Shelfmark 400

A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)

I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry

Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)

Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.

What topic doesn’t she harangue the reader with? (The anonymous reader, of course, is Everywoman and Everyman, you and me.) Pettifogging administrators and politicians; the uses and abuses of the Dewey Decimal Classification System; the French Revolution and existentialist philosophers; library furniture and holidays abroad; Eugène Morel and the design of libraries; the force of nature that was Maupassant and the confidence tricks of Balzac; the declining standards in the quality of books and the proliferation of vacuous authors; the public using the library to keep warm in the winter, to write comments in the margins of books or to pick up the opposite sex (shelfmark 306.7 is “a sure-fire magnet for boys”, where sex manuals can be found). And so on and so on.

And Martin? He’s apparently unaware he’s an object of lust: involved in researching Peasant revolts in the Poitiers region in the reign of Louis XV he’s now taken to gratuitously parading his floozy in front of our librarian, we’re told. Unrequited love is the idée fixe she returns to again and again, Martin this, Martin that. And occasionally the man who dumped her all those years ago. Just before she lets her anonymous captive go she confesses, “I’m truly sorry for what happened. … [S]ometimes in this prison, with all the books, something’s got to give.” But her last words are a cri de coeur: “What’s the point […] if Martin doesn’t come?”

This spoken stream of consciousness if by turns funny and sad, angry and accepting. You can imagine this poor woman, no better than the unfortunate reader locked in overnight, herself a prisoner in a gaol of her own making; like some pre-Revolutionary Bastille inmate with access to books but no life outside she can only obsess about the vagaries and imbecilities that surround her in her voluntary confinement. Anyone who has been in a dead-end job with advancement curtailed by their own refusal to play the system will recognise her predicament.

Helpful endnotes (“exclusive to Waterstones” we’re told) inform us that the original title of the book in French is La cote 400: shelfmark 400 is the Languages section, which has been relocated to the 800s where it has been subsumed under Literature. Our librarian is incensed about this, and no wonder: but of course it is a perfect metaphor for this verbal tirade unleashed on the unsuspecting reader. (That’s you and me, as you know.)

As the author says in the endnotes, “What does it mean to be human? What is life?” Our poor librarian, try as she might, doesn’t have the answers; and nor do we, really.

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8 thoughts on “Shelfmark 400

  1. I must pass this on to my daughter who is currently working in Central Library and comes home with tales from the day!
    Btw, have you read “if on a winters night a traveller” by Calvino?

    1. Do let me know her thoughts if and when your daughter gets to read it!

      I tried and stalled on the Calvino, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it was the ambiguity inherent in the stories — it could be this, things could have worked out that way, somebody may have been other than they seemed — which in toto put me off. I decided I preferred ploughing through his more enjoyable annotated collection of Italian folktales!

      1. Ah well, my wife didn’t like it so much either but I thought it was great – one of Calvino’s jokes/ teasers. Definitely not a book for those who look at the end first. I guess I like the abstract in literature, it makes my brain twist in all directions and Calvino is one of my favourites by far.

  2. I agree, great title. I couldn’t help wondering how may publishers would put their money behind such a quirky little book – three cheers for Maclehose Press.

    1. In this Shakespeare quatercentenary year it seemed fate (a ‘fate’ accompli now, perhaps?!) that this title shouted at me to be read! Yes, good on Maclehose (a subsidiary of Quercus) for publishing this.

  3. I know of too few novels set in a library, so I’m glad you brought this one to my attention. I’m a bit surprised, however, to learn that the French use/used the Dewey Decimal system. It’s such a quirky way to categorize books. The main branch of the NY public library may have the quirkiest: by date of acquisition and height.

    1. The NYPL way is what Divry’s narrator describes as the typical pre-Dewey system. If France’s public library service is like the UK’s it’ll probably stick to Dewey for the immediate future, especially if public services continue to be starved of funding. As always, Lizzie, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you get round to reading this novella.

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