Profundity Is a Slim Volume by an Obscure European Author — Cornelius Fitz

All the profound weight of the European tradition of slim volumes sits upon this slight book, which nestles alongside its kin on a display table at Hatchards in St Pancras International Station. The slightness suggests the rigorous concentration involved in paring it back, trimming it down to size. Every word must count doubly, triply even, especially since it now sits along other works by obscure European writers that are reputed to be densely packed with Meaning, notable for their Profundity. One senses that each sentence must have been sculpted, hewn into existence, somehow providing a lens onto on all that came before it in human cultural endeavour, and yet, at the same time, somehow existing outside of it, detached, and so able to offer a critique of that burdensome cultural tradition.

Whilst all this should be tacit for the discerning reader, the ever-cautious publisher will have ensured that the magnitude of the work’s centrality to the European tradition of Great Slim Volumes will have been made amply visible to any potential purchaser. This will be volubly apparent, for instance, on the front cover, through a strategic array of marketing nous: puff quotes and cover art that changes with the times, so that in the 90s it came packaged in a moody black-and-white photograph of a leafless tree in a barren field, whilst its latest incarnation is a hand-drawn pair of spectacles with a bullet hole in one of the lenses and blood trickling out to form the title, perhaps a bid to ride on the coattails of the crime genre’s resurgent popularity.

The back cover, too, wields similar weapons of persuasion: a synopsis, more puff quotes, author info, and a pull-quote from the text itself. This is the pull-quote they have chosen to go with:

Everything outside the text conspires to tell you of the heavyweight pedigree contained within, but none more so that the weight of the book itself: its very slimness is testament to the intellectual heft which it must surely possess.

Aphoristic, self-interrogating, it neatly encapsulates the artistry to be found within. Those in charge of such decisions have determined that if this brief glimpse cannot convince the perusing shopper of the profound literary depths that await inside, nothing will. Every sentence must be like that, they imagine the customer thinking. Gem upon exhilarating gem intuiting the mysteries of Late Modern being. Who could resist such truths pulled de profundis?  

The bookseller, however, is not content to leave anything to chance. And so they have commandeered the mind of one of their junior salespeople, no doubt gratis, to pen their thoughts on the work. This appears in reasonably legible handwriting in blue biro (fountain pen would have seemed somehow false) on a little stand beside the book on the display table, and reads as follows:

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-12-16-57Verily? Did this antiquated word really originate in Tim’s callow mind? Or does it really belong to his boss? Has this brief tract been edited or even ghostwritten? Is nothing sacred in this world, not even handwritten notes attached to slim volumes of European thought on a bookseller’s display table?

Besides, you’ve encountered these types of works before, always bearing an obscure European surname on the cover. Who was it this time? French? Czech? Hungarian? Dutch? Is it an undiscovered gem from an already known quantity (how the publishing houses love to gussy up a new discovery and allongez la sauce!) Or is it some forgotten author, cast aside by posterity until the propitious moment arrived to reclaim them and show them in a new light?  But perhaps they are contemporaneous with the present moment – perhaps this obscure author is no copyright-exempt carcass to be pecked on anew but a living and breathing being. Yes, it will mean royalties but, with the right spin, he could be the new ‘x’: a controversialist like Houellebecq; a nightmarish surrealist like Kafka; an existentialist révisité – the Camus for our times.

That name. Ideally, it will be five or six letters. Appealingly unfathomable phonemes bunched tightly together. Here is that frisson of danger: the occult, the arcane. As long as something enigmatic attaches to the name, not least the question of how to pronounce it. For to mispronounce it is to be ignorant of it, to show oneself to be outside the cultural loop, to be unread. People can be scarred by such instances: saying Cay-muss instead of Car-moo. That name and its correct pronunciation becomes a form of cultural capital that people buy into and may well see this slim volume fly off the shelves.

So who is this one? Strnad? Quere? Szapf?

On this occasion, it is Nogues. But how to pronounce it? No-guess? Nog-wez? Nogs? It is actually just Nog with the vowel sound having a French nasality to it, making it more like Nug. His fame – for it has been determined by surely male publishers that the Slim Volume is solely the preserve of male writers, so yes, his fame will be assured as soon as a suitable suffix can be attached to his name. The choice is between Nugian, which would inevitably be pronounced Noo-jun, or Nug-esque. Time will tell.

The customer picks up the book in their hand, turns it over, sizes up its heft. It sure feels pretty damn skimpy, especially when they hone in on the price. £12.99. The potential buyer is suddenly minded to see just how many pages are inside. 72?! £12.99 for 72 pages. At some point, such intellectual stock will damn well have to repay its high buy-in price, or so the impromptu purchaser will think. Why, that’s 18p per page, and some of that is not the text proper but a page full of publishing information (really only of use to academics), an entire page given over to the author’s dedication (always the wife or children for a male author), and even a blank page, whose purpose seems to be to add suspense before the main event but which, in any cost-benefit analysis, simply adds to the Detractions tally.

And another thing. Whose idea was it to have such wide margins? That font size, too, seems overly generous. Just how skimpy would this book be if typeset normally? 50 pages? Less? That such a slim volume doesn’t even deign to instruct the potential purchaser on how to pronounce the author’s name correctly seems a bit rich, all things considered.

In this way, the poor book constantly has to justify its price tag, usually by stressing that its observations are endless, its insights timeless, or some other way to convey that this slight volume contains multitudes. What needs to be emphasised is that such cost-benefit analyses are anathema to Literature, etc., etc. And that’s just what the back cover and its puff quotes does. ‘These gnomic utterances are endlessly compelling…in a certain sense, all of human culture is here.’ It is from Martin Amis, a name which itself carries a certain literary weight.  He may or may not be a friend of the author or the author’s agent, or share the same publishing house. Private Eye calls such instances of deceitful altruism log-rolling.

Other puff quotes prove quite malleable and resistant to the marketing specifics of any given era. So the evergreen ‘A postmodern classic’ can be rebranded down the ages: pre-modern, modern, postmodern, post-truth, and so forth.

So there is sits, exuding intellectuality, promising entrance to an elite cachet of those who have read it and those who have not. Such Slim Volumes almost dare you not to buy it. Only a fool would throw away this golden opportunity to possess all that profundity gathered together in one slim volume.

Once bought, the book might even be attempted – a page or two, no more. Inscrutable, insufferable, it will be tossed aside. But all is not lost for its true purpose is not to be read, but to be thought to have been read. And so it will reside on bookshelves across the land alongside the other unread Great Slim Volumes of yesteryear – Camus (The Fall), Sartre (Existentialism and Humanism), Cees Nooteboom (The Following Story), Zweig, Gombrowicz, Robbe-Grillet and the like, allowing the visitor perusing those shelves to exclaim, ‘Oh, so you’ve read Nogues! What did you think?’ and, like everyone else, you will shrug your shoulders and say, ‘I can’t see what all the fuss is about!’

Cornelius Fitz is an an English teacher and long-time contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. He recently completed a Masters in Cultural & Critical Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He was awarded the inaugural Verso Prize for his degree and writing submitted on Speculative Aesthetics, an extract of which has been published on the Verso blog. He has also contributed to 3:AM magazine and had a short story published in STORGY Magazine in January. He can found on Twitter as @lapsedhermit.

ImageCamus Titles, C.K. Hartman, Creative Commons