I had been away from my study in London for six months, but as soon as I got back last December, I sensed that something was wrong. Everything was as I had left it: filing cabinet, desk, lights, reclining chair for reading and napping. The floor-to-ceiling shelves, covering almost every inch of available wall, were stuffed with books, arranged in an order that makes sense only to me. There were some new books to cram into already tightly packed shelves. Old hardbacks were reunited with the dust jackets that had been left behind as placeholders. There were quotes to check, and it was a pleasure, as always, to look these up — but some lingering, unspecified unease remained.
On the third day, I needed to look up a line in “A Happy Death” and went over to the Camus section. There it was, along with the biography by Herbert Lottman that had fallen apart while I was reading it in Algiers in 1991. But where was Olivier Todd’s biography of Camus — a hardback that I’d reviewed when the English edition came out in 1997? It was conspicuous in its absence, like the character in the Dylan song: “The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts.” I looked along the Camus section, then to one side among the Calassos and Calvinos and, on the other, in the Careys (Joyce and Peter). I extended the search into the B’s and D’s. Nothing. So that explained the weird feeling of unspecified wrong. My Olivier Todd biography of Camus had gone.
Andrew, an American friend who had stayed at the flat while we were away, was an avowed Camus fan and therefore the prime suspect. But knowing me, knowing how well I knew where everything went, he must have known he could never pull off a heist like this.
Another possibility was that although I had only now registered its absence, the book had actually gone missing, unnoticed, years earlier. This was as hard to credit as the loss was hard to bear — because the loss was not confined to the Camus bio. My entire library had been ruined in the way that a small ink stain destroys a shirt. Rationally, I knew that the library was not significantly diminished by the loss of a book I would never need to consult again, but I also felt that I no longer even had a library. I summoned all of my powers of nonattachment — of which I have none — and tried to come to terms with this loss.
Andrew’s own house in Los Angeles had partly burned down, so he was living elsewhere while it was renovated. I’d been really worried about this fire, and not only because, at the time, he had borrowed my copy of Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal.” (Fortunately, it was not even smoke-damaged. “Thank God!” I’d texted.) Another friend, Pico Iyer, had lost his childhood home in a fire in California and when we’d been on a panel together, he’d said that the experience had taught him that the only things that matter are the things you can carry in your heart and head. He got a round of applause from the sympathetic audience, but I got a laugh when I mimed the gesture of throwing up. The things that matter to me are things. At some level, I think it’s an only-child trait: Lacking sisters, brothers and, in my case, pets, we become overfond of our toys, develop excessive emotional attachment to the works of Beatrix Potter. But Pico is an only child, too, so there must be more to it than that.
“Whatever the reason,” I said to my wife as she tried to console me after the Camus episode, “I’ll just never love another human being as much as I love my books.”
Life had to go on, of course, and it did, sort of. But while sitting in my study, I was conscious that I had to avoid letting my gaze stray into the C section, and that if I did happen to glance over there, I would always fixate on this weird biblio equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle in the vain hope that, in all of my previous searches, I had somehow overlooked the book with Cartier-Bresson’s portrait of Camus on the cover, staring me existentially in the face.
And then, as happens in thrillers, a quite extraordinary plot twist occurred. My in-laws came to stay for Christmas. It was lovely. My father-in-law also has an impressive library that he guards quite jealously. I’d borrowed a copy of Thomas Mann’s (long out-of-print) “Last Essays” from him and though he remained calm and courteous, it was obvious to me that all he was thinking about was getting his mitts on it again. My sister-in-law, meanwhile, was happily reading my copy of “The Names,” by Don DeLillo, but she didn’t look as if she would finish it by the end of her stay. To my astonishment, I heard myself say that she could borrow it even though it was a British first edition, signed by the Donster himself. Coming rapidly to my senses, I said that she should leave the cover behind, partly to preserve it from damage (preserve from damage the thing intended to protect the book itself from damage) and partly to indicate that it was “out on loan” (not a phrase I ever thought I’d hear myself utter).
But that wasn’t the plot twist. The twist occurred when Sharon, my mother-in-law, prompted by all of this loose and jolly talk about borrowing and lending, said — and she didn’t confess, she simply said — that she still had my copy of the Olivier Todd biography of Camus. It was an electrifying moment. My wife told everyone that I had been “in a right old tizz” over that book, but now I was, as they say, overjoyed that it was safe. No one could explain how it had ended up at my in-laws’ house. Sharon had never been in our flat on her own and my wife could not recall lending it to her — something she does not have the authority to do. That, if you like, is the unresolved front story. The back story was that Sharon was less interested in Albert than in his biographer, randy old Olivier (in his 90s now), who had pursued her in the early 1960s when she came from Arkansas to study piano in Paris, where she had met my father-in-law while he was researching his doctorate.
At this point the story could have been called “All’s Well That Ends Well,” but, as viewers of “The Undoing” know all too well, the end is not always the end and all was far from well. Early in the new year, it seems, the Todd somehow got mixed in with a stack of books from my father-in-law’s study that he had offloaded on various unsuspecting charity shops. I felt I was in a position to sue for punitive damages, that in a kind of reverse decimation, I was entitled to 10 titles of my choice from my father-in-law’s library for the (double) loss of this one of mine.
Long months passed, during which time Camus, for some inexplicable reason, gradually slid down the rankings of my list of most-loved authors. Other things happened in and to our burning world. One of these, Covid-19, means that we won’t be back in Britain this year — a shame, because there is late breaking news. Poor Camus was not deported to the well-meaning Oxfam gulag after all. He has been found, not alive and well exactly, but adequately preserved, wearing his dusty dust jacket, among a box of assorted junk in my in-laws’ pantry. What was he doing there? No explanation has been forthcoming, but it would be absurd, in Camus’s terms, to “admit sin and refuse grace.” In a case swathed in mystery, there is room for the miraculous.