My love is like a … quiet desk in Fisher Library

I’ve been in a frenzy of work for the last few weeks – and despite plans to blog here about various things, including my latest reading and the announcement of Christos Tsiolkas’s forthcoming novel Barracuda, I’ve been too busy elsewhere. I’ll be writing about these things next.

But this morning for the first time this year I went straight to Fisher Library, my favourite place to work, expecting to find my favourite floor under construction – or destruction, as the library is refitted to the 21st century electronic world.

So I was completely overjoyed to find it was not only intact, and as old and filled with shelves of paper books as ever, but to discover this sitting on my favourite desk.

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It caught my eye from the moment I first glimpsed it. When I was close enough to read the title – H.P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life – I was even more intrigued. And then I realised what it was. Michel Houellebecq’s first book. And I was ecstatic – such are the synchronicities and serendipities made possible by a good library.

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As I’ve said, Houellebecq’s Atomised was part of my summer reading. I finished it a few weeks ago and it’s gone straight into my top 10 novels of all time. (I think, haven’t actually done the numbers but I LOVED it, massively.)

So despite being in the library for work of a completely different, non-literary nature, I couldn’t resist reading the first few pages. I’ll be returning to this book some day. Here’s some of what I read.

First, from the introduction by Stephen King, who called it:

‘a remarkable blending of critical insight, fierce partisanship, and sympathetic biography – a kind of scholarly love letter, maybe even the world’s first truly cerebral mash note. The question is whether or not the subject rates such a rich and unexpected burst of creativity in what is ordinarily a dull-as-ditchwater, footnote-riddled field of work … Houellebecq argues that H.P. Lovecraft … matters a great deal even in the twenty-first century.

‘As it happens, I think he could not be more right.’

And this from Houellebecq:

‘Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.’

And: ‘A kind of lethargic terror descended upon [Lovecraft] as he turned 18 years old and he knew the reason for it perfectly well.’

Houellebecq then quotes from a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1920, where he looks back on his childhood, on his games with a railway he made from packing crates and the garden he created:

‘Then I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was seventeen. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.’

And then out the window, for Valentine’s Day, I thought I saw a heart pierced through with Cupid’s arrow in the sky.

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11 Responses to My love is like a … quiet desk in Fisher Library

  1. shy fan says:

    Happy Valentine’s Day wonderful Jane. I love everything you write.

  2. Sara says:

    Interesting to think about reading as not liking reality. I like to think that I read to get MORE in touch with reality. I read so as to reflect on and so improve my life. But of course there’s some escapism involved 🙂
    I think a dissatisfaction with the world is rampant amongst novelists though (not to say that it’s JUST them), because I read a lot as a kid and so developed the idea that the smartest way to live was to live above life, to disdain to live.
    It was only when I got to college that some enthusiastic science students helped me love the world (or/and let myself love the world)…
    Anyway, sorry for the rant and thanks for writing!
    🙂

  3. Thanks for your lovely message, shy fan.

    And for your comments too, Sara. Yes, I was also struck by that, by Houellebecq’s contention that those who like life do not read. I think he’s wrong about that (and Stephen King takes him to task on something similar), but also right to say that access to the artistic universe is more or less confined to those who are a little fed up with the world. If it’s possible to like the world AND be fed up with it, which I think it is.

    I’m fascinated to hear that enthusiastic science students helped you to love the world – would love to hear more about that (as a lover of science … which is what first made me love Houellebecq’s Atomised so much, by curious chance).

    • Sara says:

      I like that! Thank you 🙂 that you can like the world and be fed up with it, I mean. Very true.

      Well, before college I basically held the silly view that learning about the universe took something away from it, instead of adding to my appreciation of it– actually fertilizing my imagination.
      But then I remember during freshman orientation I met this girl. We followed the tour group but instead of listening, talked about our passions. She was into physics. I remember asking, “Why?” in an interested but disbelieving tone. How could someone really LIKE physics?
      But then I realized she was for real.
      She pointed at a fountain, jetting out water in a continuous arc. “I know how that works. I can figure out why the water moves that way,” she said (but more eloquently). Then she pointed at the branches of the leafy trees above us. “And I can figure out how the air is going through the branches…”
      Incidentally, this girl and I later became really good friends. And I met other awesome/passionate science students. Often I think I should switch from being an English Major to majoring in Geology– because I love being outside and learning more about the world. But I’m pretty sure I don’t have the right brain for it. I’m terrible with textbooks and details.
      Anyway, my scientist friends kept telling me fun facts about the world and so i went from being all existentially angsty, feeling trapped in a dull world, to being grateful to live in such a wonderful place!
      I’m studying physics a bit by reading The Physics of the Buffyverse 🙂

      How did you get into science? and literature? How do science and literature interact for you?

  4. What a fantastic story, thanks so much, Sara. I love the idea that you went from being all existentially angsty to being grateful to live in such a wonderful place. The best possible advertisement for science, scientists and their fun facts about the world (and for your friends, for that matter) … I also really like the sound of ‘The Physics of the Buffyverse’ – will check it out.

    I’ve always been into literature, reading, like breathing. I got into science because I loved maths. But totally fell for physics when read a story in some science magazine about Heisenberg and Bohr walking in snow late into one night talking about atomic physics. It was unbelievably thrilling.

    Not sure how science and literature interact for me, beyond the excitement I feel when I read a brilliant book about science (e.g. Robyn Arianrhod’s ‘Einstein’s Heroes’), or when I find physics understood in a novel or poem, as with ‘Atomised’. Will have to think about this some more.

    Maybe you should consider geology?

    • Sara says:

      I will definitely have to check out ‘Einstein’s Heroes’! Do you think (without knowing much science/math) I could make sense of it? I just looked it up on Amazon and it looks great 🙂

      I love how you fell for physics through that story! What was it about their conversation that grabbed you? Reminds me of a little book called ‘Einstein’s Dreams’. In it there are a few scenes where (in-between chapters about different time-universes) Einstein walks and talks with his friend about his work, and he just seems like the most wonderful person– his bright-eyed enthusiasm makes him adorably eccentric in a childlike way, and seems to free him from the slogging mundanity most people are sunk in; Thoreau certainly wouldn’t have said that this Einstein lived a life of “quiet desperation”.

      • Oh yes, Sara, ‘Einstein’s Heroes’ is very accessible and reads like a novel – why I mentioned it. I wrote about it here if you’re interested: https://bookishgirl.com.au/2011/06/17/if-at-first-an-idea-is-not-absurd-then-there-is-no-hope-for-it-albert-einstein/.

        As for the conversation b/n Bohr and Heisenberg, I can’t remember exactly what it was about their conversation (I’d have to go back to it), but it was the idea of them walking long into the night, in the snow, freezing, but being oblivious to the cold because their minds were fired up, in unison, plumbing the outer reaches of the universe, or should I say, the inner depths of matter. Certainly the edges of knowledge.

        And thanks for mentioning Einstein’s Dreams, sounds most intriguing. And you’re def right that Thoreau’s comment does not apply to him!

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