man, but his idealism and self-doubt are appealing. He is not the fey creature of myth, living in shadow of a heroic death, yearning for an England seen only by posh boys buried in foreign fields. Tangled in with his dreaming is a bawdy youth, ironic and playful and desperate to shift the burden of his virginity — with man or woman, whichever comes first.
‘‘ He looked to people like Augustus John and Henry Lamb, these great seducers, and I feel a little part of him wished he was more like that. But he wasn’t,’’ she says of Brooke’s desperation about sex. He is also hampered in his quest to lose his virginity by the fact that the women he is drawn to are strong, not necessarily attractive, but intelligent and aware of the potential disasters of sex, which are far worse for women than men. Sleeping with men, for this Brooke, is a question not of preference but necessity.
The decision to portray Brooke as a reluctant bisexual is the most controversial aspect of the book but his ambivalence in the novel reflects his real views, the author claims. ‘‘ It was an area about about which I felt I had to be extremely cautious and not impose my views.’’
The scene in which Brooke loses his virginity with his school friend Denham Russell-Smith is based on a letter to James Strachey. It is told with perfunctory detail and some humour, but there is no passion, just relief that his virginity is gone. His lack of ardour in the letter leads Dawson to believe Brooke preferred women to men.
‘‘ I felt that in his letters, poetry and other writings, his feelings were strongly about women. He is so open in the letter to Strachey that if he had strong feelings for men they would have been there — but they weren’t,’’ she says. ‘‘ I felt I could take my lead from that and show his feelings torn between the idealistic women he can’t have and the motherly one he can.’’
It comes as a surprise to learn that Dawson’s inspiration for The Great Lover was not the poem of the same name, or stories of Brooke’s sexual encounters, but a postcard picked up on a visit to fellow writer Martin Goodman. It featured two maids who worked at the Orchard House in Brooke’s time, and though both were probably the daughters of Brooke’s landlady, in Dawson’s imagination one evolved into Nell.
It is not the first time Dawson has created a knowns. Within this relentless litany of lost and destroyed works there are a number of gems, such as the story of Wiborada, a Swabian woman who in AD 926 was in charge of the library in the monastery of St Gall, Switzerland. Apparently, just before a horde of marauding Huns attacked St Gall, Wiborada had a sacred vision and hid all the library’s books. The Huns were repelled but the monastery and its library were burnt to the ground and Wiborada killed. But by saving the books Wiborada became not only the first woman to be canonised by the Vatican, but also the patron saint of libraries and librarians.
Baez loses his way in the middle chapters, piling on sometimes superfluous, sometimes just plain silly information. There’s a whole chapter on books destroyed in fiction that advances nothing in his argument; and another chapter titled On the Natural Enemies of Books which, among other things, talks about silverfish, booklice, termites, spider beetles and other book eaters of the natural world.
With the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, books become some of the first massproduced commodities. Baez touches up censorship and political suppression, but only deals in passing with issues such as the superabundance of text on the internet and the false sense of security that digital storage confers.
Baez is best in the final chapters when writing about atrocities such as the looting of the female protagonist whose ambitions have been denied by class. ‘‘ She is slightly a version of Madame Guerin, who looked after Victor in my novel The Wild Boy ,’’ the author explains.
‘‘ She wasn’t educated but was very strongwilled and, had she been better educated, would have been a very different person. I think Nell is an amalgam of her and Edie Thompson, in her aspiration to do and be more.’’
In 1923, Thompson and her lover Fred Bywaters were hanged for the murder of Edie’s husband Percy. It was a widely publicised case, which Dawson visited in her novel Fred and Edie , published in 2000.
I wonder what attracts Dawson to mythologised people? As well as Edie and Brooke, The Wild Boy is based on a case from the early 19th century. ‘‘ It is about trying to rescue someone from that myth-making but also trying to include the myth,’’ she explains.
‘‘ Edie has been written about in every decade since she was hanged. Each writer took a view of her that reflected their time: in the ’ 70s she was a battered wife who fought back, in the ’ 50s a poor victim. I think with Brooke there is something similar; with each decade, biographers have taken a different stance on him that reflected their own time.’’
Biographers’ interpretations of Brooke began with patriotic pride, moved on to discrediting his status as a war poet ( he died before seeing action), and more recently have reflected popular culture’s obsession with sex. Though Brooke’s homosexuality has been a focus, other details, especially the naked dips that led Virginia Woolf to dismiss Brooke and his ‘‘ neo-pagan’’ friends as ‘‘ dew-dabblers’’, embellish the legend.
‘‘ His hard-ons were really famous!’’ Dawson blurts out loudly — so loudly that a group of tourists seated at a nearby table gawp and our waiter eyes us, sniffing the air like a terrier sensing trouble. Dawson giggles — as do I. It is a moment at which Brooke would have laughed.
That I can imagine Brooke laughing at a smutty comment says much for Dawson’s ability to create vigorous characters. Nell and Brooke breathe. They feel nearby. Before we part she tells me of a visit to the Orchard House when the owner, Robin Callan, left her alone in Brooke’s old room, clutching the poet’s diary. ‘‘ I just sat with it and thought, ‘ He would have had that in his breast pocket, close to his heart,’ ’’ she says. It is as if a lover has just left the room.
The Independent National Library of Baghdad in 2003, and the fire-bombing of the National Library of BosniaHerzegovina in Sarajevo in 1992. Here, he argues passionately and from first-hand experience.
But the author is at his worst in the opening chapter, where he serves up semi-digested gobbledygook masquerading as A Partial Theory of the Bibliocaust.
This is a very uneven book. It contains typos and mistakes galore ( Salman Rushdie was not born on June 1, 1947). From an interesting premise it descends into a hodgepodge of dates, names and events that reads like a drunk miscellany without a coherent argument.
There are awkward moments in the text that can be ascribed to problems with the translation from Spanish. But then Baez writes: ‘‘ The preSocratics and Sophists exist only in fragments. It always comes as a shock that we haven’t preserved On Not Being or On Nature by Gorgias of Leontini, who proves that nothing exists.’’ I couldn’t tell if this was a lame joke, a sloppy translation or just confused writing.
At times A Universal History of the Destruction of Books reads like it’s been cobbled together from too many heterogeneous sources and is trying to do too much, a lot like some of the ancient texts it lovingly refers to.
And like so many of them, it might be running headlong towards oblivion. The Great Lover will be published in Australia next month by Sceptre. Jose Borghino lectures in literary journalism at the University of Sydney.