In these days of melancholic confinement, when the future seems even more uncertain than usual, I turn instinctively to books that have long offered me comfort and consolation. Among these dog-eared companions are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, the poems of Miguel Hernández and Plato’s Republic. Reading Plato’s strange book today, with its mixture of banter, political digressions, questions of education and ethics, and storytelling, I came once more upon two of the great Platonic fairy tales, the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Er. It occurred to me that a possible connection between the two might be found in reading them as the beginning and end points of Plato’s understanding of the story of our lives. The Allegory of the Cave tells us that what we suppose to be reality is nothing but the shadows of real things projected onto a cave’s wall. The Myth of Er promises an afterlife in which we will travel to a new world, meet the souls of great people and converse with them. Plato seems to tell us that the perceived misfortunes and labours of our present life will find their true meaning after death. The kind of intellectual resurrection that Plato hoped for need not be taken literally (it is, after all, presented as a myth). But the hopeful idea of restoration remained with me. Perhaps Plato, who lost so much throughout his long life, was telling his future readers that loss is only a preamble to finding again.
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In the early months of 2015, I lost my library. That is to say, I was forced to leave France, sell my house, pack up my books and send them to Montreal, where, thanks to a generous offer by my Quebec publisher, they were stored in a large warehouse. Knowing what had happened, people from around the world kindly tried to find a home for my books so that the library might come to life again. In New York, Quebec City, Mexico, Istanbul and even a small village near Naples, sympathetic readers started conversations about the possibility of relocating my library, but nothing came of their wishful thinking. I had become resigned to losing my books forever and accepting that my library had followed the fate of its Alexandrian predecessors.
And then, in February of this year, out of the blue, an invitation arrived from the mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina, to come and have a talk about a project he had imagined. My Portuguese publisher, Bárbara Bulhosa, had spoken to him about the loss of my library, and Medina, with an interest in cultural matters vastly uncommon among politicians, thought that the collection was exactly what Lisbon needed. Lisbon has an excellent system of libraries, but they are mostly concerned with Portuguese culture. My library contains works in several European languages, as well as a lot of material on the history of reading, which is my main subject of study. Medina wondered whether I would consider donating my library to the city of Lisbon. The city would house it in a municipal building and give me the position of director. He suggested we call it the Centro de Estudos da História da Leitura (Centre for the Study of the History of Reading). I couldn’t believe that he was truly making the offer.
I’ve been rereading the Father Brown stories, and recently came upon a line I’d read before but never quite believed: ‘The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.’ Six months after my meeting with the mayor, I found myself in Lisbon, having signed my books over to the city. In a public ceremony on 12 September, the mayor announced the creation of the centre. It will be open to everyone – students and ordinary visitors, scholars and curious readers – and it will work in partnership with other cultural institutions such as the Casa Fernando Pessoa and the José Saramago Foundation. Its motto will be Flaubert’s ‘Read to live!’ and it will have an honorary board of distinguished figures from around the world. I will feel, as William S Gilbert once said, ‘like a poor lion in a den of Daniels’. The building chosen to house my library is the 19th-century palace of the marqueses de Pombal on Rua das Janelas Verdes. Over the years, the beautiful palace, decorated with splendid blue tiles and murals by one of the French artists who worked on the Petit Trianon in Versailles, went through several incarnations before falling into disuse. Latterly, Madonna rented some of the outbuildings to park her cars and her gym apparatus. It’s been suggested that her sweat could be collected from the floor and sold in tiny vials like holy relics.
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Turning a private library into a public one is not an inconsequential gesture. After opening his private collection of texts and images to the public, the great scholar Aby Warburg, who defined himself as a ‘Hamburger at heart, a Jew by blood, a Florentine in spirit’, suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be interned in the psychiatric clinic of Dr Ludwig Binswanger in Switzerland for three painful years. Opening your private library to other readers is dangerous: it allows strangers to enter your mind and to bear witness to your most secret passions, desires and fears.
Every day now, I walk past the building that will house my library and touch the stone facade in superstitious awe and with a sense of unmerited benediction. I feel guilty about the fact that, in the midst of all the suffering that the coronavirus pandemic and political greed have brought to the world, I should be given the chance to begin a happy adventure. My library, when it was set up in France, represented for me the world itself, and everything that could be known about it, in much the same way that the inhabitants of Plato’s cave thought that the shadows they saw were the reality of material things. Like shadows that are doomed to vanish, my books disappeared into boxes, and only the memory of them remained, partial and indistinct, in my unreliable mind. But now, thanks to the generosity of the city of Lisbon, they will step out of their graves and stand once more on shelves, ready to declare, from the day of their resurrection onwards, their belief in miracles.