Onward with Pilgrimage

It was this that—almost—lured me away from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage: “Yourcenar reconstructed his library.” Long-term readers of this blog (both of you) will know of my attraction to libraries in fiction. That Marguerite Yourcenar, as part of her research for her Memoirs of Hadrian, reconstructed Hadrian’s Library persuaded me, nearly, to take a break from Pilgrimage.

Despite my antipathy to historical fiction, the first chapter was strong, promising, but then the jitters set in. All I wanted was to know what was happening in Miriam Henderson’s world, or rather what she was thinking about what was happening. Hadrian can wait. He’s waited long enough. Onward with Pilgrimage.

Melissa is reading Yourcenar, so if of interest, do read her excellent review of Two Lives and a Dream.

Anatol Ludwig Stiller’s Library

A new addition to my libraries in fiction collection: the library in Anatol Ludwig Stiller’s studio from Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller:

He was looking at the two bookcases. To call what the missing man left behind a library would be an exaggeration. Alongside a small volume of Plato and one or two things by Hegel stood names which today have been forgotten even by second-hand book-sellers; Brecht rubbed shoulders with Hamsun, then Gorky, Nietzsche, and a great many paperbacks, some of which contained opera texts; Count Keyserling was also there, but with the black imprint of a public library; then there were all sorts of art books, especially modern ones and an anthology of Swiss poetry; Mein Kampf was flanked by Andre Gidé and supported on the other side by a White Paper on the Spanish Civil War; there were various volumes in the Insel series, though not a complete set of anything, isolated volumes like Westöstlicher Divan and Faust and Gespräche met Eckermann, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Der Zauberberg, the only work by Thomas Mann, the Iliad, Dante’s Commedia, Erich Kästner, Mozarts Reise nach Prag, also Mörike’s poems, Till Eulenspiegel, then again Marcel Proust, but not the whole of La Recherché, Huttens Letzte Tage, of Gottfried Keller’s works only the Diaries and Letters, a book by C. G. Jung, The Black Spider, something by Arp and suddenly Strindberg’s Dream Play, some early Hesse, too, Chekhov, Pirandello, all in German translation, Lawrence’s Mexico story, The Woman Who Rode Away; a good deal by a Swiss called Albin Zollinger, of Dostoyevsky only The House of the Dead, Garcia Lorca’s first poems in Spanish, Petite Prose by Claudel and Das Kapital, the latter supported by Hölderlin; a few thrillers, Lichtenberg, Tagore, Ringelnatz, Schopenhauer, again the black imprint of a public library, Hemingway (on bullfighting) next door to George Trakl; piles of periodicals ready to fall apart, a Spanish-German dictionary with a very tattered cover, the Communist Manifesto, a book by Gandhi, and so on.

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.

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.

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.