call me pretentious

Now, I’m not an academic, nor an intellectual, but I do enjoy the occasional stimulating if brain-fogging encounter with that side of life. So, as soon as I saw last night’s lecture at the British Museum advertised (part of the London Review of Books’ Winter Lectures series), I knew I had to go: Cervantes, Balzac and Double-Entry Bookkeeping by Elif Batuman. I was already a Batuman fan after reading a piece by her in the LRB last September.  Elif gave us a whirlwind tour of some of the highlights of her dissertation, which examined the surprising links between double-entry bookkeeping and the novel. As well as discussing Cervantes‘ Don Quixote and Balzac‘s The Wild Ass’s Skin, she cited Proust in particular as exploring the problem of “the time of writing” in the novel. Proust’s idea of the “invisible vocation” of writing struck a chord – how can you be a writer before you’ve written anything, and where does the desire to write come from? The answer to the latter question, according to Batuman’s reading of Proust (or, my understanding of Batuman’s reading of Proust…), is from other books. Falling in love with certain novels and wanting to see or experience the real world through the prism of the novel (my interpretation). The meaningfulness of books as opposed to the arbitrariness of life. So, at last, I come round to the concept of double-entry bookkeeping. For every credit there must be a corresponding debit. Duality – oppositions – balance. Such as: love/renunciation (Proust). The hero and the sidekick (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza); Hegel’s master and slave dialect. She mentioned Jeeves and Wooster, in passing, as another example of the hero and sidekick in literature, which won me over even more, having been a bit of a P.G. Wodehouse addict in my teens. And then how bookkeeping is as old as writing, but the novel and the explosion of writing more generally only came about after paper replaced parchment as the main writing material. The similar impulses to account financially (bookkeeping) and spiritually (confessions, which used to be primarily written); giving rise to phenomena such as scrupulosity (obsessive confessing) and graphomania (Boswell‘s never-ending efforts to record the smallest details of his time with Samuel Johnson is a good example; and I can detect that tendency in my own journal-keeping). All of this – and much more – was delivered with engaging humour, and great enthusiasm for her material. Now I just need to carve out the time to read as well as the time to write.

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