Big Books

Adam Mars-Jones

A big book is a big evil. That’s what Callimachus said, but really, what did he know? A book wasn’t a bound and folding thing for him, a codex. He could only have known scrolls, like the ones that toga-wearing actors consult with bogus assurance in plays set in classical times, as if what they were holding was some sort of Kindle-in-waiting. And in the 1960s anyone who studied ancient Greek for A-level, as I did (the language of Callimachus, after all), was expected to buy a very big book indeed: Liddell and Scott’s monumental lexicon, big enough to afford the linguistic granularity you need to write Greek prose in the style of Demosthenes’ orations, with citations to corroborate every word used.

A schoolboy could lift Liddell and Scott but hardly carry it around. There was one in the classroom for group consultation, but each student needed a personal copy. It cost £7, a daunting amount, though we were told that it cost £21 to produce, with Oxford University Press absorbing the loss for the sake of the cultural benefits accruing, a claim that seemed less unlikely then than it would now. The enterprise on which Liddell and Scott had embarked was perhaps more central to Victorian high culture (the culture that produced Jowett, Matthew Arnold and Housman) than the Oxford English Dictionary itself.

There was humour in Liddell and Scott, or so we were told, but it was donnish to the point of desiccation. The entry explaining how σῡκοφάντης, literally ‘fig-sayer’, came to mean what we understand by the word ‘sycophant’, discussed one possibility before admitting ‘this explanation is probably a mere figment.’ It was understood that Liddell and Scott existed not for purposes of entertainment but to stand as witness and authority, not quite holy writ but nevertheless exemplary.

I never expected to come across a novel that could compete with such a reference book in heft and mystique: however exhaustive, a work of fiction operates synecdochically (ugly word), seeking to persuade the reader that this meticulous construction can stand in, however briefly, for the whole world. This is true even of Ulysses, which I read shortly before I left school – really just to have ammunition with which to refute the extravagant claims made for it by an annoying American visitor. Then the book swallowed me whole (so thanks to Alan Consolatu for the introduction). I read the Bodley Head edition, whose format, relatively narrow if satisfyingly thick, was somehow slightly too compact for so overreaching a book. The original Paris Ulysses was larger, as if unwilling to share a shelf with lesser works – it seemed to have a superior sense of itself. So did Wyndham Lewis’s swaggering riposte to it, The Apes of God, the original edition described by Jeffrey Meyers as resembling ‘a cubist telephone book’ and weighing 5 lbs. As a Penguin Modern Classic, the form in which I read it, The Apes of God was unsuitably trim on the outside, feigning the sense of proportion that the contents had no time for. John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance was a proper doorstop, and so was L.H. Myers’s The Near and the Far, which I read in New Orleans in 1980, mainly in a hippyish French Quarter teahouse called Until Waiting Fills (a line from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or a variation on one), where the curtains were never opened. Neither book was so huge as to destabilise the whole experience of reading.

Bottom’s Dream does that. I first saw the book on the Newly Arrived shelves of the London Library, strategically placed as they are to be browsed by people waiting for a dawdling lift. The word ‘doorstop’ falls short – use it for that purpose and you’d only trip people up. It’s well on the way to being door-sized itself. Yes, I could and did pick it up, yes in theory I could have taken it home with me, but its status as portable was a technicality: it weighs in at 13 lbs. It was more like a family Bible or a chained treasure in a medieval library than a book as commonly understood. (Its permanent place in the London Library is on the understandably short shelf of ‘Fiction, Folio’, and even there it stands head and shoulders above the other books.) Never mind that I’m no sort of collector, I had to have a copy of my own.

I’d heard of the author, Arno Schmidt, from a German-reading friend, as a sort of lost modernist, born 1914, died 1979, not much read in his home country even in his lifetime, out of fashion and (it was almost a boast) strongly resistant to translation. Yet here were nearly 1500 pages of Bottom’s Dream, published in 2016 by Dalkey Archive, a rendering by John E. Woods of the 1970 novel Zettels Traum, and it looked wonderful. The story takes place over the course of Midsummer’s Day 1968 in northern Germany, and follows four main characters: Daniel Pagenstecher, Paul and Wilma Jocobi, and their daughter, Franziska. The narrative, which partly concerns the translation of Edgar Allan Poe, is overlaid with Pagenstecher’s wide-ranging exegesis. Wherever my reading eye touched down on the book’s curiously laid-out pages, a broad central panel of text asymmetrically flanked by commentaries or interpolations, it was delighted and sent skittering on. German-language books can look formidable, not to say rebarbative, even in translation (Thomas Bernhard’s certainly do), but there seemed to be a deep-seated impulse of play at work in Bottom’s Dream. The book it has most often been compared to is Finnegans Wake, though in Woods’s version the tone often converges with Ezra Pound’s ‘Uncle Ez’ folksiness. Certainly Schmidt, who himself translated Poe, was steeped in British and American literature – every page of the German original is packed with English-language citations.

I tried to order a copy through local bookshops, a piece of anti-corporate consumer action that got nowhere, the relevant distributors not being able to source one. I’d asked the postman who delivers on my street to shout ‘Hypocrite!’ through the letterbox if I ordered anything from Amazon, and I wasn’t anxious to sign up for more than the minimum of denunciation, so in the end I bought through the AbeBooks site. AbeBooks is owned by Amazon, I know, but at least a bookshop benefited – a German bookshop, admittedly, since that was where the available copies turned out to be.

I arranged for a local delivery, the nearest pickup point being the First Gear convenience store on Atlantic Road, and ended up collecting the most expensive new book I’ve ever bought (some way over £50) from between Brixton Pound and Klassique Barbers. The package was ridiculously heavy, though in theory I was prepared for its weight. I lugged it home. Where to put it in my chaotic flat? No standard shelf could accommodate such beefiness. Somehow Bottom’s Dream pulled rank, it queue-jumped, requisitioning the top of a revolving bookcase, about waist high, where an untidy pile of DVDs had been contentedly snoozing. If there had been a lectern available no doubt it would have jumped onto that by preference, like a cat choosing the highest vantage point in an unfamiliar room. A book of such heft demands a standing reader.

Sometimes the brute size of a volume is a deterrent and nothing else, though the Kindle has abolished the physicality of books, for those who want it gone, so that there’s no difference in weight between War and Peace and Horrid Henry’s Nits. There are plenty of readers who enjoy a long book, but no one wants a big book as such. When in the 1960s the artist David Nash bought a chapel in Blaenau Ffestiniog, at the time the cheapest place in Britain to buy property, he befriended Phyllis Playter, who had lived there with John Cowper Powys. Her attempts to get Nash to read A Glastonbury Romance culminated in her taking a kitchen knife and cutting a copy into handy jacket-pocket-sized chunks. A mutilated book is closer to wholeness, as long as it has a reader, than an undamaged one that never leaves the bookshelf.

The family-Bible scale of Bottom’s Dream made me worry about looking after it properly – I didn’t want it developing the prolapsed binding that I remembered from my Liddell and Scott. The V&A’s website (‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’) suggested foam wedges as the best solution, fully supporting the boards right up to the joint with the spine. Clean rolled towels – or in my case, clean Primark cot blankets that had once been the bed linen of a dog now extinct – were accepted as an alternative. I found myself promoted, or perhaps merely sidelined, from reader to curator, and Bottom’s Dream began to seem as estranged from the ordinary experience of reading a book as an Angus Suttie teapot is from the dailiness of pouring out a brew. The colossal book in its self-claimed place imposed a ritual of consultation rather than immersion. Open it at random and see what you get, emulating the Early Church practice that looked for guidance from the sortes Virgilianae. ‘Sillystial teen’urgers, all coughing châstely; (cruzes de fuera y diablo de dentro); even the youngâsSt were fing’ring lolling flutes …’ Why ever not?

The original Zettels Traum was a photocopy of the typescript, full of words obliterated by over-typing, so that it resembled redacted material grudgingly supplied following a Freedom of Information request, or a samizdat text to be circulated surreptitiously. It had a bodily presence, truthful or factitious, to rival On the Road’s 120-foot manuscript. There were places, immediately obvious, where the typewriter’s ribbon had been changed. The tonality of the print abruptly darkened and the ink marks gained fresh force. Despite being, unbelievably, smaller and lighter than the original 1970 edition published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Bottom’s Dream is an echo louder than the original signal. Either that, or the equivalent in book form of a remastered recording. It’s not just that the translation represents a vast act of attention: the typesetting, by the translator, is a separate and equal feat. The whole production amounts to a luxurious upgrade of the consciously scruffy original, in what is either a betrayal or an apotheosis, since it can hardly be both.

If this is where codex culture ends, with an obsessive homage to a no less obsessive and hermetic original, then no one can deny that it’s a full-throated swan song. Bottom’s Dream, installed on a sort of secular altar, agrees to dispense nonsensical wisdom in small doses, daily droplets of bibliomancy from a pipette filled at random. This is the position that might have benefited Finnegans Wake, its individual sentences bubbling with freshness, the totality so crushingly dull, if Joyce hadn’t spoiled its gospel chances by making it – comparatively – such a little book.