Thursday, September 22, 2016

Librarian's Notes - a collection of stories set in Brooklyn.

Greetings, commies!
Another post for my Russian readers. Today I am sharing my thoughts about a recent collection of stories by a fellow bilingual writer Elena Litinskaya whose work I first sampled in the online literary journal that translates as The Drawing Room.

As an avid reader of Victorian era literature, I can appreciate the narrative technique Elena Litinskaya takes in delivering her collection of stories "Librarian's Notes". In the 19th century it was common to have a first-person narrator who was not the main character but rather a somewhat detached observer and a commentator. The said librarian is not just one particular person. It's a collective presence, a benevolent multi-headed dragon. We have many simultaneous conversations and points of view going on at the same time, but all those heads are tied to the same body. The heads do not always agree. Some are more sympathetic, while others are judgmental. They argue with each other, try to bit each other on the nose, but they create a unique harmony that's not always pleasant to the ear. It's disturbing and extremely engaging. It's like listening to an avant-garde symphony.

Obviously, the author, a librarian in real life - among other things  - is extremely well read and familiar with various narrative techniques. The author's erudition and her microscopic attention to detail, her ability to observe people and imagine their private lives and what is happening behind the facade. The librarian's job is very similar to that of a bartender or a priest. The tasks librarians perform often go beyond acquiring, organizing and lending books. Library patrons do not spill their souls to librarians to the same extent as they would, say, to a bartender, but there is that element of intimacy, because librarians know what kind of books you borrow. They say, you are what you eat, and same must be true for what you read. In fiction and film the figure of a librarian is often shrouded in mystery, and quite rightly so. After all, those people have access to your reading history, so they are in a position to draw certain conclusions about you. 

I want to say a few words about the setting of the collection. The stories are mostly set in the ethnically and ideologically diverse Brooklyn. Most of the library employees and patrons are immigrants with their own family sagas: Russians, Jews, Haitians, Italians, Irish. There are references to some events that had taken place in other parts of the world. Brooklyn feels like a sci-fi space ship floating in space with aliens from various planets on board. The author explores the familiar themes of addiction, ambition, mental illness, family conflict and above all, loneliness. The paradox is that we are feeling increasingly lonely in an increasingly connected world, where there is so little privacy. To quote a line from a famous song by the Beatles, "All the lonely people ... where do they all come from?" You could write a novel about each one of them. Being a librarian gives you an opportunity to tap into the loneliness of others. By recommending books, librarians hold certain power to alter the lives of their patrons. 


About the author:
Elena Litinskaya was born and raised in Moscow where she completed a course of Slavic studies. She has translated poetry from Czech. Has been living in the US since 1979. She spent 30 years working at Brooklyn Public Library. On the creative front, she has written seven volumes of poetry and prose.

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