Legend has it that a long, long time ago, a ship was sailing along the River Seine. A storm brew up and the ship sank. Gradually it's precious cargo of valuable books floated to the surface. Amongst the flotsam were magical, mystical ancients books. Men huddled around the wharf where the books emerged, gathering them to sell for a few francs. Thus The Bouquinistes or I should say 'Le Bouquinistes', were born. Well that's the myth, and ever since the mid 1500's people have returned to the Latin Quarter of Paris, where the Bouquinistes peddle their wares, in search of tomes revealing the secrets of life and love and eternity.
An amazing story isn't it? Sadly The Bouquinistes have recently been in conflict with the government because the lovely old maps and books and prints are gradually being replaced with cheap souvenirs.
But, it's no wonder that books attract such elaborate stories. They 'are' magical things. They can be your friend. They can transport you to another day, another city, another life; another world. Take you into the future or back into the past. They can put you inside someone else's shoes, even inside their head.
That's what Focus by Arthur Miller has just done for me. It put me into the shoes and the mind of a Jewish person living in New York in the 1950's. Films like Life is Beautiful or Inglorious Bastards can do something similar in an instant, in a beautiful, shocking slap in the face. By contrast, Miller's novel does it subtly, slowly, in the same way that prejudice and hatred can slowly eat away at people, like a cancer affecting their lives. Maybe out of fear they become someone they don't like, or don't even recognize. But once they see who they've become, there may still be time to change.
Millers novel is tiny. You could easily read it in a weekend or an indulgent day if you had the luxury of time to do so. But I didn't rush it. I wanted to savour the moment. Of course the narrative is paramount but I love his choice of words too. Here's an example from page 229:
"In all his life he had never known such calm, despite the torrent of blood rushing through him. Within his raging body a stillness had grown very wide and very deep and he stared at his image feeling the texture of his peace. It was almost a tone he seemed to be hearing, level and low and far away. He stood their listening to it."
"When he had put Finkelstein to bed, he walked out of the house and went into the store and turned out the lights. Again the tone of that calm sang low in his ears and he stood in the dark store as though to draw the sound out clearer, trying to fathom out why it made him feel so assured and empty of fear."
I love the way that Miller used tangible things like texture and tone to describe abstract concepts. Maybe I appreciate that because I'm a women and attracted to physical, material objects, homely domestic things, textiles and fabric, things I understand and can grasp hold of. I hope it's not sexist for me to say that. Also because I'm an artist and my main practice has always been to express concepts and ideas with physical materials, whether that be an actual object or other mediums like sound and film. I was really glad that I returned to his work after so long. Thanks to The Albion Beatnik.
I have to include the following passage from page 203 as well. Maybe it's because of the time of year here. This week has been lovely and sunny every day, but now when I wake there's often a thick mist rolling up from the river or woods, and the smell of Autumn and Winter are definitely in the air.....
"When the leaves fell and the furnace was on, Mr Newman had waited a long time. Northern man that he was, he looked forward to the changing of the seasons as the time of renewal and change, and yet in the new cold of winter he had no more of an answer than he had had the night he was thrown out of the hall.
There was, however, a strange quiet cord sounding in him with the arrival of this winter. The wind came this time like a soft yet impassable fortification around him, a natural force that kept people off the streets and locked away in the sensible regimes of their families. Never had he though of winter in this way, and he liked the feeling it gave him. The city and the block were turning in upon their warm radiators, and he would be left alone sitting next to his."