Pen Ultimate Dangerous Curves

The essence of literature is elusive and can only be defined by what it is not

The Dutch writer Leon de Winter is very popular with readers (less so with critics) in the Netherlands and in Germany. On a recent visit to Israel he talked with his readers here about his books, many of which have Jews as their heroes. He himself comes from a Jewish Orthodox family. Recently he has spoken out in the Netherlands in favor of America's involvement in Iraq (9/11 was for him a turning point), and he also is a staunch defender of Israel's current politics.

Almost all of De Winter's books are sort of existential thrillers. The last one is called "Gods' Gym" and has a Mossad espionage agency operator as one of its heroes. One of the author's many novels is called "Sokolov's Universe" and its plots evolves in Israel, its heroes being Russian immigrants. De Winter spent some time in Israel researching the book, and is a great believer in research.

Oddly enough, none of his books has been translated into Hebrew, and only one was translated into English (although he did have a very brief career as a Hollywood film producer). The latter is called "Hoffman's Hunger" (translated by Arno Pomerants, Andre Deutsch Books) and its hero is a Dutch ambassador in Prague - a compulsive eater who struggles with his life while reading Spinoza's "Treatise on the Improvement of Human Understanding."

One of the book's heroes is John Marks, a top man at the CIA, whose hobby is electronics. "He much preferred listening to an ordinary LP than to a CD, which delivered everything with a sterile purity. He was now tinkering, just for his own amusement, with a small device that restored the human touch of the gramophone to the ones and zeros of the digital read-out."

Marks is one of many aficionados of vinyl LPs, which may be seen as - and probably is - a form of pure nostalgia. But that does not mean that this preoccupation is without cause: We long to go back to a place where we felt at home, at peace with ourselves, content. Which got me thinking about the history of man and his music. In the distant past, music was "done" by the people: If you wanted to enjoy it - and were not talented enough to create it - you played or sang it. When liturgy (and its chorus of believers) and music seemed to go their separate ways, the world of sound was divided between performers, of which there were few, and listeners, who were many. First there were wandering minstrels and troubadours (I sometimes wonder what happened to untrue-badours), then court musicians, then chamber music players at the rich people's soirees. When the bourgeoisie came to the fore, we got the symphonic concert, with orchestras on stage in evening dress and audiences (ditto) in the auditorium.

Aural aura

Then came modern technology and recording techniques that made it possible to enjoy music without listening to and seeing it while it was being broadcast. But as long as we had the vinyl LPs, something of the artifice of music being made remained in the sound, a sort of aural aura existed - especially when it was of the highest hi-fi quality. Digital sound has created the illusion that what we get is pure music, the essence of sound itself, which seems, to some, to be too clear and too disembodied to the point of being embarrassing.

This is all, of course, a gross oversimplification, but it serves my purpose. From my salad days, when I still studied mathematics (relax, only high school math) I remember learning about the "asymptote" (from the Greek, sym + ptote - put together). It is a line that approaches a curve, but even if infinitely extended, will never meet it (there is a mathematical formula for this, but I do not remember or understand it anymore). It is somewhat like Zeno's paradox: The arrow never quite reaches its target, as it has to pass half the remaining distance, and than half of the remaining distance again, and so on. The distance to the target will diminish, but will never disappear entirely.

In the arts, the ever-diminishing but ever-remaining gap between the curve and the straight line is the essence: A work of art strives to reach the ideal, when the curve and the straight line will finally meet and become one. But the artistic experience of the reader/viewer/listener in fact focuses on the awareness of this "gap": It encompasses a meeting point that is unattainable, that exists only in the recipient's eye, ear, mind or soul. Digital sound is so true to its source that the ear cannot detect this gap anymore. The sound becomes too close for comfort.

Which makes me wonder where the gap is in literature. Unlike music with its abstract quality of sound, literature is made of words and they are laden with meanings. The essence of literature, if there is such a thing, thus becomes more elusive and can only be defined by what it is not.

Robert Frost wrote that poetry is the thing that is lost in translation. If this is so, it could be that the book, that object made of paper on which strings of words are printed, is the best embodiment of the unappeasable gap that cannot be bridged between the essence - the "it" of literature - and its physical, tangible reality. It cannot be closed and cannot diminish any further, and makes the reader feel safe. This gap did not mind the ones and zeros of the digital world one bit.

The only way to approach the ideal that is forever out of reach is in the virtual reality of the reader, in his or her mind and soul. But believe me, it is there, as long as you believe in it and know that you can never get too close.