“In a library, one should never draw attention to oneself.”
Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love, the shortest book I read in 2015 at just 92 pages, is the monologue of a French librarian (the novella’s translated from the French by Sian Reynolds) who comes into work one morning (we assume) to find a reader who has been locked in overnight. The result is an outpouring of speech in this place of silence, a rant and a lament about her life, about the books she takes care of and about a researcher named Martin.
The Library of Unrequited Love is, as its title suggests, a sort of study in loneliness. It is a narrative which explodes a stereotype – the spinster librarian, dedicated to books and to order over the messiness of human companionship – even as it reveals how treacherously that stereotype binds its subjects. Our Heroine waxes lyrical about books, as we expect librarians, and books with whimsical Instagram titles, to do; but she feels, also, threatened by them, constructing a sort of fantasy in which they battle for dominance over the library, and over humanity, and revealing, too, that she rarely reads even alone any more. (I notice that on Goodreads the only bookish quotes from the novella supplied are the waxing-lyrical ones.) She lives alone, but in bitterness and staleness, her days circumscribed by the library; she never takes holidays. Her unrequited love, the aforementioned Martin, barely registers her existence. Librarians are the guardians of order, but that role, Divry points out, flattens them as humans as much as it elevates them. It’s only in speech, that form of communication usually taboo in libraries, that our librarian can become fully human, as she spills our her contradictions and her complexities to the lost reader, so that the librarian’s role effectively dehumanises her even as she derives authority from it.
I can’t help wondering how much of this is gendered. One of the things I admired about the book was that it gives rare space to a female character simply to be: unlikable, contradictory, nuanced, everything that men have been allowed to be since The Odyssey. And it’s interesting, too, that I found myself thinking of the reader, the recipient of the librarian’s monologue, as male, even though there is absolutely no textual evidence either way. Women, generally, have to make a greater effort in Western society to be heard and to be recognised, which is, perhaps, Divry’s point here: the librarian is being silenced by the stereotype built around her, so how can she ever hope to make that effort to be heard, by the readers, by Martin?
There’s a sort of hopelessness to the brevity of the book, under this gendered reading. This is the librarian’s only utterance; the rest is silence, extending infinitely before and beyond the text, a silence enforced by convention and stereotype. The effort of being noticed is simply too much.
The Library of Unrequited Love is one of those intensely layered and meaningful texts which you could imagine close-reading for days and days without exhausting the possibilities. I admired the book; it is poignant and bittersweet and quietly intelligent, and if it doesn’t deliver the kind of quirky, manic-pixie-dream-girl tale the title promises, well, it shows us something much more complex, and, ultimately, more satisfying.