After last week’s digression into things that I perhaps ought to leave to better commentators than me it’s back to novels about libraries and librarians.
I know I have been rather less than generous in previous posts about some of the plucky-librarian-versus-the–shadowy-cabal thrillers but at least I gave them some air time because they had something going for them and did indeed feature real librarians not just another dead body amongst the geography books. The same can’t be said for many of the mystery novels that feature librarians most of which were mercifully consigned to the bin at an early stage of the culling process. Surprisingly, though one of them has put up a bit of a fight and even made it on to the screen.
Popular and well established American author Charlaine Harris is best known for her modern day supernatural fantasy books but she cut her writing teeth on a fictional librarian called Aurora Teagarden before she moved on to the hard stuff. The Aurora Teagarden series ran to about 8 titles on and was originally completely ignored in my research as the reference to her in the Bibliomysteries catalogue is quite dismissive (“not much about libraries” or something similar I think). The only reason she now rates a mention is that I noticed quite by chance that a couple of books are now out as TV movies the first premiered this April. So to on the off-chance that some of you might have spotted that and to avoid all of you asking where Aurora Teagarden is I thought I would acknowledge her existence but then swiftly move on. And no I didn’t watch it. Quite apart from having little or no library interest it was produced by Hallmark Pictures, that’s the twee greetings card people and although I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime, I even watch Midsommer Murders after all but that suggest that this was likely to be at the cuddle-up-with-a-cute-cat-and-hot-chocolate-in a-cosy-blanket end of the cosy crime spectrum which is way beyond where I draw the line!
So this week some other novels which I haven’t actually read but found out enough about to think them worth a passing if somewhat dismissive mention in dispatches before we look at one I have indeed read.
A librarian and library are central to The Last Reader by David Toscana. “A fascinating, if bizarre, tale, set in a Mexican village, about an eccentric librarian who sees life through the books he reads” might sound a pretty good fit with my own fascinating if bizarre book about libraries but I decided against taking it on for a number of reasons. Firstly I noticed that one reviewer said that Toscana avoids “plot, character and structure” which left me think what’s left, a crossword puzzle? The premise of the book was also disturbing enough to put me off. A dead girl is found in the well in a drought ridden Mexican village by the son of the village librarian who immediately advises his son, as any sensible librarian would, to ditch the body and play dumb in case the dim witted authorities blame him for the death. Thankfully this isn’t a circumstance I have ever come across in my professional life so it is difficult to make value judgements or to offer a professional opinion on the wisdom of his moral approach. I do though have a lot of sympathy with the librarian’s idiosyncratic but simple book selection policy; the ones he likes he keeps, the ones he doesn’t are ditched including The Bible because “he has read it before”.
Claims that the book was a “spell-binding read” were tempered by another that it “can be a chore to navigate” but the real reason I avoided the book was that reviewers did keep mentioning Toscana in the same breath as Roberto Bolano. I have tried this much praised Mexican writer I really have. I persevered through all of Bolano’s highly acclaimed Savage Detectives and remained baffled to the end about what the book and indeed all the fuss was about. I was left reflecting, as so often with these intellectual writers, whether I wasn’t better off sticking to something a bit closer to my own intellectual level, like the new Ian Rankin thriller or maybe even The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was a relief to discover Toscana’s book was not available in the UK.
A book I did feel tempted to try and get hold of but it too wasn’t available was The Grand Complication: A Novel by Allen Kurzweil if only to find out more about a librarian protagonist described in reviews as a witty, browbeaten employee of the New York Public Library and a sexually malfunctioning husband which sounds just like something straight out of the “Librarian” section of the bit-part character directory in Central Casting. Even more intriguing not to mention less feasibly there is also a “bawdy” library director whose nickname is the “Librarian of Sexual Congress”. But then again bearing in mind my theory about the disconnection between excessive marketing hype and actual reading satisfaction I decided to pass on a novel that reviewers refer to as “a remarkable novel a flawless blend of adventure, intellect, suspense, humour and antiquity, an enchanting quest and an intellectual romp.” There is way too much to live up to there as other reviews confirm and the description “bawdy librarian” has the same alarmingly cringe inducing ring to it as “Dad dancing”!
Of course if we want better portrayals of librarians or libraries in novels we obviously need more librarians to write them and the idea had fleetingly crossed my mind in those rare idle moments between masterminding yet another miraculous escape for the library from the annual university budget crisis or responding to another lecturer’s lament that we have too few journals in their esoteric branch of some obscure field of science and the complaints from the students that we don’t have enough books because we spend too much on obscure esoteric science journals I often contemplated packing it all in and trying something less frustrating like solving the Middle East crisis or inventing a perpetual motion machine or more realistically writing the novel we are all said to have in us. For many years I had enjoyed writing elaborate library strategies, identifying unlikely performance indicators, preparing glowing reports charting stellar progress against those indicators, composing my annual appraisal review and similar works of fanciful creative fiction so how difficult could a novel be; after all Jeffrey Archer manages them. More importantly other writers like Patricia Cornwell, a forensic scientist, Dick Francis, a jockey, not to mention all those former SAS soldiers have produced hugely popular fiction using their experience from previous professional lives to provide added authenticity to their plots. So why not a librarian; and how about a librarian sleuth? It’s got to be better than yet another dead body in the library plot.
A good plan if a little ill developed and with just one small snag; I had been beaten to it. Veronica Stallwood, who worked at the Bodleian Library and also at New College Library writes crime mystery novels which regularly include scenes in, or the use of, libraries or librarians and feature Kate Ivory, a novelist who used to be a librarian, well there’s a surprise then, but who also does a handy side-line in amateur detective work in Oxford which must get right up the noses of that Morse and Lewis. Mention of her library background is curiously ignored on Veronica’s website which suggests that she didn’t have that great a time in libraries a thought reinforced by her brief portrait of the unhelpful and obstructive Librarian’s secretary in one of her novels “upholding the old, unfriendly traditions of Leicester College Library” *.
No one, though, has used their own unhappy experiences as a librarian quite as effectively as Philip Larkin who seems to have used his second novel to wreak some kind of literary revenge on his first place of work and his first employer. A Girl in Winter was published in 1947 shortly after Larkin left his first library position in a drab, run down provincial branch library in Wellington in Shropshire to take up his new post in Leicester. Given the endless creative possiblities for a location for his unhappy leading lady who would have thought that he would come up with the idea of using a drab, run down provincial branch library as one of the backdrops for his story of love, longing and disappointment. Larkin describes his fictional library with all the sympathy of someone who loathed and despised his own workplace from the moment that his illusions about the stimulating intellectual cocoon that it promised evaporated. Larkin’s fictional library “smelt inimitably of poor children” and is staffed by disaffected library assistants “forced to do everything to books but read them” and blighted by “the daily round of string bags, trembling old men, tramps reading newspapers through magnifying glasses” This is unsurprisingly close to Larkin’s openly confessed detestation of Wellington Library , “a quite impossible job…handing out antiquated tripe to the lower orders of the general public…It was horrible” The Library doesn’t actually play much of a role in the narrative arc of the novel but it does provide an opportunity for Larkin to get a few things off his chest including his contempt for the pompous bureaucrats to whom he reported in Wellington. They were used as the inspiration for the novel’s despised Head Librarian, described in one memorably graphic passage as resembling “a clerk at a railway station who had suffered from shell shock”
Larkin was very justifiably proud of his novel and presumably found some satisfaction in exorcising some of the ghosts of his early career by including them in his fiction. He was considerably less impressed, however, by another novel about a librarian that made scurrilous use of more of his experiences particularly when that novel was by one of his close friends and confidante’s. We’ll look at that next time when we explore Kingsley Amis’s follow up to his famous novel Lucky Jim.
*Leicester College here is a fictitious Oxford University College not the tertiary education College in Leicester the city, a college library which is I am sure admirably helpful.