45. Oblivion

WHILE I WAS WRITING my dissertation on Charles Herriot, I received a residency grant from the National Library allowing me to spend three months in the capital. The residency granted me full access to the Library’s collection on the writer. The National Library had the largest collection in the country of material on Charles Herriot, a writer of immense gifts who, after a promising early career, had toiled away in isolation and obscurity for many years, producing one book after another of the highest quality, but without receiving anything more than the odd skerrick of polite but baffled attention from literary circles. Finally, when he could no longer get his books published at all, Charles Herriot was believed to have ceased all literary activity. He had donated his own library, including copies of all his books, published and unpublished, as well as his notes, correspondence and personal papers, to the National Library, and had disappeared from public life. My connection to Charles Herriot was purely accidental: I had found his short novel, Verisimilitude, in a second-hand bookstore as a young man and had considered it as good as anything I had read by anyone working in this country and on a par with any writer working in any language, at least that I knew of. I had spent many years hunting down copies of his work and eventually had embarked on my dissertation. In truth, I privately entertained secret fantasies of helping restore the reputation of Charles Herriot (not that there was ever much of a reputation to begin with), whom I believed deserved to be ranked in the highest echelons of writers to have come out of this country, but I knew that this country is utterly unforgiving of its writers, the best of whom invariably suffer a rapid fall into oblivion. My three months in the National Library was highly productive. The Library’s grant included a small apartment on the grounds of the Library where Library Fellows were accommodated at no cost. I had 24-hour access to my office in the Library and, during opening hours, was able to call on the services of the Library staff whenever I wanted. I was assigned a librarian for the three months, a silver haired gentleman everyone called Harry. I found him monumentally unhelpful. His interpersonal skills were terrible: he was invariably grumpy and often rude, he never said hello in the morning or good night in the evening, he replied to my queries monosyllabically, often dropping books and papers I’d requested with a loud, wordless thump on my desk. His knowledge of the collection was spotty – in some areas he was quick and reliable, but in regards to certain queries he would consistently bring back the wrong book, or a diary or notebook or letter from a date other than that I had requested. Eventually I found him so exasperating I was obliged to make a formal request to management asking that I be assigned another librarian. The Head Librarian summoned me to a meeting in her office and asked me to elaborate on the difficulties I’d experienced with Harry. After I had done so, she said that she personally had always found Harry’s demeanour to be distant but polite and respectful, but it was what I’d told her about his mistakes that she found most surprising. She said if anyone should know the collection inside out it was Harry. When I asked her why this should be so, she said because Harry had written it. I must have looked shocked. Didn’t Harry tell you himself, she asked. Charles Herriot is Harry, she said. Harry is his nickname, which he prefers to his given name. Nevertheless, she agreed to my request, and I was assigned a librarian called Joanne, whom I found most helpful, and whom I have since married. In the remaining weeks of my residency, I didn’t see Harry again, nor have I seen him since, although I’m told through ex-colleagues of Joanne that he retired soon after and moved away from the capital, perhaps to the west coast, although no one knows precisely where.