It started me thinking about libraries (which I try to visit whenever I find myself in a new city), and about one great European library in particular.
While working in Paris on Lost Son, my new novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, I had occasion to visit the elegant old Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue de Richelieu on the Right Bank. This was a place of great importance to Rilke in his critical days as a poor, struggling, unknown poet and foreigner in Paris. The reading room here became his sanctuary amidst the oppressive squalor and anonymity of the city. And in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke made the reading room just as important to his poor, struggling alter ego, Malte.Lost Son began as a series of journals in which I sought to dream up the particularities of Rilke’s life, reaching for an approximation of the workings of his everyday consciousness, noting down important facts and details regarding the historical moment of my story, the poet’s biography, or the character of a place. This free-form notebook process resulted in a number of first-person journal entries in which I addressed the poet directly, imagining myself in conversation with him, even fictionalizing myself to a great degree in order to get as close as possible to the fictional Rilke I was creating -- as close as possible to the tiniest, most personal ramifications of an experience had by Rilke, which my novel might dramatize.
Most of those first-person notebook sections were excised from the material that made up the final manuscript of Lost Son. But they were an important part of my process, and I believe they helped create a powerful sense of intimacy in the finished novel. Often, too, these entries first delineated the questions that remain at the heart of Lost Son. Here’s one such notebook entry dealing with Rilke’s—and Malte’s—Paris library in its present day. I found it to be no simple task gaining admittance to the reading room, which is open only to serious researchers…
... Bibliothèque Nationale ...
I was afraid they wouldn’t let me in. Weren’t you, also, afraid when you first came here in that disturbed Autumn of 1902? Weren’t you submerged by the institutional grandeur, the stony inner-dusk of the reception hall?—afraid the library wardens would find you, despite the purity of your aims, ineligible for access?
You would explain that you were doing research for a monograph about their great sculptor, but maybe even that would not suffice, for you clearly lacked the brio, the forceful élan of an academic. But thank God: your publisher had written you a letter; your intentions were certified, rendered official.
And how would you have comported yourself in the absence of a letter?
It’s important, for one like me, to wonder such things from this obscure future of mine…
For I was intimidated, yes. How could I explain that I had no very particular use for this library, nothing particular to research?—that all I really wanted was time in this great reading room? Your reading room. Malte’s…Well, maybe I encouraged them to believe I had specific scholarly objectives, or at least did nothing to dispel the impression.
Anyway, they’ve let me in. I have been given leave to sit here like Malte, like you before him, and to read a poet. You and he read Francis Jammes, but I am reading you. What would you think of that?—that I’ve been sitting here in this enormous vaulted chamber in the center of Paris on a day more than a century after you first sat here, under the same opaque oval skylight of the ceiling, and have been reading my English translation of your wonderful, terrible book?
The novel lies close at hand now, its titled cover bared to the ceiling’s natural light, displayed for anyone to see. And who among these many ‘lecteurs’ will recognize the title as they pass along the aisle behind me? Who among them will suffer the quiet unsettlement of recognizing this name, Malte, this book whose existence owes much to this room, this old salle de références? For it was here that an obscure young foreigner, an empty-pocketed poet of twenty-six, was given leave to linger amongst piles and piles of books. (“Probably the most extensive in the world” says your Baedeker of this bibliothèque.) How does that change a place?—that it became a place where an artist with few other hopes, an artist destined to long struggle and distant achievement, found harbor for a while?
Here is Malte:
“I sit and read a poet. There are many people in the hall, but one doesn’t feel them. They are in the books…And I sit and have a poet. How’s that for a destiny. There are now perhaps three hundred people in the hall, reading. But it is impossible that each and every one has a poet (God knows what they have). Three hundred poets there are not. But see now—how’s this for a destiny—I, perhaps the most dejected of these readers, an outlander: I have a poet. Even though I am poor…”
The domed room is amurmur just now with vast cathedral-like noises that somehow help one to a restful state. For several hours already I’ve been awash in the luminous light from the panels overhead. Every few moments the light has changed character very slightly—from a clear bath-like tone to a flatter, bluish monochrome. If my notebook were an eye it would see me bent in this ellipsoidal surface of light, and around my skull the ageless names of cities twirling like a crown of thoughts. They are inscribed up there in an ornamental wreath. Clockwise, they read: Alexandrie ~ Londres ~ Babylone ~ Vienne ~ Thebes ~ Rome ~ Pekin ~ Jerusalem ~ Paris ~ Byzance ~ Washington ~ Florence ~ Athens ~ Nineve ~ Berlin ~ Alexandrie …
In the end my one book spoke for me and the library wardens gave me admittance in spite of my obvious trepidation, which might have caused them doubt. And what a marvel that was: to have a book and to let it speak!
But why do I feel afraid even now?—afraid they’ll discover I’m guilty of wanting so very little, wanting to just sit here and think on you and Malte and all these things and see how such thoughts help one who hopes to create.
In order to guard myself from undue scrutiny, Malte’s Notebooks are not the sole volume I’ve displayed on the table. For good measure I’ve emptied my bag of all three of its books: one of them an irreproachable hardcover opened to pages with sentences darkly underlined, margins annotated. In plain view amongst the books I’ve also laid my Bibliothèque Nationale researcher’s card. This bright yellow card bears a tiny color photo of me, taken at my researcher’s interview and reproduced instantaneously by computer. What a strange, stern image it is. I see locked in that face (a face surprisingly adult-like) the careful, guarded readiness of one prepared to prove himself. So much anticipative pressure still tense in those features, though the greatest trial—the trial of explaining oneself and one’s intentions (in halting French, of course)—had just been overcome, and leave to enter had been granted, and this picture was but a formality no different than my subsequent payment of researcher’s fees (4.5euro), in order for the coveted entrance to be made at last.
How do we explain ourselves? Perhaps that is the question I wanted most to explore in seeking access to this monumental reading room. Where is the place, the outer everyday place, in which young obscure ones can state simply their desires, their hopes, and find those things legitimized, let alone understood?
Do I overstate the predicament? Surely you wouldn’t think so. The universities that cherish you today, after all, were never your home. You lacked the distinction automatically conferred by scholarly achievements; lacked the fame that alone is the badge of an artist’s relevance in the world. Lacked, often, the proper citizenship…
Where are such a worker’s ‘salles de sanctuaire,’ his by-admittance-only zones—he who lacks this or that institution’s card? Lonely unratified one dressed again in yesterday’s clothing, he who has no name and carries no credentials, he whose shoes, like Malte’s, “are left in objectionable condition”, whose “beard looks somewhat neglected.”