A pile of books, most showing their spines, one reversed to show the edges of its pages.
My eventual reading pile. Today’s theme: books from back then. My picture.

Book review: Rudi’s readable friends

Rudiger Tost’s The People I Knew In Another Lifetime was published in 1976 as an “instant paperback” (by Editions Henty, and no, I’ve never heard of them either) and never reprinted so far as I know. There were other “instant paperbacks” in the series (I’ve taken the term from the blurb above the list at the end of the book), but none of the authors went on to be well-known (or known to me, at least).

I found my copy in a hunt through the darker reaches of my bookshelves for something to read. It was sandwiched between an early edition of that Agatha Christie about ten people who travel to an island to be murdered (still in its original dustjacket but lacking its final pages) and a well-thumbed (but not recently) paperback copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths (published in English in 1962). I brought it out and added it to the pile.

I didn’t read it immediately. I assumed — published in 1976 — that I’d picked it up as a set text at university and failed to lose it since. On that shelf was also a copy of Grace Jones’s The Political Structure (1969), which dated back that far in my life, and two editions (7th and 8th) of Dewe Rogerson’s Who’s Who in Financial Journalism, which I would have picked up a few years later.

I rarely get rid of books, but there are some that I bring out to glance at rather than read again. In some, I find university-era underlinings and scribbles in the margins.

To summarise it now, The People I Knew In Another Lifetime is a book more or less entirely focused on a single moment in the lives of two people who never meet. It’s one of those moments when “you” catch somebody’s eye and for a split-second “you” connect (the narrative voice addresses “you” throughout; it’s jarring at first, then weirdly inclusive — “you” are in the conversation).

The book is a work of fiction, although there isn’t much plot and there isn’t much characterisation either. In the first (short) chapter, a man and a woman pass each other on the sunny side of a shopping street in central London. Probably Regent Street, if I had to guess. He’s going South and she’s going North, and the storefront they’re passing when they (don’t) meet sounds a lot like Liberty’s.

And that’s it. The whole book spins out from that moment. The point of view is the man’s. She’s wearing a dark jacket and perhaps a scarf, splash of colour, around her neck, and a white or light-coloured blouse; he doesn’t see her at all until — click — their eyes meet. They don’t know each other; they’ve never met; no reason to suppose they’ll ever meet in future. He has only the slightest peripheral impression of her appearance.

But they’ve connected. Their eyes have met. They go their separate ways but she is as present in the man’s mind as if they were intimate friends. He imagines, as he goes through his day, that if they ran into each other again they would laugh, and greet each other, and that would be a beginning — or rather, a continuation. He thinks about her, and he thinks about that moment. How can two strangers know each other so intimately, so briefly?

That’s his meditation on the split-second relationship that he’s just had, and it becomes ours. “You” know somebody so intimately — for less than a second. And when the relationship is over, you know nothing more about each other than you did before. Do such moments of recognition (as the book begins to call them) contain a deeper truth? “Eyes meet; souls meet,” the man (never named) concludes towards the end. But what does that mean?

The People I Knew In Another Lifetime is a fiction that works both as a metaphysical speculation and a more direct enquiry; it is idiosyncratic, beguiling, immersive. And occasionally frustrating. Nothing much happens in the story itself, but you — “you” — think about it a lot after reading it (at least, you do if you’re me). The man and the woman do see each other again, twice, but neither time do they connect for long enough to exchange words. The second time, they do both laugh to see each other — but that’s it.

They see each other across a gallery opening — a first exhibition at a new art gallery specialising in new figurative painting — and that tells the man that they occupy the same (cultural, social) world. But the space is crowded; he fails to find her again (we’re not told whether she looks for him). And then finally in another city, as a crowded ferryboat pulls away from the quay on which the man stands — they laugh because of the precise impossibility of their ever meeting now: just as they see each other, the boat takes her away. “It’s not meant,” he shouts. She can see that he’s called something, but there are loud seagulls. She waves.

From that point on, the book moves out of its own day-to-day reality (I’ll call it that) and into the discussion — occasionally, it’s a dramatisation — of the man’s speculations as to the significance of his relationship (the book frequently uses the word without qualification) with the woman. Are they, he has wondered, twin souls? Have they known each other in another lifetime?

As the book’s title suggests, that’s his preferred solution. There were moments when the book reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and I’ve written “Well steeped in Borges” in my notebook. I’ve also written “Melmoth, wanderers in fiction, Rider Haggard, Grimwood, Austerlitz, Moorcock’s champion,” but I’m only quoting that to emphasise how effectively the book can draw “you” into a cascade (for want of a better word) of free-association thinking.

Whatever else it is, The People I Knew In Another Lifetime anchors itself in the mundane real-world experience of eye contact with a stranger. But in its idiosyncratic way, the book makes a powerful case for setting free the imaginative possibilities of such moments. To meet the eyes of a stranger is a mundane experience, yes. But if it is set free to do so, it resonates. The book asks you: if you free your mind and your imagination, what else in life might signify more than itself? What could “you” imagine?

Rudiger Tost doesn’t exist, and he didn’t write The People I Knew In Another Lifetime. Despite these undeniable flaws, this book is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. Somebody should write it.

The People I Knew In Another Lifetime, Rudiger Tost (Editions Henty, 1976)

William Essex is author of Pages Torn From Books That Don’t Exist and It’s Not Fake If It’s Fiction (Imaginary Books, 2012 and 2016 respectively). Find him at William Essex dot com.

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