The just-returned shelves at the Library always remind me of the great movie classic Grand Hotel, the shot of the bustling lobby and the revolving door, with the famous voiceover “Grand Hotel. People come, people go...” In the movie the people all turn out to be stories, and on the just-returned shelves the stories are like people. There are the return guests (Oh look, there’s On Chesil Beach back again!) and the new guests, from all over the world, accompanied by a reputation or maybe not. Like the Grand Hotel, the just-returned shelves are a cosmopolitan spot.
It was on the just-returned shelves that I recently picked up a little white book, started to leaf through as you do at the just-returned shelves, and was stopped in my tracks by the dedication, collector of fine dedications that I am. "To British Airways", it read. The book design was decidedly old-fashioned and for a split second I entertained the thought that perhaps the book dated back to some Pleistocene epoch of travel when British Airways might have been synonymous with glamour and adventure. Alas, no. In smaller type below the author continues, "I owe the illumination that led me to this novel to a delay in the Palermo-London flight of 2 September 2000."
I learned about the pipe from an article about her in The Independent (it's described as "Maigret-style"), which also contained these deathless lines: "As a young girl, one of her summer jobs was to 'beat the books' in her grandmother's library. Permitted to dust, but not to read the family's eclectic collection - which included her uncles' 'naughty books' - she confined herself to speed-reading the prefaces.”
The prefaces? Is this an error of translation? And why wasn't she allowed to read the books? Was the prohibition on literature in general, or because she might stumble on one of the naughty ones? What were they anyway? Fanny Hill, Ulysses? I put this to my Italian husband, who shared with his uncle a passion for Joseph Conrad, or Honrad, as it is pronounced in their Florentine tongue. “Well, careful,” he said. “At school our copies of The Iliad had a little skip where lines had been chopped out. Of course we went to look it up. It was where Hecuba rips open her dress and takes her breast in her hand to show Hector how she, who gave him her milk, will mourn him. That's all it was, the word 'breast'!"
Next post: What is the great Sicilian novel?
The books: The almond picker and The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby