Perlmann's Silence

Philipp Perlmann is attending a conference on linguistics, his academic discipline. There was a time when he was deeply engaged by the field, spoke and wrote eloquently about it. But that sense of purpose has slowly disappeared from his life, the field means little to him anymore.

Yet he is about to take the podium at an important linguistics conference to deliver the opening address. He realizes he has nothing to say, has prepared no remarks, hasn’t even thought about it.

This is the second book of Pascal Mercier’s that I have read. The first was A Night Train to Lisbon, one the finest novels I’ve ever read. Both novels are about academic linguists who speak several languages but have grown weary of their discipline and seek in one way or another to take flight from it.

But Perlmann’s Silence is perhaps twice as long, twice as heavy and already, after only 65 of 616 pages, I am growing weary of reading it. So I have set it aside for a bit. (Why are so many novels so “fat” today? Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is close to a thousand pages and Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is over a thousand.)

I am surprised at this turn of events, couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mercier’s new novel, ordered and had it sent from England. (It won’t be available in the US until January of next year.) How can one great book be followed by one so unappealing?

The novel scarcely moves a centimeter away of Perlmann’s ruminations, worries, headaches, troubles, broodings, anxieties, ambivalences, hesitations, etc. He cannot sleep, he is out of ideas, and I am about to cast the book in the recycling bin.

Now that I think of it, I had the same experience in reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar. His earlier novel, Saturday, is also one of my favorites, as is most everything McEwan writes. Solar is said to be a comic novel. But it never seemed the least bit humorous to me.

After reading Saturday a few years ago, a novel that still percolates in my mind, I found Solar a bit of ordeal and at times also considered giving up on it. I found its central character utterly repulsive and, in spite of the fact that he was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist with a sharp and crafty mind, I could not overcome my distaste for his excesses.

In order to enjoy a novel, does its central character need to be likeable, provocative, or deserve our sympathy? As I think back upon the novels I have most enjoyed they are always peopled with individuals I admire and respect. While Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday and Raimund Gregorious in Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon are certainly among them, the physicist in Solar definitely is not.

I remain hopeful that Phillip Perlmann will not continue to displease me. I will give him another chance for he has already made some noteworthy comments, albeit the same ones more than once and ever so laboriously.

The interest in methodical investigation, analysis and the development of theories, hitherto a constant, an unquestioned, self-evident element in his life and in a sense its centre of gravity—he had utterly lost that interest, and so completely that he was no longer sure he understood how it could once have been otherwise.

Running away: at first it must be wonderful; he imagined it as a quick bold rush, headlong through all feelings of obligation, out into freedom.

…he could never experience the present as it was taking place; he always woke up too late, and then there was only the substitute, the visualization, a field in which he had, out of pure desperation, become a virtuoso.

Expressions like this are the reason I keep reading novels, why I like Mercier so much and why I will return to this tome, in spite of its length and sense of weariness.