My Little Book Problem

We ran errands in the Hollywood district today: post office, farmers’ market, antique shop. A pleasant, and common, Saturday morning for us. I’ve been craving kohlrabi in much the way I imagine Rapunzel’s mother craved that rampion, and I had six (!) Bookmooch books to send off. That made a total of 10 sent this week; my effort to clear up some space in the library is proceeding nicely.

Or, it was, until we stopped in at the antiques mall downstairs from the post office.

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Oh, dear. I’ve given back more than half the territory gained by getting those 10 books off the shelves, and spent a tidy pile doing so. Well, the encyclopedia and grammar book fit so nicely in my collection of early 20th-century reference works; the 1943 Once and Future King is in excellent shape and is a book I will re-read over the years, and the book of Latin insults is pretentious good fun. Besides, they each cost only a few dollars. No, the problem is that little red book right on top.

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Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de Mon Moulin. Don’t worry if it doesn’t ring any bells for you–it doesn’t me, either. I don’t know Daudet, and am entirely unfamiliar with the Letters from his Windmill (a metaphor for the heart, do you think, or for the mind?) Also, it’s in French, a language I can only pick through for occasional nuggets of comprehension. Nevertheless, this unknown work by an unfamiliar author in an unreadable language is exactly the kind of book I find irresistible. It’s a tiny, antique book in excellent condition; the leather is supple, the binding is tight, the endpapers are glossy and the gilt is bright and shiny–it’s a jewel of a book, lovely to gaze upon, a book to own for the sheer pleasure of having it: precisely the sort of thing that arouses my booklust. Even more precious (and compulsion-buy inducing) is the history inscribed on its front pages.

-- ” To Margareta Broocke: When you reread this page, darling Reta, think of me.” I may not know French, but I can parse that much from it. There’s a reference to “l’ami absent et l’ami mort”, friends absent and friends dead, and it’s signed “Irene de Noilles, Xmas 1913”. There’s much more, and I’ll labor a while with BabelFish to work it all out, but this was obviously a sentimental present between tender hearts, nearly a century ago.

But even that was not the thing that made me relinquish an excellent-condition Rubaiyat in favor of this small treasure. No, that was the second dedication:

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“To my dear friend Mr. T. Harris Bartlett, on the occasion of his 84th birthday. Portland, Oregon, May 31, 1947. Margaretta B. Look.” It’s my birthday, yes–or, it will be, some two decades hence. But look at how much story is implied between the two dedications: at some point, our chere Reta has made her way from Europe (the Dutch surname and French primary language suggest Belgium) to Portland, and changed from Margareta Broocke to Margaretta B. Look–by marriage, mostly likely, but possibly for other reasons. And who is Mr. Bartlett to her, that she would give him Irene’s precious little gift of love and memory, kept immaculately safe for thirty years through two world wars and across at least two continents? Aren’t you desperately curious? I am.

I cannot judge M. Daudet’s stories, but his readers certainly write a compelling, if elliptical, tale.

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8 Responses to My Little Book Problem

  1. CountessZ says:

    That is precisely the type of book that captures my imagination as well. The sentiment of the inscriptions is simply irresistible. Maybe I have read too many books or watched too many movies, but it is the kind of thing that makes me want to track down who these people were and how this book ended up in the antique store. I can imagine that it will lead to a mystery that you alone can solve with the help of the book. Oh my, how very Anne Shirley of me. Keep us posted as you parse more of the mystery 🙂

  2. Ramona says:

    Not only can I imagine you solving the mystery of the people giving and receiving the book, I am sure that your mind begins writing a story or novel on the basis of those inscriptions. Why don’t you go ahead and write it? I for one would love to read it.
    I watched ‘Becoming Jane’ last night. Wonderful. Have you seen it?

  3. kaizerin says:

    I’m not ignoring your suggestion, Ramona–in fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the puzzle first–who Mr. Bartlett was, and why Margaretta gave him the book. I think an interesting answer to that is the key to an interesting story leading up to it.

    I did a little looking into the book itself: it turns out the windmill of the title is literal. Daudet sequestered himself in a windmill in the French countryside and wrote stories about the pastoral life that were a great hit. He’s something of a Thoreau crossed with Peter Mayle, and the book is a French national treasure. Tra la! Now I may have to read the thing.

    ALSO: Bearby called to say he accosted my doppleganger in a London street yesterday, and it turned out she was French. SO, la belle Francais, she is calling to me!

  4. Ramona says:

    Doesn’t London have laws against accosting dopplegangers? Did Bearby retain a barrister?
    Yes, it does seem signs are pointing to a French Connection.
    You have given us more clues about the book. It is interesting to imagine the author writing from a windmill. Was the book published in the early 1900’s?

  5. kaizerin says:

    Hah. I asked Bear if he got a picture, or her number or anything, but no–he thought he’d startled her enough as it was. He really was convinced on first sight that it was me. He said even her eye color was right, but close up, she didn’t have freckles, and had a pointier, upturned nose.

    Daudet’s book was published in 1869, but was a collection of short stories that had been published in magazines between 1865-1869. If you look it up in Wikipedia, they even have a picture of the windmill in question.

  6. cellochaplin says:

    This is my first visit here – it’s a wonderful site! I was particularly grabbed by kaizerin’s description of this book for so many reasons. It’s a little red book, it’s in French, and it’s got the most fabulous dedications imaginable. I’m at this moment reading Balzac’s Le Duchesse de Langeais (in French), written a few decades before Lettres de mon Moulin. Wikipedia says Balzac influenced Dickens, and I dare say Daudet as well. Good find!

  7. kaizerin says:

    Welcome! Thanks for dropping by the blog–I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. I am infatuated with my little treasure book–its physical perfection, its emotional intrigue. My French is so minimal as to be non-existent, but I’m feeling compelled to study up and make what I can of the book as well as the dedication.

  8. CAS says:

    What a delightful find, Bearish! While not as romantic as your l’ami absent et l’ami mort”, but I have decided to start putting a small card in my trans-atlantic Bookmooching- to let them know where I got the book. Some of mine have come from as far away as Australia and South Africa.

    I envy, yes evvy, your little leather bound collection! May your shelves continue to fill with such interesting tomes!

    B2/2

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