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Anson Cameron's lost man in the Library
As well as offering his reflections on the dome, writer Anson Cameron has contributed a short literary memoir that he 'wrote about the reading room some time back. It was published in Meanjin a year or so ago.' The piece blends pathos, reverence and humour to atmospheric affect, and we're pleased to republish it here for you.
The lost man in the Library
The La Trobe Reading Room, in the State Library of Victoria, is shaped like a missile silo and capped by a skylighted dome designed by John Monash. It is the largest such dome in the world. The room is an octagon of arched balconies and bookshelves rising four stories high, dominated at floor level by a central pulpit of wood from which wooden benches and seats radiate like the spokes of a wheel. Green glass reading lights sit on the benches. Quotes are cut into the marble walls from authors alive and dead. People appear soundlessly in arches high above you and vanish before you can invent their story. It is a place of cathedralic splendour. A rare place where the written word demands primacy over the spoken, and where books find the home they deserve.
Because there is little noise in this place the slight sounds that do exist become fascinating. Not small talk, but whispers. A ward of coughs and an intricate framework of creaking chairs, a journey of turning pages, sighs as people wrestle with ideas or die inside poems, a word read aloud from a thousand, footsteps young and old, light and leaden. A woman’s stockings rub as she passes. Tearing paper sounds like the scream of rape. A school excursion comes whispering, shuffling, and giggling from many covered mouths like a Chinese dragon that has heard a joke. If your mind drifts easily from your work, as mine does, this room is a symphony of pins dropped.
I used to come here in the ‘80s to write. It was darker then, but its air held the same sounds. It was also a place for the homeless to find warmth. The Library staff seemed to understand that their duty was not merely to the literate, but to the lost. There was one particular homeless man who came into the reading room every day in winter to sleep with his shaggy head on a desk. A bearded mound of a man in greasy clothes. He raved when conscious and in sleep his dreams played his forehead like a concertina. The room was warm and made sleep easy and his days in this library had become his nights.
Let me invent some facts about him before I go on; for I know nothing of him. He was blond when a boy. His mother cried while combing his hair before sending him to school, where she knew he would be bullied because he had no uniform, and because he was slow and smiled when he had no cause to. Being slow, he never had another soul to love but his mother. And she didn’t outlast his boyhood. Too maudlin, these inventions? Maybe. But he was a boy once. And had become a ruined man. Some tragedy was his.
He slept, while we read and wrote, every so often canting our heads, caught in the intimate acoustics surrounding us. Then he would fart. Pneumatic wallops that shook his chair and echoed off the eight walls, rising into the dome. Louder by a factor of ten than all the micro-sound that played in here. After the fart, with his head still on the desk, still asleep, he would laugh just as loud.
We bookworms could not choose but lift our heads from our work. And when our eyes met, decorum died and our studies melted away. For a fart heard alone is a gag without a punchline. But shared, the thing becomes Robin Williams. The next minutes would become a battle to suppress our mirth. And, of course, this attempted suppression made laughter more insistent, as though it were saying, ‘If you are fighting so hard against me, and losing, I must have immense power. I must be true.’
For a short time the great reading room, usually so monastic, was a black market in farce as we traded glances, smiles, giggles, sniggers and chuckles. We tried to keep to ourselves, but were drawn together into conspiracy. Under this galaxy of golden realms, with the tales, wisdom and theorem of all humanity glowering down on us from the walls, our low natures broke from the cage of civilization and romped bare-arsed in senseless hilarity.
It wasn’t the fallen man’s fart that was funny. It was his laughter. And his laughter was not by design. It wasn’t a conscious recognition that he had done something naughty, in public, and got away with it. The laughter was from sleep, a spontaneous joy gallivanting through his dream. What mental incarnation did the fart take in this madman’s dreams that it was always so amusing? Did it appear like Don Quixote charging a windmill with a chamber pot on his head? Was it a chimp riding a goat through a funeral? We’ll never know. But it freed us from our staid selves for a while, that magnificent germ of iconoclasm. Sometimes, when the madman had been silent too long, I’d find myself looking over at his slumbering bulk, barracking. ‘Come on, man. Break us out of here.’
When I think of this madman, living in a dream from which intermittently emerges a report that catches us and bends us, despite ourselves, and takes us momentarily into another world, I think of certain heretical artists, writers, humorists and musicians. I think of Richard Flanagan and Nick Cave and Chrissie Amphlett and Lawson and Jane Campion and Barry Humphries. Which is not to belittle their work; but only to note what strange beasts we are and what a beautifully cheap art humour can be.
The lunatic came and farted in the La Trobe Reading Room all that winter in the early ‘80s. He probably ruined a few theses and certainly killed my Vietnam War novel, for which I thank him. When he stopped coming I asked a staff member what had happened to him and was told he was hit by a tram out front of the Library. Antoni Gaudi was hit by a tram. And in ragged attire he was mistaken for a tramp and left in the street before being taken to a paupers’ hospital where he died. Perhaps, in his ragged attire, I had mistaken my madman for a madman, too. Perhaps it was Barry Humphries performing a season of conceptual art.
If you go to the La Trobe Reading Room today you can see famous Australian writers at their work, students toiling toward exams, old folk immersed in family histories. It is one of the hallowed public spaces of Melbourne. A silent place in which small noises become big. A place where a ghost farts in a pitch only the lucky few can hear.