Dr. Rossana Morriello, you are the author of the book The narrated library published by Editrice Bibliografica: what bond unites the library and the imaginary?
A very strong bond. The library is present in the collective imagination and therefore is often the subject of narration by writers and directors of every age and from every geographical origin. It would be enough to give a couple of examples citing the role of the library and the librarian in the novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, or in The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges, who was also librarian, first in a small library in Buenos Aires and then director of the National Library of Argentina. Like Luciano Bianciardi, who was director of the Chelliana Library in Grosseto, of which he speaks in his works. The narrators are first of all readers and often turn to libraries in reality for their research of information and data preparatory to the writing of a novel or the creation of a film, maybe they spend a lot of time there, and therefore they know them, in many cases are therefore themselves of library users. Their descriptions of the library environments, of the reading rooms, are detailed and full of meaning. I think of the many who have described the dome of the British Library in the previous location to the current one in St. Pancras, when the library was inside the British Museum, among which are Virginia Woolf and David Lodge, for example. Or, to give another example closer to us, to Dario Argento who described the Angelica Library of Rome in one of the stories of his first book, Horror, because he was a frequent visitor.
Then many are attracted to what the library symbolically represents, that is, a place where “all the memory of the world” is preserved, to quote the title of the beautiful documentary that Alain Resnais dedicated in 1956 to the National Library of France.
What relationship exists between libraries and their literary representation?
The relationship that usually exists between reality and fictional fiction, that is, in literary representation we find a mixture of objective and realistic descriptions, stereotyped images and narrative artifices functional to the unfolding of the plot and to capture and keep the reader’s attention alive. The library is often a metaphor used to tell important themes. For example, women’s issues related to reading and access to knowledge. In the chapter of The Narrated Library dedicated to female literary librarianship I talk about the story of an Indian writer, The Girl from the Library by Vishwaprya Iyengar, in which the protagonist is a young girl who tries to satisfy her thirst for knowledge in the library because this is denied her by the culture in which she lives which provides school education only for sons. And it is not necessary to go back in time to find similar testimonies also in the Western world, such as that of Virginia Woolf who in A Room of Her Own tells of how women in the nineteenth century were forbidden access not only to the library but to the entire university institution.
How is the library represented in literature and cinema?
In general, the library is functional to the writer’s narrative style, so depending on the type of work it is represented in a more or less realistic or more or less stereotyped way. For example, Alan Bennett uses it as a privileged setting for one of his most ironic and irreverent stories. Libraries are often the places that help solve mysteries and find the culprits in detective and detective stories. Investigators, policemen or private citizens look in the library for tools to unmask the guilty and unravel the mysteries and usually find them in books and with the help of librarians. Any plot that is built on an enigma, on the unknown, can only be unraveled through knowledge. Knowledge allows you to transform the unknown into the known and knowledge is found in the books that libraries keep, moreover in an orderly and classified way. The examples are so many both in literature and in cinema, from a film like Seven in a novel (and later film) and It by Stephen King. But the literary and cinematographic library is much more, it is a place of encounters, even of love encounters, it is a place in which to get lost in books and in one’s own fantasies and travel to distant and fantastic places, it is a place of training, it is a place of redemption, as in many prison films.
What recurring stereotypes appear in the library representation?
The most recurring is undoubtedly the stereotype of the librarian depicted as a lonely, unkempt, not particularly attractive person, in the classic image of a woman who is no longer very young, with glasses and a bun, and who intimates silence to users. Even in the case of male librarians the stereotype is that of the bizarre character, perhaps with some tic, not very sociable and gruff. A rather common stereotype in the literature and cinema of every nation, but with numerous exceptions, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. For example, the librarian of the film The Mummy, a little distracted but a prepared young and adventurous Egyptologist who screams to the world her pride in being a librarian, or the beautiful blonde librarian to whom Arturo Bandini is attracted in John Fante’s The Road to Los Angeles .
In Anglo-Saxon literary and cinematographic fiction the library is generally represented as a lively place, where many activities take place, with a realistic and indicative image of the role that libraries have in the life of citizens and in the consideration of institutions in those countries. In Italy this does not happen in fiction or even in reality since libraries discount the low importance attributed to culture in general in our country. Italian libraries are narrated as austere, dusty, monumental places, as sometimes they really are due to their history which leads them to preserve precious documentary heritages often placed in historic buildings, and unfortunately we perceive the different weight they have in the collective imagination . But even in this case there are numerous exceptions.
Which writers more than others have explored the world of libraries and librarians?
It is very difficult to rank because the writers who have explored the world of libraries and librarians are so many and they have done so in many works. Certainly those who have had a more direct contact with this world, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Luciano Bianciardi, have explored it with a particularly careful point of view. Or Stephen King who worked in the library as a boy, where he met his wife among other things, as he recounts in his autobiographical work On Writing . Philip Roth, to take another of the many examples, also includes them in most of his books.
Which of these representations have been so successful that they have remained in the collective imagination?
We have already spoken of novels such as The Name of the Rose and The Library of Babel . To these we can add Fahrenheit 451 , the novel by Ray Bradbury of 1955 whose persistence in the collective imagination was certainly favored by the cinematographic transposition made by François Truffaut about ten years later. In Fahrenheit 451 the people who memorize the books condemned to the stake themselves become human books in a large living library. As far as cinema is concerned, in addition of course to the transpositions of the novels mentioned above, the library of Il cielo sopra Berlino is one of the unforgettable performances by Wim Wenders. In the film, several scenes are set in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. For Damiel and Cassiel, the two angels who want to understand human nature and steal thoughts and emotions that are denied them, there is no better place than the library. So in the Staatsbibliothek some of the most exciting scenes of the film take place, when the angels move among the tables and shelves listening to people’s thoughts. And in the library they meet Homer who brings back the reflection on literature and art through the verses of Peter Handke.
What representation of libraries appears in authors such as Shakespeare and Paul Auster?
The book The Narrated Library refers to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Paul Auster‘s Brooklyn Follies . The stormit is one of Shakespeare’s last plays in which many of the recurring elements in his formidable literary production, such as the supernatural, are amplified. The plot tells of Prospero, Duke of Milan, who after being ousted by his brother Antonio goes into exile on a desert island, worrying only about saving and taking his personal library with him. From his books he will draw the magical power on the island and in fact the books will be the main target of the conspiracy between Caliban and Stefano. An important theme that recurs in a lot of literature, who owns books, a library, has enormous power on his side which is the power of knowledge. The film adaptation of the Shakespearean tragicomedy made by Peter Greenaway in 1991 underlines this aspect. Brooklyn Follies has at the center of the plot a scam built on the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter which will be discovered thanks to the library and librarians. So even in this case the knowledge contained in the library allows you to discover the truth.
In Lalla Romano the books constitute a pervasive, omnipresent element.
In the novel Una giovinezza inventata , to which a chapter of The Narrated Library is dedicated, Lalla Romano recounts her university years spent in Turin, starting in 1924 when she moved there from her hometown in the province of Cuneo to attend the Faculty of Letters. These are the years of the Turin of Cesare Pavese, Mario Soldati, Carlo Levi, Felice Casorati that Romano will meet, in some cases right in the library. The Royal Library and the National University Library, which at the time had its headquarters in via Po in the university building, are the places where she refines her training and meets various personalities from the cultural world, including the man she will fall in love with.
The library is a central element in Umberto Eco’s Nome della rosa , which can be defined as a “book of books”.
The Name of The rose is obviously a fundamental reference novel when it comes to libraries in literature since it is built around books, which at the time in which it is set were handwritten codes, and offers us many insights into the history of libraries, particularly for the medieval era, before the birth of the modern library. At that time the libraries of the monasteries were centers of conservation but also of intellectual production since manuscripts were copied there for dissemination in other convents, in papal seats or to donate them to notables. These libraries and their librarians therefore had very great power over the production and circulation of knowledge, which is what Eco’s novel tells. And, as in so many other literary cases,
How did Ermanno Olmi interpret the theme of the library?
As a dialectic between the role of knowledge contained in books and the direct experience necessary in life. Both are important according to the director, in particular in reference to the spiritual and religious habit treated in the film Centochiodi .
Rossana Morriello is a librarian at the Polytechnic of Turin where she deals with research evaluation. Graduated in Foreign Languages and Literature and in Archivistics and Librarianship, her various research interests in the field of scientific librarianship have long been accompanied by explorations in the field of “literary librarianship”. In both sectors she is the author or editor of numerous publications.
The original interview was published by “Letture.org” https://www.letture.org/la-biblioteca-narrata-rossana-morriello