A Perfect Vacuum

A Perfect Vacuum: Perfect Reviews of Non-Existent Books by Stanislaw Lem (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  1979), translated into English Michael Kandel 

Introduced by Anthony Daly

Oscar Wilde used to say you should never read a book before reviewing it,  as it prejudices the mind so, a droll witticism he borrowed, apparently,  from the Reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845).

The great Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) went one better,  edging the idea towards its (il)logical conclusion; best of all, we should review books that have never been written (let alone published). Works that have probably never been thought of before. Until now.

Only this method (of divine madness) leaves the endless possibilities (wide) open.

Nature may (or may not) abhor a vacuum,  the nothing that is (to quote the title of a recent book by the Harvard mathematician, Robert Kaplan) but art thrives on such; (near) perfect replicas of the nothingness out of which all Creation came about (approx. six thousand years ago; a week in September, I’m told. 144 hours of intense (verbal) activity;  the greatest delivery ever, no question).


A blank canvas,  an empty piece of paper or musical sheet,  a vacant site,  what more could a (creative) creature hope for?  How better to emulate (ape) the Maker of everything, blessed be His memory or mention. You sit down (or stand up) and stare at the (no)thing for a while, gathering (summoning) all your resources (and then some) and so you begin.

Hesitantly, at first, perhaps, yet with growing confidence (even trepidation) who knows how? you manage to discern images, patterns,  lines, letters, sounds, colours, in the white background (noise) and hoist some of them to the surface as best (gently as) you can. Gentleness is all,  usually.

At any rate,  this is how Lem went about it (here and elsewhere) from time to time.

The result we have before us at the moment consists of sixteen reviews listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Perfect_Vacuum

My two favourites (probably) being:

Rien du tout, ou la consequence:  review of a book written entirely in negations (“The train did not arrive. [s]He did not come.”). [In fact,  nothing really happens at all.  Lem’s reviewer complains that people often describe the book as pornographic,  but that this is unfair.  It contains no actual sex whatsoever;  albeit very suggestively…]


De Impossibilitate Vitae [which] consists almost entirely of tracking all the things that must have happened for the supposed author to have been born: his father must have married his mother, which in turn depended on them meeting during the War, which in turn depended on multitude of other events. Here Lem argues for the butterfly effect: changing one thing has an almost infinite number of unimaginable consequences.


 “Lem has penetrated existentialism with wry humor and a paradoxical emphasis on the emotional needs of the human organism.”  http://english.lem.pl/index.php/works/apocryphs/a-perfect-vacuum

Excerpt:  We are to believe that feats of dexterity are being performed,  when it is otherwise.   It is not the “pseudo-review” that gave birth to these works;  rather,  they,  demanding    in vain    to be expressed,  used this trick as an excuse and a pretext.   In the absence of the trick all would have remained in the realm of the unsaid.  Did Lem really think he would not be seen through…? (p.7)

If you like Borges, Calvino, Mark Danielewski, Roberto Bolaño, Raymond Queneau,  Flann O’Brien, Mark Dunn, Giorgio Manganelli, this could be for you.  If you like it,  check out Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude or his (non-fiction) Summa Technologiae.

p.s. Shortly after typing this (drivel) I was in the Hay Cinema Bookshop (one of my favourite haunts in Hay) and chanced upon My Unwritten Books by (the ever erudite,  arcane and provocative,  if slightly arch or Olympian) George Steiner,  dealing with (quote) “seven books which he did not write. Because intimacies and indiscretions were too threatening. Because the topic brought too much pain. Because its emotional or intellectual challenge proved beyond his capacities.” (jacket blurb). I remember(ed) devouring it,  a few years ago (2008),  when it was first published,  and liking,  especially, his (great) fondness for dogs (over humans,  certainly).  Odd that I should re-discover it that very morning. Voltaire’s Micromégashere I come!



stack-of-paper-png-stack_of_books-2555px (1)

To (temporarily) shift this blog back to its place of origin, this is the first in a series of three posts from Anthony Daly, a true bibliophile of Hay.

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