[Archipelago Books; 2023]

Tr. from the French by Jody Gladding

“Someone has just given you this book,” Philippe Delerm writes in Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering:

In essence it holds a promise of solitude, retreat, silence. But for a moment you’re talking about it: yes, I’ve wanted to read it, no I haven’t read it, I liked the last one a lot, the bestseller from five or six years ago a little less so . . . The book rests on your thigh. Almost unconsciously you run your hand over the back cover.

If you have just a moment to caress a book, you have time for Second Star, a collection of Delerm’s “literary snapshots,” translated from French by Jody Gladding.

In 151 brief, square pages, Delerm brings attention to the details of the world and relationships in ways twenty-first century minds scarcely do. In what might be called “present moment attention,” Delerm calls on the body, mind, and visual field to preserve the essence of a moment. From “a shopping cart is both docile and stubborn,” to “a clementine is the right size,” Delerm’s direct, humorous observations are both relatable and attentive to the largely unnoticed aspects of daily life.

As he remarks in “The Ostentatious After You,” “The sidewalk is neither wide nor narrow.” In the snapshot “Memory at Your Fingertip,” he writes, “Your index finger wanders over the tablet or smartphone screen. Images fly by. Sometimes your finger stops, and deep within your eyes a smile forms.” Delerm’s prose and Gladding’s translation transform the mundane gesture of mindlessly swiping a screen into a secret eye-smile. Through this act, the reader begins to see themselves and their daily lives in Second Star.

In the translator’s note, Gladding writes, “I found myself, for instance, rolling up my sleeves, studying a mojito, trying a raw turnip . . . I urge readers to wash windows, peel clementines, or run a hand over a book, especially this book, as much as you like.”

Literary snapshots drawn from Delerm’s collections The Troubled Waters of the Mojito and The Ecstasy of the Selfie make up Gladding’s translation of moments on longing, the sadness that comes with the passing of memory, and the humor of everyday life framed in objects, gestures, and strangers who immediately feel like someone you already know.

This book serves both as a meditation that can be read at a moment’s notice and a reflection of a modern culture rooted in France yet relatable to the English reader. While some might describe Delerm’s economy of language and Gladding’s concise translation as “minimalism,” they bridge the geographical boundaries of Second Star. While several snapshots focus on French settings, readers find themselves in situations they can realistically imagine: piano players in railway stations, conversations on the metro, and watching tango dancers after sunset over the Seine. Each of these snapshots grounds the reader in both their imagination and body by bearing witness to gesture, a method demonstrated in “The Zone of Sorrow,where Delerm observes, “a gesture of sharing that means to bring comfort and harbors no illusions. The back of the finger traces a kind of soft scar, that acknowledges the sorrow and pain of living.”

What one might expect from a book that observes moments is a shifting of focus from the body to the observed subject: a watermelon, a mojito, an orchestra balcony. However, these mindful snapshots are often recorded mid-action. Each moment centers on a somatic experience, most frequently framed through Delerm’s directive use of “you.” “You have to admit, you’re not in the best of moods,” begins the passage “Alone!” “You begin nodding your head. Nothing unusual about that. But why are you doing it?” he writes in “Agreeing Without Knowing to What.” In most cases, the use of “you” enlivens like a well-used exclamation point. Delerm’s use of second person doesn’t just invite a reader into Second Star’s sixty literary snapshots, it informs us we’re already within them.

While Delerm is well known for his “literary snapshots,” there is arguably no better time for lingering with the moments of Second Star. Through these second person portals into moments of time, Delerm makes a gesture akin to other movements in US literature, most specifically Jenny Odell’s witnessing the world and slowing down time to resist capitalism in How to Do Nothing and Saving Time. Perhaps my favorite, “A Hip Move and Memory,” thrusts the reader into a morning routine flooded by the memory of the cat that brushed the speaker’s thigh each morning. “Then years passed,” Delerm writes. “The cat was dead.” A line too full of feeling to contain itself is soon followed by, “I’ve kept him here in my body. I haven’t forgotten.” In a snapshot of grief, Delerm leaves the reader with hope, a constant thread throughout Second Star.

As Delerm suggests in “Running Your Hand Over a Book,” Second Star encourages the reader to retreat into its pages and into the simplicity of witnessing a moment. It also employs both humor and grace to remind readers of the vitality of the mundane. With concision and detail, Delerm uses micro scenes and objects to comment on the expansive messiness of life. Whether it’s watching a couple dance on the Seine, listening to the sounds of Venice, watching a man on the bus, or dancing without knowing how, this is a book that breathes life into the reader, one snapshot at a time. 

Amy Bobeda holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where she serves as director of the Naropa Writing Center and teachers pedagogy and processed-based art. She’s the author of Red Memory (FlowerSong Press), What Bird Are You? (Finishing Line Press), mi sin manitos (Ethel Press), Self Guilded Walking Tours (forthcoming from Ghost City’s summer micro-chap series), and a forthcoming project from Spuytin Duyvil. She’s on Twitter @amybobeda & @everystoryisamenstrualstory on Instagram.

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