‘Sex is on my mind’: Fisher Library, longing and Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Sydney University’s Fisher Library since I’ve been back from my travels. It’s my favourite place to work, especially when I need to focus purely on thinking, reading, writing, and ignore the rest of the world, including everything electronic and online.

I especially love the old part of Fisher (‘stack’) because it’s quiet and I can work surrounded by shelves of books. It’s like being in a forest. Except that like other forests this one is being gradually pulled apart. Every day another floor seems to have been emptied of books, in the name of ‘Renewal‘.

Fisher is being renewed to create, among other things, ‘a range of high quality, IT enhanced learning and research environments’ and ‘improve the utilisation of space’. Which means truck loads of books are being removed from the library and put into storage 100 kms south of Sydney. And the buildings are being renovated. Here’s one of the spaces remodelled for the 21st century. Where I won’t be working.

I also love the graffiti in stack. On the wall where I was working this morning someone had written ‘Sex is on my mind’. Which distracted me no end. And made me think of Proust – perhaps because I was surrounded by books not humans – and Swann’s longing for Odette in Swann’s Way:

‘Ah! had fate but allowed him to share a single dwelling with Odette, so that in her house he should be in his own; if, when asking his servant what there would be for luncheon, it had been Odette’s bill of fare that he had learned from the reply; if, when Odette wished to go for a walk, in the morning, along the Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne, his duty as a good husband had obliged him, though he had no desire to go out, to accompany her, carrying her cloak when she was too warm; and in the evening, after dinner, if she wished to stay at home, and not to dress, if he had been forced to stay beside her, to do what she asked; then how completely would all the trivial details of Swann’s life, which seemed to him now so gloomy, simply because they would, at the same time, have formed part of the life of Odette, have taken on – like that lamp, that orangeade, that arm-chair, which had absorbed so much of his dreams, which materialised so much of his longing – a sort of superabundant sweetness and mysterious solidity.

‘And yet he was inclined to suspect that the state for which he so much longed was a calm, a peace, which would not have created an atmosphere favourable to his love. When Odette ceased to be for him a creature always absent, regretted, imagined; when the feeling that he had for her was no longer the same mysterious disturbance that was wrought in him by the phrase from the sonata, but constant affection and gratitude, when those normal relations were established between them which would put an end to his melancholy madness; then, no doubt, the actions of Odette’s daily life would appear to him as being of but little intrinsic interest – as he had several times, already, felt that they might be, on the day, for instance, when he had read, through its envelope, her letter to Forcheville.’

In other news, I went to a brilliant conference at the University of New South Wales last week: DIS/CONNECTIONS, the inaugural interdisciplinary conference of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It was so exciting – and intellectually provocative – to hear papers on economics, music, drama, philosophy, literature all together. I plan to blog about it later this week. And after that, Dickens’ Bleak House, one of my all time favourite novels.

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12 Responses to ‘Sex is on my mind’: Fisher Library, longing and Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’

  1. Luke Davies says:

    A beautiful entry. That “remodeled” space looks positively Stalinist/brutalist, and disheartening. I used to love that sense of private isolation — the whole world away outside and far away, and this muted light and these narrow canyons of books — working in Fisher stacks. I’m in London till Saturday, in Spitalfields, near Brick Lane, and just being here has put Dickens foremost on my mind: the need to read him again soon. How exciting his prose is and how happy it makes me.

  2. Thanks Luke. Knowing what a library and book lover you are, it’s extra lovely to have your comments here. And yes, how exciting Dickens’ prose is. You’re lucky to be in London amongst it. Maybe even fog season too.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    I am *so* glad I went to university in the days when it was a place of real scholarship. Those GroupTalk tables make me shudder. Before long there will be nowhere quiet to think and reflect, and the extraverts who rule the world will never understand what they’ve lost by imposing their noise on the intraverts.

  4. Yes, ‘grouptalk’ tables = shudder. Very well put, Lisa, about the extraverts v introverts. I hadn’t considered it in those terms but from my experience of the changes in libraries – I can’t work at UNSW library which has already undergone its ‘renewal’ – I think you’re right that it’s becoming harder to find a place to be quiet, think, reflect. And places really shape the sort of thinking one’s capable of. For me at least. I know absolutely that I could not have written ‘Double Entry’ in a 21C library, for what that’s worth.

    • Lisa Hill says:

      Virginia Woolf’s advice is more relevant than ever, every woman needs a room of her own. I have one, my own library, which I even had soundproofed when I renovated. It’s a lovely space for reading, thinking, writing and just sitting with my feet up doing nothing.

  5. sounds perfect, Lisa. And excellently planned – soundproofed!

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