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#197 British Museum LRB Lecture

March 1, 2011

“Every giant has to come from a windmill.”

This was from ‘Cervantes, Balzac and Double-Entry Book-keeping’, a lecture by the writer Elif Batuman, part of a series of winter lectures organised by the London Review of Books. It was held in a lecture theatre hidden below the Great Court of the British Museum, where the circular Reading Room looms. No, wait!

Listen – if you think a lecture called ‘Cervantes, Balzac and Double-Entry Book-keeping’ sounds dull, then you, my friend, have no rock ‘n’ roll in your heart. There were demons! Let me explain.

Balzac's ass's skin. Would you swap life for wish-fulfilment? How about for a two-for-one voucher at Pizza Express? Hmm, maybe.

Arriving late, we dashed apologetically past the security guards, and into the empty cavern of the Great Court. In the dark, it looked empty and ominous – a cavern, not an open space. The silence of all the books, hidden away in the Reading Room, was oppressive. We scrambled down the stairs and into the lecture theatre, just in time. Work had nearly kept a friend and I from attending.

Apologies for the mangling of the themes below – this is just what caught in my brain, rather than a proper summary. Appropriately, the lecture dealt with what Ms. Batuman called ‘the problem of the time of writing’ – essentially, that in order to have anything to write about, the writer has to go out and live life to the full; but if the writer lives life to the full, then he or she will hard-pressed to have any time to write. Life gets in the way of writing, but you always need the raw material of life to draw on. Even the fantastical giants that Don Quixote sees have their real-life counterparts as prosaic windmills.

The demon Titivullus. 'You do know 'parallel' has four 'l's, right?' 'DAMN YOU TITIVULLUS NOW I HAVE TO LOOK IT UP'

In her metaphor, echoed throughout the work of money-conscious writers like Balzac and Cervantes, this is entwined with the concept of double-entry book-keeping: outgoing time on the left, incoming writing on the right, and hopefully everything balancing out at the end. (A question posed by author China Miéville at the end of the talk: what about a concept of surplus? Can a writer ever come out on top, and ‘make a profit’?)

I could sympathise with this theme – this blog entry’s a week late because, well, we had to do stuff to make more blog entries, etc, etc. Tell me about it.

The central message of the talk was illustrated, among other things, by Balzac’s story ‘La Peau de Chagrin’, in which a writer makes a mephistophelean deal: for every wish he is granted, an ass’s skin (‘chagrin’ in French) representing his life grows smaller, until it vanishes and he will die. The more wishes you want, the less time you have. (Cynically, perhaps, the less dissatisfaction or chagrin you have, the less time you deserve. You can’t have life without pain.)

Titivullus sending all the gossip back to Satan. Presumably in the form of 140-character messages.

The ass’s skin harked back to the old calf-skin vellum, used by monks before paper became popular. We were shown a medieval illustration of a calf skin, all ready for words, being distorted by a weird, dancing figure: Titivillus, a medieval demon.

Titivillus (or Tutivillus) is the patron demon of scribes. He introduces errors into scribes’ works, and also records all the idle gossip being swapped at the back of church. Titivillus  also crops up in medieval plays as a tempter to indolence and time-wasting, often using cunning arguments to prevent anyone doing any work, making them head to the pub instead.

Spelling errors, gossip and distraction? That’s right: Titivillus is the patron demon of Twitter. OMG pls RT!

Last year, Elif Batuman had a book published called The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. On the strength of the lecture, it should be great reading. (If you have the time, and who does, these days?),_don_cervantes.aspx

My arcane researches also led me to this wikipedia page, listing all the supernatural personifications of spelling errors. Um. Yeah. So that’s a thing, now.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. William Petty permalink
    March 14, 2011 11:56 am

    Work had nearly kept a friend and ME from attending.


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