The Raven King should come with a health warning for bibliophiles. It is a novel of rise and fall – of the 15th-century King of Hungary and ‘glutton for books’ Matthias Corvinus, of Hungary with its ever shifting territories, and of the ‘passport to immortality’ library compiled by this Renaissance King during his reign and lost after his death.
Book lovers – i.e. YOU wonderful people, with your funny ways- will enjoy tales of dedicated royal librarians being given wads of royal cash to splash in Florence, the Charing Cross road of 15th-century Europe; the descriptions of book shops doubling as book factories where these luxurious items were handmade (an entire goat only supplied enough skin for a single leaf of the largest books. Why does the goat always get it?); tales of extravagant bindings and elaborate frontispieces; and the descriptions of Matthias’s beautiful library where ‘light fell on to jewel-encrusted veils, set in place to shield the most expensive and cherished items of the collection from the bleaching sunlight…stood upright on snakeskin tripods‘. (This does sound a bit like The Only Way Is Essex, but I liked it nonetheless.) Matthias’s claim to spend time each day reading the classics even in battle will prompt admiration, and his preference for hand-copied manuscripts rather than the ‘vulgar innovations’ of printed books will resonate with kindle-haters everywhere. You will also appreciate the awesome status of the royal librarian and their responsibilities:
He must preserve the books from damp and vermin, as well as from the hands of trifling, ignorant, dirty and tasteless persons…When a number of visitors come he must be especially watchful that none be stolen.
This reminded me of Mary the librarian at Edmonton Library, who ran a tight ship back in the 1980s and to whom I will be forever grateful for her ability to source endless Enid Blyton for a mini Turner. God bless you Mary, wherever you are.
But then comes the pain. You will read of people borrowing Matthias’s books and not returning them (HOW VERY DARE THEY! I’ve never even allowed blood relatives to get away with that, including ancient grandmothers who have lived through two wars), of the pillage and dispersal of the library by invading Ottomans after Matthias’s death in 1490, and the failed attempts of a Bibliophile Indiana Jones brigade, seeking to reassert Hungary’s cultural autonomy by finding books adorned with the King’s unique raven emblem, only to find the moth-eaten, damp and torn remnants of past glory. The fact that historians believe that some of these books may have survived in the Baghdad University Library until it became a casualty of British/Ottoman conflict in 1917 reminds us of the inevitable cultural destruction that warfare brings. As one of the last visitors to the library in the 1520s, Salvianus Massiliensis, lamented ‘Who on relating such events could restrain their tears?’
These stories opened up old wounds for me, friends. Back in 1992, I lent a girl called Chloë one of the issues of my historical magazine collection, Discovery, to help with her school project. My dad warned me that I would never get it back, recounting many stories of lost records that he’d left at banging parties back in the 60s, but as a petulant 12 year old I did not listen. Now Chloë was a really nice girl – I always trust a fellow ‘umlauter’ – and I’m sure she just forgot to return it, and would be aghast that over twenty years later I still feel aggrieved at only having 59 out of 60 issues and currently spend valuable Turner Time trawling Ebay, like the aforementioned bibliophile treasure hunters, for a replacement copy (it’s the Martin Luther King one I’m missing, if anyone has a spare…). Chloë if you are out there, let me propose a lost book amnesty. We can arrange a drop off point back in North London, maybe in a random bin in Abney Park Cemetery so that we can enjoy the thrill of semi-gangster activity, something we may otherwise never know as Latymer School* girls. I know my despair fades in comparison to the cultural frustration of an entire nation but I’m hurting here. Such are the trials and tribulations of a bibliophile. Don’t leave me hanging, Chloë.
*Not the posh fee-paying one. The Edmonton one with less ponce and more brain.