The number 170 is hand-painted in gold against the varnished wood of the desk, centred and in slight italics, faded slightly. This is where I sit, at an old wooden table at the far end of the main reading room of the Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo. This is my anonymous corner at the National Library, old tomes at my back and a view onto the expansive room. The lamp at my table is wonky and though I have not attempted to adjust its height, I suspect that it would refuse to extend further upward like the other lamps. I delight in its lazy resignation to hang a little too low over the table, spilling its modest light onto the table accomplishing little else except casting fittingly lazy shadows across the desk’s dark surface. Still, I turn its switch on instinctively each time I sit down. I have a weakness for green library lamps of a certain kind, those with the oblong emerald green shades in glass over brass base with a metallic chain-pull that clicks the light on and off. Though this one is different in its Nordic design and matte pale green metallic dome, it still evokes a similar feeling, a lamp of intellectual formality, a lamp whose mere presence suggests important work is to be done. I imagine if I tap my pen against its edge, it might ring out a beautiful dissonant sound, a sound whose low waves might resonate slowly and cascade with trepidation out into the stillness of the room.
This is my favourite place, safely distanced from the Brutalist architecture of the University of Oslo and instead ensconced in the comforting symmetry and elegance of Art Deco. I seek tranquility and peace endlessly and the quiet of the library is one of the most quenching and beguiling places in all of Oslo. The only sounds belong to me: my pen against paper or fingers against keyboard, my rustling of papers. Even the muted sounds of other patrons working, adjusting and fidgeting, the occasional mobile phone ringing out and the ensuing fumbling panic of extinguishing the electronic din so foreign in this place, even these sounds seem to belong to me. When I first arrive here in the late afternoon, I sometimes take my boots off and walk the length of the room in my wool socks so as not to burden the space with the squeaking of my still-wet winter boots.
What is now the Nasjonalbiblioteket was previously the University of Oslo library. The stone lettering of the building’s entrance – designed by Norwegian artist Emmanuel Vigeland – still reads Universitetsbiblioteket. This main building was opened in 1922 and the architecture , art, and décor all bear the beauty and aesthetics of the era. From Vigeland’s sculptural entranceway to the modernist mural ‘The Modern Ragnarok’ by artists Per Krohg and Axel Revold whose colours and forms evoke the style of the 1930s lead the way up the stone stairwell to the second floor. A young woman with a folded tourist map and camera in hand, a woman with whom the security guard flirted with and encouraged to mount the stairs for a better vantage, leaped up the stairs eagerly past me and stopped abruptly at the top of the stairs to enjoy the scene today. She seemed in such a hurry and took photographs so furtively, I wondered if she really had a moment to take in its beauty.
It is all wood and hues of green contrasting against the white of walls and ceiling in the main reading room. The wood of the desks and the bookshelves which wrap along the perimeter, and the wood of panels halfway up the wall and columns, and the wood of the scant few card catalogue drawers across from the main desk, my most favourite relics which I remember so vividly from the libraries of my childhood and into my first years of university before the onslaught of digitising. Being here, I remember the wood desks of the library at Dawson College where I spent two years after highschool studying pure and applied science. The library was the former chapel of a convent, the Maison-mère des soeurs de la congregation de Notre-Dame. The former mother-house was converted into a CEGEP – Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel – and my time there before I embarked on my undergraduate degree is host to some of my most cherished memories. My backpack was so impossibly heavy then with textbooks, a heaviness which matched my schedule and workload. Yet, my time at Dawson was levity and light, my first taste of freedom. It was a time of simple pleasures, when canneberge-citron muffins and Van-Houtte coffee in styrofoam cups were sheer decadence. It was a time when my best friend and I would leave notes and mix tapes in each other’s lockers. Songs taped off the radio and notes which were pages and pages of words and drawings, the best kind of exchanges: thoughts about boys and class and the minutiae of our everyday. I made questionable fashion choices, wore a lot of polyester, listened to a lot of music. We had a radio show Friday afternoons and when most students had long left the building, we spoke in Scottish accents, sang along with songs, and blared Morrissey across the empty cafeteria and into the club rooms and whatever other spaces the radio was broadcast into. I don’t think we knew even then who was listening to CIXS. It somehow got us on guestlists and backstage at shows and gave us excuses to talk to bands. At seventeen, that was bliss. We mixed effortlessly in the soundbooth and on the mix tapes we made for each other and we snuck in recordings from our favourite films and from our favourite sketches on Saturday Night Live. And we took naps in the library. The most splendid of naps. I still remember those lapses into reverie, hunched over that heavy backpack. That library had the highest ceilings I have ever seen or at least that is how they seem in my memory. They reached skyward to the heavens and there were pigeons somehow in that vast space of light. I can still conjure the sound of their heavy wings flapping and recall the shadows of their movement in that space between the crosses.
The Nasjonalbiblioteket is full of that same quality of light. It is the light that spills in through high windows. There is something special about that sort of light and it fills the upper reaches of the room and filters slowly down towards the sombre tones of library wood and library green. Green linoleum on the floor, green domed lamps, palest green glass dividing up the more modern desks. Green around the window frames and in a small sliver of wall above the bookshelves. Shades of soft green in squares of stained glass above the analogue clock with no numbers. Shades of weathered green on the volumes of cloth-bound periodicals: subtly faded from the sun, shades whose subtleties are perceptible perhaps to only the most discerning of tetrachromats. Green lines and painted green geometric shapes on the ceiling in repeated square forms with gold compass shapes at their centres. Sixteen squares interspersed between six large hanging lamps. I sketch the configuration in my notebook for some unknown reason. Each square looks like a maze of dead ends.
I slip into a most meditative and wondrous solitude and my days are recently filled with ample leisure time and only an intense period of no more than three to five hours of work per day. I take my work inspiration from the Wobblies or the Industrial Workers of the World, an American trade union which spearheaded the hopeful movement of the 1930s and 1940s for the four-hour work day. My leisure time is luxuriously solitary, and while it is not perhaps sustainable long-term, I revel in this time of isolation and the explosive creative outpourings it incurs. I am slow but consistently productive and I proudly take my role as Aesop’s languorous but optimistically determined tortoise. I am just as stubborn. My leisure time is filled with new energy, of reading novels and poetry and walks around lakes, healthy cooking with revived passion and creativity, weekends painting in the studio, and long evening swims perfecting my freestyle and strengthening my lungs. Solitude is a privilege and I cherish the quiet moments which I crave consistently and fervently, a necessary luxury to heal and sort out ideas and make sense of my thoughts and experiences, and to finish tasks at hand and make plans for the uncertain future.
I find most-welcomed comfort and inspiration in a wonderful and slim book by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Rilke writes advice to a young artist and stresses above all the importance of solitude. Rilke counsels to “love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament.” Create a wide space around you. “And if what is close is far, then the space around you is wide indeed and already among the stars; take pleasure in your growth, in which no one can accompany you, and be kind hearted towards those you leave behind, and be assured and gentle with them and do not plague them with your doubts or frighten them with your confidence or joyfulness, which they cannot understand”. Show understanding for those who fear your solitude, ask no advice but believe in “a love which is stored up for you like an inheritance, and trust that in this love there is a strength and a benediction out of whose sphere you do not need to issue even if your journey is a long one”.
It is still winter in Oslo though it is early March and the light is slowly returning to these northern latitudes. Outside the high windows of the library reading room, thick vines weave twisted upwards while thin bare tendrils hang downwards, some few leaves from last year still lingering on their nodes. I wonder whether the green of fresh foliage might clash with the interior greens of the library. Or perhaps the fresh leaves will appear only as black silhouettes against the bright outside light like an elegant Art Deco line drawing whose organic forms might complement the architecture surprisingly with no hint of anachronism.
All photographs above taken last Sunday on a misty late-afternoon walk around Sognsvann, Oslo (2017)