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We who read them [works of declared genius] never know if they are perfect or if it was whispered to us in childhood that they are perfect, and we in turn whisper it to others, ad infinitum; and the one who writes them does not know any more than we do, if anything less, he knows it only at the moment when he joins the rods, when fitting together flawlessly like mortise and tenon they briefly exult, closing with the triumphant sound of jaws, and it is over.

(Source)

What does this strange idiom mean here? Is this "if anything, less. He knows it..."?

  • Merriam-Webster has an entry for if anything under if. – snailcar Dec 20 '13 at 14:32
  • I know the meaning but what I want to know is when combined with less, it doesn't make sense. My observation is that this is actually "if anything, (the writer knows) less" – user2492 Dec 20 '13 at 14:34
  • I read it as "if (it is) anything less". This is quite similar to "if not", which can be read as "if (it is) not". If anything less has a similar meaning to if not, but milder imho. – Damkerng T. Dec 20 '13 at 14:55
  • Since this is a translation as @Scott's pointed out, I think reading the phrase "if anything less" as "if anything, less" is a little off. I think it was intended to read straightforwardly: "if (it is) anything less (than that)", and that here is what was just mentioned. Consider: and [the one who writes them does not know any more than we do][1], if anything less, [he knows it only at ...][2]. It is simpler to read it straightforwardly as: [1], if it is anything less than [1], then [2]. Another simpler interpretation is: [1], if not [1] then [2]. – Damkerng T. Dec 21 '13 at 6:41
  • @DamkerngT. I have trouble reading it as anything but an elliptical alternative to more, as presented in my answer. – snailcar Dec 22 '13 at 8:07
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Yes, your interpretation is correct. It has this meaning:

The one who writes them does not know any more than we do.
If anything, [ the one who writes them knows ] less [ than we do ].

The author doesn't need to repeat the one who writes them, know or than we do. It's clear from context that less is an alternative to more, and that it should be understood the same way more was earlier in the sentence.

  • Thank you. And before "when fitting" a period should be placed? I think this is another sentence. And the jaws mean the jaws of this wood? – user2492 Dec 20 '13 at 15:15
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Thanks for providing the source.  The original source appears to be Rimbaud the Son (available at amazon.com) by Pierre Michon, whose first language appears not to be English, so it’s a valid question to ask whether this is correct English.  I would add a comma: “if anything, less,” and maybe change the comma after “less” to a semicolon (and maybe also the comma before “if anything”).

I agree with snailboat’s answer, but let me approach it from a different angle.  I’m a mathematician at heart, and, mathematically, if X and Y are real numbers (no imaginary component), then one of three conditions must be true:

  • X > Y
  • X = Y
  • X < Y

Here X is how much “one one who writes them” knows, and Y is how much we know.  The author is saying that X is not greater than Y (“the one who writes them does not know any more than we do”), which leaves the other two possibilities: X = Y (“the one” knows as much as we do) or X < Y (he knows less than we do).  The “if anything less” phrase means that the author is not ruling out the X < Y possibility; “the one who writes” [works of declared genius] may, in fact, know less than we, the readers, do.

In case you’re still having trouble with the construction, here’s a simpler example:

John is not taller than six feet; if anything, less.

which is to be understood as

John is not taller than six feet; if anything, he is less tall.

Regarding the punctuation before “when fitting”, refer back to my first point.  I believe that this book was written in French, so

  • maybe it’s a bad translation,
  • maybe it’s a good (faithful to the original) translation, and we should be asking about the rules of punctuation and sentence structure in French, or
  • maybe this is just the author’s style, and he doesn’t care about the rules.

In fact, the excerpt in The New Yorker (your primary source) misquotes the book.  The sentence actually doesn’t even end at “and it is over”; it goes on for another 62 words, for a total of 146!  So, I guess we can conclude that Michon really, really, really, really, really, really, really likes run-on sentences.

  • So this is just a run on sentence and it should be more regulated by periods? – user2492 Dec 21 '13 at 5:56

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