Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Ex Libris: A Selection of Books About Books

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I talked about a selection of novels about books. It was quite a specific theme this week – I wasn’t talking about books that features writers, libraries or a general love of reading. Instead, I was interested in stories where a specific book is of interest (as a material object or as lost/forbidden content).

You can listen to the show on the player at the end of this post, but as promised here are the details of the books I featured. Let me know what you think in the comments.

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

This is the book that inspired today’s theme, as I finished reading Thomas’s novel a couple of days ago. The End of Mr Y tells to story of Ariel Manto, a sort-of PhD student working on thought experiments, who is researching an obscure nineteenth-century author named Thomas Lumas. Ariel is particularly interested in Lumas’s lost work (the eponymous The End of Mr Y), of which only one copy is believed to exist – and which is rumoured to be cursed. The only person Ariel knows who has read The End of Mr Y is her erstwhile PhD supervisor Saul Burlem… but he disappeared some time ago.

Thomas’s novel begins with Ariel discovering a copy of The End of Mr Y by chance, and being drawn into the strange ‘thought experiment’ of Lumas’s tome. There’s something of a story-within-a-story here, as we read (some) chapters of The End of Mr Y along with Ariel. The ‘present day’ story sees Ariel beset by antagonists keen to get hold of the book, and experimenting with the weird world of Lumas’s work.

This isn’t a huge recommendation, sadly, as I didn’t enjoy The End of Mr Y as much as I was expecting. It’s not quite as deep as it thinks it is, and after a time I got a little tired of the Philosophy 101 mini-lectures. However, I’m happy to accept I’m in the minority here (the novel was very well-received when it came out), and Thomas’s novel definitely inspired me to think more about books-about-books and stories-within-stories… which brings me on to the rest of my list…

The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1993)

Originally published in Spanish under the title El Club Dumas (I read the English translation by Sonia Soto), The Club Dumas tells the story of book dealer Lucas Corso, who is commissioned to authenticate a previously unknown partial draft of The Three Musketeers. While researching the Dumas draft, Corso is approached by Varo Borja, who wants authentication of a very different type of book. Borja has a copy of Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, an occultist volume that purportedly contains instructions for summoning the devil. Three copies of Of the Nine Doors exist, but only one is believed to be genuine. Borja wants Corso to tell him which one.

As with his previous novel, Pérez-Reverte’s novel is a very bookish book. Not only is it set in the world of antiquarian book-dealing, but it contains references to all manner of literature (from the works of Alexandre Dumas and Arthur Conan Doyle, to Gone With the Wind and Watership Down). The book was adapted into a film – The Ninth Gate – in 1999, which was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Johnny Depp as Dean Corso. The film focuses on the occult plot, though, and so all references to Dumas’ work are dropped.

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James (2012)

Something a bit different now… James’s 2012 romance novel features Samantha McDonough, an American librarian on holiday in the UK, who discovers a lost letter from Jane Austen in an old book of poetry. In the letter (written to Austen’s sister Cassandra), the author makes mention of an early manuscript that she lost at Greenbriar in Devon. When she discovered that Greenbriar (a mansion house) still exists, Samantha heads off to see if she can track down the priceless missing manuscript. Of course, she discovers a lot more than this, as she meets Anthony Whitaker, the new owner of Greenbriar.

James’s novel really is a story-within-a-story, as Samantha’s burgeoning relationship with Anthony is paralleled by the story-within-a-story of The Stanhopes, Austen’s rediscovered manuscript. Inspired by Austen’s 1816 Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from Various Quarters (which was, admittedly, intended as satire), The Stanhopes is the story of Rebecca Stanhope and her impecunious father. Like a number of other readers, I found The Stanhopes to be a fairly decent imitation of an early, unedited Austen novel (not completely convincing, but engaging enough) – but at times, it did overshadow the ‘present day’ story of Samantha and Anthony. Definitely one for die-hard Janeites.

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino (1979)

First published in Italian under the title Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (I read the 1981 English translation by William Weaver), Calvino’s experimental novel begins in second person, present tense. ‘You’ are sitting down to read Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller. You make yourself comfortable, lost in the anticipation of your new book. You start to read…

Calvino’s book seems to begin like a story-within-a-story. The next chapter is the first chapter of a book called If on a winter’s night a traveller. But this is all that’s included, as the second and subsequent chapters are missing. ‘You’ go to the bookstore to track down a correct version of the novel, but when you start to read your new volume, what you actually get is the first chapter of an entirely different novel. Calvino’s book continues in this vein, alternating between the first chapters of ten entirely different novels and a second-person narrative about ‘your’ increasingly desperate attempts to find at least one complete book to read.

If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t. Calvino – a member of Oulipo – has created a book about books that makes complete sense. It’s a very different way of constructing narrative, which builds to an unexpectedly satisfying ending.

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (1993)

I have to admit that this next title is one of my favourite books ever, so I’m sorry if I sounded a bit gushing on the show! The Asta’s Book of the novel’s title is the diary of a Danish woman who moves to East London with her husband in 1905. Asta keeps her diary (which is brutally honest and wonderfully acerbic) for over sixty years. After her death, her daughter Swanny has the diaries published, and they become something of a literary sensation.

Asta’s diaries are the story-within-the-story. The ‘present day’ story has Asta’s granddaughter Ann as its protagonist. After Swanny’s death, Ann inherits the diaries (and other effects from her grandmother). She’s contacted by an old (ex-)friend, who is working on a documentary about an unsolved murder, which Asta had made brief mention of in the diaries. Encouraged by her friend’s curiosity – and some unresolved questions about her own family – Ann decides to delve a bit deeper into Asta’s Book, wondering for the first time what her grandmother didn’t write down.

Asta’s Book is a beautifully rich and detailed story, told through the alternating stories of Ann (and her memories of her grandmother and aunt) and Asta’s own narration. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone. A lot.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (2014)

And I ended the show on another strong recommendation. The Silkworm is the second of the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), and I think it’s my favourite of the three published so far.

Galbraith’s private investigator Strike is approached by Leonara Quine, who is concerned about the disappearance of her husband Owen. Owen Quine was once an enfant terrible of the literary world, though his output has been less impressive of late. His disappearance coincided with the leak of an unpublished manuscript entitled Bombyx Mori (named for a type of silkworm that is boiled alive in its own cocoon in order to extract its silk). While not strictly a story-within-a-story, we get enough detail of Bombyx Mori to realise that this book – considered unpublishable by the London literary scene – was intended to be an excoriating satire of the people in Quine’s intimate circle. Naturally, the people featured in Quine’s book are the prime suspects in… whatever has happened to him.

The Silkworm is a real page-turner, full of larger than life characters and with a compelling little puzzle at its heart. The first two of Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels were adapted for TV in 2017 as Strike, starring Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger.

To hear more about all of these books and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here:

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