‘To know your way around a library is to master the whole of culture, i.e. the whole world’.
The Library of Unrequited Love, Sophie Divry, Pg.15
I picked up Sophie Divry’s short story, The Library of Unrequited Love, as part of the Waterstones ‘buy one, get one half price’ deal and thought a slim volume, such as this, would be the perfect quick read to slip in between my Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell read along. Translated by Siân Reynolds from the French, I found The Library of Unrequited Love a funny, quirky and unique debut.
When a librarian finds a reader in her territory – the basement – who has been locked in the library overnight, she begins on a long, one-sided tirade against the strictures of the Dewey Decimal System, the architectural disadvantages of libraries, the snobbishness of her colleagues, an ungrateful, ignorant public and, of course, her obsessively unrequited love for a man named Martin. The speaker (or narrator) in the book doesn’t even seem to take a break to breathe, making it very difficult for me to do so. There are no visual breaks in the text, either, as one tirade leads onto another, or a sudden thought pops into the speaker’s mind, changing the direction of monologue. However, I did not need to stop or take a break whilst reading The Library of Unrequited Love – its length is perfectly judged and I was able to read it all in one sitting (which took me no more than a couple of hours) without tiring of the tirade.
Although The Library of Unrequited Love is specifically French (the narrator references French authors, French history and French politics) it could just as easily be transferrable and relatable to an English reading public. For example, the loud and bustling places that our local libraries have become, with DVDs and magazines taking pride of place, is something I can relate to. My local library is apparently one of the busiest in the Greenwich Borough, but from my experiences not many people go there to borrow books (of which there are hardly any). Instead I see people sheltering from the cold, playing on the computers, talking on their phones or even coming in to take a nice, long nap. For the majority of us, our local libraries aren’t going to hold the vast amount of books we can get in national libraries, such as the French National Library in Paris or the British Library in London. Local libraries have to evolve and change with the times in order to justify funding and their reason for taking up council time, space and money.
‘Noise, noise, noise, never the silence of the book. We ought to react, do something, the minister is deceiving you, you young folk, he knows perfectly well that people don’t begin to foster thoughts of revolution when their ears are bombarded by noise, but in the murmuring silence of reading to oneself’.
The Library of Unrequited Love, Sophie Divry, Pg.55-6
So, in spite of the speaker’s love of libraries and books (which house ‘the whole of culture’), she is angered by the state they have been reduced to. It is almost as if the state of these libraries can be said to extend to the state of the human condition. Even the speaker’s acknowledgement and critique of the Dewey Decimal System can reflect a world that is increasingly Americanised and dominated by the English language:
‘I’m sorry to have interrupted your snooze, but perhaps you think it a matter of little consequence that it was an American who dreamed up the ambitious plan of classifying the whole of human knowledge? Well, don’t be naÏve. When the fanatic Dewey classified literature, he set up a monument to ethnocentrism: 810, American literature; 820, English literature: two whole divisions for the English-speakers. 830 to 880, European literature: six divisions for the whole of old Europe. And what about the hundreds of other languages in the world? Just one division: 890’.
The Library of Unrequited Love, Sophie Divry, Pg.16-7
Similar to her love/hate relationship with libraries, the speaker in The Library of Unrequited Love has this same love/hate relationship with men and books. ‘As for men, I’ve given up on them’, she exclaims. ‘Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it’s comforting. You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit’. Though a few pages later we learn of her interest in a man who comes to study in the library every now and again. And a few pages after that – towards the end of this monologue – we hear the contradictory feelings of loneliness that the librarian feels surrounded by books:
‘[…] the flow of paper, every year fifty thousand new titles, fifty thousand books fighting for the chance to come and swell our groaning bookshelves, and every year they make me more aware of my limited span, my old age and my insignificance. Yes. It’s all an illusion, a massive illusion. You never feel so miserable as in a library. You can bow down in front of books all you like, try to understand, read and re-read them, but there’s no hope’.
The Library of Unrequited Love, Sophie Divry, Pg.75-6
I got the sense that the speaker equated her experiences of reading and surrounding herself with books as similar to her relationships with men. Her previous relationship, which saw her move to this provincial town and take up a job in the basement of a library, ended in disaster when her boyfriend left her for another woman and her recent interest doesn’t even acknowledge that she exists. This fading illusion she has of finding comfort in books is just like the fading illusion she has, and many of us have, of finding love.
Sophie Divry’s debut book is a witty and interesting read which I will most definitely read again – maybe one day I can read it in the original French! I look forward to what Divry, a self-confessed feminist, publishes next.