“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
If you listen carefully, you can hear the conversations going on within books. Over here on the third shelf, Florence and Giles is chatting away to The Turn of the Screw. Wide Sargasso Sea is arguing with Jane Eyre; Jane gets on better with Rebecca and Bluebeard. Northanger Abbey is pinching and teasing The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is trying very hard to be frightening. Fingersmith is having a cup of tea with The Woman in White.
Come closer. Can you hear The Picture of Dorian Gray? Listen: Oscar Wilde is sparring with Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He’s also swapping notes with his great-uncle Charles Maturin, flirting with Joris-Karl Huysmans and gossiping with Benjamin Disraeli. Books are actually libraries in themselves, you see, wherein the author is conversing with other authors. Books contain other books.
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a story about a library, but the novel itself is a densely packed library. Each chapter is a bookshelf. You’ll find philosophy, history, semiotics, politics and religion, but also crime fiction and popular culture. Mixed into the parable about contemporary Italy and the debate about Aristotle, there are sentences from Charles M. Shulz’s Peanuts and affectionate nods to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a treatise on epistemology and censorship wrapped up in a murder mystery.
What’s happening on the top shelf? Peter Carey listened sympathetically to Edmund Gosse but he’s getting into a debate with Charles Dickens over colonialism and Empire. Jack Maggs is a riposte to Great Expectations, you see. It turns Dickens’s novel on its head and challenges its imperialist assumptions. To quote Louise Bennett, Jack Maggs is “colonisin’ Englan in reverse”.
Being a writer, Carey is a responsive reader. He’s aware of the traditions he’s working within, and the literary history that surrounds him. When he writes, he talks to the writers before him. In Oscar and Lucinda, Carey takes the central relationship in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and creates something new. It’s fascinating to read both books one after the other. Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Theft, and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith are also in dialogue with other works. Carey appreciates other writers and knows he’s not working in a vacuum.
Can you hear that? Even if you’re writing in seclusion, you’re part of a community, part of an ongoing conversation between writers throughout history. Writers converse with each other across the centuries; books make this possible.