Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Treasures in books, the Messiah, the Big Snow

What is the strangest--or the most grotesque or the most beautiful--thing that you have ever found in a book. Pressed flowers? Old letters? A beaten tissue of gold?

Recently I felt the decided impulse to read The Messiah of Stockholm. What should I find inside but a letter from Cynthia Ozick, which I immediately devoured in the way that one does, when surprised by finding something in the book--some possible mystery, some welcome curlicue in a bland day.

It was not the original but a xerox of a letter from November of 1985, full of sympathy and charm and heart. The letter held compliments for a dead man, no longer useful to him but sweet to share with others, and some for the living as well: hence the xerox. The words clicked and sang well together.

Had it been there along? Had I seen it once before and then forgot? And what do I do with such a thing? It was a bit naughty to read the thing. Do I keep it, send it to the author, bury it in the Messiah until the next time I take down the book to read again? And if I forget it, will I have the same marvelous sense of chance and discovery, or will I simply think that my mind is gone, gone, gone?

What is, I wonder, the most wonderful thing that has been found in a book? The words, of course, but what about the most wonderful thing that was not supposed to be there? Money, old baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, and prayer cards: these things are often left deliberately. But was is the loveliest accident ever to befall a book?

***
Illustration: a self-portrait of Bruno Schulz, artist and author of The Street of Crocodiles, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, and the lost book, The Messiah.

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It was the shooting that drew her. The shooting; the murder. Shot in the streets! Lars suspected that Heidi cared more for his father's death than for his father's tales, where savagely crafty nouns and verbs were set on a crooked road to take on engorgements and transmogrifications: a bicycle ascends into the zodiac, rooms in houses are misplaced, wallpaper hisses, the calendar acquires a thirteenth month. Losses, metamorphoses, degradations. In one of the stories the father turns into a pincered crab; the mother boils it and serves it to the family on a dish. Heidi shouldered all that aside: it was the catastrophe of fact she wanted, Lars's father gunned down in the gutters of Drohobycz along with two hundred and thirty other Jews. A Thursday in 1942, as it happened: the nineteenth of November. Lars's father was bringing home a loaf of bread.

--from Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm

***

Thanks for the notes and emails--we survived the storm. Judging by the snow on the van, we hit right at a yard in Cooperstown. Pretty impressive for a day. Close by, Roseboom had 38 inches and beat us. With that sort of fall, ramparts rise up after the plows come through. At midnight Wednesday we staggered down to the lake, wading through waist-high snow on the sidewalks. The stairs up to the townhouses were flowing Gaudi-esque slides, and the village library's bactrian made of steel ribbons was buried in dunes--the ribbons of his upper body sending long twisting shadows over the snow. I may be a Southerner, but that was a snow worth seeing! It was pristine, thatching every house, making sculpture out of the ancient crabapple trees, filling squares of lawn outlined with fence or hedge as neatly as sugar in a box. N has been having fun quarrying tunnels and snow caves into the mountain ranges thrown up by the plows.

So far the bad side of a snowstorm at my house means: that the snow's weight broke a window, promptly repaired; that I didn't leave on a trip; that when the boys and I dug out the van, the brake line was damaged; that nobody can do a little auto repair because they're inundated with banged-up cars and half the mechanics can't get in; and that three children have made a cheerful wreck of the house. Must climb up and clear off the porch roofs, but I can't even begin to think about the Other Car, down an alley and under another big shining hill. That one can wait until the big thaw! Should come by April or May, I'd guess...

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12 comments:

  1. This blog is a wonderland, I feel quite mortified I didn't get here earlier. Thank you so much for your comments on mine, the ones on the back numbers I only just found and was very delighted and flattered.
    I'm glad you're surviving the snow; your descriptions of it are ravishing.
    I'm thinking on the matter of things found in books. I have certain reference books I know have particular photos or letters, in one case pressed flowers, within them, which I leave there, because I know where they are and no further decision has to be made about them!

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  2. My dictionaries have flowers from my childhood in them. It pleases me to happen upon them again and remember why I saved them. Your snow sounds impressive; I wish we'd get more here where it's been droughty.

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  3. Lucy,

    I'm glad you popped by--I wandered your way via Dave Bonta, and I wandered his way via Lori Witzel.

    mb,

    I'll bet we all turn out to have pressed flowers, especially in dictionaries. How sad to have only an e-dictionary and no flowers. And I once found a beautiful nineteenth-century poem in a book--beautiful for penmanship, that is!

    ***

    General warning:

    My next week or so will be zany and over-busy, so I may not be around much. Have already written some posts for later, but will not be commenting much... Perhaps the Pot Boy will show up to help.

    So please don't assume (as Robert must have!) that I'm lying in a snow drift somewhere. Just leave me a note anyway--I'll catch up when life becomes a little simpler.

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  4. Hey Marly,

    I understand overly busy. That is the way I was this week. I have decided that it is just life happening and that is okay. Besides for creative people it just gives us more fodder for later.

    I love your descriptions of snow as well. I wish we had a little of it here.

    I once found a crocheted/tatted cross in one of my mother's families old bibles. It was pink and beautiful, and I dont' know whatever happened to it, as it isn't there anymore. I have also found obits. of my mom's family members which seem to give me a sense of history/kinship. I also found a bible in German, and the date of 1817 in it, when I had to bring mom down here. I still have all of this.

    I love her cookbooks too. I have found interesting things in there. Family recipes on faded paper. Notes to other people. The cookbooks give me such delight to look thorugh as I know her hands have caressed the pages many times.

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  5. So glad you are not under a large shining hill! It does sound as if you are having a tough time.

    It is "Half Term" here in England, so my son is at home too and would do anything for some snow. When we do get it, which is very rare, he puts some in the freezer!

    I spent a little time in Canada 1974 and when the snow went in March/ April the whole place turned into a bog, mud every where.

    I found a Vitorian valantine card in one of our music books once. It was one of those that you obviously made yourself from a kit. Lots of stickys with hearts and sickly rhymes and lacy paper all over it. I wondered if a great aunt, she was very musical, had put it together and never sent it. Could I suppose been any one in the family, but I associated it with her. Perhaps it had been left there for her to find!

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  6. b.q. & Robert,

    I wish that I could send you a few tons of snow, but all I can manage is the e-snow: not satisfying.

    Tatted pink cross and Victorian Valentines: those belong together.

    I'm going to be off-line for a bit but will surface--fear not, Robert! I'm probably not going to be in a snow drift.

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  7. One of my dads friends was a south pole scientist who disappeared in the 60s there, and I recently recently found his last letter to my dad and it opened with "hows your liver!" And then told about how the pole scentist played football with a chunk of ice. It was really funny.

    He had stuck it in a passport.

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  8. Surfacing...

    A passport resembles a little book, only the contents need time to grow and tell a story.

    I like the one you just told, Susanna.

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  9. I almost envy you all that snow - except for all the roof-shoveling that'd be required.

    Your question about things found in books is a good one. I once did an entire blog post about all the old clippings and pressed leaves and flowers I found in my great-great-grandfather's bible. One of the flowers was a yellow lady's-slipper orchid -- that was pretty cool. Right next to a full-page engraving of Ruth and Boas.

    Glad to hear my links are leading you to new bloggers!

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  10. I'm afraid that we shoveled the front porch roof only. The back porch was rebuilt last year and ought to be shoveled by somebody! A gang of Amish boys and men in suspenders and hats put a new roof on the house in the fall, so I suppose this snow will put it to the test. Before that one went on, there was a lot of roof-tromping and ice-chiseling, so we're in hopes that such escapades are in the past.

    A yellow lady slipper next to Ruth and Boaz: I wonder if your great-great-grandmother or great-great-grandfather pondered where to put the flower.

    Yes, I'm going back to Dave's Smorgasblog, just as soon as I get through the next week!

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  11. I think that all of the unexpected things I found in books were placed there by myself. A purple flower--the name of which presently escapes me--that grew by the road to the church I attended at boarding school in my old prayer book. I had forgotten it was there.

    It is good to hear that you and yours did not suffer much damage from the snow storm. I can't even imagine that much snow.

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  12. imani,

    I miss your hat!

    Bibles and prayer books and dictionaries seem to be favorite depositories: edifices of the word/Word.

    It's the sneaky little seepages that one has to worry about--winding in from the snow pack and devastating a wall or dripping down the wires.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.