11 January 2009

A treasury of obscure lives

This is a précis of an article that appeared in Friday’s Independent. This is just the sort of thing that is guaranteed to grab my attention.

"I went to the Jardin du Luxembourg. The weather was magnificent. I found that I could not think. No idea presented itself to my imagination, which had been so lively a moment before. A melancholy, which was not without charm, captivated me entirely... Tears ran down my cheeks, which had no cause in my thoughts and which no amount of reasoning could halt. Finally, seven o' clock came and the [park] drum woke me from this strange ecstasy. I walked home."

These are the words of Victor Audouin, a Parisian medical student. His diary, which dates for the early 19th century, was found in an antique shop. It can now be found in an archive in eastern France

In Ambérieu-en-Bugey there is a library, or archive, of intimate secrets: a collection of 2,500 unpublished – and mostly unpublishable – autobiographies, diaries, scrapbooks, bundles of letters and collections of emails dating from the early 19th century to last month. Philippe Lejeune co-founder of The man who co-founded the association, which snaps up these previously unconsidered literary treasures said: "There are no limits to literature," he says, "it can turn up anywhere."

There are similar archives of unpublished "autobiography" exist in other countries, including Britain (at the University of Sussex). There is a library, in Burlington, Vermont, which offers a home to unpublished books of all kinds (This reminds me of the library in Richard Brautigan’s work the Abortion – An Historical Romance). But what makes the Ambérieu archive unique is that it is not just an archive. It is also a kind of intimate "book club" – everything received is read by volunteers and a one-page "review" published in the association's journal. However, contributors can ask for their secrets to be hidden until their death or locked away until an agreed date in a "cupboard of secrets". Inclusion in the Ambérieu archive guarantees simply that their writings, and their life's story, will not die.

The closed archive contains a large, brown envelope which was deposited recently by an old woman with failing eyesight. In a covering letter, she wrote: "I don't want you to read my diary because it will not contribute to public understanding. It is only a banal story of adultery ... Until now I have destroyed all my writings... I felt the death of my words like a series of small suicides."

The contents of the "open" archive range from a single, autobiographical poem, written in alexandrines, to a diary consisting of 65 200-page notebooks, delivered in a trunk. There are moving autobiographies of wartime, banal descriptions of the working life of postmen or plumbers, surreal scrapbooks of personal mementoes and a small sack of rose petals grown in the compost of a burned diary of "personal suffering".

One woman sent a bundle of printed-out emails which she had sent to her friends when she thought she was dying of cancer. Someone tried to bequeath their furniture, claiming it represented his life. This was refused (for lack of room) but photographs of lovingly-assembled interiors are accepted.

After 16 years of existence, the Ambérieu library of secrets is proving to be a goldmine for researchers. A book appears this month by the historian Anne-Claire Rebreyent, Intimités Amoureuses. France 1920-1975, which charts changing French attitudes to love. Mme Rebreyent researched the book entirely in five years that she spent visiting the Ambérieu archive.

Much of what is preserved at Ambérieu would fail the usual tests of literary merit or publishability but the texts have other qualities – of authenticity, of freshness, of originality of voice – which are not always found in officially recognised literature. No attempt is made to try to identify publishable work. Nothing is refused.The 800 members of the association, who pay €38 (£34) a year, are split into half a dozen study groups. Each new entry to the archive is taken on by one reader, who writes a review published in the association's twice-year Gardé-Memoire or memory safe. This acts as a kind of index.

M. Vannet, director of the mediatheque which houses the archive, says: "We are a club of strangers that you meet on trains – the kind that want to tell you their life story."


Kay Dennison said...

How interesting!!!!

A Doubtful Egg said...

What a beautiful idea.

A Doubtful Egg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CherryPie said...

What a fascinating place!

jams o donnell said...

Glad you liked it as much as I did

James Higham said...

These vignettes, snippets of a time and place long ago are endlessly fascinating. I would read something like this avidly. It's not unlike the fruit, cheese and nuts on the Titanic.

Liz Hinds said...

Wow! What a storecase of ideas for wouldbe writers must be lurking in those pages - and rose petals. Now they are a story all on their own ...

jams o donnell said...

It really does sond like an amazing archive doesn't it