The Spirit of a Library
by Bertil Falk
The meeting had reached the particular point on the agenda when the decision should be taken as to the future of the old library building. The proposal to tear it down and build a new building of glass and concrete had been raised three years earlier at the same time as young Andrew McCoy had been engaged as a librarian. The students liked him very much, especially the female ones, and he soon after taking up his duties was called The Real McCoy.
However, the attractive young man did not seem to be overly interested in women, a fact that made him an even more desirable bachelor, a very eligible young man. The whole of Andrew McCoy’s attention seemed to be taken up with library science, the library itself, and its books.
The library was actually one of the most important of its kind in the world when it came to drama and theatre. Its collection of plays was impressive, on the verge of immense. And Andrew McCoy defended the 153-year old library building with the intensity of a lover.
They were four decision-makers plus the librarian around the small table. There was the headmistress and chairwoman Nirvana Swann, a determined mother of five, who kept her family, including her husband, in good discipline. She was against tearing down the building and endorsed the proposal of erecting a detached wing for the growing collections.
Peter Enhorning, a professor of ancient Chinese criminology in general, a specialist in Judge Dee and his times in particular, was very much for the destruction of the old building. He was in the process of dramatizing one of Judge Dee’s cases that took place in the seventh century A.D.
“This monster of stone is too expensive to keep warm during the winter,” he said, “and it is not very practical with all its ridiculous staircases and corridors and damp galleries.”
“True, true,” Conrad Smith agreed. “Just look at us, how cramped for room we are here, sitting round a small table because this room is so narrow.” And he exclaimed: “Mrs. Swann, tear down these walls.”
Conrad Smith was a specialist on Elizabethan drama and his treatise “Marlowe’s Lover Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays” had been greeted with marked though not always very favorable attention, but nevertheless enough to make one or two colleagues and competitors envious.
“Oh, come on, Conrad,” said Nirvana Swann.
“A new building will have many comfortable and convenient meeting places of all sizes,” Conrad Smith replied.
At that Robert Kahler cleared his throat. He was a professor of Scandinavian literature and in the process of writing what he thought would be his major work: “The Relativity of August Strindberg”. It was actually based on an observation about the Swedish playwright made by Eric Bentley in his The Playwright as Thinker, published in 1946.
“I’m like Conrad: sick and tired of this house. And I speak in support of the destruction of this building.”
Andrew McCoy, who had been listening without showing any emotion, got to his feet. “Dear friends,” he said. “This building is much more than a library. It is a historic site, and its construction more than one hundred and fifty years ago meant a big step forward when it came to library buildings. It would be a downright scandal if this building were destroyed.
“It’s not only a house of dramas and comedies and plays from all over the world, the walls of this building are permeated with love for our common literary heritage. This house has its own spirit. Yes, you may say that this building has a soul of its own.
“Dare we do such a nasty thing? No, no and no! We can’t! We must think of the future. Coming generations will blame us. They will call us those confounded and insensitive people who sat in a small room round a small table thinking small thoughts. No, no and no!”
But Andrew McCoy did not change their minds. By a vote of 3 to 2 the decision was taken to tear down those walls.
* * *
That evening, Peter Enhorning, who used to go to bed early, reading a Judge Dee mystery by Robert van Gulik, sat down by his chessboard contemplating a chess problem before he went to bed. All of a sudden, he got the feeling that there was someone in the room.
When he looked up from the chessboard, a man, long well-known to him was standing in front of him, wearing a purple robe with gold-embroidered rims and a high winged cap, exactly as he was depicted in Van Gulik’s drawings.
For a moment Peter Enhorning’s mind oscillated between enthusiasm and fear, which after a while found its expression in respectful awe. The awesome gestalt in front of him sat down and made a move.
“Check!” Judge Dee said and continued straightaway. “I’ve come here because I’m displeased with your behavior today. This building must be saved, and tomorrow I expect you to ask Mrs. Nirvana Swann to summon the same group again and this time you will support Mrs. Swann. It’s your move.”
“But...” Peter Enhorning began.
“I can’t force you, you’ll do as you like. I said, your move.”
Peter Enhorning looked at the chessboard, where the chessmen seemed to dance. With a dreamlike motion he made his move.
“A very clever move,” Judge Dee commented. “As I said, you do as you like. But remember one thing. If you’re stubborn, as far as your research work is concerned, it will not go easy. Checkmate!”
Peter Enhorning started out of a haze. He was alone.
* * *
Conrad Smith went to bed with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but had not even opened the book when he realized that he was not alone.
“The question is whether to be or not to be as far as the library building is concerned. I am not happy with you. Your theory that Marlowe’s lover wrote my plays is, of course, amazing but also amusing. However, I think you’d better change your mind about the future of the library building. If not, I’ll see to it that your ridiculous theory as to who wrote my plays will be exposed.”
“But...” Conrad Smith began.
“No buts,” the man who seemed to be William Shakespeare said. “Tomorrow you’ll tell Mrs. Nirvana Swann that you’ve changed your mind for the better. Otherwise your laughable idea that some gay prostitute of the Dog’s Ass brothel owned by the Bishop of London wrote my plays, will be smashed. Understood?”
“I think so,” Conrad Smith said with a shiver, “but you, you can’t be. Who are you?”
He found himself talking to nobody.
* * *
“Alas for mankind!” a voice pronounced the refrain of A Dream Play.
Robert Kahler looked up from reading that same play and there he was: intense blue eyes, hair growing in all directions; the man himself.
“What kind of practical joke is this?” Robert Kahler asked. “I must say that the disguise is very skilful. You certainly look like Strindberg.”
“You are to be pitied,” the figure said, “if you don’t make up for your misbehavior today. And I can tell you for sure that I’m not a practical joke. Some idiots accused me of writing too-mournful dramas. What did they want me to write? Exhilarating tragedies? You can accuse me of many things, but I’m not a joker. Tomorrow, I expect you to do your duty and see to it that the library building will be saved. Alas for mankind!”
August Strindberg was gone.
* * *
Nirvana Swann looked at the men round the table.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Yesterday, only Andrew and myself were for saving the building and you three were against it. Overnight all three of you have changed your minds? How come?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Robert Kahler.
“Let me say that I had a vision,” said Peter Enhorning.
“Me too,” said Conrad Smith.
“Hm,” said Nirvana Swann.
At that Andrew McCoy asked permission to speak. He got to his feet.
“You’ve all shown the common sense I expected from you after the visits you had yesterday evening. The answer to ‘to be or not to be’,” and at that Andrew McCoy assumed the shape of William Shakespeare, “will be ‘to be’ and not ‘not to be’. It’s a very” — the bard said and turned into the shape of Judge Dee — “clever move of you all to adopt common sense.” And, assuming the shape of August Strindberg, the gestalt proclaimed: “Hurray for mankind!” before once again becoming Andrew MacCoy.
“My task here is over, Mrs. Swann,” said the Spirit of the library building. “It’s about time for you to advertise for a new librarian. He took two steps and was swallowed up by the wall.
Nirvana Swann shrugged her shoulders. “Of course! That’s why he never went for the girls.”
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk