“Requiem for a Book” by Alexander Barr

The steel bin is as tall as I am, a yard wide, painted an encouraging sky blue. The flap—is it
locked? A moment of anxiety. But no, it opens when I press it. I hump the first box out of
the car, open it and place it ready. I can lift the books out five at a time. How shiny and
slippery their covers! How colorful! I push the first five past the flap. There’s a satisfying
metallic boom as they hit the bottom. I’m relieved that the bin is empty—there are ten more
boxes of books to follow.

Ten more! I can’t believe there are so many. What an amazing thing was the
invention of printing, when words became infinite and Bible translations transformed
Europe. And these books are translations. I remember the day Peter called excitedly.

“Let’s do Rilke. From French!”

He had a tendency to gabble because of the meds he was on for Parkinson’s, but
that day for once his speech was normal.

“Are you up for it?” he said.

After a moment’s hesitation, I said, “Okay.”

And we did it. Email followed email in rapid succession.

ME: Great idea to render il veut tout illuminé as “he wants to put floodlights

PETER: Is “plays a trill” a bit forced in the verse where Death plays his violin? You
want a rhyme with “killer” but there’s no “trill” in the French.

ME: Not sure about your version of No. 34. I’ll have a go myself if that’s okay.

PETER: In No. 7 why aren’t we translating airain? What’s wrong with “bronze”?

And so on.

And one day there the book was, in hardback with a tasteful cover, an impressionist
painting of an orchard by a woman we knew, one of Peter’s many, many friends. Parallel
text, French facing English, the English version in verse to match—as far as possible—the
rhythm and style of the original. Peter was a publisher, small-scale but reputable, so the
book came out under his imprint. Both our names on the cover.

I post five more into the bin—again that hollow clunk—and unpack another five.
Yes, our names are on each cover, again and again, as if repetition confers a kind of
immortality. Or not, because Peter died. His widow called me from Gran Canaria.

“He was in the pool at this hotel. One moment he was so happy to be floating,
weightless, the next, gone.”

I remembered the last time I saw him, bent almost double, shuffling along with a
stick, yet still bright-eyed, gabbling about new collaborative projects, Russian poets to
translate, paintings to finish, throwing-knives to make, a newly discovered young poetic
genius to publish.

It’s hard on the back to post so many books. I too am bent almost double. I empty
box after box. Why did Peter have so many printed? Who reads poetry? Where did he think
it would be reviewed?

There were just two reviews, both good. An offhand but glowing mention by John
Banwell in the New York Review of Books. Another by an academic Frenchwoman in
Modern Poetry in Translation. But nothing else. Very few sales. No feedback from readers.
Do we need public recognition to set the seal on our achievements? Or were our struggles
with rhyme and meaning, our emails flitting back and forth full of warm-hearted disagreements, enough? It’s a truism, a cliché, that process is worth more than result, that
traveling is worth more than arriving. But sometimes a truism has to be pried open, like an
old sandalwood box, to release its perfume.

I’ve kept a few copies to send to friends and family, not that they’ll want them,
simply to save them from oblivion. I unpack the last box and post the contents, the sound of
their fall more muted now. I’m relieved that this bin at the recycling centre is marked
BOOKS. I feared I might have to throw them in the general trash. This way at least they’ve
had a decent funeral.

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