Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Library of Libraries

Neither Borges nor Google Book has what I'm looking for. A library that collects together, records all libraries. A secret door that leads from library to library. Like the Bay Area of California, where I discovered that every step leads from bookstore to bookstore to library to poetry reading to distributor's warehouse to library. Like ritual time, library time has the same air everywhere: suffused with the insight and excitement that arrives at the farthest edge of boredom and frustration. Not dissimilar in quality from _finally_ hearing your flight called and realising that you are leaving the nowhere of the transit lounge for anywhere that is Somewhere.

I've recently read two completely different novels about being in between: Brigid Brophy's In Transit, published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press, and Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty, number 14 in the Fantasy Masterworks series. I've been curious about both authors for a while, and the books -- a puntastic fantasia upon revolutions and transitions both political and personal, and a first-person retelling of Sleeping Beauty with time-travelling fairy boots and a stark ecological message -- were purchased in similar circumstances: catching my eye in a bookstore display as I was browsing for something to read over a meal/journey. Brophy's experimental tongue-twizzlers and Tepper's clear-eyed fairy tale have nothing else in common.

Except: except they are both about being caught between. Which is maybe what all books are about -- at least, about the reader's experience of being caught between pages. (Or the characters: both novels have first person protagonists who are self-aware of their literary status). Of being caught between books with nothing to read. Of catching one book between two others.

Which brings me back to the library of libraries. To the library as the physicalisation of suspension of disbelief.

Bear with me. I haven't slept. I got home at 5 am after finishing a project that began at the British Library. After delivering it in distant Pimlico, it seemed like a good idea to hit Tate Britain, for Rachel Whiteread's Drawings. Which contains libraries. A library, specifically, but multiplied by sketches and maquettes.

Which is not surprising: Whiteread's drawings, often on graph paper, appear at first to refer to IKEA and the industrialisation of design. The show is even organised like the store: table and chair; floor; closet; switch, window and door; beds and mattresses; ceiling; stairs; and bookshelves. Whiteread is best known for her Turner Prize-winning cast House, so this innocuous domesticity seems - and is - appropriate.

But what the bookshelves conceal/cancel in their even blankness, the books nothing but concealer fluid-spines, is possibly Whiteread's most moving work, exhibited in maquette: her Holocaust memorial. The cast of a library whose doors lead only into the impossible density of nothing. It's the opposite of Roni Horn's Library of Water, but also its companion in mourning. Whiteread's drawings in correction fluid on graph paper bridge Bridget Riley's patterned abstractions and Horn's cut up drawings: both Whiteread and Horn are fascinated by translucence and its opposite. There are Whiteread's famous resin casts -- but also a series of postcards exhibited at the Tate, where she has punched holes of various sizes into images of famous buildings and landscapes, always leaving the sky clear.

How does that relate to libraries? Light passes through the glass columns of Horn's Library of Water, but is stopped -- literally -- dead by Whiteread's Holocaust memorial. Neither of them can hold the light (or life): they can record, but not, ultimately, preserve. They cannot act, except as witnesses. They can apprehend intellectually but not physically. How can we read the bookshelf that hid/betrayed the Secret Annexe where the Franks lived in hiding? And more insistently: what do we pass through or into when we enter the door of the library, or the door that is the cover of a book? How do we register that transit (which is life)?

No comments: