The bay windows rise all the way to the mahogany ceiling, their light veiled by pearl-grey net curtains, and on the white walls, near the bottom, nothing but electric sockets, countless sockets in a line twenty centimetres from the floor. Ranged along the dark parquet, the work tables form rows, each one about thirty metres long. Four hundred and twenty work spaces, each identical, a small rectangle of wood with a movable screen in its centre that comes to life at a user’s touch, although for now all the screens are dead, and an anxious silence dominates the room. At the entrance the official warned me this could last a few more minutes or several hours, adding that this type of incident was fortunately very rare, everything had been working well this morning, until about an hour ago, then nothing. A few people have given up, he said, so you’ll easily find a place, two hundred and forty-six, for example, ideal for you as you like to be on the side, you’ll be fine. I did not ask for more, and went to sit down, happy not to be right in the middle of a row and the focus of too much attention. Not that I have anything to hide, but I don’t like to be looked at. I don’t like to be talked to, either. Libraries are for reading, nothing more.
Whispered discussions are taking place here and there, and in the north-west corner, a small group of people has formed, their faces starting to show signs of impatience, a little confusion too: should one go, and leave everything, or stay and risk wasting the whole day? The young woman sitting to one side of me has progressively rotated her chair and is now facing me; her eyes glance across the room from one side to the other, she frowns, seems to be thinking, and then says to me, inoffensively, with some tenderness even, or a kindly astonishment, At your age, do you still have access to the professionals’ floor? In the half-light I cannot make out if she’s smiling; I would like to ignore her but it would be rude, so I answer simply that I have the right to certain privileges, acquired long ago, which no-one has thought to revoke, not even since the new facilities were installed. It was a huge alteration; a library without books seems peculiar to me. To her it does not seem so peculiar. It is me she finds strange. Especially when I tell her I have thousands of books at home. At the current cost of real estate? she cries. Clearly she has no conception of what possible use they could be. To make things worse for myself, but unable to resist mocking her, I mention all the boxes that have to be filled when moving house, all the numbering and labelling, the transportation, the unpacking of them all again.
I did once decide to restrict my collection, to keep only the essential volumes, but it was too difficult; there are memories attached to every reading, notes in the margins, for I have always annotated my books, whatever their value. In any case I possess very few of those rare books usually owned by a bibliophile. That word eludes her understanding, or seems incongruous to her, she cannot imagine the passion, or even the business that the word connoted for so long. The term must seem almost improper to her, bringing to mind paedophilia, or possibly a more logical connection with embalming or ashes, rather than any noble activity.
While talking, I stare into emptiness, the memories returning. A winter in my childhood, the first little volumes in red covers, a character called Jacques Rogy, a sort of detective, I read that when I was about seven or eight years of age, while I had flu. My mother having gone out shopping, called in at a bookshop, but who remembers bookshops today, and I discovered the breathless pleasure of turning pages, with feverish eyes and an aching body. Later, during another bout of flu, alone in a freezing house deep in the English countryside, I devoured War and Peace, in a plain paperback edition. Sickness is an appropriate time for large colourful canvases, and I am certain I had a high fever as I tore at full speed through all of Thibault’s books, again in the solitude of my bedroom. And it was again winter when, in pleasant convalescence from a wretched accident, I read In Search of Lost Time, which evoked summer, with its languidness, its open windows and far-off sounds; sound can be so important, can run subliminally in the background, without interrupting anything. By a curious coincidence, while reading The Sound and the Fury on a lawn at a country house on a mild June day, the shouts and speech of the neighbours seemed to emanate from the book itself, producing a strange echoing effect.
Although she hasn’t turned her chair away, she’s no longer listening to me, as the vast room gradually yields to the half-light of dusk. I would like to speak to her of Beauty on Earth, my favourite book by Ramuz, probably because I don’t like his other one about the mountain; or of Hermann Hesse, whose complete works I read in my youth, but which seem about to disappear from my mind, although I have no idea why; or of Kerouac, or Steinbeck, still from my youth, and Claude Simone, and Paradiso by Lezama Lima; and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in an edition by Lautréamont published by GLM in 1938, with very beautiful illustrations by surrealist artists; or a selection of Hölderlin’s poetry edited by Pierre Jean Jouve and Pierre Klossowski published by J.O. Fourcade in 1939. In the end I quote for her a few lines of Borges, very softly to conserve my breath, not verses, but phrases, fragments:
Time alone knows the day on which closed the last eyes to have witnessed Jesus Christ.
The Battle of Junin and the love of Helen were each lost with the death of one man. What will die with me when I die? What frail, pathetic thing will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the painting of a chestnut horse in the wasteland between Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk.
I sense her staring at my face, although I can’t see her eyes, for the darkness envelopes everything, and only the moonlight’s pale gleam filters through the windows. The people leaving the building when I arrived were the last who could do so, since the automatic doors then jammed, and we were told that the problem has engulfed the whole area, that the entire town is without power. A mood more of resignation than of distress nevertheless prevails. People are waiting it out, speaking in low voices. What pathetic thing will disappear with me? Of what will I be the last direct witness? There are countless old people across the planet, and information circulates so quickly, testimonies, memories, diaries, that it has become almost impossible to note the precise moment when a memory becomes extinct. The dry, ringing sound of iron dropped by the blacksmith so he may tend an epileptic woman writhing on the ground in front of me, a dumbfounded little boy, incapable of the least reaction; but he held her head firmly so she would not bang it on the ground, while foam gushed from her mouth, white, but soon veined with red. Suddenly her body became still, peaceful, exhausted, and I went home, telling no-one. There are no more blacksmiths, although epilepsy has become more frequent, it seems.
What we must understand, I say to the young woman, almost whispering in her ear, since we are very close, is that a library consists equally, if not more, of the books we do not read, as those already read, and I nod my head for emphasis; all those volumes that one has perhaps opened, and from which one has pecked a morsel or two, but which we are saving for later, for the future (this makes me smile, that an old man for whom the countdown began a long time ago, is speaking of the future to a young woman); and they’re very important, these unread books, precious company, a far-off horizon to cherish, an affirmation of life, they’re waiting, their turn can come at any moment, they are part of you; sometimes an entire work, several large volumes, a world to conquer, later. How beautiful it is to be able to say later, yes, later…
I thought for a moment that she had fallen asleep; but no, she crosses her arms over her chest, placing each of her hands on the opposite shoulder, to warm or perhaps to comfort herself. How old are you? she asks me gently.
One hundred and three.
Yes, it is old.
She shrugs her shoulders, lowers her head and scratches it just above her fringe. You aren’t frightened? she then asks.
I do not reply. I have a dry throat from having talked too much. New rumours are circulating in the library. The whole country will be paralysed by a widespread electricity failure. But how can this news have reached us, when everything is shut down? A to-ing and fro-ing can be discerned near
the service doors, and some relief seems to be on its way. The desk manager, as well as an employee who has just appeared, move along the rows, distributing emergency blankets, for suddenly it’s cold, very cold, the air conditioning having stopped several hours ago. They offer us bottles of water, but when my turn comes, there are none left, I must wait for them to fetch more. I am thirsty.
It seems likely that we’re all going to spend the night in this large room that is so dark, clouds must be obscuring the moonlight for we can only see each other as black silhouettes; some people want to lie on the work tables, but the library staff protest, saying it would risk damaging the screens.
The young woman, after a moment of panic, makes light of it, or almost. She says that it’s times like this that create the demographic peaks. That makes her smile. A man comes to offer her some food, an apple it seems, and points by way of invitation to the quiet, relatively protected spot he has found, but she refuses; I’m with my father, she says, we’re fine here.
She removes her shoes, and pulls the blanket over herself. In a tender, if complicitous tone, she wishes me a good night, and places the palm of her left hand on the back of my right hand as if to comfort or perhaps console me. I won’t be able to sleep; I know it, it’s a foregone conclusion, such a funny expression at my age. I need the company of books to fall asleep, even if only one, on the bedside table, as one finds in hotel rooms sometimes, for one cannot always be surrounded by a library. Never in my life have I slept without a book in my hand. I feel like a cigarette. I ask for her name. Louise, she replies. If I had had a daughter I would have called her that name. I did not have a daughter. I had no child at all. My books will be scattered, no-one is interested in them these days. I tell her that I’m going to try to find a corner to smoke a cigarette; she smiles in amusement, and says to me, you really are from another age. I smile in turn, for of course the smoke detectors don’t work without electricity. It will suffice that I simply isolate myself; no-one is immediately going to detect the odour of one little cigarette in this vast space of air and emptiness.
And what if the power were never to return?
Translated from the French by Carolyne Lee