become.

It is raining now as Erica heads back towards the main gate, a gentle misty rain that seems almost suspended in the air rather than falling. It moistens her face as she walks and creeps along her sleeves where her hands are jammed into the pockets of her coat. Rain like this belongs in cemeteries. It is not depressing, it is sobering. It suggests a sense of proportion, it encourages a balanced view of the situation.

If there was one person who was never going to write a novel, it was Jacques Simon. She wanted Simon to be the novelist, to fulfil the promise of a ‘secret life’, and so she shared the American’s fantasy of Jacques Simon ‘transcending theory and criticism’ to write a great novel, but that never happened. Jean-Pierre is right. Le roman en préparation did not transcend Jacques Simon’s literary role, it confirmed it. He was only doing what he always did, he was reading texts. Simon was never ‘that sort of writer’, Jean-Pierre insisted, and he wasn’t. Simon had approached the task of writing a novel as only he could, by writing a series of lectures on the ‘preparation’ for the writing of a novel. No-one has ever written a novel doing that.

A lifetime of writing, of theorising and analysing literature, the pleasure in the writing and in the thinking, the pleasure in the reading of texts. The love of words, the cleverness of literary references, the ever-present wit, imagining and re-imagining what a text might be. No-one can deny Jacques Simon’s love of literature, it’s there on every page he wrote. But it is not straightforward, it is not as it once seemed. For alongside this love of literature, there also appears a curious ambivalence, perhaps it is even a fear.

Literature is about literature, Simon writes, writing about other writing, the text a tissue of quotations. If that is true, it is only one truth amongst others, and it is never completely true, and if, for Erica, it had ever been a compelling idea, it was no longer. Simon delighted in meanings and signs and the intertextual play of the ‘readerly’ text, but his was an understanding of a literature constrained, a literature self-sufficient to the critic, a literature closed off, a literature that bears little evidence of the blood and sweat of the world. It springs from a desire to write from ‘outside’ perhaps, a desire to avoid the ‘getting-one’s-hands-dirty’ that another writing demands, that writing that rubs up against experience and is formed by it.

‘As if’, Jacques Simon had said. As if. And it had to be ‘as if’, because he could never be that other writer, the writer who sees life and writes from it, the writer who sees life and writes because of it.

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