Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On not throwing away all the old books. Yet.

Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate simplicity, uncluttered surfaces and broom-clean rooms. I like to tidy and purge as much as anyone. For months now my sister (mostly my sister) and I have been cleaning out the Orchard, the house where we grew up and where my father grew up. In 1922 my grandfather bought the Orchard: the house was big and lovely and old, but the barn was much bigger, and then there were also the lower barn and the ice house and the apple orchard, the fields and the woods. I don’t know how much stuff was in the barns or the house when he bought it; I have heard differing versions, that include the sleigh, the distillery, the cider press, and skeletons. I feel confident we will never know for sure. All we know is that after almost a century of no one ever throwing anything away - not when there was this wonderful vast barn to store it in - the place is full of stuff: all kinds of stuff, farm equipment, office supplies, furniture, paintings good and bad, steamer trunks empty and full, things broken and not, worthless stuff and stuff that could well be a treasure, for the right person.
And now my father is dead, and now my mother can no longer remember where the mahogany room is or how my father died, so she has moved here with me, and not one of her five children will move into the Orchard, and so now it must be sold.
Because at least four native born Francophones (both grandmothers: one French, 0ne Belgian, Tante Madeleine, my mother) have lived there over the years, and because at least six students of French (my father, all five of my siblings and me) have lived there over the years, there are lots and lots of French books in the house and in the barn. Because - have I mentioned? - nothing ever gets thrown away. There are many other books of all ilks, from architectural history to gnostic gospels to textile waste to H.G. Wells, but I decided that I would make the French books my mission. I decided that the books needed to be gathered, listed and donated to a good home. Would I have felt differently about these smelly paperbacks if we lived in a French-speaking country? Would I have felt differently if I did not regard one grandmother (Belgian) with adoration, and the other (French) with chronic bewilderment?
So I collected all the French books I could find, confident that I had not found them all, that new stashes would be revealed over time. (And so they have.) I brought them all back here and made an alphabetical list. There were hundreds. The titles were heavily weighted toward Camus and Sartre, mais oui, along with the other workhorses of high school: French, Moliere, Racine, Montherlant, Gide. Then there were the novels, Simenon and Vian and Duhamel and Gary, that someone read ‘for pleasure’. I purged the ones egregiously doodled and defaced by bored students. I neatly packed up the rest and started looking for a French school that would like them. You would be surprised how hard it is to give away books.
Some, though, I cannot bear to part with. They come with marginalia and inserts that bring memories, or beg questions. They are envoys from another century, from the cavernous barn, from all my dead family. From the hundreds of French books, I culled these ones that would not stop speaking to me, in their foreign tongue.

Now, the ziggurat of French books has stood on my desk for 3 months and 28 days. At 48 square inches, they take up 1/25th or 4% of the available space on my computer table. For three months they have inhabited that space, threatening to topple, and accomplished nothing. That is not entirely true: They smell of dust and attic mold and Tante Madeleine’s lavender cologne. They prevent me from filling that space with unanswered letters, drill bits from CSB’s pockets, tiny Lego pieces or Leda’s psychologically redolent drawings. They remind me of Mademoiselle Baumlin at least once a day.
I was a disappointment to Mlle Baumlin. That is what I recall. She was our French teacher at the Girls’ School. I should have been a stellar student, given that my mother and grandmother were Belgian and spoke French with me, and that I had attended a French kindergarten in Cairo and at the age of 4, so the story goes, my French was excellent and my English was accented. But I was not a stellar student. Even with such a head start, I was lazy about learning grammar. I was a daydreamer in any language.
Like so many of our teachers, Mlle Baumlin was a Miss, a Spinster, an Unmarried Lady of a Certain age: hers was a condition that we, her callous & entitled students, confidently believed we would never inhabit.
Yet Mademoiselle was a profound romantic. How often did she tell us of her sister’s broken heart? As often as was necessary to counter our skepticism. It was early in 1941, and Mlle’s sister, Roxane, was engaged to a young French soldier named Pierre. One day Roxane received the news that Pierre had been killed. She gasped and then fell into the arms of her sister, our teacher, and died. Just like that. She was young and healthy, and then she was dead. When they opened her up – because they must have performed an autopsy, though Mademoiselle never used that word so I don’t know how to say autopsy in French – they discovered that her heart was broken in half. She had died of a broken heart. Literally. And who were we to doubt such a thing? When I think of Mlle Baumlin, I think of a heart broken in two. Ruptured into eternity.

At the top of the pile is Paul Claudel’s L’annnonce Faite a Marie. It never ceases to delight me that all over America the curriculum for high school French classes rely heavily on readings of either 20th century existentialists or excessively devout Catholics. All over America, callow pimply youths discover being and nothingness in a romance language. But there was so much more we could have learned. There we were in a very Protestant New England prep school, reading Claudel’s play about a young woman achieving salvation through leprosy. We never knew that Claudel’s sister Camille was a great sculptor whom he committed to an asylum for life. We never knew that after the ultra-Catholic Claudel’s pregnant mistress left him, he quickly married a woman named Reine. Inside this copy of L’annonce faite a Marie is an official discharge slip from Beth Israel Hospital, Room 445, at 11 am. The date is January 16, no year. The name of the patient was my beloved grandmother, Reine Brancart.

I did not read anything by Boris Vian in Mlle. Baumlin’s class. So this must have been my mother’s book, because for a long time she read as much in French as in English. Now we wonder if there will soon be time when she forgets her English altogether, along with her children and the principles of architecture, a time when she has only the fraying thread of her childhood French. I found three copies of the same postcard inside this copy of Boris Vian’s L’arrache Coeur. All three portray a collage of happy vacationers at the “New” Hotel Herredura Inn in San Jose, Costa Rica. The hairstyles of the young men place them in the late 1970’s. On the reverse of the car, you are encouraged to call or write Miss Sunshine for reservations.
My father must have stayed dozens of times at Hotel Herredura in San Jose, from the seventies through the nineties, when he started staying at the newer Hotel Cariari. Several times a year my father traveled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for business, and sometimes my mother went with him. They usually stayed for one night in the capital and then went to the coffee farm in the mountains, or the sugar refinery in tropical Guanacaste. Dad loved being in the tropics, he loved the challenge of starting up new companies to process raw material no one else wanted (cotton seeds), he loved staying up all night belaboring coffee pruning or sugarcane varieties. He loved flying in small rickety planes over dense jungle, looking for more land to plant. In Nicaragua they stayed at the Intercontinental in Managua, the same hotel where Howard Hughes took over the top story, blacked out the windows, and watched old movies all day long in the nude. Until the earthquake, and then Hughes fled. Sometime in high school, a friend, most likely my boyfriend, the same one I later married, wanted to know if my father was in the CIA. What an odd question that was. It had never occurred to me, to any of us. My father was not a stealthy person. My father was a businessman who knew the world price of cotton, coffee and sugar over the last hundred years, the way I knew the poems of W.B. Yeats. Once I asked Dad if he was in the CIA, and he said, no, of course not. What else would he have said?
Did my mother read Boris Vian while she lounged by the pool in a French bikini, being admired by long haired young men on the postcard? While my father was negotiating the price of coffee futures with Swiss brokers, did she read happily and obliviously her French novels? Did she realize that the author was named for Boris Godunov? Would she have cared that young Boris’s father was murdered by burglars in his own home? Did she know that in 1947, as the author of I Spit on Your Graves, Vian was sued for indecency in France? It was the first such suit since Gustave Flaubert was sued for immorality in Madame Bovary a century earlier.

Somewhere in the middle of the pile of books is Voltaire’s Contes: Zadig and Micromégas. This copy belonged to Peter, the youngest of my three brothers, the only one who ever became fluent in French. On the frontispiece in Peter’s recognizable script, written with what was surely a mechanical pencil, is the famous Voltairean riddle, Frederick’s invitation to dine at the palace:
P ci
Venez à sans

(Venez souper à Sans Souci.)

With the answer: G a

(G grand. A petit = J’ai grand apetit.)

How much did we delight in knowing that riddle? Quite a lot.(We were an odd lot, but we had our moments of smugness.) Elsewhere in the book, in the same faint penciled script, Peter wrote: “The irony of Voltaire is frequent – notice it.”

Among the hundreds of French books culled from all over the Orchard, there were five copies of Huis Clos, Sartre’s iconic existential play, though all I can tell you about it now is: Hell is Other People. (L’enfer, c’est les autres.) How many years of high school French are reduced to that depressing quote? From the biblio-evidence, we can assume that all five of us studied Huis Clos in high school.
At least one of us expressed his feelings for the book on the flyleaf: Very unfortunately, because it is required in that dumb French class I am in this is my book. If found, don’t return until you’ve read as much as you want. If you really want it, keep it. I abhor it. CPL

At the bottom of the pile is Henri Troyat’s fat biography, Tolstoi. Our lives are full of family stories that get told and retold and implant themselves in our psyches. One of those was my mother’s tale of the birth of her first child, my birth. She told us that she was reading Henry Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy when she went into labor, and so she took the book with her to the hospital (MGH). All throughout her labor she continued reading Troyat’s brilliant rendering of Tolstoy’s tumultuous life. It was only when I became pregnant with my own first child, and then proceeded to have a protracted and difficult labor during which I could not have read a cereal box never mind a biography of Tolstoy, that I realized how amazing was this feat of my mother’s.
Much much later than that, now that the daughter I first gave birth to has given birth to her own daughters, I find this copy of Troyat’s Tolstoi, and read inside that it was first published in France in 1967. Five years after the birth of my mother’s last child. Whatever she read when she was laboring to give birth, it was not Tolstoi. And now it is too late to ask her. So there it is at the bottom of the pile of books. It contains no suggestive marginalia. I keep it there to remind me to notice the irony.

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