Raymond is an Arts librarian who loses his job at a university library in a Digital Age ‘purge’. His passion for books compels him to an heroic defence of the printed word as the library culls thousands of volumes in the spirit of this new age. The redundant librarian, a widower alone with his books, then plots the pursuit of a new age himself, dreaming of a ‘renaissance’, and, as with the Renaissance, Raymond’s new life begins with a return to the past, to a time in his life when ‘everything he came across was new’.
Renaissance is a novel of books, of art and architecture, of possible dreams. It explores the relationship between past and present, between old and new, between personal and cultural longing.
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extracts from chapters 1, 2, 3 & 6
Two crates of books gets Raymond’s new library started that evening. His first task is to build a catalogue. That should be easy enough, the books are already catalogued. All he has to do is set up a database on his laptop and record them, but Raymond won’t do that. It’s a library in its own right, he insists; it deserves a fresh start. So he abandons the university’s classification, the Library of Congress system with its Ps and its Bs, its Ds and Fs. The truth is, he can admit now, he has never really felt at home with it. Dewey Decimal was the first system he learnt, and that is where his heart still is. Now begins the pleasure of cataloguing every book again from scratch. Only a librarian would understand that: how each book can be born anew.
Using a small blade, Raymond strips the stickers from the book covers, the university sticker first, then the sticker with the catalogue number. Not placed with care, these ones; they were all done in a hurry when scanning was introduced; no-one had time to be neat. Inside the cover, he carefully peels off the due date slip. Scanning made these redundant, too, but they were left inside, and occasionally Raymond finds a due date stamp from just a few years ago. A sign there’s a pulse, he muses.
He has retrieved a box of labels from the library’s stores: a precious never-opened box of acid-free labels, the type they used when he first arrived. Last forever, supposedly. He writes the catalogue number on the label with the German pen Cass gave him, and smooths the label down on the spine of the book, thumbs pressing evenly on either side to avoid smearing the ink. In was in acquisitions that Raymond started; he used to do this all the time. His hands seem to remember, too, performing the old task with pleasure. Having labelled the first book, Raymond enters the title into the database: Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes; translated by Tobias Smollett: 863.3.C418 DONQ. The new library is now a fact.
He keeps on top of the cataloguing the first week, between twelve and twenty books enter the new database each night, and then they’re stacked in order on the shelves. There’s even time to consider what sort of new bookshelves he might buy. He has money for that now, the money he had earmarked to pay for the books.
But the following week, culling begins in earnest. Extra staff, diverted from their routines of cataloguing and shelf-stacking, swarm along the shelves looking for telltale signs: foxing, damaged spines, multiple translations, long-extinguished readership. All day the de-selection teams can be seen stacking their trolleys. The same trolleys that once brought the books back to the shelves, are now employed to cart them away. In this world of the New Library, square metres are more important than books, more important than ideas.
When the de-selection teams move to the upper floors, workmen arrive at the ground floor to gut the old library. There’s no silence anywhere in the building now. Relentless, this racket: the jack hammers, the splitting and shearing of timber panels, the shouted banter of the workers, the crashing of the trash in the skips. Dust rising from downstairs floats up past the offices upstairs and settles on the windows. Raymond looks out at the campus through this grey film and tries to imagine the old library as it was, down there behind the construction curtains. It’s almost gone, almost gone to dust.
‘In the future’, the University Librarian emails, ‘libraries will be fun’. The keywords: ‘wired’, ‘wireless’, ‘café’, ‘chat’. Workshops begin on how to be New Librarians in the New Library. There are sessions on Kindle and social media, sessions on e-portfolios, sessions on Assignment Navigator and the Digital Toolbox. Someone gives a talk on the relationship between texting and learning. None of it makes sense; no-one mentions books. Raymond suffers through the sessions; says nothing. Everyday the boxes of books keep coming, four, five, six boxes sometimes. The library assistants drop them on the floor, not even bothering to acknowledge the Arts Librarian behind his desk. Can all these be all from Arts?
The books take over the house, room after room. Living room gone, Damian’s old bedroom next, then Cass’s. Now they move into the passageway. He remembers a story about an old man who hadn’t threw out a newspaper for fifty years. What an archive he had! Newspapers going back to the Coronation and the American troops in the war. But his house had become completely unliveable, it stank of newspapers. And he wonders about the madness of his own venture. Had he known there would be so many books, would he ever have made the offer? But that there are so many books makes the effort to save them even more urgent, and the long nights continue. A quick meal, then to work on the catalogue. A dozen books or so might enter the system, their decimal code in Raymond’s practised hand, his thumbs smoothing out the label carefully on the spine; but each night ends the same way, Raymond with a book he doesn’t know, a book he then can’t put down.
For three months the books keep coming, then suddenly it’s over. It is Victoria who delivers the last crate; it was Victoria who started it all. ‘That’s it’, she says, without enthusiasm. ‘We’ve finished.’ She shrugs, pauses for just a moment, and perhaps a look passes between them, a look of resignation or of acknowledgement. They are both there at the end, as they were at the beginning, witnesses to a dark moment in the history of books.
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It’s a different type of drawing, the drawing of the architect. Architects draw things that don’t yet exist; they draw things into existence. He had learnt that himself, how to draw like an architect. The way the lines had to overlap, not stopping when they met, but crossing to form an intersection, the corner precise within it. Overlapping the ends of the lines, drawing each line with a single clean stroke, drawing with boldness and purpose. He remembers the feel of the drawing pen, light in the fingers but firm on the paper. He remembers how significant the black ink seemed as the line came into being, as if the line once drawn could never be erased, as if drawing were actually building.
Raymond watches as the young architect draws. Three weeks after her visit to the warehouse, she already has ideas she wants to discuss. They are in her white, white architect’s office, perched on stools at a drawing table. Photographs of contemporary interiors are stuck on the walls, the same ones she used in her lecture: the stables converted into apartments, the restaurant conversion, the re-built warehouse. ‘We don’t have to demolish the past to build the future’, she said that night. ‘Buildings have histories. They grow and they change, just like we do.’ But she still seemed too young to be an architect. Architects are meant to be late bloomers; too many skills to acquire for it to happen quickly.
She is throwing ideas around with her pen the way other people talk, but explaining them at the same time, pen and voice working together. She likes Raymond’s idea of keeping the old doorway at one end of the warehouse and the big arched window at the other. She wants to emphasise them. Taking these openings as motif, she suggests making another opening in the middle of the space, by putting in an arch that mirrors the openings at either end. She draws the arch on the paper, a big broad arch, (of laminated timber, she says), attached at the top to the exposed timber truss, an orb at its apex, (that detail now sketched), and timber fretwork linking the sides to the brick walls. Not a ‘real’ arch, because it’s not structural; it’s only holding itself up.
But she resists Raymond’s idea of keeping the old stairwell. How you arrive at a space is important for how you experience it, she tells him. She wants a circular stairwell right in the middle of the space so that the whole open area is revealed as you wind your way up the stairs. A prism-shaped skylight above will give it a celestial quality, and glass treads on the staircase will refract and reflect the light above. A staircase you can see through, right up to the sky. ‘You will feel like you are being lifted up’, she says, ‘like you’re ascending a staircase to heaven.’
But the biggest surprise is the library: she installs it downstairs! She punches big holes in the end walls to let light in and fills in the holes with glass bricks. It’s so clever! Thin glass bricks stacked together to look like books on a shelf, standing, lying, leaning. The imagination at work is exhilirating, but here she has ignored the brief, the library is meant to be upstairs.
‘But…’, says Raymond.
‘You will still have books upstairs.’ Peering at him through her thin gold glasses, trying to reassure, sensing his resistance. ‘Here. A small, intimate library. A private library. An alcove. For all your really important books.’
And the pen is at work again, detailing how that might look. An almost enclosed space, a narrow entrance. You might even have to turn sideways to enter, and that gives a sense of how private a private library could be. But there’s no desk at its centre, there’s no space for a desk. Just the outlines of a chair. But it’s not just any chair.
‘Marcel Breuer. You have such an affection for modernism.’ She pulls a catalogue off the shelf, flicks through it until she finds the chair. ‘They still make them. The Wassily. You don’t sit in that chair. You’re sort of suspended in it. Perfect for reading.’
He remembers the chair, a Bauhaus design. Tubular chrome frame with black leather straps stretched across it like strips of skin. It’s modernism, pure modernism, just like he remembers it. Of course he had to tell her about his passion for modernism, about his two years at architecture school. He wants her to realise he knows something, that he has ideas, that he understands architecture, that this is a journey they are on together.
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Had he expected the art to be beautiful? He doesn’t think the word ‘beautiful’ makes any sense. Here, there has to be a different way of judging things. Predictably, he finds the building beautiful: the volume of it, the huge circular pillars, the arched windows in the metre-thick walls. What did it look like before, he wonders, when the Arsenale was its own place? He tries to imagine that, tries to see it with the art and the spectators and all the paraphernalia of the Venice Biennale out of the way. Somewhere he had read that Dante used the Arsenale as inspiration for a canto in Inferno. Dante Alighieri had also been here.
In the days that follow, there are dozens more Biennale events scattered across Venice, plenty more national pavilions to see. They are often in palazzi, but these are smaller than you might imagine a ‘palazzo’ to be, often with nothing particularly ‘palatial’ about them. Old, but not really grand; some of them run-down, too. This is what’s exciting for the Curator of Contemporary Art: the relationship between the art and the architecture.
It’s the way, she explains, (in that particular way she has of explaining), that the ‘contemporary’ of the artwork is given greater force through its conflictive juxtaposition with the architecture of another time. That is just how she says it, the conflictive juxtaposition. Raymond is doing his best; he tries to remember these terms, tries to remember what it is they are looking at when she says something like conflictive juxtaposition. Perhaps he will be able to say this himself one day.
She is dismissive, sometimes, as soon as they enter an exhibition.
‘But why?’, he asks. It seems a reasonable question.
‘Because they’ve ignored the building. They’ve treated the space as if it’s just another blank art gallery wall.’
‘So how would you do it?’
‘I wouldn’t put that art in here. Big paintings in this space? It’s wrong. The wrong art for the building.’
They are stopped in front of a large painting, a spoof on the Renaissance. There’s a Mona Lisa, a Leonardo Da Vinci, aeroplanes and mobile phones; a security camera peers out through the canvas. It’s the work of a Russian; it exasperates her.
‘Still coming to terms with their so-called freedom!’ she snorts.
As they navigate from one Biennale event to the next, Raymond starts to experience Venice up close: alleyways that dive under buildings, that shrink into passageways, that come to a dead end without warning; small squares that suddenly just appear; old stone wells capped in ageing metal; the sounds of footsteps on paving stones; the clamour of the huge gulls dining out of the garbage bags on the pavement. And everywhere the water: caressing buildings and slyly eating away at them: the stone walls, half-submerged, like gutted fish. The arched bridges he finds beautiful. Crossing a canal, he pauses to take in the stillness: boats tied up, bobbing gently; reflections of Venice fluid in the grey-black water. A gondola appears, inexplicably, it seems. Cass calls him on.
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Raymond opens his eyes and sees legs. Short sturdy legs, dark hair gracing the calves, small tuffs on the thighs. Not David’s legs, not those languid limbs in the Accademia, and not the creamy muscle-rich legs of the Greek Gods or the Romans in the Uffizi, either. These were honest legs, legs that had to work for a living, legs that knew themselves. ‘We’re legs’, they say, ‘it’s what we do, it’s what we’re good at.’ The shadows under the kneecaps would need particular attention. Knees have to stand out, like the ones in the San Lorenzo sacristy, bold and powerful. A barely sharpened 2B required here. ‘I like the legs, Raymond’, someone might say later. ‘You’ve got the legs. Legs are good!’
Raymond looks up from the legs to the faces of the workers and then to the faces of the three old women who stand beside them. Squat these Tuscans, short and sturdy like the workers’ legs. They stare down at him in silence: a tableau. Then one of the women holds up his shoes as evidence of his folly.
‘Senza scarpe! È pazzo!’
The others nod, wise, knowing in that way they can know, living the lives they live.
‘Ho veduta tutto! È decollato come un uccello! In cielo!’ And she thrusts her arms out like a bird taking to the wing.
A bird in the sky? Or was it an angel? But the bird, the angel-bird, crashed to the ground after taking to the air, and plunged down the slope like a dead weight, sending dust, stones and sparks flying, before it came to rest among the olives. She’d made the sign of the cross when the body stopped moving and said a short prayer while the dust settled. Only the soul was important then.
She had seen everything in her life. She had witnessed the great storm of ’65, watched from an upstairs window as it tore the trees from the hills like an enraged God. She had been there the evening the carabinieri crashed their car into the Porto San Lorenzo and the machine had to be brought in the night to cut them out. She had seen weddings and births, funerali and feste, had witnessed the new priest kissing that disgustosa signora Marcelli. She had watched her own Antonio pass into the other world, felt his last breath gentle against her fingers. O clemente, o pia, o dolce Vergine Maria! But in all her years, Luisa Brassani had never once before seen a man plunge to his death from the piazza.
Except he isn’t dead, this turista, his eyes are moving; now he is looking straight at her.
‘Ma non è morto. Rendiamo grazie a Dio!’
The other women cross themselves as if they too have only just realised, non è morto.
Non è morto. Raymond is reassured. He is not dreaming; he is not dead. One of the thieves was saved. But he hurts, he hurts all over. He hurts so much, he doesn’t feel he could move, even if he could move.
‘Ho chiamato il dottore, e ho pregato Dio.’
‘Arriva adesso!’, the older worker announces.
Not God, of course, but the doctor. The toscani part and the doctor is suddenly there. He is young and he smiles. Too young to be a doctor, too friendly. He is suited and tied and smelling of after-shave or some other men’s fragrance. Perhaps he is not of the town.
He speaks in English. They know you’re not Italian, even before you open your mouth; they can see it in your blue eyes.
‘Non è morto.’ Raymond’s first words of this new life.
‘What were you doing?’
‘Nothing…just walking around.’ After reaching up and touching the sky, the mundane details of a silly accident are all Raymond has left to recount. It seems a travesty. ‘I slipped. I fell down the hillside. I fear something might be broken…’
Ignoring the old women, the doctor turns to the workmen for another explanation. The older man points out where they found the body; that is all he knows. The doctor signals to the workmen and they unstrap Raymond. It feels like a release, a painful moment of freedom, but he cannot move. The doctor kneels beside him.
‘You should be dead. It’s a hundred metres down there!’
Then the examination begins, the poking and prodding, the lifting and squeezing, the sure young hands on the brutalised body. The pain in the ribs is excrutiating; Raymond gasps aloud; tears volunteer on his cheeks. The doctor ticks off the process under his breath as he works: caviglie, ginocchia, braccio destro, braccio sinistro, costole, uno-due-tre… And the old woman tells her story again, the story of the tourist wandering around without shoes on, climbing over the stone wall at the edge of the piazza, taking to the sky like a bird and then plunging to his death down among the olives. Not quite to his death, but almost to his death.
‘Senza scarpe, dottore! È pazzo, il turista! Potrebbe essere stato ucciso! Forse dovremmo chiamare il prete, dottore, nel caso…’
‘Basta, Signora, basta! Non abbiamo bisogna di un prete! Il signore non sta morendo. Per favore.’ A priest! Last thing they need is a priest. These old women are always calling on God. ‘Nothing seems to be broken, but I suspect you have rib fractures. I am sending you to the hospital for x-rays.’
‘There is a hospital here?’
‘Not here, the nearest hospital is in Greve.’
Signora Brassani watches on in silence. She rubs away at the small grey hairs that for years now have been sprouting on her upper lip. She rubs away at them, rubs away at the embarrassment of being silenced. Know everything, these doctors; even bambini like this one. They cut away at poor Antonio, they cut away and cut away. They claimed they were making a difference, but they weren’t, because they couldn’t, because they didn’t know. Only the priest had known what to do.
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At four o’clock, as she does most days, signora Brassani fetches the green-and-white fold-up chair from the laundry and carries it across the Piazza Antonio Brandi to join the others near the side wall of the church. The sun is warmest there at this time of year, and it holds its warmth for most of the afternoon. Late in the day, they will need to move on from the wall as the sun does, and park themselves against the west wall of the old convent to catch the last of the sun’s warmth. Sometimes they slip in through the iron gates to pick from the herbs growing there, the clumps of marjoram, of sage and thyme, the wild old bushes of rosmarino. She remembers a time when the iron gates were locked, when the sisters were still there, when they themselves were all still young. In summer, it’s too hot to sit against the walls and then they take their chairs into the small park that lies opposite the entrance to Santa Maria. It is not a problem. They can still see everything that happens in the piazza from there.
So much to tell them today. They have heard about l’anziano, of course. She has told the story already of the tourist’s crazy behaviour, of his flight from the piazza and his rescue by the builders. Now she has so much more to tell them: how his wife has gone, and stories of his children and grandchildren. She can tell them why l’anziano has travelled from the other side of the world to be in Italy. He is an artist! What will they make of that? Un artista in her house! She will have to deal with their jokes and laughter, the innuendo about the amichetto bedded down under her roof, but she will take some pleasure in their envy. None of them would ever have known an artist.
From his window Raymond watches the nonna cross the piazza with her chair. Outside the church other women arrive with their fold-up chairs until there are six, arranging themselves in the sun, a semi-circle of grandmothers against the yellow wall of the church. All women, the menfolk must have their own meeting place, a café or bar. Perhaps there aren’t so many menfolk now, some of the other husbands might have passed on, like the nonna’s Antonio.
The women are quickly loud, animating the piazza with their voices and gestures, their shouts and laughter. Signora Brassani is at the centre of it. Whatever she is saying, he has no idea, but the women turn around to look at the house, and Raymond melts back into the room where he can’t be seen. Of course, she is talking about him. He is her news. Soon, everyone in Marcialla will know about l’artista. Not being able to go out might be a blessing. They will be watching him everywhere he goes, gesticulating, talking about him among themselves. The easy anonymity of the traveller will be impossible in Marcialla.
Raymond watches from his vantage point upstairs. What are they saying? Trying to understand the stranger from their own experience of life? Sympathetic, perhaps, or just confused? They won’t understand him, of course. How could they? But they will understand why signora Brassani offered to house and care for him, which he does not. He decides to draw them now, leaning his sketchbook against the high sill of the window. The women in the piazza, their bodies and shadows against the stone wall of the church. They’re not individuals at this distance — too far away for that — they’re figures giving meaning to a townscape in the same the way that mass gives meaning to a church. He doesn’t find it so easy to depict the animation of the scene in the still life that is a drawing, to draw the drama in their gestures, to capture the energy of their bodies arched forward in anticipation of the nonna’s story.
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