I am writing a novel. It will be a long novel, if I can carry it through to its end. I have just finished a chapter based on the life of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács. I spent hours with Georg, got to know him, had long conversations, argued, made amends. I read his monographs, essay collections, biographies, correspondences, symposia. I struggled with History and Class Consciousness, his masterwork, and after long and careful deliberation, I determined—not without some misgivings, some self-reproach—that my complete understanding of Lukács's treatise on Marxist dialectics was not strictly necessary for this chapter's completion. Through his writing, I traveled with him from Budapest to Heidelberg back to Budapest to Vienna to Moscow, where he waited out the war, and back once again, like a migratory bird, to Budapest.
His books are now closed. They are piled on my shelf in a great tower, teetering, enduring.
But these are not my books. They belong to the Los Angeles Public Library. They exist now in some liminal state between checked-out and overdue. Here on my shelf, in my quarantine, they remain. I am done with Georg Lukács. I am ready to move on to my next chapter, this one based on the life of Czech narratologist Lubomír Doležel and his theories of fiction and possible worlds. But Doležel has not arrived. And so I have Lukács. He is like a guest who was to take his leave in the last days of March but is now overstaying his welcome, spectacularly.
The Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library is within earshot of the 10 freeway. The murmuring whisper of traffic mixes with the murmuring whisper of two, three, four, maybe five palm trees. On some days one can smell the sea, the scent brushing across the Westside, pulling with it the exhaust of a million cars. Now, with the freeways nearly quiet, I would like to go there and listen to those trees, smell the sea—sound, air unspoiled by the city.
The building—bricks, pale-blue trellises, a sloping roof with a greenish patina, as if of copper or brass—reminds me somehow of a Buddhist temple. A plaque near the automatic sliding doors tells us that the library is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, a longtime patron. The doors lead to a small atrium, where various flyers placed on a wooden display case encourage the visitor to join philosophy and architecture groups, book clubs, English language classes, much more. A sign points up the stairs to the Ray Bradbury Meeting Room and Terrace. I don't believe I have ever visited this meeting room and terrace. I think—now, alone in my room—that I would like to climb those stairs. I am particularly attracted to the idea of a terrace. How have I missed this? How—on those days when I sought to linger at the library, when the writing was slow and heavy—how did I not think to venture up and look out over the city and commune with one of our literary gods?
I cannot wait to do this. I cannot wait to come to the library again, to get my story straight, to count the palm trees, to see if their murmuring whisper really is like that of the streaking cars when the traffic moves. I'll study the flyers in the atrium. I'd like to believe some are for clubs of philosophy and architecture, but maybe not, maybe they are for bird-watching and astronomy and chess. I cannot remember. Or really, I barely looked. Now I can only wonder. Now I can only dream of escaping my quiet room and joining these clubs. I'd like to join every last one of them.
I wait here for Doležel. His status, last I looked, was "in transit." He is in his own quarantine of sorts. I check my watch and keep my social distance and hope that he is doing well and staying safe, wherever he may be.
Here is a little miracle: The Los Angeles Public Library allows me to acquire books from any branch, delivered, in just a few days, to another of my choice. This is one of those conveniences I had taken for granted. I had become jaded, before the lockdown. Let us give thanks for these deliveries, let us do so at regular intervals, annually at least, as we do to commemorate the founding of countries and our national heroes and even gods. Every day the library's gleaming trucks—I imagine them as gleaming, brightly colored, probably electric—crisscross the city filled with books. Who, I wonder, gets to drive these trucks, and do these drivers understand the sanctity of their charge? I think to myself: If one of these gleaming, brightly colored trucks were to become stranded in some apocalyptic Los Angeles (now is when we think of such things), on some quiet and empty street at the edge of the city—perhaps on the way to the Sunland-Tujunga Branch, right there up against the San Gabriel Mountains—stranded for days and days, what better cargo with which to pass the time? What better way to ride out this storm?
Perhaps the driver remains with his burden, I like to imagine he does, like one who has stayed back to protect an abandoned city. The driver, this noble driver, reclines comfortably with one foot up on the dash. He opens the book by Doležel—I almost said my book—and he reads. And why not? It is a good time to read of possible worlds, of fiction, of elsewhere.
But now, I know, the trucks are silent. They sit somewhere in a gated parking lot, dust flying up on a warm wind, old leaves scraping around the slowly, slowly flattening tires. I don't like to think of these trucks, these trucks that want only to enter the streets and deliver us our books.
So I remember the library—my library—that place of community, of communion. I remember nodding to the homeless man who sleeps beneath the pale-blue trellis, up against the brick wall—day and night he sleeps. This is where I would sleep, too, if it came to that. Inside, beyond the sliding doors the librarian works at a large desk, and I remember those days when I'd walk up to her, hat in hand, to see if I might keep, for just another few weeks, a book or two that I have renewed the maximum number of times. She checks, and lucky me! No one has placed a hold on Georg Lukács' Marxism: Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution: A Study in Utopia and Ideology by Victor Zitta. And the other titles: all are available for renewal. These are not the kinds of books people frequently read. (This perhaps should worry me, about my novel.)
Near the front counter someone stuck red or blue or perhaps green footprints to the floor to show us where to stand and wait, and I remember stepping carefully on each one, like a slow game of hopscotch. I remember listening to the sound of the old men turning newspapers on wooden sticks. I remember listening to the voices of children reading aloud in their own room beyond a glass partition. It doesn't take long, the line is always short, and I remember walking up to the counter to collect my books (this is where they go, these books that we hold). There is a young man with a large beard, an older man with wrinkles around his eyes, a woman with her hair kept up in a kerchief. There are others who work at the front counter, but I cannot remember all of them. Next time I will take careful notes.
But for now, it's just me and Georg. We'll get through this together. Maybe I'll give History and Class Consciousness another try. Maybe I'll read his correspondences with a more careful eye (this book was a skim, I admit this). I'll tell him about zoonosis and contact tracing and herd immunity. He'll tell me about dialectics and modes of production and the ideology of the ruling class. I'll tell him about my theory of the novel coronavirus. He'll tell me about his theory of the novel (1916). I'll tell him I am lonely and miss my mom. He'll tell me: "We long passionately to escape from our tormenting loneliness, yet what is closest to us are the subtle pleasures of eternal solitude" (Soul and Form (1908)).
There are days, days when the news is all bad, when I miss the sound of the cars, the clanking of the workers at the flag and banner factory beyond my back fence, the shouts of students skittering home from school, days when I must contemplate braving the short walk to the grocery store, when I wonder if my oral thermometer still works, when I must weigh the risks and rewards of entering the city—this ghost of a city—to exercise my lungs. There are days when I will bring him down from the shelf. I will make us tea—lemon and ginger, a touch of honey, the perfect cure for a virus—and we will talk. Of what, I am not sure. Maybe of the past, of revolutions and wars and death. But also of the future, of our recovery, of our eventual and inevitable renewal.
Title image "Closed Until Further Notice" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.