Mette Edvardson’s Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine is part of Fierce Festival taking place all this week in Birmingham. Edvardson was in part inspired by the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which books are burned for being deemed dangerous. The protagonists in this dystopian future consequently resort to memorising entire novels in an attempt to preserve them. Memorising a book is at once an intimidating feat of memory and an inspiring testament to a person’s love of a text. This week, Birmingham Central Library is briefly home to seven local volunteer participants or ‘living books’, people amongst the shelves who have learnt long passages of novels by heart, waiting to be ‘read’. They each tell their stories verbatim, exactly as the text is printed, to an audience of one.
I was warmly greeted at the entrance and after a short while informed, ‘your book is ready for you now’, a peculiar turn of phrase, both implying that the woman I was going to meet was in fact a book, and that the book itself (Oscar Wilde’s Short Stories) was a conscious person, waiting for me. Other living books were available, mostly modernist classics such as I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Other novels included Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville, (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Crash by J G Ballard and Aesop’s Fables.
The Birmingham photographer Elly Clarke was my book, reciting Oscar Wilde’s short story The Happy Prince. We found a quiet corner of the vast library and sat beside a large window looking out over the town centre. Without any preamble she began with ‘The Happy Prince, a short story by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1888. High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince…’ Her voice was soft and lilting, gently unravelling each lyrical phrase. Wilde’s story is full of rich colourful images so it seemed fitting that a photographer had memorised it. It was an incredibly intimate experience, more so than simply being read to. You are listening in on the edges of someone’s memory, each line meticulously ingrained in them, the result of long hours and a labour of love, not just from the author but the also teller. We held a eye contact for much of the performance, and I became completely absorbed in the narrative, drinking in the sounds and texture of the words, being only acutely aware that each minute equated to hours of work on her part. A man reading nearby closed his book and leaned his head back, eyes closed, listening to her. I later learnt that everyone she had performed to reacted differently. Some laughed throughout, others cried.
Wilde’s story was written for his own children as something of a moral fable, and the prose style is biblical and even archaic for the time. However in revisiting the tale through the living book, wittily subtle touches in the allegory seemed to emerge. Later, Elly told me that being absorbed in the story for so long had forced her to examine each character differently, such as the sharply satirical figures of the sycophantic counsellor characters and even the philanthropic Prince who, when closely observed, seems to be actually rather manipulative and selfish. Such insights and emotional connection to a work of art are perhaps the underlying focus of the project. In a culture of multi-platform media and constant instantly accessible culture swarming around us vying for attention, close reading is lost. Few people have time to be immersed in a book in such a way and there is something rather melancholic about that. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to listen to Elly, a rare and beautiful experience. Indeed as the event’s title suggests, it was an oasis of calm during an afternoon in Birmingham’s city centre. I left the library feeling genuinely uplifted.
Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine concludes today, Saturday 7th of April at 5pm. There are still a few slots available though, so book in now to have the pleasure of listening to your own ‘living book’.
Words by James Grady