(Tom Petsinis, “The Twelfth Dialogue”)
#2 What if… a woman, let’s call her Sonya Gore, dreamt of owning a second-hand bookshop?
What if… like those of us who have always yearned for such a shop (we love the smell of books, their feel, their friendship, their ideas, their escapism, their challenges and demands), Sonya were to achieve her dream? And call the bookshop, of course, Bibliophile.
How better to draw lovers of the word and the book, of reading and writing, into a novel which examines all those things?
On the surface this is a simple tale: the bookshop, in an unnamed city, on the brink of the third millennium, falters and begins to fail. Sonya must decide how to rescue it – save her investment, her home – or walk away. Sonya’s dream turns nightmarish, but (among her customers, or through the shopfront window?) she attracts an admirer.
A prosaic suitor might woo with jewels. Sonya’s poet, instead, presents his own handwritten prose – dialogues between the great writers of world literature, each a shining gem of imagination. How can she not be seduced by these works, of which she is the sole reader?
“Written especially for her, the dialogues are a refuge amid so much uncertainty, providing a protective wall of words between her and a hostile world, a place to which she can retreat for half an hour, and which nobody, apart from the author, has ever visited.”
Even more seductively, she herself appears as a recognisable character in each dialogue, through which her mysterious admirer examines endless facets of the human fascination with words, reading and writing.
Moses and Karl Marx begin, with a very modern discussion about the challenge of describing God, about the Holocaust, and the opiate of religion.
Next, ancient Greeks, debating the nature of comedy and tragedy. While other writers have lauded the cathartic nature of tragedy, the dialogue writer has his Greek theorise that comedy is both relaxant and laxative, making audiences feel brighter about facing their tomorrows.
There is a gem featuring Plato and Homer, arguing about the role of poetry. Plato defends his ban of poetry, a source of madness and chaos, from his Republic – to a squiffy old blind Homer, whose insights the tearful censor wishes he could accommodate (for himself, you understand – he enjoys it – but poetry is dangerous for the other dwellers in his Utopia!).
Another gem reflects Cervantes as the creator of the first literary character who is overwhelmed by books. In the mysterious way of the word, Don Quixote “moves with the times” – he is resurrected every time a reader opens the front cover.
Two inmates of a mental hospital, suffering from “Literary Identification”, believe they are Goethe and Kleist. If they are mad, they are at least accurate and entertaining in their impersonations.
Meanwhile, as each challenging dialogue arrives in the bookshop, it loses customers, a brothel moves in next door, the bank closes in. Sonya now lives to read the dialogues, each delivered in a gold envelope, luring her further into the imagination of the mysterious writer.
Solitary bookbuyers and booksellers enter Bibliophile, adding further thoughts on reading and humanity. One saved books from Nazi book-burnings. A brothel worker seeks books in several languages, to read aloud to a wealthy customer whose gratification may free her from prostitution.
Interesting, but hardly more so than the succeeding flights of imagination in the dialogues. Ibsen and Strindberg on feminism and the role of the writer – as opposed to the psychologist – in studying humanity. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky discussing the Sermon on the Mount.
The dialogues go on exploring the joys of the word, the role of reading and writing, the importance to society of drama and of poetry, the look of words on paper, the differences between silent reading and reading aloud.
The eventual unveiling of the suitor surprises, and the reason he handwrites his dialogues provides more food for literary thought on the role of the “voice” in storytelling. And the suspense leading to the resolution of Sonya’s “story” continues to the final page.
Tom Petsinis is a very sophisticated writer. This is a worthy successor to his earlier novel, The French Mathematician, described by many critics as a tour de force.
Once again Petsinis performs a star turn. This Melbourne-based lecturer in mathematics can write, and not just about mathematics.
He parades his deep knowledge of the works of the literary giants, and he penetrates their thinking. In allowing his own imagination to soar, he explores the nature of literary imagination. The structural device of the dialogues is very clever; each sparkles with wit, wordplay, and wisdom.
If there is some aspect of the craft of writing or the act of reading he’s omitted, I can’t think of it.
What a lot of hard work he has put into writing this novel, and what amusement he must have had doing it! For some readers, this may be a hard slog. Not many of us are as familiar as we might be with all the writers and the works featured. The dialogues – and the ideas they examine – demand measured consideration.
But for bibliophiles, this more-than-a-novel and its ideas will continue to resonate as we continue our pursuit of the next book, and the next, and the next.
(Published in “Canberra Times” – 4 March 2000)