There are four books on the passionate reader’s table. All waiting to be read. He went to the bookshop this afternoon, and after spending an hour around the new releases tables and reviewing the covers of his favorite authors on the shelves, he chose four. One is a book of short stories by a French writer; he really enjoyed a novel of his years ago. He didn’t like the second novel he published that much (in fact, didn’t like it all) and has now bought this book of stories in the hope of rediscovering what had fired his imagination so many years ago. The second book is a novel by a Dutch writer whose two preceding novels he had tried to read, but with little success, because he’d had to put both of them down after a few lines. Strangely, this didn’t lead him to abandon the idea of a fresh attempt. Strange, because usually, when he can’t stand 20 lines of the first book by a particular writer he might try the second, but never the third, unless the critics he trusts have singled it out for special praise, or a friend has recommended it particularly enthusiastically. But this wasn’t the case now. Why did he decide to give him another try? Perhaps it’s the beginning. The beginning that goes: “The bellhop rushed in shouting: ‘Mr. Kington! Mr. Kington, please!’ Mr. Kington was reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel and was about to raise his hand when he realized that nobody, but nobody, knew he was there. He didn’t even look up when the bellhop walked by. It would be the most intelligent decision he had ever made.”
The third book is also a novel, the first novel by an American author he has never heard of. He bought it because in spite of the initial quotation (“Oh, how the tiles glinted in the blossoming dawn, when the roosters’ cry broke the silence with the sound …”), he had leafed through it and felt drawn in. The fourth book is a book of short stories, also by a Dutch writer, one who had been unpublished to that point. What attracted him to that book? If he were to be sincere, it was the rich abundance of initials: there are three (A., F., Th.) before the three words that make up the surname. A total of six words: three for the surname and three for the first name. What’s more, the first word of the surname is van. He simply adores surnames that begin with van.
Why, out of the four books that the passionate reader has on his table, are two (50 percent exactly) Dutch? Because the Book Fair held in the city was this year devoted to Dutch literature, and that meant, on the one hand, that publishers have brought out more writers in that language recently and, on the other, that the main bookshops in the city have created special displays, piling tables up with these new books as well as books by Dutch and Flemish authors that had been published years ago, that are no longer new and were gathering dust in the distributors’ warehouses.
The passionate reader has all four books in front of him and can’t think where to begin. The stories by the French writer whose novel he liked several years ago? The novel by the young American about whom he knows nothing? That way, if (as is very likely) he finds it immediately disappointing, he will have eliminated one of the four at a stroke and will only have to choose from among the other three. Obviously the same may happen with the novel by the Dutch writer whom he has had to put down on two previous occasions, after merely one page. The reader opens the second book and leafs through. He opens the third and does exactly the same. And follows suit with the fourth. He could choose on the basis of the typeface or kind of paper … He tries to find another aspect of the books that could decide for him (an isolated sentence, a character’s name). Page layout. Or paragraphing, for example. He knows that many writers struggle to create frequent paragraphs, whether the text calls for it or not, because they think that when the reader sees the page isn’t too dense, he will feel better disposed toward the book. The same goes for dialogue. A serrated text, with lots of dialogue, is (according to current norms) a plus for most people. This may generally be the case, but has the opposite effect on this reader: he finds an abundance of new paragraphs irritating. He is prejudiced against, and mirrors, the prejudice felt by lovers of abundant paragraphs, who find a lack of paragraphs extremely monotonous or arrogant.
Where should he begin? The solution might be to begin them all at once, as he often does. Not simultaneously, of course: but going from one to another, just as you never watch six TV channels at the same time but flick from one to another. Obviously there must always be a book he opens first where he reads a paragraph, a story, a chapter, 20 percent of the pages before moving on to the next. The problem is not knowing where to start. He gets up and lights a cigarette. Why is lighting up a solution when one doesn’t know what to do? Lighting up shows we are thinking something through, are meditating intensely, are remembering, are waiting for someone (every so often we will draw back the curtain and look down the street) or are losing patience (in a maternity-hospital waiting room, its floor covered in cigarette butts). One enjoys a postcoital cigarette; one lights a cigarette to extinguish it in the groin of a masochistic lover and increase their arousal. One lights a cigarette in search of inspiration, because the nicotine helps to stop us from dozing off, or so we don’t eat when we are hungry and can’t or don’t want to. The passionate reader has one last drag and goes back to the table. The four books are there and, next to them, the plastic bag bearing the bookshop’s red logo. Night falls; a car drives by; a radio blasts out. Do you hear a lot of radios in novels? If the four books were to disappear all of a sudden, his problem would disappear with them: where to begin? He picks up the novel by the American. He opens it to the first page. He sticks his finger forcefully between the two leaves, to keep it open, and reads: “At the very moment the nurse pulls the sheet up to cover his face, the dead man opens his eyes and whispers incoherently. The nurse screams, drops the sheet, says the patient’s name, and takes his pulse. She runs out to find the doctor. ‘Doctor, the patient in 114 isn’t dead!’ ‘What do you mean, he’s not dead?’ ‘He’s not dead. He opened his eyes. I took his pulse …’ The doctor tries to hide the unease that this piece of news provokes in him.”
The reader closes the book. The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page. The possibilities are immense, as ever. Everything still has to fan out, gradually, as the paths at the beginning fade until finally (that is, on the final page) only one remains that is generally predictable. Will the writer keep us entranced to the last page? Won’t there ever be a time, from here to the fifth, 18th, or 167th page when his spell will be broken? But a narrative is never as good as the possibilities that fan out at the beginning. Anyway, it’s not about the reader foreseeing every possible development and improving on the ones offered by the author. No way. How would he continue the story of the man reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel who doesn’t react when they shout out his name? It is that moment of indecision, when the chips are down, that attracts him. The exposition vaguely reminds him of that Hitchcock film when Cary Grant is mistaken for another man in a hotel lobby. But he’s not interested in taking that thought further. To write the next scene, whatever that might be, would open the way to imperfection.
Writers err when they develop their initial expositions. They shouldn’t. They should systematically set out their opening gambits and abandon them at the most enthralling point. Isn’t that so with everything? Of course it is! Not only in books, but also in films or plays. Or politics. If you are ingenuous enough to believe any of that, isn’t a party’s political program a thousand times more interesting, positive, and stirring than its execution once the party is elected to govern? Everything is idyllic about the program. In practice, nothing is respected, everything is falsified; reality imposes its own corrosive cruelties. And (in life outside of books) isn’t the beginning of love, the first look, the first kiss much richer than what comes later, which inevitably turns everything into failure? Things should always begin and never continue. Isn’t a man’s life enormously rich in possibilities at the age of three? What will become of this boy who is just starting out? And as he grows, life will wither everything: few of his expectations will be fulfilled, and that’s if he is lucky. But just as a passionate reader cannot stop life unless he decides to cut it short, he can stop his books at their moment of greatest splendor, when the potential is still almost infinite. That’s why it is neverending. He only reads the beginnings, the first pages at most. When the forking paths fanning out at the start of a story begin to fade and the book is beginning to bore him, he puts it down and places it on the corresponding shelf, according to the alphabetical order of the writer’s surname.
Disappointment can come at any time. In the first paragraph, on page 38, or on the penultimate page. He once reached the last page of a book. He was about to begin the last paragraph (a short paragraph, about a third of a page), and hadn’t yet been disappointed, when he took fright. What if that book didn’t disappoint—even in the last line? It was altogether improbable; you simply know disappointment had to set in, if only with the last word, as it always did. But what if it didn’t? Just in case, he quickly looked away, five lines from that final period. He closed the book, put it back in its place, and took a deep breath; that demonstration of his willpower allows him to continue fantasizing that sooner or later (on the most unlikely day, the moment he finally does decide), he will have the courage to stop eternally deferring a decision that is final.