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.