Monday, May 21, 2012

Double Crossed

Three weeks ago, an exciting event occurred at Larrikin's End Library - someone left a globe-trotting book! I know, I know - but this is about as thrilling as it gets in Larrikin's End. Our book, as it quickly became known, even though there were several hundred others who have a greater claim to that status, is Clare's War by Anita Burgh.

I had been vaguely aware of the physical meme that is Book Crossing, but somehow I'd imagined it as a phenomenon whose purpose is to contribute to societal uplift by distributing exhilarating free literature via creaky park bench, dodgy taxi, seedy bar, grand hotel, dauntingly vast transit exchange or camel train. And what a marvellously romantic idea that is. Think of the joy of finding Gorky Park actually in Gorky Park or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which begins in a taxi driving around Paris and ends with one doing the same in Madrid, in a taxi, in either Paris or Madrid. Speculate, if you will, upon the thrill of locating Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize winner Last Orders in a Margate pub, or any pub for that matter. Dream of discovering The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories in the foyer of any of the palatial Ritz hotels or any novel by Camus in your camel's saddlebag as you set off for Giza with all the other geezers. Only, you know you're especially blessed because you have the camel with the Camus.

What I'm saying here is that the finding of a Crosser book should make one feel a bit special. It didn't quite happen that way in Larrikin's End. Our book was delivered to us in what is known as a 'controlled release' in book-crossing vernacular. It originated in Mt Gambier, South Australia, where it appears to have become de-accessioned - unwanted in library language. Someone from a library brought it to the safe haven of another library, even handing it in at the desk rather than leaving it on a sofa or shelving it where it could at least give rise to a minor mystery. And this is how it came into my hands.

I happened to pass the library desk several moments after the exchange and a colleague said, 'oi, you're going to Melbourne tomorrow, do you want to take this book? The rule with a Crosser book is that you must register and then read the book before 're-releasing' it. I was only going for the day and half of that was going to be taken up with seeing a play. I sized it up and thought, yep, I could read it on the four-hour train trip. To add complication to dilemma, one of the librarians suggested we should start our own book. It so happened that we'd received a pile of donations and the ones that were not suitable for lending had been put on a trolley for sale. We voted and I bought the Marian Keyes novel Anybody Out There? from the trolley. This I must read either before or during my next trip to Melbourne, week after next.

Clare's War isn't the sort of book I'd normally read. It's about a rebellious, (in a ditzy rather than an heroic way), English girl who ambles off to France in the late 1930s. The inevitability of war collides with Clare's implacability as she stubbornly hangs about fretting over the safety of a husband and then a lover. Fate casts her hither and thither and her convenient facility with languages, coupled with an apparent guile that doesn't quite transcend the page, saves her from the Gestapo on more than one occasion. This disjunctive serendipity enables her to stumble, more-or-less unhindered, into taking a small, but crucial role in the French Resistance.

Although not critically satisfying, the book did fulfil its obligation to keep me occupied on a train journey that was aurally challenging in a way that Camus might not have conquered. I read most of it between Larrikin's End and Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, where I alighted to characteristically vile weather. Severe winds turned indoor refuge into a necessity. I took refuge in art galleries little and large and an extended lunch at my favourite Chinese cafe, Noodle Kingdom where I read some more of the book and, I think helpfully, splashed a little character-building soy sauce on it's flavourless pages.

I had just an hour before the play began and fifty pages to go so I sat in a comfy sofa in the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria and finished Clare's War. And that is where I left it. Setting off, I had in mind for it a more glorious fate. I was thinking I might leave it on a tram or in Chloe's Bar at the famous Young and Jackson's. But the weather was so foul I didn't feel like getting on a tram and I wasn't sure that I'd have time after the play for a drink at Y&J's (I did, thankfully). Leaving the book in this way counts as a 'wild release' even though it's not exactly a hardship for a book to be left in a public gallery. It wasn't really an adventure befitting a Crosser. And I do feel bad about that.

Think of what one could do with a Crosser book. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse could be abandoned in a lonely lighthouse, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, buried under an actual volcano, or Faulkner's As I Lay Dying passed to a funeral home. What a distraction that would be from your annoyingly inconvenient bereavement to find a travelling Faulkner. Imagine finding Zadie Smith's White Teeth in your dentist's waiting room, or The Old Curiosity Shop in an antiques store where you can't afford to buy anything but you like the musty smell. And then you go in there and the kindly proprietor tells you the book is not valuable but it is free to you. Or - and here's a tip for anyone who has a dreary B&B that they've inappropriately hyped to trap unwary international travellers - Bleak House in a really bleak house! What a redeeming consolation that might be.

Unfortunately, I wasn't going to a war, only to Melbourne. However, an exhibition about the art of the Napoleonic Era was just about to start at the NGV and Napoleon was French and did loads of warring so it seemed as close to apt as I could get in the circumstances. Clare's War was 'released in the wild'. And... three weeks later, it remains at large. My fear is it's ended up in lost property. If a book must die, surely it should go heroically. I can only hope it was taken by the sort of ne're-do-well as would take a free book and belligerently enjoy same without the slightest regard for its anxious releaser.

On my next trip to Melbourne, I'll be popping in for the Napoleon exhibition and asking after our book. And I'll be reading the Marian Keyes on the train and thinking about a more daring release for it. With a title like Anybody Out There? the possibilities are surely endless but my first instinct is to try to get it out to a space station. Chick lit in space, now there's a thought...