At 15, I proclaimed myself an atheist. I found it easier to liberate myself from the all-powerful God that is ours than from my parents. But to divest oneself of religious association is not such a simple matter. Even today, I flip through a book from right to left, as do readers of Hebrew--a language of which I know only the first letter, “aleph,” no doubt thanks to Borges. Sometimes it even happens that I write and read a last chapter before the first.
And it's therefore at the last chapter, the one that contains the notes, that I began reading Transparency and Reflection. The first shock: rather than the dry concision of an eminent university scholar, these 511 notes show the humor, charm, and attention to anecdote of a novelist accustomed to polishing his sentences, shining his metaphors, slipping in personal memories, keeping us in suspense. I have read all these notes, and the time it took didn't seem either short or long; to put it mildly, all sense of time just seemed to vanish.
The author, Serge Bramly, I said to myself, is a scholar as attentive to precision as he is to style and literature. Could he be the real son of Flaubert?
In the course of my reading, I couldn't stop thinking it’s prodigious! A continual flow of knowledge showered down on me like summer rain, as on each page I came face-to-face with the extent of my own ignorance. What struck me the most was what the eye of Bramly allowed me to discover behind his glass, or reflected in his mirror: the world history of Art from Antiquity to the present day, a history that unfolds like a film because it is interspersed with 212 illustrations. And what's even more astonishing: the history of art as retraced by Bramly is told along with that of the inventions and scientific discoveries that would bring about the use of glass and of its acolytes, the mirror and the lens, in the urban landscape, in the domains of science (optics, astronomy, chemistry), and in the everyday life we take for granted.
And could it be that this astounding creation, if one can believe the legend, was born from a grain of sand and a spark? More than twenty centuries ago? In the desert of Phoenicia, near what is today the city of Jaffa?
Every match a dream
Every dream a flight!
One flight after another
On the filthy and shear snow
That scratches the child with asphalt
Death makes its way
And turns her body to marble.
Swallow her silent and alert mouth
Grab her round bare little hands
Snatch her lifetime interrupted
By a macramè frill
Grab her knees dirtied on all fours
Grasp her fury without aims
Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies
Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time
Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet
Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body
Seize! Her implacable disposition to die
Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart
Seize! Her frozen match on the ground
Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!
Light the burn out match
Brighten the enchantment of her dream
Clean the filthy snow
Melt that marble body
Soothe the asphalt scratches
Release her breath
Raise her body from the floor
Allow her the last flight.
The European painters of the Renaissance invent the art of the portrait, and in their paintings they introduce stained glass windows through which a more celestial, then a profane light enters in waves; and mirrors that reflect the decor or the countryside. And sometimes even the painter himself painting, to all appearances, with effortlessness. These large stained glass windows open onto the world, introducing the play of light and shadow, transparency, and reflection. And the transparency of the reflection itself!
This book was one I could not put down. I finished reading it on New Years. A festive day. And since books are incomparable meeting places, I found in the 41 pages of notes, the names of two of my friends who are art historians: Noah Charney’s book about the famous Ghent Altarpiece, and that of Sefy Hendler about the Paragone. From that moment, Transparency and Reflection became even more familiar, and I circled around it as if in the bosom of my luminous family.
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney