A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I had to split myself into two and read this, as it were, on parallel tracks, before reintegrating myself when it was all over. You see, as you may have heard me say before, I spent all my working life, and now spend some of my free time, as a librarian. I, among many other librarians, have had to put up stoically with the stereotyping of libraries and the people who work in them, so my hackles were on hair trigger alert when I started reading this tiny novella. Those hackles spent some time in the raised position until I succumbed to the dubious charms of this book and its monomaniac narrator. The non-librarian reader in me on the other hand was not snorting at this librarian’s traditional views and narrow outlook on her remit, her reactionary ranting against the popularising of libraries and the liberalisation of the material they stock. The non-librarian was gasping at her self-lacerating honesty, laughing at her sardonic jokes, pursing lips at her snobbery and elitism, cheering at her rallying cry for culture and the life of the intellect, and wondering what outrageous thing she might be going to say next.
To start with, just look at the figure on the cover. Librarian. Hair in bun, glasses, sensible jumper and skirt. Sigh. But isn’t it a charming cover? and doesn’t she look interesting? and not to be messed with? I love my stereotypes to be held up to the light to show what’s good about them.
This novella really needs to be read at a stretch, but it doesn’t take long. It’s doing you good, too. A few hours all to yourself, spent in the company of an unlikely raconteur, who requires you to slow down, pay attention, stick with her, recollect what it feels like to read a whole book.
This is a soliloquy in a single paragraph, 92 elegantly typeset pages long. The nameless speaker has come to work early and found a reader asleep in a chair, locked in the basement of the Library the night before, in the section that is under her care. There are two hours until opening time, and the hapless overnight guest either has to listen to her, or be ushered out by Security. The Librarian as Ancient Mariner. Quite right too. This is someone who works in a traditional environment, a public library organised along departmental lines that may well still prevail in France (the setting is an un-named French provincial town) but has been out of fashion for decades here. More’s the pity? Read our heroine’s rant and decide for yourselves! She presides over the Geography and Town Planning section, but yearns without hope for promotion to History. She feels herself patronised by the colleagues she calls the Duchesses, who invigilate Literature and Philosophy upstairs. She finally, in front of this reluctant audience of one, gives voice to her unrequited love for one of the library’s patrons, a handsome young doctoral student, researching (she knows because she’s peered over his shoulder, the invisible woman) Peasant Revolts in the Poitiers Region under Louis XV. She has fallen in love with the nape of his neck, and likens its promise to that of the spines of the books on her shelves.
This thread of love, failed and unrequited, is woven into a stream on consciousness covering her passion for the Dewey Decimal System and her hatred of it, her love for library users and her dedication to their enlightenment and her irritation at their individual habits, her heroes (Dewey and Eugène Morel, the great French library theorist) and her villains (Dewey and any architect who builds a library with an uncomfortable, unwelcoming basement), her literary loves (Maupassant and de Beauvoir) and hates (Balzac and Sartre). She tells us of the little games she plays to relieve her frustrations, gently persecuting architecture students, for instance, in revenge for the basement. And then it’s time for the library to open, and that is that – the novel ends. We have to imagine the poor trapped reader scuttling upstairs and out into the fresh air, away from this bonkers, gripping, unwanted cultural commentator. Martin, the researcher, will doubtless come in, say hello and take up his accustomed seat. She will speak only when spoken to, will pick up books and tidy shelves, will watch the back of Martin’s neck, and no-one in the world, apart from the poor trapped person will know what passions stir beneath that thick woolly jumper and behind those spectacles.
I managed to join up my two halves long before the end. I snorted, I laughed, I shook my head with irritation, I nodded vigorously in agreement, and I had a thoroughly stimulating two hours in the Library of Unrequited Love. What I loved best was that our heroine knows exactly how to express at the same time her passion and her hatred for her life in the Library, her love and hate of the way it works and how people use it, her love and hate for its ideals and ethics. The same goes for her love-hate relationship with books and her contempt for anything that is below the highest quality. It reminded me that I too have a love-hate relationship with libraries, and with books and their enticing spines, and mingled hope and despair for their future. And it reminded me how far the love is seasoned by the hate, and how feeble and pale that love would be without that seasoning.
Sophie Divry: The Library of Unrequited Love. London: MacLehose Press, 2013. 96pp
(First published in French as La Code 400, 2010.)