by Adrian Tahourdin
Here at the TLS we’re used to receiving publicity flyers for forthcoming books, but this week I received a promotional item with a difference: a 30-page pamphlet, printed on high-quality paper, heralding the publication next January of Charles Dantzig’s new book, À propos des chefs-d’oeuvre.
These are tough times in the books trade, but Dantzig’s publishers, the Paris-based Grasset, have pushed the boat out for him. He is clearly a prized author. Dantzig is something of an original, the author of the wonderfully opinionated and irreverent Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (”Montaigne bores me shitless”), which was a surprise 900-page bestseller in 2005 (the book included a section on “unusual deaths of authors”, broken down into grim categories), as well as the equally successful Pourquoi lire? Why indeed.
The pamphlet starts with a résumé of the new book, in which Dantzig makes the brazen claim that he realized when he had finished the work that it was the first to be written on the subject of literary masterpieces (”sur le chef-d’oeuvre en littérature”) - it’ll be interesting to see how that claim goes down. Taking in Boccaccio to Beckett, Homer to Heine, Petrarch to Pasolini, Dantzig will attempt to define the notion of a masterpiece.
He points out that the sense of the term has shifted from its original meaning. The French Robert dictionary defines it as: “oeuvre capitale et difficile qu’un artisan devait faire pour recevoir la maîtrise dans sa corporation”, i.e. a difficult work that an artisan is expected to complete in order to receive his trade’s qualification. The OED traces the English equivalent, “masterpiece”, to the German “Meisterstück” or Dutch “meesterstuk” — the derivation suggests perhaps that we have traditionally been less comfortable with the concept here than in other European countries.
After that we get choice quotations from the published works, followed by snippets of praise for them, all beautifully laid out — “Charles Dantzig, l’homme-livre”, “Notre Chamfort”, “Un athlète de la littérature”, and a quote that ends “It is clear that Dantzig has read everything”; this was written by me and appeared in something called the “Times Literary Magazine, Londres”.
Dantzig is a master of the pithy insight: for example, we all know that unremarkable novels can make great films but has the reason for this been more eloquently put than Dantzig does here? “In general, average books make very good films: they don’t contain thoughts that the director feels embarrassed at having to suppress.”
As Patrick McGuinness wrote in his TLS review of the Dictionnaire, “Dantzig’s book is an extraordinary undertaking, and anyone who buys it will be happily surprised. Biased, mischievous, provocative, Dantzig is also massively well read, funny and instructive. He is an elegant writer, and is clearly passionate about books”. This quote, needless to say, appears in the pamphlet.
As well as republished interviews and portraits of the author (see above), there are sections on “Dantzig the novelist” and “Dantzig the poet”. The former reveals that he has published five novels as well (how does he find the time?). I read the most recent one, Dans un Avion pour Caracas (2011), with the intention of reviewing it for the TLS, but couldn’t think of anything very positive to say about it; the TLS reviews novels in foreign language very selectively and there didn’t seem to be a case for this one. I came away with a sense that novels are not Dantzig’s forte. Maybe he’ll confound me.