"'Aaaaarhhhh,' my mother used to sigh contentedly. 'That was a marvellous read. So satisfying. So... inspiring.' The kind of things she liked to read about were dairy cows twitching their tails among the buttercups in high alpine pastures, brisk little Meg with the hens clucking around her feet, the courage of nuns in Malaya, and rearing a baby otter in a suburban kitchen in Södertälje."
Olle felt satisfied with his preamble. But my gaze unnerved him, and feeling that he didn't have much time to think things out he jumped precipitately into the heart of his exposition.
"Reading is a fundamentally conservative activity. It is not writing, it is not doing things, not putting yourself out there. Reading is a surrender, just the same in that respect as watching the TV. You of course have often noted how in our TV soap operas which portray everyday life so accurately and unromantically, there is nevertheless no evidence that any of the characters ever settle down to an evening of watching the soaps. This is why it seems to me," (Olle's face registered self-conscious discomfort at this pomposity), "that the often-heard advice to poets, that they should read more poetry, is so transparently a device to prevent the writing of poetry and to supply in its stead, as a sort of double whammy, an increased audience for poets who are already comfortably established. One does not write poems by reading them. Ah yes, one learns what a poem is, that is, one learns what other poets call poems. One learns perhaps to efficiently mimic them, or if one is more intelligent, to despair of ever being able to write such stuff. These are not the poems you might have written yourself. Read! Read! Read!"
I gathered that the last three words, delivered with a "wealth" of satirical expression, summarized a considerable number of paragraphs in Olle's mislaid lecture notes.
"Is there not," I ventured, "a natural diurnal rhythm in which reading has a place, as e.g. dreaming, sleeping, relaxing?"
Olle brushed this aside.
"You display the usual symptoms of unease when I use the term 'conservative'. I mean it descriptively. Translation now. Translation is a conservative activity. Learning another language, that is the opposite, a .. erm.."
"In Spanish there is a word copa. It means a drinking-glass, thence a drink. For example, ir de copas, bar de copas. It means a ceremonial cup, that is, a sporting trophy, such as the Copa America. Now, when I discovered that the Spanish for oat-flakes is copas de avena, it lit a bonfire in my soul! Then I translated for you in the supermercado - 'Ah, here you are, these are your oat-flakes' - you see how all is lost, limits are reimposed, you are practically secured. Therefore, translation is conservative. There was no bonfire in your soul. Now we will talk about the literary canon."
"You say that the canon does not exist, it does not matter. We are not in college now, eh? Well, I tell you that the canon is of huge political importance. In the transactions between one language and another, the filtration process of translation, the inaccessibility of another language's world, it is only the canon that seeps reluctantly across. It becomes a definition of the national stereotype. Spain, well, that is boiled down to Don Quijote, yes? In your own language, there are a thousand writers you know, in another you perhaps know half a dozen, the very clichés of canonicization."
"You mean 'canonization'."
Olle gave me a nasty, QED-ish, sort of look. "You see that the profoundly conservative habit of translation infects your thought even within your own language. You 'translate' my incorrectness into your correctness, into a confirmatory pabulum. What is the world, that you know how to name it correctly and I do not? The answer stares us in the face, I think? It is your world..."
By now a little resentful at this rough treatment, I admitted Olle's point about language barriers placing a high premium on canonical texts. But was it not, I pursued, a somewhat academic..? I paused fatally and Olle seized the moment.
"Why, I myself, here in Spain, what have I been reading, but Calderón? As it happened, I also flicked through Conrad. Mia conflated the two of them, she would say, 'oh you're off to the can again, with Conners tucked under your arm.' Or 'why when we go out for the day do you have to have to take Cald along with you?' After all, they are virtually anagrammatical. And indeed, it appeared even to me that Calderón was sometimes Conradian, Conrad more than a little Calderonian. The Spanish verbs are extraordinary. It is wonderful how many unconnected meanings they put into a verb, and then their way with reflexives, so intuitive, so 'irrational'. In Calderón I was thunderstruck by the word segismundasteis. On the same subject, do you know that the adjective from Juan Ramón Jiménez is juanramoniana?"
"These things may be bonfires to you and me, but to a Spaniard they mean precisely nothing. In English, we have our sets and lets to bewilder the foreigner. No less than the Swede feels terror at the letter A in the diccionario, does the Spaniard recoil from the letter S in the ordbok. Anyway," I wondered aloud, "aren't we beginning, however gracefully, to wander a little from our theme?"
"You try to put me in a box. But you see, to discuss the reading experience one must discount common sense; a different logic, a dream logic, applies to this behaviour. In a British eating-house last night, I was lucky enough to happen on that British speciality, a good basket of scampi and chips. I expressed my delight to Mia in the words of Wordsworth. In between crunching the golden crumb and permitting the hot juice of the Dublin Bay prawn to leak into my mouth - it was a chilly evening, it had been raining all day - I found myself appropriately remarking, Earth has not anything to show more fair..."
Olle paused as if expecting some rejoinder, but I was beyond coherence.
"I say 'appropriate'. Wordsworth was of course perfectly familiar with the Dublin Bay prawn from his childhood days in Cockermouth. However, it was not until his residence in London that he encountered the deep fried titbit that we consume today. Wordsworth found London disorientating and uncomfortable, but this basket of scampi was an experience he returned to again and again. You remember the lines of course: All bright and glittering in the smokeless air... Dear God! And all that mighty heart is lying still!"
I remained speechless.
"But why was it that Wordsworth lay so heavily on my mind? I will tell you. It was all to do with those copas de avena I alluded to a short time ago. As you well know, they were a German brand, made by Hahne. The German for oat-flakes is Haferflocken. And these were the smaller variety, designated Zarte, that is, frail. It is one of the great mysteries to me whoever buys those other more robust oats, 'Jumbo Oats' you call them, what on earth are they used for? But that aside. The attractive blue packaging, so reminiscent of the jacket of the old Oxford Wordsworth, and of the name Dorothy, may perhaps have first brought into my mind Worsworth's pallid verses on 'Heart-leaf Well'. Do not trouble to look it up. There, if ever, is a poem that lives only by its title."
"Not quite accurately recalled, I think."
"You make me tired. Did I mention a logic of reading? Yes, I think so. My memories were undoubtedly inflected by those grand old northern names like Arkwright and Hartcliffe."
"Hmm, Bedford, Bristol..."
"While we dwell on the Wordsworthian allusion encoded on this packet of German cereal, do not forget that your cordate leaf, Blatt in German, is Blad in Swedish. [nb: Blad rhymes with lard.] Our riot of goblets is truly a forest of leaves now, eh? But not only the verdant foliage of Cumberland: Blad is also a sheet of paper. Newspaper, in the case of Svenska Dagbladet. That, in case you hadn't realized, is how Blah, Blah, Blah originated. And now, my friend, you know what reading is."