Lost worlds

Evelyn Waugh is known for his strong dislike of the telephone. He couldn't care less. When someone rang him up to tell him something noteworthy, he simply said: write me about it. And hung up.

I rather liked that. Kurt Tucholsky also saw the telephone as an enemy. He wrote a piece about it in 1930. The Swedes, he noted, were worst off. The poor people there were so to say born with a telephone in the crib. Brought up from the start with the unescapable diktat: the phone's ringing, answer it! Those were the good times, though. There weren't any cordless phones then. Once you were out, in the street, you were out of reach. You could enjoy the freedom of blissful solitude. No one would or could disturb you. Well, no longer. Lost worlds.

These are things I've read about. Evelyn Waugh is old stuff. He died in 1966, fifty years ago, can you imagine? I made his acquaintance recently in a small second-hand bookshop full of ghosts from lost worlds. His letters, edited by Mark Amory and published in 1980, had been re-issued by Penguin two years later. And there it was, some thirty years later, it's hard to imagine. I bought it direct. It's like being on the telephone with Waugh, but an altogether different kind of phone. This one speaks through words written in longhand later set in Ehrhardt by the editor. It makes for good conversation. One doesn't get disturbed all the time.

Same thing with Tucholsky. He died in 1935. But you can still have a nice long talk with him. His writings, 1919 to 1935, have been published in 2012 translated into French by a small Swiss editor, Héros-Limite, with the title "Moment d'angoisse chez les riches - Chroniques allemandes". It's the same kind of phone as that one of Waugh. The call comes in printed words in book form. It never rings. You take the call when you decide to do it. No disturbances. Blissful.

Maxime Gorki also used that kind of weird telephone. The words there are dancing. It says so in his book "Childhood", written in 1913, translated into French in 1959. My copy is the 1971 pocketbook edition. There, he writes about the gang of very poor child-thieves he fooled around with. At one time, they started learning to read, painstakingly. One of them, little Viakhir, 10 years old, had a hard time getting the letters right. When one of the kids corrected him for the umpteenth time, he said the letters, they are "jumping" all the time: "They are happy to be read!" That's a nice way of saying things. Telephones never jump, ever.

Well, it all goes to say: smartphones, no thanks. I prefer the call of books. When there's a phone around, I do my best to avoid it. I go to the next room where I can't hear it. Let it ring. Couldn't care less. True, it's bound to raise a few problems, what with the social pressure to stay hooked to the thing all the time. Some say that sooner or later all money transactions will be channeled digitally. Without a smartphone, you'd be lost. Frankly, I don't care. Lost worlds are good places to be in. It's a question of fidelity to one's own past.

I'm quite often on the phone with books. Perhaps I spend too much time ingesting words of lost worlds. As a rule, one ought to write a few pages every day. Longhand, it goes without saying. You cannot fill your head endlessly without emptying it at times. It's the same as with food. First you eat, then you shit. First you read, then you write. Otherwise you get constipated and that's unhealthy. Well, I've done my part now: so far, I've shitted some 600 words.

I'll add but a few turds. It so happened that I've started reading Raymond Aron's memoirs. It's a hefty thing, 750 pages long, published in 1983. It spans some eighty years, from around 1905, the year he was born, to the late seventies. He died 1983. It's a long goodbye from that lost world. Well, perhaps not completely lost. He does say a series of things that reverberate today. So, for instance, in the thirties, he says this about the far-right extremist Maurras: "His success depended more on the poverty in thinking of his adversaries than on the richness of his own." It's much the same story today. Far-right parties are again on the rise and, again, it's largely due to the vacuous conceptual mediocrity found on the left. Well, now I've done my bit. The phone's ringing. A call from one of my books, I'll go answer it.