With Palace of Books, he invites us to explore the domain of literature, its sweeping vistas and hidden recesses. Engaging such fundamental questions as why people feel the need to write, or what is involved in putting one’s self on the page, or how a writer knows she’s written her last sentence, Grenier marshals apposite passages from his favorite writers: Chekhov, Baudelaire, Proust, James, Kafka, Mansfield and many others. Those writers mingle companionably with tales from Grenier’s half-century as an editor and friend to countless legendary figures, including Albert Camus, Romain Gary, Milan Kundera, and Brassai,.
Grenier offers here a series of observations and quotations that feel as spontaneous as good conversation, yet carry the lasting insights of a lifetime of reading and thinking. Palace of Books is rich with pleasures and surprises, the perfect accompaniment to old literary favorites, and the perfect introduction to new ones.
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Palace of Books
By Roger Grenier, Alice Kaplan
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
"The Land of Poets"
Committing a crime means taking action. But accounting for a crime in the newspaper or on radio and television means transforming that action into a story, into words.
This creates problems. The public that feasts on crime needs its stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs a small novel, more exciting than fiction because it's true. Reality rarely unfolds with such pleasing logic. It's usually impossible to know exactly when the slowly unfolding drama began, and just as impossible to make any sense of what the victims and protagonists had to say. The confusion isn't due to the facts but to something like a layer of concrete covering every motive, every attitude. Never has the Shakespearean-Faulknerian cliché about the "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury" been more apropos. This doesn't prevent reporters from inventing fine, well-crafted accounts that respond to the five basic Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why.
Which is exactly what Freud did with Oedipus's crime. He simplified an awfully confusing story, giving it his own structure. Actually, if you back up a little, his Laius had a pretty unsavory past. He'd been banished from Thebes and had to seek asylum in Pisa and in Ilia, with Pelops. And when he was allowed to return, he brought Pelops's bastard son Chrysippus with him. Laius, gay? According to some accounts, he was the original pederast.
The Thebans commemorated him with a military regiment composed of adolescent boys and their lovers and known as the Sacred Band of Thebes. Chrysippus supposedly tried to kill himself in shame. But Pelops's wife, Hippodameia, is also rumored to have gone to Thebes to kill him. Why? Something about an inheritance. She tried to get Atreus and Thyestes, the two legitimate sons she'd had with Pelops, to murder both Laius and Chrysippus. Apparently they refused. One night she crept into the room where Laius lay in bed with a boy and plunged a sword into his heart. Laius was accused of the murder. Happily for him, Chrysippus was able to name the guilty party with his last breath. But not so fast. It's possible too that Atreus was involved in the crime, since he was in such a hurry to take asylum in Mycenae. As for Pelops, didn't people say he won his throne and Hippodameia's hand by winning a chariot race against Oenomaus, the princess's father, thanks to a winged chariot that—hold onto your seat—was apparently a present from his lover Poseidon? And Jocasta? Who knew that as priestess of Hera the Strangler she had a problem with Menoeceus, her father, one of the men sprung from the ground after Cadmus sowed the dragon's teeth. Like seed. Old Menoeceus thought that he was the one who designated Tiresias the prophet—not Oedipus. And he sacrificed himself by jumping off the wall of Thebes. (Oedipus also sprang from one of these dragon's teeth, in the third generation.) And why then did Odysseus call on Jocasta during his visit to the underworld? Homer gives Jocasta another name: Epicaste. This same Epicaste, Clymenus's wife, was also involved in an incest drama. Clymenus slept with their daughter Harpalyce, who then gave birth to a boy. Harpalyce killed her son, who was also her brother, and served him up to Clymenus on a platter.
I could go on and on. For the last few paragraphs, though, it's hard to make heads or tails of any of it. Where does the crime story begin? In what confusing past does it take root? How do you untangle so many contradictions when your assignment is to deliver a story that's all wrapped up and obeys the basic rules of causation?
I once heard about an old-fashioned newspaper editor who kept a set of questions and a standard outline to fit every situation. He had them for crimes, for fires, for derailed trains. Pity the reporter who returned to the paper without all the answers. He'd be sent right back to the far-flung suburb where he'd forgotten to note the age of the concierge.
These newspaper articles, with their accounts of crimes and accidents, work the same way literature does. The writer who tells a well-rounded story makes order in the world. Paul Valéry insisted that it is impossible to account for the precise time of a crime: "The crime cannot be located at the exact moment when the crime takes place, nor right before—but rather in a well-established situation, distant from the act, developed over time—the fruit of some inconsequential fantasy, or of the need to satisfy a passing impulse, or as a cure for boredom—often a result of considering all possible solutions without discriminating among them."
Valéry also writes: "Every crime has something dreamlike about it. A crime that is bound to take place engenders everything it needs: victims, circumstances, motives, opportunities."
Literature, pretensions aside, is reductive. The tragedy of Oedipus told by Sophocles and used by Freud is much like a news story. It begins with the most striking element, with what journalists call the "hook": The city of Thebes, beset by the plague, begs Oedipus to come to its rescue.
From the Greek myth to today's disaster tale, the gist of the fait divers—that untranslatable French expression meaning a news item about a crime, a scandal, a disaster, or some random act—hasn't changed. What has changed are the forms it takes. The New Yorker Weegee, photographing murdered gangsters lying on the sidewalks of Brooklyn or the Bronx night after night, offers us striking fixed images in a painterly chiaroscuro. He thought nothing of comparing himself to Rembrandt!
The fait divers, having taken over in newspapers and on the radio, naturally moved on to television, starting cautiously and quickly expanding. Faits divers dominated television news, distracting audiences from issues that might anger the powers that be. They proliferated on special broadcasts. But stark images of people at their most banal, ugly, and stupid, depicted in distasteful settings, tended to get in the way of the stories.
Most of the time, it doesn't take much for a reporter to organize reality, to make things cohere and respond to whatever questions might arise. After the assassination of President Kennedy, televised live, and the murder of Oswald by Ruby, also shown live, the crimes were broadcast and rebroadcast dozens of times to viewers who probably had no need to see them so often. Those images didn't add an ounce of clarity to a chain of events that was never elucidated. Getting close to the material truth of an event does not bring television any closer to its meaning.
Another boundary crossed: when the reporter Raymond Depardon films a real police station, he acts just like a feature filmmaker. He composes a narrative by playing with the passage of time. For example, a woman who has just pressed charges in the most ordinary fashion is revealed little by little to be completely deranged.
Journalists are of one mind with the courts and with most of the public. They all want human beings to be logical and to commit only logical actions, even if those actions are criminal. They weigh the act committed in a moment of passion on the scales of reason. They'll do anything to make the sad hero of the crime tale act in character so they can then come up with a rational explanation for his case. They are like Marcel Proust, who tried to understand the "Filial Sentiments of a Parricide" and asked in vain how Henri Van Blarenberghe, a loving son, could have succumbed to a murderous frenzy and killed his mother. I tend to think more like Paul Valéry, who said that crime is located first and foremost in the unconscious.
Fait divers, literally "a diverse happening": according to the Trésor de la langue française, the term has existed since 1859. Ponson du Terrail uses it in volume 5 of his Rocambole. In his Walks in Rome, in 1829, Stendhal introduces the English word "reporter." As for the reports themselves, you find them as early as 1865. In Italian, faits divers are called cronaca nera. A chronicle that delivers the ration of atrocities we hunger for every day of the week. Baudelaire and Proust have spoken of this daily pleasure.
Baudelaire: "It is impossible to scan any periodical, from any day, month or year, without finding evidence on every line of the most appalling human perversity, together with the most surprising boasts of probity, goodness and charity and the most shameless assertions concerning progress and civilization. Every newspaper, from first line to last, is a tissue of horrors ... and this is the disgusting beverage that civilized man drinks with his breakfast every morning. Everything in this world sweats crime: the newspaper, the walls, and men's faces. I do not understand how any clean hand can touch a newspaper without wincing in disgust."
And Proust (quoting Baudelaire along the way): "Moving on to that abominable and voluptuous act known as reading the paper.... No sooner have we broken the fragile band that wraps Le Figaro, and that alone separates us from all the miseries of the world, and hastily glanced at the first sensational paragraphs of which the wretchedness of so many human beings 'forms an element' (those sensational paragraphs, containing what we shall later recount to those who have not yet read their papers), than we feel a delightful sense of being once again in contact with that life with which, when we awoke, it seemed so useless to renew acquaintance."
The fait divers is murder considered as one of the fine arts. Everyone who reads a newspaper resembles those members of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder that De Quincey talks about. When they read about an atrocity, they judge it "as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art." A perverse pleasure, although those who enjoy a beautiful fait divers carefully stop short of justifying murder, discouraged by the law of the land. They are not accessories to the crime, merely voyeurs. (De Quincey was editor-in-chief of the Westmorland Gazette in 1818 and 1819. He filled the paper with murder stories and accounts of criminal trials.)
The fait divers requires two artists: the criminal and his victim, since, as De Quincey remarks, "two blockheads to kill and be killed" have never produced anything of real interest. He adds disdainfully, "as to old women, and the mob of newspaper readers, they are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough. But the mind of sensibility requires something more. There's the assassin and his victim, but let's not forget the third party, the indispensable reporter, who, like a new Theramenes, transforms the event into a beautiful story."
You would think that death was the only topic that interested anyone.
As the ghostly, nameless reporter says in Faulkner's Pylon, by way of encouragement: "Let's move. We got to eat, and the rest of them have got to read. And if they ever abolish fornication and blood, where in hell will we all be?"
The reporter is fascinated by the lives and loves of a ragged trio of aviators. His editor-in-chief quips that the newpaper doesn't need a Sinclair Lewis, a Hemingway, or a Chekhov on staff because the readers expect information, not a novel. His editor-in-chief doesn't have it quite right, because this reporter has a "genius for catastrophe." Drama flourishes wherever he goes. In the beginning, when the editor is scolding him, the three aviators, two men and a woman, have nothing to offer from a journalistic point of view. But the moment the reporter pays attention to them, death comes along, as the plane makes its turn around the pylon. They become the heroes of a completely conventional faits divers, obeying all the rules of the genre.
Stereotype is the word. In an article from 1946, Claude Roy is already complaining about the dominance of radio and of newspapers like Paris-Soir. He accuses them not so much of propagating immorality as of leaving us no choice, imposing a uniform perversity on everyone: "What threatens readers of Paris-Soir, moviegoers, and the people who listen to the national radio stations isn't just the constant eroticism they're fed, but the fact that they are no longer allowed to choose their favorite weaknesses freely from the rich palette of mortal sins, nuanced according to character, temperament and taste."
Readers love clichés. So do the standard figures of the fait divers: public enemy, jealous wife, ingenious con artist, thief who thinks he's Arsène Lupin: most of the time they conform to a well-established role and stick to it until the day their felony is adapted for the stage, becoming the subject of the majestic costume drama that is played out in criminal court. I have often seen defendants behaving like bad actors, rising up to bellow their ready-made lines: "Ladies and gentlemen of the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury!" As for the judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, their dramatic gestures and vocal effects, which are their bread and butter, become second nature to them.
When I was working as a journalist, I occasionally wrote up a fait divers in the middle of the night, with nothing but the wire service dispatch as my source. A possessive woman murders her radiologist ex-husband in a restaurant. He had left her five years earlier, and she had continued to pursue him with her hatred or her love—whatever you want to call it. The situation was so common that very little information was required. It was easy for me to invent everything, if you can call it inventing, by borrowing from the most ordinary rules of psychology and transposing a discreet echo of my personal woes to make it more convincing for the reader. In the ensuing days, as the investigation shed new light on the case, what I had imagined the first night about the feelings and motive of the murderess turned out to be accurate. This woman had made her husband's life unbearable. She had always been mean. But people who are mean don't realize it. She couldn't admit it was her fault that her husband left her. She preferred to continue stalking him, harassing him. And when she blew his head off with a hunting rifle, she told herself that now he could never leave her. He was hers forever. My feat wasn't so impressive. In love as in hate, this murderess hadn't shown much originality. Whenever you use myth as a starting point for invention, you find reality.
The star of the fait divers is often a mediocre fellow of below-average intelligence—otherwise he wouldn't have been caught, or would have found a solution other than killing or stealing to resolve his problems—and he's the first one surprised and delighted to find himself transformed into a hero. He's "gotten into the papers." A waitress in a restaurant in the provinces told me how she collapsed on the street. When she was revived, a bottle of sleeping pills was found in her purse. The reporters concluded that she had wanted to end her life and printed the story in the local paper. As though she were watching a film, she was stupefied to recognize herself in the role of the heroine. Turned into a statue.
In The Man Without Qualities, Musil says of the assassin Moosbrugger, "his flattered vanity regarded these moments as the high points of his life."
Once their acts, their personalities, are transformed by the media and dissected by the gigantic legal machinery, the defendants, who scarcely recognize themselves, feel as if some transcendent force has taken over their lives. Like Dmitri Karamazov who, at the end of his trial, exclaims: "I feel the right hand of God upon me."
Like the novel, the fait divers is designed to help readers understand themselves. Or at least show them what they shouldn't do and which solution is the wrong one. It shows them the destruction of people who believed their situation had no solution other than someone else's death or their own death, or both. And what abysmal traps life can set for you.
Otherwise, this humble narrative genre obeys the same laws that make literature evolve with our vision of the world. It used to be that insignificant faits divers were referred to as "dogs hit by cars." Television journalists now call them "trash cans on fire." I sense in this transition from the dog to the trash can, from the living to the inanimate, a depersonalization typical of our times. Just as, after World War II, at the height of existentialism, the exemplary crime story seems to have been the one that inspired Camus's play The Misunderstanding. Two innkeepers, mother and daughter, take to killing their guests and robbing them. The son (and brother) comes back from a long stay abroad and they don't recognize him. They murder him. Then they discover the truth. They kill themselves. There's not an iota of psychology in the story. Only an absurd situation. (Camus claimed that he was indifferent to "psychology" in the theater, at least as a playwright. And he put the word in scare quotes.)
Comparing the psychological crime story and the situational crime story, it strikes me that the latter was imbued with the postwar spirit. Nathalie Sarraute honored me by disagreeing in the opening page of her book of essays The Age of Suspicion.
Excerpted from Palace of Books by Roger Grenier, Alice Kaplan. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Alice Kaplan
“The Land of Poets”
Waiting and Eternity
Writing about Love, Again . . .
A Half Hour at the Dentist’s
Do I Have Anything Left to Say?
To Be Loved