My reading is usually fairly wide ranging – both by necessity and by choice. This attitude has not made for a very coherent bookshelf but it has helped me immensely in my work as a literary critical detective.
However, over the last few weeks a certain pattern seems to have emerged from the vagaries of my choices.
The last few texts I have read are:
1. Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame aux camellias
2. Alphonse Daudet, Letters from my Windmill
3. Anatole France, Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and Other Profitable Tales
4. Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
5. Cara Black, Murder in the Marais.
The next book I will be reading will be Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic, Nausea.
I drew up this reading record last night for my own benefit. When I did so it occurred to me that all these volumes have one thing in common. And that one thing, or place, is Paris.
I will limit myself to just two comments about this fact.
Firstly, let me say that I hadn’t really intended to read two books by Anatole France at all. I bought one in a small shop in Oxford, the other on an antique stall in Yorkshire. Strangely enough, they each cost the same amount – £4. They were also in a similarly poor condition: their spines were ripped and their pages slightly damp to the touch.
They are just the kind of volumes that Françoise chastises me for buying. ‘But why,’ she says, ‘do you insist on filling your study with these musty old books when you could buy pristine new copies of the same texts.’ She is right as always. I am sure that I could have bought modern critical editions of these works.
My interest in old Anatole really only lies in his complicated and somewhat patronising relationship to Proust – he wrote the ‘Preface’ for the younger man’s Pleasures and Days. France’s style is easy going and at times quite lyrical (at least in these translations) but is nothing compared to that of his one time acolyte. It lacks the insight, precision and even the directness of Proust.
The second thing I would wish to say about this unlooked for connection is that my own writing has caused me to think about Paris. So perhaps the coincidence is really no coincidence at all.
Now, however, my focus has shifted. Another text lies in front of me – and it is one that is set in a different city in a different country. St Petersburg. (I am looking at the small globe in my study as I write these words. Leaning the candle towards its surface I can see the dot that represents the city).
The text is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. This is a text that has, in a sense, always been there ahead of me. It is now almost time to confront it.