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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

John Biguenet's NOLA Journal - Pulp Fiction

Oct. 24, 2005

Pulp Fiction

I had always thought that when you lose everything, the irreplaceable mementoes of life must be the hardest to part with. And dredged up from the muck left by the receding flood, such things, ruined beyond repair, do wound me — the spontaneous gift of a beautiful bowl bestowed for no reason one evening by a friend now long dead, the self-portrait with green teeth by a second-grader now grown into his twenties, the battered music box that served as the first token of a love that has outlasted more than just this most recent disaster. But I could not have guessed that of all the things lost in the flood, my mold-encrusted books would weigh so heavily upon me.

When I kicked open my door the first time we returned to our house after the hurricane, what caught my eye was not the heavy sofa that had floated across the living room to totter upon the stairs, nor even the veil of mold that shrouded every surface. What I fixed upon was the copy of “Mary Reilly” my friend Valerie Martin had autographed for me that now lay at my feet, its pages black and waterlogged. The novel had been shelved at the top of the bookcase with other prized volumes by admired writers; I realized immediately that sometime during the three weeks my house had remained flooded four feet deep, the bookcase had pitched forward into the water.

So I knew the soggy pile of books sprawled across the floor and discolored by the mold must include the whole set of Janette Turner Hospital’s stories and novels I had been reading my way through this past summer, the collection of poetry John Balaban had insisted I take as a gift at a conference we both attended, the inscribed copy of Helen Scully’s first novel, the volumes by Angela Carter I had found here and there over 20 years, the boxed set of Tolstoy’s diaries I’d requested in place of a fee for a favor I had done a publisher, novels by Tim Gautreaux and Tom Franklin and Steve Stern and Ha Jin, Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Chekhov’s letters, Edith Grossman’s new translation of “Don Quixote.” Though I was surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of damage, what pierced my heart was the swollen paperback of “The Tain,” the Irish epic, which Marsha and I had discovered in a British bookshop on our first trip to Europe 30 years ago.

The ruined books, heavy with water and slippery with mold, clung to one another. It was difficult work, lifting them into a garbage can to haul to the curb, then flinging them, often one by one, onto the common trash hill my neighbors and I have built. In fact, the ribs on my left side are still tender from the effort to finish the job this past weekend.

I keep reminding myself it’s foolish to regret a lost book. All but a few of those I’ve thrown away are probably available in new editions, in a library, in a used-book shop somewhere. And a book is just a temporary transition, after all, between two minds, the writer’s and the reader’s. So what have I lost, really?

But each book had its own story of how it had come to rest on one of my shelves. “The Tain” and the other volumes we found on that first trip to Europe came home in Marsha’s yellow suitcase, the one we emptied of clothes as we traveled to make more room for books unavailable in those days in the States. The American Merchant Seaman's Manual had been my father’s. The thin volume of poems by grammar-school students, including the first poem ever published by a promising young versifier named Wystan Hugh Auden, was the very touching gift of an organization I had served that knew of my love for his later poetry. Now nothing but pulp, they have a new story to tell me of how quickly things pass. (And, of course, my own books rotting among the work of so many other writers have their own lesson to teach me about the glory of this world.)

One of the books I lost was “The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop.” Her villanelle, “One Art,” repeats a line I’ve learned is true: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” But she insists, over and over again, it’s never really a “disaster.” I know she’s right about that, too — though surrounded by my past, corrupting page by page, it’s a difficult truth to accept.

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