When I retired, I put together a list of fifty novels I intended to read, each of which was critically acclaimed and each of which I had missed during my working years. No real surprises on the list; One Hundred Years of Solitude has been glowering at me from the bookcase for more than a decade, and I’ve started Infinite Jest at least six times. Meanwhile, however, lists be damned; my reading has been completely undisciplined, and the unread pile next to my bed has become an obelisk, I don’t recognize half of the titles I’ve downloaded on my Kindle, and I still haven’t read Infinite Jest.
This piece actually begins in response to the last three books I recently picked up, none of which were on the list, and none of which I will finish. My willingness to drop a book quickly or at the midpoint interests my eldest son who is a punctilious reader; he sees every book to the end, no matter how annoyed he is by the subject, the author, or the genre. I admire him and his grit, but I now have a list of thirty-eight books to get out of the way and can’t dally with books that don’t capture my heart and soul. That being said, in an attempt to be polite to folks pressing favorite books on me, in the last two days I have been reading The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, and Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.
I stuck with Seinfeldia for a good while with particular interest in how a show about nothing invaded the situation comedy universe, and, I have to admit, with sustained wonder that anyone as crusty as Larry David could stay in a room long enough to sign a contract. “No hugging, no learning”, was the phrase used by Seinfeld and David to describe the character of their work together, a compressed reminder that sentimentality had no place in Seinfeld’s world. As I think about the nine seasons, it strikes me that it also describes stasis; the characters don’t learn from their disastrous failures of judgment, don’t become closer, don’t grow. I have to admit that much of my guilty pleasure in watching the show is in knowing that I am going to see self-involvement bordering on callous disregard for others, no matter how obviously a situation demands compassion. I’d be more embarrassed by my heartless amusement were the show not in constant syndication, viewed by millions daily, available around the clock, only surpassed in hours-per-screen by Judge Judy and Kickin’ It With Byron Allen.
I am actually quite ok with hugs and with learning, with development of character, and with declarations of emotion unless they devolve into hyper-sentimentalized bathos (Hello, Elizabeth Berg). The central character in The Language of Flowers, however, has a profound allergy to emotion and human connection, having been shuffled through a succession of foster homes. Unaccountably, she does have an extraordinary connection with flowers, not simply enjoying their shape, fragrance, color, but sensing the emotional energy that each specimen projects. As an assistant to a kind florist, she understands the deepest longings of a few special customers and provides them with the flowers that (almost literally) speak to their needs. She understands, for example, that the shy woman whose request is halting and obscure is in need of passion, presenting her with a bouquet of jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla), blooms representing desire. It’s not so much that particular flowers have power as that they make their meaning palpable to those sensitive to their language.
In the 19th Century, floriography flourished, as it were, as a sort of cryptological message board. Romantic swains sent bouquets as coded declarations, assuming that the recipient would know that Heliotrope meant devoted affection and that purple Hyacinth asked for forgiveness. Characters in the novel can’t summon words to express emotions they themselves do not understand, but they find the language of flowers communicates exactly what they mean to express. I’m interested in the difference between symbolism, in which an object represents concepts and experiences, and language, which is a formal system of signs. Not sure where the language of flowers lands.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but in the language of flowers, an orange rose signifies fascination while a yellow rose signifies infidelity. Each of the roses is an object, but each is also specific in its essence, and so both sign and meaning. It is not surprising then that some of the most evocative moments in Shakespeare’s works arrive in the language of flowers. Ophelia’s descent into madness in Hamlet is made most tangible as she catalogues the various imaginary bouquets she presents to Gertrude, Claudius, and her brother, Laertes.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray love remember: and there is pansies. That’s for thoughts.
A lovely passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Oberon’s rhapsody as he prepares to enchant Titania:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and eglantine.
Ophelia, Oberon, and the central character in The Language of Flowers all seem to know what authority each particular flower possesses. A similar presumption pops up in The Little Paris Bookshop, which I am so far still (barely) reading in what I hope is a translation from the original German novel, Das Lavenderzimmer (The Lavender Room). Monsieur Perdu owns a bookshop on a barge, floating in the Seine, from which he matches books and customers. He has lost (perdu) the love of his life and has retreated almost entirely into books, which like flowers, apparently speak more profoundly to deepest longing than can words. He calls himself a literary apothecary, prescribing the book that can mend a shattered heart.
Early in the novel Monsieur Perdu has a customer, a woman weeping, and attempts to press upon her the book he thinks she needs rather than the vapid Romance she thinks she wants.
“It’s your choice, Madame! You can leave and spit on me. Or you can spare yourself hours of torture starting right now.”
Clearly, he feels strongly about her choice of reading matter, but in his own profound loss, speech has become less authentically communicative than his understanding of the power his books present.
Perdue confesses, “…sometimes it feels as if I am sewed up in my own skin, as if I’m living in an invisible box that keeps me in and everyone else out. In such moments, even my own voice strikes me as superfluous.”
So, what have these two quasi-romantic novels have to do with Seinfeldia?
Ahem, let’s just say that emotions are often tricky, and that we rarely find words that carry the meaning of those emotions, in, part because we don’t ourselves know ourselves. Like the unfortunate Monsieur Perdu, we may be sewed up in our own skin.
Seinfeld’s characters amuse themselves (and me) by noting the peculiarity of others, cataloging foibles, dismissing earnest endeavors, reacting to a world they observe in minute detail. Allowed no hugging or learning, they remain slightly nettled but determinedly superficial, living from syndicated episode to episode with little expectation of love or loss. My newly found florist and bookseller are truly broken, but in books and flowers, they attempt to escape self-imposed captivity.
I do not speak the language of flowers; I do find restorative refuge in books. My own writing is full of frippery and playful digression, hardly the stuff of restorative refuge for anyone else; I amuse myself, but also clear my thinking a bit. In reading the remaining thirty-eight books on my retirement must-read list, I hope I’ll be provoked and prodded, nudged into thinking, swept into feeling.
If I can just stay away from friends with books I really don’t need to read.