Peculiar, if not Deranged

I have this fascination for fictional libraries, imagining myself absorbed for hours checking out the titles and editions on their shelves. Aside from Borges’s speculations about fictional books, one of my favourites is detailed by Anne Michaels in Fugitive Pieces (I’ve long pondered the ‘philosophy of rain’). In Vertigo Sebald writes of inheriting Mathild’s library of almost a hundred volumes, which are ‘proving ever more important to me’:

Besides various literary works from the last century, accounts of expeditions to the polar regions, textbooks on geometry and structural engineering, and a Turkish dictionary complete with a manual fro the writing of letters, which had probably once belonged to Baptist, there were numerous religious works of a speculative character, and prayer-books dating back two or three hundred years, with illustrations, some of them perfectly gruesome, showing the torments and travails that await us all. In among the devotional works, to my amazement, there were several treatises by Bakunin, Fourier, Bebel, Eisner, and Landauer, and an autobiographical novel by the socialist Lily von Braun. When I enquired about the origins of the books, Lukas was able to tell me only that Mathild had always been a great reader, and because of this, as I might perhaps remember, was thought of by the villagers as peculiar, if not deranged.

Sebald also refers later to a book he has often tried to find, one that “is undoubtedly of the greatest importance for me, it is, alas, not listed in any bibliography, in any catalogue, or indeed anywhere at all”. That title is Mila Stern’s The Seas of Bohemia.

Contemporary and Deliberate

In response to my list of most-read authors Kevin of Interpolations asked a great question:

Any authors who haven’t written five books yet that you think might eventually make your list?

I thought a lot about the original list [I forgot Nicholson Baker so added him to that list], particularly those authors I consider favourites though I’ve only read three or four of their oeuvre. But I like Kevin’s question, specifically about those authors that haven’t yet written five books. The “haven’t yet written” rules out many more prolific or established contemporary authors. It also excludes authors like Jim Crace and Justin Cartwright, that have written more than I appreciated.

It’s difficult and uncertain to compile. I will take “five books” to mean five novels (short stories and poems excluded). I realise that stretches the definition but hey ho. These authors give me enjoyment and I would in all likelihood “buy-on-publication,” regardless of critical reaction:

  1. Yiyun Li
  2. Tom McCarthy
  3. Zadie Smith
  4. Anne Michaels
  5. Adam Thirlwell
  6. James Wood

It would be fascinating to see who would make your list.

An Eclectic Library

Reading Fugitive Pieces, a couple of months back, I came across a library that would consume my attention for years:

I would spend weeks inside your house, an archaeologist examining one square inch at a time. I looked in drawers and cupboards. Your desk and cabinets were empty. Then I began to go through your library: immense in scope and size, climbing every wall of the house. Books on the aurora borealis, on meteorites, on fogbows. On topiary. On semaphore signals. On Ghana high life, pygmy music, the sea shanties of Genoan longshoremen. On rivers, the philosophy of rain, on Avebury, the white horse of Uffington. On cave art, botanical art, on the plague. War memoirs from several countries. The most vigorous collection of poetry I’ve ever seen, in Greek, Hebrew, English, Spanish.

Browsing books on obscure, diverse topics is magical. Time’s flow is most definitely stemmed, dangerously so. I deemed my library to be insufficiently eclectic so this fantastic glacier/island/storm reading list, structured around naturally occurring processes and forms, is inspiring. Sand by Michael Welland is irresistible.

A Diverse Library

Often a book will return to haunt my idle moments, in the early morning watching the sky lighten or while gazing out of a train. Fragments of Fugitive Pieces come back to me in this way. Amid the horror and the loss, the book also served to make me question my comprehension of meteorology and geology. It is testament to the beauty of some of Michaels’s writing.

Ben, our final narrator, visits the Greek island where Jakob, the principle narrator, lived. There to seek Jakob’s notebooks he searches the house:

I would spend weeks inside your house, an archaeologist examining one square inch at a time. I looked in drawers and cupboards. Your desk and cabinets were empty. Then I began to go through your library: immense in scope and size, climbing every wall of the house. Books on the aurora borealis, on meteorites, on fogbows. On topiary. On semaphore signals. On Ghana high life, pygmy music, the sea shanties of Genoan longshoremen. On rivers, the philosophy of rain, on Avebury, the white horse of Uffington. On cave art, botanical art, on the plague. War memoirs from several countries. The most vigorous collection of poetry I’ve ever seen, in Greek, Hebrew, English, Spanish.

In this library I would also happily lose weeks, grazing widely.

Initially I was unsure but I have ordered Anne Michaels’s second novel The Winter Vault. If you are able to recommend any readable books on meteorology or the philosophy of rain please let me know in comments.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces is an impressive first novel. I am unsure of its impact. There are some mesmerising moments, the opening scenes as the boy emerges from the bog. The story of loss, grieving and love is frequently heartbreaking. I am drawn to the book’s frequent digressions into Antarctic expeditions or palaeontology. I like literature that wanders, gets distracted. Amidst the lyricism there is no shortage of slightly overwrought prose.

The blurb includes this quote from John Berger, “The most important book I have read for 40 years.” There are echoes of Berger in Anne Michael’s style. My guess is that Berger’s compliment is overly generous but the book is moving and worth reading.

Reading Fugitive Pieces

Writer Anne Michaels would agree that, “The ideal reader reads all literature as if it were anonymous.” Michaels has deliberately kept a low profile, saying “I really believe we read differently when we know even the most banal facts of an author’s life.”

Her long awaited second novel, published last year, attracted mixed assessments. Fugitive Pieces, her acclaimed debut is my next book to read. Of Michaels:

John Berger, her friend, collaborator, and admirer, praises “the great care and attention she gives to words, which corresponds to the care and attention she gives to the lives she’s describing. There is a great physicality in her writing, which usually goes with the personal and the intimate, but she has distance. And that combination of very precise physicality and distance is what you get in ancient song.”

A Library of Imaginary Books

In The Library at Night Alberto Manguel writes:

I keep a list of books that I feel are missing from my library and that I hope one day to buy, and another, more wishful than useful, of books I’d like to have but I don’t even know exist. In the second list are A Universal History of Ghosts, A Description of Life in the Libraries of Greece and Rome, a third Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh, Chesterton on Shakespeare, a Summary of Averroes on Aristotle, a literary cookbook that draws its recipes from fictional dictionaries of food, a translation of Caldéron’s Life is a Dream by Anne Michaels (whose style, I feel, would suit Caldéron’s admirably, a History of Gossip, the True and Uncensored Memoirs of a Publishing Life by Louise Dennys, a well-researched, well-written biography of Borges, an account of what exactly happened during Cervante’s captivity in Algiers, an as-yet-unpublished novel by Joseph Conrad, the diary of Kafka’s Milena.