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.
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.
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:
“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.