Book review: The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

THE novella form is well suited to a monologue which, if extended further might be intolerable. The length of this one is perfectly judged, however.

The Library of Unrequited Love

by Sophie Divry

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Maclehose Press, 89pp, £10

It’s funny, sad, and agreeably discursive; it also has wise things to say about the state of culture today and the sadness of not only the unrequited love of the title, but the human condition.

A librarian opens up in the morning to find someone asleep in the basement, where she is in charge of the geography section. The intruder is given next to no existence or identity; he is there simply as an audience. But if we learn nothing about him, we come to know everything about the librarian and about her views on the library, books, certain authors – Guy de Maupassant, Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – history, the habits of readers, the library’s class structure, the function of libraries and the corruption of that function. She is middle-aged and lonely, though she protests that she is fine, and, as for men, “I’ve given up on them.”

Well, not quite, actually. There’s a young man called Martin who comes to read in the library. He’s a student doing research. She very much likes the back of his neck. It’s “a promise, summing up the whole person through their most intimate feature. Yes, intimate. It’s the part of your body you can never see yourself.”

Once, greatly daring, she sneaked a look at what he was working on: peasant revolts in the Poitiers district during the reign of Louis XV. This is, she thinks, a bit disappointing. Louis XV was “a nothing” besides being, in her opinion, a paedophile. Actually, what she really approves of is the Revolution. She has a high opinion of Robespierre. He and his fellow Jacobins did a necessary job, because ancien regime France “really needed a good clear-out”. It’s shocking that there are no Robespierre Squares in France. Oh yes, the guillotine, the Terror? “Oh stop”, she says, “it really annoys me … A thousand years of monarchy to get rid of, you needed more than a few wimps to do that job..” She has a very poor opinion of Napoleon, however; you will want to know why.

Of course, she’s never really spoken to Martin. Well, only once; he came and asked if she could turn on another light. She warned him that the strip-lighting made a humming noise, but he asked for it all the same. So all she can do is look and dream.

She loves books and reveres culture, despising all that the authorities do to make libraries more popular. They’ll be installing a café next – and why not a discotheque down in her basement? That’s the modern world for you. All the same, though, she loves books, and wishes vainly that they would transfer her from the geography to the more interesting history section.

She has a pretty low opinion of writers, especially male ones. “Writing is a sexual activity. You don’t shut yourself up for ten hours a day to write if everything in your life is absolutely hunky-dory. Writing only happens when something’s wrong.” Her monologue, though she doesn’t admit it, is a form of writing. “Don’t try to cheer me up,” she says, “you can’t know what it’s like waiting in this basement for Martin to come down the stairs, it’s awful.”

Don’t think by the way that she’s just a frustrated spinster. On the contrary, she came to this provincial town with a man called Arthur, for whom she had “given up the top-class cultural, social and professional life I’d had in Paris”. And what happened? He left her for a woman who was an engineer at the nuclear power station. “I’ve never fallen that low,” she reflects.

This is Sophie Divry’s first book. It is written with a beautifully assured touch. The translation by Sian Reynolds seems admirable too; it reads like natural, often colloquial, English, while retaining a French flavour. It is both witty and humorous, and full of observations and opinions which invite the reader to think.

The unnamed narrator reveals herself fully in speech; she is very evidently a tiresome and rather pathetic woman in many ways, but her intellectual liveliness and strong – if sometimes confused – opinions mean that the time spent in her company is highly enjoyable. There isn’t a dull page or even a dull sentence.

In short, this is a very accomplished and delightful debut, a book which makes one look forward to what Divry will write next, and which even invites one to engage in that rash practice – prophesying a brilliant future for the author.