The Book of Ands

In the beginning was the word and…

St John 1:1

And and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and …

I quote from memory the opening words of the Book of Ands. In the intervals between the conjunctions lies my story, lie all stories. I’m sorry, this is not the best way to begin. Let me try again.

It is a convention of most stories these days to declare their own fictiveness. My story, however, is true. I live alone in a top-floor flat in a small university town in a universe expanding at both ands. One more try.

Alone in my flat one afternoon a few months ago (better), I heard a ring at the door. I opened it and a stranger stood there. Dressed in a brightly-coloured headband, a tie-dyed grandad vest and plastic sandals, he had an anachronistic look about him. I asked him what he wanted.

‘Got some books to sell,’ he said. ‘Sci-fi and fantasy mainly. The guy in the bookshop round the corner said you might be interested.’

I could not restrain a smile. Whenever old Kowalski found himself beleaguered by students trying to unload their books on him for holiday money at the end of the summer term, he always gave them my address, though he knew my tastes were specialized and my funds limited. I would invariably send them on their way unrewarded after examining their wares with a pretence of interest. It was a sort of running joke between us.

‘Well, you’ve come to the right place,’ I said. ‘I am something of a collector, yes.’ I gestured behind me to the sagging bookshelves lining my walls. ‘So what rarities do you have to offer me?’

He loosened the drawstring of the duffel bag he carried on his shoulder and emptied its contents onto the mat at my feet. In the cataract of dog-eared paperbacks with garish covers and fanciful titles disgorged for my inspection, my eye fixed on a slim hardback still sporting its glossy white jacket (though somewhat stained and darkened by age), like a dinner guest at the wrong party. The dustflap bore the title The Book of Ands and below it in smaller print the author’s name, George Lewis Berg.

‘What’s this?’ I said, picking out the volume from the mass grave in which it lay half-buried and opening it at random. The page was filled with regularly-spaced columns of the single word ‘and.’ I thumbed further ahead, then back to the beginning; each page was the same. ‘Seems to be some sort of joke, isn’t it, a parody?’ I said to hide my dismay, thinking of Hemingway and Dickens, those aficionados of the ‘and.’

‘Sort of, yeah. It was a present from a girl I used to go out with. It’s my name, you see. Well, Andy really, but everyone calls me And. I guess she thought it was funny.’

‘The flesh made word,’ I said.

‘Sorry?’

‘Nothing.’ I had been fingering the book while we spoke, stroking it, caressing it, rehearsing my proprietary rights. I admit, such curiosities excite me. With feigned indifference I inquired, ‘And how much are you asking for this masterpiece, this attack of literary conjunctivitis?’

‘I couldn’t let it go for less than a quid. Sentimental value. You know.’

I offered him fifty pence and he accepted.

The transaction completed, I invited my visitor in for a coffee. I do not receive many callers and thought it might be agreeable to pass an idle hour or two in bookish conversation. To this end I tried to elicit from my guest his opinion of the British contribution to fantasy literature, with particular reference to Stevenson and the early Wells. Unfortunately he appeared singularly ill-informed about the whole subject – he seemed to be under the impression that Stevenson invented the space rocket – and when he had dribbled the last of his coffee into his matted beard I invented an excuse about a dental appointment and saw him to the door. There are so few people these days with whom one can talk about matters that matter.

*

One such person, perhaps the only person among my own narrow circle of acquaintances, was my friend Kowalski the bookseller, and the following morning I paid him a visit.

‘Anything to your liking?’

I didn’t understand him at first.

‘From that fellow I sent round yesterday?’ He had a playful gleam in his eye.

‘As a matter of fact I did get one interesting item from him, yes. Something of a surprise. A very odd book. Ever heard of the name George Lewis Berg?’

‘Berg, Berg,’ he repeated. ‘Sounds familiar. So many Bergers and Burgesses these days. But Berg, no, I don’t think so. Want me to look in the ELB for you?’

‘The Elbe?’

Encyclopaedia of Literary Biography. Twelve volumes, one volume slightly damaged. Offers invited.’

‘Not my line, you know that. My interest is the work, not the life. But yes, look him up for me,will you? B-e-r-g, Berg. I’ll keep an eye on the shop for you.’

He laughed. ‘Don’t worry. No one will come in. People don’t buy books any more. Not the sort of books I sell, anyway.’

He wandered off through the dusty stacks crammed with high-quality art books and slim volumes of verse (poetry was his special passion), disappearing through a low arch and round a corner, where I could hear him humming tunelessly to himself as he dragged a stepladder across the wooden floor and mounted it. Some minutes later he returned bearing a weighty folio-sized tome open on his arms, crooked at the spine like a sleeping child.

‘Berg, George Lewis,’ he read. ‘1885 to 1949. Novelist and poet. Born Andorra of mixed parentage, German and English. Moved to England aged…’

‘Where?’

‘England.’

‘No, where did you say he was born?’

‘Andorra. Here, you can read it yourself.’ He transferred the volume to my arms and I took it to the window, where the light was better, to read it.

The entry consisted of a two-column biography and a list of Berg’s major works – some dozen novels and collections of verse, none of which I had heard of. I learned that he had worked for most of his life as a librarian, until failing eyesight forced him to retire, and had fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. More to the point as far as I was concerned, I discovered that he had spent the last ten years of his life as a virtual recluse, apparently composing his magnum opus. After his death, however, the only manuscript found in his possession was that which came to be published as The Book of Ands (a brief description of which was included).

Provision had been made in his will for his final work to be privately printed, should he die before completing it, and in the absence of any other manuscript, and out of respect for the dead man’s wishes, this was done, thereby producing ‘perhaps the most bizarre literary artefact in the history of English letters.’ Berg was said to have suffered several bouts of mental instability in his youth, the implication appearing to be that at the end of his life his sanity must finally have deserted him.

I summarized all this for Kowalski and told him how I had purchased a copy of The Book of Ands from the student he had sent me the previous day.

‘Sounds crazy. Why should anyone want to write a book like that for? Where’s the pleasure in such a book?’

‘I don’t know, it’s very strange.’ A thought suddenly occurred to me. ‘Perhaps, well, perhaps he did write his magnum opus and then simply began cutting it.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, look at the facts. He worked on this novel for ten years, supposedly. How many “ands” can you write in ten years? Enough to fill a whole shelf of books. Yet after his death it seems only a small bundle of pages was found, suggesting he may have written them not long before he died. What did he do for the rest of the time?’

‘Are you asking me or telling me?’

‘I’m just guessing, but well, perhaps when he’d finished his novel he came to see that any conventional work of fiction – any narrative composed of nouns, verbs, adjectives of the author’s choosing – any conventional prose style inevitably limits the reader’s imagination, forces him to accept the writer’s version of events rather than create his own. Perhaps he began by cutting the odd adjective here and there, as many writers do, and it grew into a passion, a style, or anti-style. Perhaps he cut so much of his original novel that in the end he only had one word left.’

‘”And”?’

‘Well, perhaps he then threw the manuscript of the novel away and just kept retyping the one word he’d saved, the only word that freed rather than limited the reader’s imagination. Perhaps if he’d lived another year the book would have been a couple of thousand pages longer. How can an infinite series be terminated and all that?’

‘Wait a minute, I don’t understand. You mean he wanted the reader to sort of…’

‘Fill in the gaps between the words himself. Yes.’

‘In other words…’

‘Complete the novel himself. Exactly. Supply his own nouns, verbs and adjectives. The perfect collaborative enterprise between reader and writer. Democracy on the page.’

‘Sounds crazy,’ Kowalski repeated. ‘Where’s the pleasure in that? Would Byron have written such a book? Would Keats?’

‘Perhaps Berg would have regarded Byron and Keats as tyrants. Authorial autocrats, dictators of the dicht, imposing their private sensibilities on the reader, stifling the reader’s own.’

He shook his head with an expression of pity. ‘We can’t all be great poets, you know. Some of us are content to sit at the feet of the masters and enjoy the Muse at second-hand. Some of us have no wish to be writers, some of us are happy as readers.’ He closed the covers of the unsaleable encyclopaedia and shuffled back with it into the gloom at the rear of the shop. ‘If everyone wrote their own books,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘what would become of the humble bookseller?’

*

The principle I had hit upon to explain the curious structure of The Book of Ands – the reader as writer – intrigued me enormously, and I was keen to put it to the test. Returning home from Kowalski’s, I made myself a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette and settled down at my desk with the Book opened at page one before me, intending to approach it as I would any other novel, to read each page consecutively, left to right, top to bottom, start to finish.

For the first few pages my concentration wavered: the words rang emptily in my ear, an idiot’s meaningless stammer echoed to infinity, a beginning never reaching a middle or end. But as I read further I found my attention slowly drifting away from the black blocks of print and drawn instead to the white spaces between them, as some composers tell us that the silences between the notes in a piece of music are as important as the notes themselves. I recited aloud, louder, thumping out the words with my fist on the desktop, setting up a rhythm, mantra-like, in my brain, till the symbols on the page began to grow dim and diaphanous, as though around them, between them, something else was trying to show, struggling to achieve presence. And for no obvious reason I found myself thinking back to my childhood and the day my mother died, and how I happened to find a ten-shilling note, torn and rain-sodden, in a puddle on my way home from school, and the look of pain on my father’s face when I burst into the house, singing my good fortune, and the terrible tremor in his voice as he told me of the accident and how my mother had gone to heaven, and the numbness I felt, then the rage, then the grief, and the tears I shed and the nights I lay awake praying to God to take me too, take me too, and how it rained like a monsoon on the day of the funeral, and the relatives stroking my hair and doing their best to comfort me, pity disfiguring their faces, and my father all in black, biting his lip so as not to cry, and the wreath I bought with the ten-shilling note, and how it fell from my hand and dropped in a puddle when I saw the coffin being lowered into the earth, never to re-emerge. And a thousand other more trivial memories, random images from a forgotten past, joining ands, forming a ring, making sense of absence. Reading the Book that day, I wrote the story of my own life. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.

Over the next few weeks my obsession with the Book deepened. I would walk about the flat with it open in my hands, reading from it like a breviary. I would stand at the window as before a pulpit and declaim its message to the bemused passers-by looking up and exchanging comments in the street below. Each time I opened it I wrote the story of my life anew. How could one life be subject to so many different readings, I wondered.

In my more sober moments I reflected on how here was the book predicted by the great Structuralist critic Roland Barthes, the scriptible rather than lisible novel. I thought of developing my views on the Book into a scholarly article and submitting it to one of the literary quarterlies, representing it as a sort of nouveau roman avant la lettre, the zero degree of writing, the minimalist text par excellence, the literature of exhaustion and silence. I even got as far as a confused and verbose first draft before I started, inevitably, to cut. I considered destroying all my other books, of deleting all but the ‘ands.’

*

I should have understood what was happening sooner, got rid of it sooner. By the time I did, it was too late. I was seated at my desk after a particularly enervating all-night session with the Book in which I had again recomposed my life. As I stood up and walked to the window to let in some air and light, I felt myself succumbing to a peculiar sense of dislocation, dispersion, of which I was unable at first to identify the cause. For some moments I stood motionless, gazing dumbly at the curtained window, trying to hold myself together, to grasp what was happening to me.

Then it struck me. If my life could be written or read in so many different ways, if it contained so many different plots, as many plots as readings, did it not follow that it lacked any plot at all? The more I probed this thought, the more alarming it became. What was my life, after all, but a random series of disconnected events, a chaos of discrete impressions strung by memory on a necklace of conjunctions, assigned a spurious structure to create this illusion of a unitary I? Wherein did the order of my life consist but in the momentary arrangement of the fragments of time into a notional pattern of sense, a pattern as arbitrary and ephemeral as the chance constellation of glass beads in a kaleidoscope? What was that famous whimsical definition of a net? A collection of holes held together with string. What was my life, what was the universe, but just such a net – a fabric of absences sewn by thought, a chain forged by fancy, The Book of Ands made flesh.

*

Had I possessed a less reverential attitude towards the written word, I might have destroyed the Book at once. But I am a true bibliophile: all books for me are holy, sacred texts, scriptures. And I could not bring myself to do it.

I took it instead to Kowalski. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘It’s yours. Please.’

‘Ah, so this is your famous Book of Ands.’ He fanned the pages with a practised thumb. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no use for this. Who would buy such a book? Keep it.’

‘Please!’ I insisted. ‘Hide it for me. Somewhere no one will find it. High up on a shelf where no one ever looks. Behind another book. Please!’

He gazed at me with curiosity and concern, then shrugged. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘if that’s what you want. Crazy, crazy,’ I could hear him muttering as he shambled away, though whether he was referring to the book or to me I could not tell.

I left the shop before I could see where he shelved it. But I felt no easier when it was done. I carried the Book with me, I knew, and would do so forever, distributing the world between its conjunctions, fitting my thought to its syntax. I understood that the Book was a book that had to be written but should never perhaps be read, because once read it could never be forgotten, never be unread. Like the universe itself, infinite but bounded, it would continue, mercilessly, to expand.

First published in Critical Quarterly, 30, no. 3 (Autumn 1988). Reprinted in Best Short Stories 1989, ed. Giles Gordon and David Hughes (Heinemann, 1989); in Sixteen Modern Short Stories, ed. W. R. Jennings (Longman Cheshire, 2nd edn, 1992); and in The Best of Best Short Stories 1986-1995, ed. Giles Gordon and David Hughes (Heinemann, 1995)