Monday, January 21, 2013

The back of the shelf

I really shouldn’t be blogging. Not this week. And I certainly won’t blog about how much emptying a house is akin to emptying a life. They’ve been days full of heartache, and most of it isn’t even mine. But there have also been some lighter moments and some happier discoveries. Things we hadn’t so much forgotten about as erased from memory to the point of making us doubt they ever belonged to us, to this house where nothing was ever thrown out, to this tiny house that over time accumulated the contents of other houses and other lives. Crammed God knows how. Strategically left in functionally inaccessible places in order to defer the very moment we’re faced with now: what to do with all this stuff, and with each individual piece of stuff.

I’ve talked before about the experience of growing up amongst the books in this house at a time that presented fewer distractions or ways to connect with the outside. But there were other books, hidden behind the ones in sight. The dreaded second row. Almost an entire second library. It comprises improbable books of uncertain origin alongside ones that my mother remembers buying or reading. I had never seen most of these before. Some of them have very appealing covers.

Some of them ask bold questions.

(Is the Marcuse Doctrine revolutionary?)

Some of them offer little posers. Who were you, Eugenio Milanesio, who felt the need to update the inscription on your pocket-sized encyclopaedia every time you rose through the ranks of the Italian army? Lieutenant Milanesio, Captain Milanesio, Colonel Milanesio, General Milanesio. Every time he signed the book.

Mayor Thompson’s Notebook is about the differences between the French and the English. (‘The English taught the world how to sit at the table, but the French are the ones doing the eating.’ ‘French men contemplate women; English men just walk by them.’)

I had never seen this book but I knew of its existence.

The ironworks’ owner, a French pot-boiler that my father was very fond of as a young man. And if you aren’t you intrigued enough by the fate of the woman who stops the duel, the back cover supplies a further teaser.

The back of each shelf is like a previous life. And there are other nooks – sometimes it’s as if the house were nothing but nooks. The false bottom of my parents’ writing desk reveals a stash of photos whose existence I ignored; a set of never seen before wedding slides; childhood photos of mine that I thought lost.

I am adorable
In the false ceiling above the hallway, a collection of old bags, cooking implements for campers, a box pencilled “pinecones” that really does contain pinecones, stupendous board games from the 1960s.

The Pop Songbook Bingo

And then: telegrams from my parents’ wedding, every postcard we ever received, ribbons, a rotary phone. I wish I could reopen this post at Overland to include the covers of my mothers’ school reports form the late 1930s, found inside a shoebox.

For the most part these aren’t the things that it tears us up to dispose of. They’re detritus. They make us smile. What is this? I don’t know! We speculate as to the origins or nature of the mysterious objects. We temporarily forget the grim overall purpose of the exercise.

It makes me wish that I could do nothing but browse the back of each shelf.


Megan Clayton said...

Behind the shelf, a shelf
within the shelf, a shelf
and behind these, another shelf.

I put my arm through the back
and wait for the returning hand.

I hope for the soft edge
of fraying pages.

George D said...

It was only yesterday I learned the Portuguese word for bookshelf, 'estante', something which brings to mind sturdiness and permanence. I don't presume to know the how or why of your moving - you've been quiet and I've been abroad and distracted, but I do know that I've been lucky enough to sit under your bookshelves and gaze through. I wouldn't have guessed that there was a second row in behind.

I was shocked recently to find out that my father, who is an inveterate accumulator of books of various quality, had thrown out many things I used to thumb through. I guess I used to think they'd always be there when I returned. On another bookshelf sit things recognised as mine, including an as yet unfinished book of yours with a cartoon cover, about a communist man and a conservative priest in an Italian village. Or was it the other way around?

I used to buy books, once. Before I decided to live out of a suitcase. Perhaps I could make it possible by ripping off the covers and plastering these to my walls, ignoring the weight between and the soft edge of fraying pages'.