How many librarians does it take to write a novel…or a symphony?

Still to come in our look at famous people who have also tried their hand at being librarians we have Casanova , Chairman Mao, and a 12cm high librarian doll but this week writers and composers. As I said earlier for some, librarian positions were really just sinecures carrying almost no responsibilities for the libraries in which they worked, but instead allowing time to develop their creative talent under the sponsorship of the library owner who was more interested in basking in reflected glory than actually having someone looking after their library which they never used anyway.

Berlioz - perhaps a little light shelving between compositions

Berlioz – perhaps a little light book shelving between compositions

Composer Hector Berlioz, like so many musicians, struggled to make a living from his music and even from his other post as Deputy Librarian of the Conservatoire. In 1850 however he was appointed Head Librarian of the Paris Conservatoire which at last provided him with a reasonable source of income that enabled him to pursue his real interests and forget all about that tedious library work. There is of course a very great deal written about Berlioz’s music but I have been unable to find much about his work as a librarian which adds to the suspicion that he didn’t actually do a lot. Either that or when music historians assess the Berlioz legacy the library work is usually ranked somewhere between completely irrelevant and who cares.

Artist Marcel Duchamp, one of the guiding spirits of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, tired of life with the avant garde painting crowd in 1913 and went to work as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève in Paris; presumably the Dadaist version of running off to join the circus. Like many others whose interest lay elsewhere, Duchamp spent more time researching amongst the art books than actually working as a librarian and of course it didn’t last long. Unaccountably he found the lure of the fast life in New York more attractive than library work and headed there, only to end up a librarian again briefly whilst hob-nobbing with everyone who was anyone on the New York alternative art circuit and submitting his famous urinal to art exhibitions. It was when this now famous work was rejected for exhibition that Duchamp returned to libraries. There probably aren’t that many options after you’ve failed at taking the piss but once again he abandoned libraries this time to pursue his new bizarre passion for chess.

Library work seems to have held a particular attraction for writers. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was Librarian of Bowdoin College in Maine, USA for six years from 1829. Longfellow doubled up as a lecturer in the days when that sort of thing was very common because they still hadn’t realised that they needed real librarians. Nowadays librarians and lecturers have quite separate callings presumably because they discovered what dreadful lecturers librarians make. Lewis Carroll author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass became a sub-librarian at Christ Church Oxford until he found a better position as a mathematics lecturer and the Scots poet Robert Burns, worked as librarian for a parish library in Dunscore, Dumfries established by an enlightened squire for his tenants and other locals but this is rarely mentioned on Burns Night unless his “wee timorous moustie beastie” was a librarian, but I don’t think so.

The Brothers Grimm were grim themselves when they were both overlooked for promotion in the library at Kasel in the Rhineland where they had expected promotion to the positions of Head Librarian and Deputy respectively on the retirement of their boss. The top job went instead to an archivist with no library experience at all. One reason may well have been that as well as collecting their famous eponymous folk tales from across the Germanic kingdoms in the early c19th they also found time to begin the first German dictionary and were active in linguistics and philology which makes it surprising that they had any time to each work in a number of libraries at the same time. It can’t have gone down well with the boss that every time the brothers were needed to work a weekend shift in Kasel library they were busy miles away listening to gory tales told by old ladies in remote villages in Baden-Baden. That archivist may not have been a librarian but at least he was there and available and presumably managed to do some cataloguing of books rather spending all his time writing and publishing them. It ended badly for the brothers too when they were sacked from their posts at the University of Gottingen where Jacob became the head librarian and his brother a librarian and professor for upsetting the Elector of Hanover by dabbling in politics; always a tricky thing for a mere librarian to do. Perhaps they should have tried chess like Duchamp!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by contrast was a committed and very successful librarian as well as one of the world’s greatest poets, who worked at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar for 35 years. The library was considerably extended during his term of office and doubled in size to 120,000 volumes becoming one of the most important libraries in Germany. Of course this assiduous application may have had something to do with the fact that it was rumoured that Goethe was involved in a passionate relationship with the Duchess Ann Amalia herself who presumably appointed Goethe to the post seduced less by his meticulous classification skills and more by the impressive size of his literary output. We can only conjecture too that they probably managed to agree some form of payment in kind bonus scheme to keep him at it. Alexander Dumas on the other hand seems to have invested almost no time at all in his post as Librarian at the Palais Royal, a post to which he was promoted by the future King of France, the Duc d’Orleans. The post offered a salary sufficient for Dumas to continue his remarkable literary output but there is no record of any actual library work being accomplished although there is plenty about his pursuit of a series of relationships with various resultant offspring and becoming involved in various disputes and scandals. We can only presume there was no attractive and available Duchess on hand to offer inducements to stick to his library work and discourage him from swanning off all over Europe.

But undoubtedly the prize for swinging the cushiest job in libraries must go to Marcel Proust which is quite fitting for a man best remembered for a story about sitting in bed eating cake. Proust was a lazy, undisciplined social climber and faced with his father’s insistence that writing wasn’t a real job offered to become a librarian being presumably the easiest thing he could think of. Having secured an appointment at Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris he immediately went off on the sick and managed to spin this out for several years and never actually did any work in the library whilst still managing to write one of the world’s greatest unread novels. I wish I had known this earlier in my career when, as a manager faced with the occasional infuriating person swinging the lead like that, I would have coined a withering new phrase to shame them, accusing them of “doing a Proust” or perhaps “Prousting”. I am sure there must be a joke here about his employer’s great undiscovered critique of Proust called In Search of Lost Working Time but I shall avoid exploring that!

Renowned writer Jorge Luis Borges was offered a way out of his unhappy time as a Librarian in a Buenos Aires Municipal Library of Argentina but took the view that the so called promotion was nothing short of an attempt by ruling despot of 1950’s Argentina, Juan Peron to humiliate after he had taken exception to some of Borges’s public political statements. Indeed Borges may never have appeared in a volume such as this at all if he had taken the post on offer unless a keen if misguided professional from a different field attempts a book on Famous Poultry and Rabbit Inspectors. Borges promptly resigned or was sacked from his cataloguing job depending on whose version you believe. It is almost certain that his rather unsatisfactory experiences as a cataloguer inspired his short story The Library of Babel which is part surreal science fantasy, part messianic prophesy, part mystical, allegory and part metaphysical debate, but chiefly a huge playful joke at the expense of the obscurantist and byzantine rules of catalogues and libraries.

Erik Desmazieres's imagining of the Library of Babel

Erik Desmazieres’s imagining of the Library of Babel

After the fall of Peron, Borges was appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina in 1955 but sadly noted the irony of assuming responsibility for a huge national library at the same time as he was losing his sight. He remained there until 1973 when Peron was once again returned as President and Borges resigned refusing to work for the man who had insulted him so gratuitously before.

If ever a librarian were famous for a single phrase, though, it must surely be Jorge Luis Borges. Despite all of his achievements in the literary and library worlds Borges finally came to the widest public notice thanks to his brilliant description of the pointless stupidity of the 1981 Falklands War between Britain and his home country over a tiny remote island in the South Atlantic. Asked his view on the war Borges said, in a quote that has been endlessly repeated since, that “the Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb”. It briefly brought Borges to the attention of a far wider audience than his esoteric surreal writing usually enjoyed.

So a blog about famous writers who were also librarians and you are wondering well where is the one celebrated creative writer whom everyone knows was a librarian and of whom everyone has actually heard. Well he is coming up a bit later on in this series of blogs.  Philip Larkin will get a couple of posts at least all to himself not because of his sublime poetry, proper writers have dealt with that, but to see what we can discover about his other life. Not that we will submerge ourselves in his budget battles with the Vice Chancellor or his library planning skills because in all those relevations after his death in his letters and his biography if you look for his life as a librarian you keep being distracted by comments about how much he “liked the red suspender belt”. So that is all still to come. Before that we’ve still got Casanova and Chairman Mao … and that 12cm doll.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “How many librarians does it take to write a novel…or a symphony?

  1. Vivien Richardson

    I have just read all the blogs…….fascinating, informative, illuminatiing, brilliant and hugely entertaining. Have you thought of recording them and putting them on Soundcloud or have you already done that?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s