Friday, October 8, 2010

On radio, writers and wet hair

So here I sit with unbrushed teeth and wet hair dripping on my keyboard - probably permanently damaging my computer - and it's all the fault of writers on the radio.

I was innocently listening to France Inter this morning, as I do every morning while showering, dressing, having breakfast and mentally preparing for the day, when I was jolted into a state of catatonic bliss. The studio guest was so brilliant that I couldn't take the risk of missing a single phrase by opening the tap to brush my teeth or switching on the blowdryer for my hair. It was that old Italian wizard Umberto Eco talking - in fluent French with an occasional English word thrown in when he couldn't find the exact French phrase - about languages and literature and lists, translation and interpretation, 'real' books versus e-books, classic writers versus contemporary writers, and much much more. Eco, a professor of semiotics probably most widely known for his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose, recently published a non-fiction 'dialogue' with a French writer, Jean-Claude Carrière, under the delightful title of N'espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres ('Don't hope to get rid of books').

Don't ever hope to get rid of books - or of wise and witty writers, or of the humble radio. That was my fervent wish as I listened, transfixed, to Umberto Eco. Yes, he admires internet for opening up access to information (the Holocaust, he claims, wouldn't have been possible if there had been internet), but he also fears the false information that could be spread in this democratic way. He compares his relationship to internet with his relationship to his car. The fact that he owns and drives a car doesn't mean he can't complain about his car, does it?

But he is at his brilliant best when he talks about books and reading. He regards himself as 'a young writer' - at the age of nearly eighty! - because he only started publishing at fifty. And since becoming a published author, he has preferred reading classic authors rather than his contemporaries - for fear of being influenced, he says, but then adds rather mischievously: Either he finds contemporary writing bad, worse than his own, which upsets him, or he finds it better, which also upsets him... Much less upsetting to stick to the classics.

I was so inspired that I wanted to rush off, wet hair and all, to write it all down before I forget. But as I left the bathroom, I caught the daily Revue de la Presse on the same radio station - and because the Nobel Prize for Literature had been announced yesterday, the press review was also at least partly devoted to literature.

(I have to confess, my first reaction yesterday, when I heard that Mario Vargas Llosa was the 2010 laureate, was a kind of selfish joy because here was a winner of whom I'd actually read a few books, as opposed to all those worthy Nobel winners whose books I know I should have read...)

So I hung on to listen to the press review - and was rewarded with the most magnificent quote from Vargas Llosa, published in today's edition of the newspaper Liberation. According to our latest Nobel laureate, literature expresses a different truth from historical, political or social truth; literature expresses 'a truth made up of lies'.

Three cheers for the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Italian Umberto Eco and a French radio station that gave me a great start to my day. Now let me go and dry my hair and brush my teeth...