My dearest friend recently moved to Paris. To the heart of the Marais neighbourhood, no less, where, across a cobblestoned courtyard and up six flights of steep, winding stairs, he occupies a charming, light-filled flat, all honey-coloured wood floors and cream paintwork, with windows opening onto a view of the fabled grey-blue rooftops of Paris. It is the very epitome of Parisian bohemian chic.
So far (I hope), the only fly in my friend’s ointment is the empty space on his built-in shelves. Row after row, they climb up the wall of the living-room, all depressingly empty, save for a quartet of diaries and travel journals, which huddle together in a corner, looking lost. « I need to buy books ! », my friend declared the day he moved in, surveying his empty shelves with distaste. Then, a week later, turning to me : « Lend me some books ! » he begged.
It is a mark of my affection for him that I agreed to this without demur, for I am not fond of lending my books. It is one thing to recommend books – I can make a dozen or more book recommendations in a single half hour, pulling titles off shelves to wave them excitedly under the nose of whoever I am speaking to – but lending them out is quite another matter. « May I take it home with me ? » X innocently asks, and the hand holding out the treasured volume falters (note how it invariably becomes a treasured volume the instant my ownership of it is threatened). I am certain the dismay I am feeling must be written all over my face. For the problem with lending books is that so few of them ever return. I could point the finger of accusation at several people of my acquaintance – but then I recall that I have been guilty of the same crime myself. As I write this, the bookshelf opposite me holds books lent to me more than three years ago by my landlord, my neighbour, and my sister-in-law. I haven’t got around to finishing them yet – and if truth be told, I have grown used to seeing them there ; I would be sad to see them go.
This is why, when my friend reiterates his request, I surreptitiously check to make sure my name is written on the flyleaf of the books I hand over. « Bring them back ! » I order. The gaps on my shelves are already causing me separation anxiety.
However, the prospect of discussing the books after he has read them is cheering. The other night, over dinner, we were talking about – well, I have forgotten what we were talking about at the beginning, but I do remember asking if he’d ever read any Rosamond Lehmann and getting up to fetch The Ballad and the Source (I have recently purchased a rare first edition and can afford to lend him my Virago paperback – though, as to that, I happen to like the painting on the front cover of the Virago very much and would be loth to lose it. I may not be able to lend it after all !).
« What was the name of the group you said Rosamond Lehmann belonged to ? » Ah… a Bloomsbury novice ! I settled more comfortably on my chair and launched into explanations. In passing, I thank Providence for Virginia Woolf’s celebrity, which facilitates introductions. Twenty very happy minutes ensued, during which I attempted to be vivid, clear, and concise – and very probably failed at all three. The convoluted lives, loves and careers of the Stephen sisters and their friends are not exactly easy to sum up. The thing is, one doesn’t even wish to sum up. The subject is inexhaustibly fascinating. New topics spring to mind before the first are properly finished with. I keep jumping up to fetch books – before long I have forgotten the meal and am crouching on the floor, surrounded by books I have moved off the shelf to reach the row of Bloomsbury literature I collected during my research. « I never realized John Maynard Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Group ! » my friend says, looking over a biography of Lydia Lopokhova. He is impressed.
I wax lyrical about the Hogarth Press (what could be more delightful than running a printing press out of a London basement ?!), expound on the Omega Workshops and produce photographs of hand-painted vases, tiles, and doors. I recall the emotion I felt when sitting in the King’s College archives, sifting through a box of Rosamond Lehmann’s correspondence, and reading letters from Carrington, decorated with sketches of cats, flowers, or Lytton Strachey reading by the fire. I try to convey some of the magic of the houses linked to the Bloomsburies, houses with names as marvellous as their strange and colourful interiors : Monk’s House, Tidmarsh Mill, Ham Spray, Charleston…Tea parties and picnics on the lawn ; easels in the living-room ; books and manuscripts in the bedrooms ; fires roaring in the chimneys and voices raised in endless debate ; plays performed in the garden on summer evenings ; and then a shot ringing out through an empty, lonely house ; and ripples eddying out from the middle of a river, where a pocketful of pebbles has accomplished its sad office… There is a dark side to Bloomsbury too.
Soon, instead of a mighty tree trunk growing straight and true, and supporting three or four majestic limbs, my explanation has grown somewhat twisted and gnarled, with branches and off-shoots criss-crossing and intertwining in every direction. Oh well. I have enjoyed myself enormously, and my friend looks interested.
That night, I took Hugh Lee’s A Cézanne in the Hedge to bed with me and fell asleep trying to decide which titles to include on a Bloomsbury-themed reading list for the uninitiated. I think I may have found a way to fill my friend’s shelves !
© Florence Berlioz 2016