“No,” Monsieur Perdu said again the following morning. “I’d rather not sell you this book.”
Gently he pried Night from the lady’s hand. Of the many novels on his book barge—the vessel moored on the Seine that he had named Literary Apothecary—she had inexplicably chosen the notorious bestseller by Maximilian “Max” Jordan, the earmuff wearer from the third floor in Rue Montagnard.
The customer looked at the bookseller, taken aback.
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit you.”
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit me?”
“That’s right. He’s not your type.”
“My type. Okay. Excuse me, but maybe I should point out to you that’s I’ve come to your book barge for a book. Not a husband, mon cher Monsieur.”
“With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry, ma chère Madame.”
She looked at him through eyes like slits.
“Give me the book, take my money, and we can both pretend it’s a nice day.”
“It is a nice day, and tomorrow is the start of summer, but you’re not going to get this book. Not from me. May I suggest a few others?”
“Right, and flog me some old classic you’re too lazy to throw overboard where it can poison the fish?” She spoke softly to begin with, but her volume kept increasing.
“Books aren’t eggs, you know. Simply because a book has aged a bit doesn’t mean it’s gone bad.” There was now an edge to Monsieur Perdu’s voice too. “What is wrong with old? Age isn’t a disease. We all grow old, even books. But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?”
“It’s absurd how you’re twisting everything, all because you don’t want me to have that stupid Night book.”
The customer–or rather noncustomer—tossed her purse into her luxury shoulder bag and tugged at the zip, which got stuck.
Perdu felt something welling up inside him, a wild feeling, anger, tension–only it had nothing to do with this woman. He couldn’t hold his tongue, though. He hurried after her as she strode angrily through the belly of the book barge and called out to her in the half-light between the long bookshelves: “It’s your choice, Madame! You can leave and spit on me. Or you can spare yourself thousands of hours of torture starting right now.”
“Thanks, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“Surrender to the treasures of books instead of entering into pointless relationships with men, who neglect you anyway, or going on crazy diets because you’re not thin enough for one man and not stupid enough for the next.”
She stood stock-still by the large bay window that looked out over the Seine, and glared at Perdu. “How dare you!”
“Books keep stupidity at bay. And vain hopes. And vain men. They undress you with love, strength, and knowledge. It’s love from within. Make your choice: book or…”
—Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop
I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.
I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.
Her life had always been strenuous—field work, internment, more field work on top of housework—but during this period under Mrs. Shigemura’s tutelage she had learned to compose herself in the face of it. It was a matter in part of posture and breathing, but even more so of soul. Mrs. Shigemura taught her to seek union with the Greater Life and to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree: The prospect of death in autumn, she said, was irrelevant next to its happy recognition of its participation in the life of the tree itself. In America, she said, there was fear of death; here life was separate from Being. A Japanese, on the other hand, must see that life embraces death, and when she feels the truth of this she will gain tranquility.
—David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars
Last week I posted about Cinoc, the word-killer, from Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I checked the book out on my way to a lecture at the library. The librarian hosting the lecture took a seat next to me, noticed the book, and told me it had been hers and she had donated it to the library. I never did get around to reading the book and had to return it a few days ago. I went to library again today and normally I would walk by the sale cart since there is usually nothing there to interest me, but today I felt a distinct urge to have a look. What should I find there but the very copy of Life: A User’s Manual I had taken out! I guess I was the last person to take it out of the library. Since I do want to read it at some point I figured I’d better grab it in case the library is not going to replace it. The book is rather beat up so I hope they are just making way for a new copy, though the only edition in print now is a paperback (I think libraries prefer hardcovers for literature), and the catalogue says “withdrawn” rather than “on order.” In any case I now have my own copy of this peculiar book and look forward to puzzling it out. Do you have any stories of bookismet, of books that seem meant to come into your possession?
Here is the lexicographer’s equivalent to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books:
Cinoc, who was then about fifty, pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meaning, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.
When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had be swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.
Who would know ever again what a vigigraphe was, “a type of telegraph consisting of watchtowers communicating with each other”? And who could henceforth imagine there had existed for perhaps many generations a “block of wood on the end of a stick for flattening watercress in flooded ditches” and that the block had been called a schuèle (shü-ell)?…
Cinoc began to dally on the banks of the Seine, rummaging through the open-air bookstalls, leafing through penny dreadfuls, out-of-date essays, obsolete traveller’s guides, old textbooks on physiology, mechanics, or moral instruction, or superseded maps in which Italy still figured as a multicoloured patchwork of little kingdoms. Later on he went to borrow books from the municipal library of the XVIIth arrondissement, in Rue Jacques-Binjen, having them bring down from the attic dusty old folios, ancient users’ manuals, volumes from the Library of Miracles, and old dictionaries: Lachâtre, Vicarius, Bescherelle aîné, Larrive, Fleury, the Dictionary of Conversation compiled by a Society of Men and Letters, Graves and d’Esbigné, Bouillet, Onions, Dezobry, and Bachelet. Finally, when he had exhausted the resources of his local library, he grew bolder and enrolled at Sainte-Geneviève, where he started to read the authors whose names he saw as he went in, carved on the stone façade.
He read Aristotle, Pliny, Aldrovandy, Sir Thomas Browne, Gesner, Ray, Linnaeus, Brisson, Cuvier, Bonneterre, Owen, Scoresby, Bennett, Aronnax, Omstead, Pierre-Joseph Macquart, Sterne, Eugénie Guérin, Gastripheres, Phutatorius, Somnolentius, Triptolemy, Argalastes, Kysarchius, Egnatius, Sigonius, Bossius, Ticinenses, Baysius, Bodoeus, Salmasius, Lipsius, Lazius, Isaac Casaubon, Joseph Scaliger, and even the De re vestiaria veterum by Rubenius (1655, quarto), which gave him a full & satisfactory account of the Toga, or loose gown, the Chlamys, the Ephod, the Tunica or jacket, the Synthesis, the Paenula, the Lacema with its Cucullus, the Paladamentum, and Praetexta, the Sagum or soldier’s jerkin, and the Trabea: of which, according to the Suetonius, there were three kinds.
Cinoc read slowly and copied down rare words; gradually his plan began to take shape, and he decided to compile a great dictionary of forgotten words, not in order to perpetuate the memory of the Akka, a black-skinned pygmy people of Central Africa, or of Jean Gigoux, a historical painter, or of Henri Romagnesi, a composer of romances, 1781–1851, nor to prolong the life of the scolecobrot, a tetramerous coleopter of the longicorn family, Cerambycid branch, but so as to rescue simple words which still appealed to him. In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them, which contain, obscurely, the trace of a story it has now become almost impossible to hand on…
—Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual
She opened the book again, this time at the beginning. Several pages, she could not tell how many, slipped between her thumb and the inside front cover. Try as she might, she could not reach the very first page, if there was one. The first few leaves, impossibly thin, evaded her blunt fingers.
She felt a surge of panic and shut the book. A dizzying fear had come over her that in the few moments she had been reading time had raced on past her in the real world: days, months, years… Footsteps clumping across the planks overhead told her that the others were still aboard, getting ready for the day.
She would join them, but not yet. Not yet.
She opened the book again and riffled through, stopping here and there at random.
A minute description of someone’s right ear, of the surprising contents of an iron chest buried in a sandbank beside the Orinoco River, of rain dripping from flower petals in a forest at night…
She skipped from place to place. Was there any order to all of this?
Reams of baffling hieroglyphics. A description of the contents of another infinite book. A roster of forgotten lovers. A primer on how to read hieroglyphics…
Her question was answered by a voice speaking out of her memory. You could ask the same thing of the universe.
Gently she closed the book on itself, almost certain she could hear, like the scratching of insects, its pages still turning.
—Thomas Wharton, Salamander
There is more (naturally, being an infinite book) but I will let you discover it. If you believe in the magic of books, this one is for you. The acknowledgements reference a book that does not seem to exist, and also thanks Borges, saying, “The novel that he never wrote was also a great inspiration.” I think that gives you an idea of what we are dealing with here. Throw in some mysteries of the East (Near and Far), pirates, romance, technology, folk tales, and a dollop of madness, and you have a thrilling story to go along with the impossible book at the center of Salamander‘s universe. This is one I’ll be reading again.
Sometimes you wish to escape to another part of the book.
You stop reading and riffle the pages, catching sight of the story as it races ahead, not above the world but through it, through forests and complications, the chaos of intentions and cities.
As you near the last few pages you are hurtling through the book at increasing speed, until all is a blur of restlessness, and then suddenly your thumb loses its grip and you sail out of the story and back into yourself. The book is once again a fragile vessel of cloth and paper. You have gone everywhere and nowhere.
—Thomas Wharton, Salamander
The book tells its own story.
Examine it closely and you will see the ragged edges of the type, its cracks and bumps and gaps, the letters that lie crookedly or ride higher or lower than the others, the ink’s variations in depth, consistency, and hue, the motes of dust and droplets of sweat sealed within the warp and woof of the paper, the tiny insect bodies caught as the platen came down, and now immortalized as unnecessary commas and full stops.
In these imperfections lies a human tale of typecutters, squinting compositors, proofreaders and black-faced printer’s devils, labouring against time and heartache and disorder, against life, to create that thing not found in nature, yet still subject to its changes.
The pages stain, fox, dry out. Paper flakes like rusty metal. Threads work loose, headbands and tailbands fray. Front and back boards sag from spines, flyleaves and buckram corner-pieces peel away. Dust mites, cockroaches, and termites dine on paper and binding paste. Rates and mice make snug nests in the middle of thick chapters. And unseen, through the chemical action of time, the words themselves are drained of their living sap. In every library, readers sit in placid quite while all around them a forest decays.
—Thomas Wharton, Salamander
Unlike the handsome Abbé, he had never been pursued by any woman, let alone a continent of them. He was almost thirty, and the one amatory interlude that had embellished his life thus far had been with the woman who came into his shop early one morning and asked him what he sold besides books. As he began to run through the stock — prints & mariners’ charts; journals & pocketbooks; embroidered letter-pouches; bills of lading & shipping paper — she slipped off one glove and ran a slender white finger along the surface of a ribboned stack of envelopes — best gilt, black-edged, post & plain writing paper; sealing wax & wafers — she unpinned her hat, shook her hair out, and began to tug at the strings of her bodice… ink & ink powder … scissors & penknives … bookmarks & booksnakes…. He never found out the woman’s name or anything about her other than the obvious fact that her passion was aroused less by his charms than by stationery. He looked at his trade with new eyes after that day, aware of just how many solitary women frequented his shop. But after that one frantic encounter, half-clothed atop his desk amid spilling paper, life went on as before.
—Thomas Wharton, Salamander
I do love stationery but, er, more as a friend. 😉
Another little riddle from Salamander.
Light am I, yet strong enough to carry a man away. Small am I, yet within me multitudes sleep, waiting to be awakened. Silent am I, yet my words cross great distances and never falter.