Se­cret pas­sions of a lovelorn book­worm

The Li­brary of Un­re­quited Love

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

By So­phie Divry Trans­lated by Sian Reynolds MacLe­hose Press, 92pp, $19.99

SO­PHIE Divry’s witty, waspish, wil­ful, wist­ful, eru­dite, pen­e­trat­ing but won­der­fully elo­quent and di­vert­ing de­but is a rant that reads like one long, breath­less sen­tence. No para­graphs. No chap­ters.

The way this lit­tle book seems to break all the rules of fic­tion writ­ing in­vites the re­viewer also to break rules, such as hold the ad­jec­tives (es­pe­cially in groups of three); avoid al­lit­er­a­tion, don’t be opin­ion­ated or sub­jec­tive.

Our un­named nar­ra­tor/pro­tag­o­nist, buried in the base­ment of a French provin­cial li­brary that houses 200,000-plus books, is sim­i­larly witty, waspish and wil­ful.

She is also sad, lonely and bit­ter. She’s been do­ing the same job for 25 years yet still no one no­tices her. Not even Martin, a young re­searcher who is mod­est, in­tel­li­gent, in­dus­tri­ous and with that oh so de­lec­ta­ble nape of the neck. Be­cause is there any­thing more fas­ci­nat­ing about a per­son than a beau­ti­ful neck seen from be­hind? The back of a neck is a prom­ise, sum­ming up the whole per­son through their most in­ti­mate fea­ture. Yes, in­ti­mate. It’s the part of your body you can never see your­self. A few inches of neck with a trace of down, ex­posed to the sky, the back of the head, the last good­bye, the far side of the mind.

Our li­brar­ian knows hers cially high-level job’’.

‘‘ isn’t an espe- Pretty close to be­ing in a fac­tory. I’m a cul­tural assem­bly line worker . . . See, over there on the right, that’s His­tory. Per­son­ally, I like that sec­tion. In fact, I love it. But I was ap­pointed to man­age Ge­og­ra­phy and Town Plan­ning, here on the left. And let me tell you that be­tween Ge­og­ra­phy and His­tory, that is be­tween shelf­marks 910 and 930, there’s a great gulf fixed. A sym­bolic line not to be crossed.

Her mono­logue, or rant, is aimed at a hap­less client/cus­tomer/bor­rower whom she dis­cov­ers one morn­ing two hours be­fore open­ing time asleep be­tween some shelves. She lets fly at him but he never re­sponds. Would he dare? Does he even ex­ist?

Divry looks young in her author photo but she, too, is eru­dite, wise and whip-smart with much to say (in 92 pages) about books, li­braries, French his­tory, lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, but above all about her li­brar­ian’s life.

We are treated to a mini-dis­ser­ta­tion on the Dewey dec­i­mal clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem in­ter­leaved with spiky com­men­tary. Dewey is the Men­deleev of li­brar­i­ans. Not the Pe­ri­odic Ta­ble of Ele­ments, but the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of ar­eas of cul­ture. When that fa­natic Dewey clas­si­fied lit­er­a­ture, he set up a mon­u­ment to eth­no­cen­trism . . . So Dewey’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion has been mod­i­fied. They de­cided it would be more po­lit­i­cally cor­rect to in­crease the space for non-aligned coun­tries.

Made­moi­selle’s mis­sion is to stop ‘‘ read­ers per­vert­ing the over­all ar­range­ment of my base­ment’’. Read­ers may as­sume this is a stereo­typ­i­cal por­trait of a li­brar­ian, a view per­haps re­in­forced by the el­e­gant but car­toon­ish cover im­age of our lady with top knot, prim lips, spec­ta­cles, turtle­neck sweater and mod­est heels, stand­ing in front of tidy shelves.

She is also a pas­sion­ate, if frus­trated, ad­vo­cate of books, read­ing and li­braries: ‘‘ I feel like the Maginot Line of pub­lic read­ing.’’

She is dis­missed with a laugh when point­ing out that ‘‘ it was use­less buy­ing bad trans-

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