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A Short Stroll Through My Peculiar Library

Flaneur department

It’s late spring in 1914. The Great War is only a few months away in the future, but we’re not worried about that, are we? I for one am humming a merry tune as I take my ease amid the red plush of my first-class compartment. I look benignly out the train’s window as we steam past endless orchards—apples, cherries, apricots and damsons. From the damsons they make that heavenly brandy called tsuica. The train whistle gives a toot as we approach the Costesci station. I glance at my watch and see that it’s 12:24. So far we’re on time. We should be in Bucharest at 4:30 in the afternoon, in plenty of time to check in at the Excelsior and then head out to dinner at Capsa’s, Romania’s greatest restaurant, where the ciorba is superb. Haven’t been to Capsa’s since the winter of 1911.

How do I know all this? That we’ll be passing Pitesci at 1:39? That if I was on a Belgian train leaving Brussels at 7:35 I’d be in Ghent—the south station in Ghent—at 8:40? All this is made very clear to me in one of the most cherished books on my shelves, Bradshaw’s Continental Guide, 1914 edition—page after page of nothing but the timetables of every European railway, from London to Constantinople, a thousand fascinating pages. When things are not going well for me with this novel I’m trying to write, I while away an hour or two with my Bradshaw, finding out how long it would take me to get from Orvieto to Modena, and deciding whether to get off the train at Bologna for lunch.

I was delighted to find this Bradshaw in a bookshop in Vermont. When I go into a shop that sells used books, and the owner asks if I’m looking for any subject in particular, I say, No, thanks, I’ll just browse. What I want is books that are peculiar, and I know one when I see it. When I came across Charles Sprague’s 1888 Hand-Book of Volapük, I had to have it, even though it cost a dollar. Catching sight of a 1948 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum made me tremble with desire, and I got it for only fifty cents. The incomparable 1903 Gourmet’s Guide to Europe, with its descriptions of the best restaurants, cost me considerably more, but I don’t regret it a bit. From this book, I was pleased to learn that a dinner at the Ermitage, Moscow’s best restaurant, with eight courses including zakuski and rastegai, could be had for a mere two rubles, twenty-five kopecks. But it would cost more if you wanted it served on the finest Sèvres china, of the sort that graced the table of the Tsar.

No Logob Bukis Kil Obik

In my fantasy, I would be having dinner in Moscow with Max Rosenberger and would ask him why he abandoned us Volapükers. After all, he had presided over the great Congress of 1889, in Paris, a time when there had been a million of us worldwide, members of 283 Volapük societies. But now we were in decline, and Rosenberger had left us. But for what? Was he going to join with our hated enemies, the Esperantists?

Volapük had been here first, dammit, fully seven years before that upstart Zamenhof invented his Esperanto. Volapük had been devised in 1880 by Father Schleyer, the great German priest, after God came to him in a dream and told him to invent a universal international language, so that the nations of the world would not fight with each other quite so much. As we say in Volapük, “No logob bukis kil obik.”

Heathcote Is Heth-Cut

Whenever my nerves are on edge, thanks to roadblocks I encounter trying to write this wretched novel, I find that reading lists of things is strangely soothing. At those moments I often reach for my Debrett’s Correct Form, which, among other things, lists the correct pronunciation of various aristocratic British surnames. We all know that Cholmondeley is pronounced Chumly, but how many of us know that Beauchamp is pronounced Beecham? That Wemyss is Weems, that Kircudbright is Cuck-coo-bri, that Fenwick is Fennick, that Heathcote is Heth-cut?

But my Debrett’s Correct Form contains much more than this list of eight hundred surnames. With supreme authority it answers any question you might have, while in England, regarding orders of precedence or forms of address. For instance, who comes first, a duke, a marquess, an earl, a viscount or a baron? Does the daughter of a viscount have “Lady” or “The Hon.” before her name? If you’ve written a letter to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, how do you address the envelope? Answer: “The Most Reverend the Primus.” And did you know that when a marquess or an earl by courtesy has an eldest (or only) son (who consequently is his second heir apparent), the son, too, may use a courtesy title in the peerage, provided that it is junior in rank to that by which his father is known? There are 423 pages of this sort of thing in this wonderful book.

Balls Can Be a Source of Grief

On my shelf, next to my Debrett’s, I keep my well-thumbed copy of Mrs. Danvers Delano’s The Ways of Society. Although it was published a century ago, it seems to me to be as practical today as it was back then. Essentially it’s a how-to-do-it book for people who are nouveau riche and want to climb up into high society. As my wife Magda and I fall into this category, you can imagine how potentially useful it is.

Its chapters instruct one how to behave at dinner parties, luncheon parties, bridge parties and house parties in the country. Here we learn the proper etiquette for proposing marriage, the right and the wrong way to organize a society wedding, how to tip the servants at those house parties and what sort of livery your chauffeur should wear when the family is in mourning. I must confess that this book has caused some strife in our household. While I have gratefully absorbed most of its advice, Magda refuses to read it, saying she knows it all by instinct. She says that I may be nouveau riche but she, harkening back to her origins, is nouveau pauvre.

I try to persuade her that the climb up into high society is not only arduous but also dangerous, but she will have none of it. Yet look at what Mrs. Danvers Delano says in the chapter she succinctly entitles “Balls.” These, she warns her lady readers, can be the source of much grief. “The art of ball-giving,” she writes, “is one of the most complex in London Society. It is indeed a necessary but thankless task; you may spend money like water and those attending your dance will not even pretend to know you a few weeks afterwards. It must be understood, of course, that I am alluding to those hostesses who would fain enter the holy of holies of Society proper by a judicious expenditure of great wealth. Everything must have a beginning, but it is no easy matter to get into the swim and keep afloat when once there.”

No Swedenborg for Me

Moving down along my bookshelf, I can recommend my Index Librorum Prohibitorum as a stimulating read. It was first published in 1559 and was updated every twelve years or so until 1966, when it was discontinued. Mine is the 1948 edition—about an inch thick and containing about four thousand titles of books that Roman Catholics were forbidden to read. Among the authors that are banned are Balzac, Flaubert, Gide, Sartre, Milton, Locke, Hume and Spinoza. Personally I have always put off my reading of d’Alembert and Swedenborg and, although I am not a Catholic, my discovery of the Index has allowed me to dispense with those two altogether.

Beware the Damsels

When I survey my considerable holdings of erotica and curiosa I see several books that ought to have been on the Index, but they seem to have escaped the ecclesiastical eye. What I have on these shelves are mainly the standard classic texts, like Fanny Hill, The Perfumed Garden, My Secret Life, The English Governess and so on. But I do have a few oddities and of these the most intriguing is Poison-Damsels, a collection of scholarly essays in folklore and anthropology, privately printed in London fifty years ago. One essay deals with legends about various ways nasty girls in ancient times did in their lovers (if she offers you a bathrobe to wear during your tryst, don’t put it on; it’s been rubbed with poison and you’ll be dead before morning). Several other surprises of the love chamber are described in this delightful book, with learned footnotes in various languages. Not the least of these is the horrific vagina dentata (ask your dentist about it).

Strychnine for Your Pantry

I had never had any great interest in the fine art of poisoning, but after I came across Poisons: Their Effects and Detection I was hooked. This book, subtitled “A manual for the use of analytical chemists and experts,” was published in 1885, and thus shows how it was done in Sherlock Holmes’ time. Was the deceased murdered with arsenic (the all-time favourite), phosphorus, nux vomica, strychnine or any one of dozens of other potions? The case histories are juicy, the author being British, and we are told, step by step, how to identify the toxin in the lab. But, more interesting, we unavoidably learn how to make and administer the stuff. A lovely little paste that you can concoct in your kitchen—phosphorus, warm water, rye flour, melted butter and sugar—will dispatch your mate in short order, if you can manage to slip it into his or her porridge.

The Cincinnati College of Embalming

Besides books, I have some peculiar magazines in my peculiar library and on a gloomy afternoon I can generally cheer myself up by leafing through some of my back issues of Canadian Funeral Service. The advertisements in this undertakers’ trade magazine are fascinating—caskets, casket hardware, vaults, second-hand hearses that boast low mileage. Establishments like the Cincinnati College of Embalming promise students all they need to know for a bright future.

When it comes to embalming fluid, the ads indicate that competition is fierce between the likes of Polusterine, Eckels Veloxin and Intro-Flow. Esco-Leco proclaims that it is “the Arterial Chemical with the new Coloring Ingredient that gives the skin the natural sunny tones of modern outdoor living.” Reliance Fluids offer “a semi-firm body without sacrificing preservation.” Another company’s ad joyfully proclaims, “Summertime, and the embalming is easy if you’re using Citran Arterial.”

Europe on Five Dollars a Day

In planning our forthcoming trip to Paris, Magda and I have been consulting our favourite travel guide, Arthur Frommer’s Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. This invaluable 1964 volume has led us to decide that we’ll be staying at the Hotel de Tours, on Rue Jacob, where a double room costs $3 a day. For our first dinner in Paris, we’ve decided on the Rôtisserie du Panthéon, on Rue Soufflot—easy walking distance from the hotel. We will opt for the “menu touristique”: hors d’oeuvres, a meat dish with vegetables, cheese, dessert and wine for 6.60 francs—$1.30. Who says Paris is expensive? Certainly not for those of us who read only books that help us live in the past.

After Paris, we’ll proceed to London, where another 1964 publication from my library will be useful. It’s The Good Loo Guide, subtitled “Where to Go in London.”  The book is pocket-size and is essential during long walks through the city. There are maps that help you find the nearest public conveniences and brief reviews that tell you what to expect. All facilities are rated. The Marble Arch Loo, for instance, gets two stars. The Ladies, says the review, has “seven one-penny cubicles (one of which has an exceptionally wide door for outsize customers).” As for the men’s room in this facility, “It has 15 free seats, room for 47 standing, two free basins, a sixpenny washroom.” The Kensington Palace Hotel Loo gets three stars, but my favourite is still the Trafalgar Square Loo, where “the Gents can accommodate 20 standing in an attractive crescent arrangement, and music is provided at certain times by a happy singing attendant, abetted by an accordionist outside the door.”

The SubClasses of Adultery

Because so much of present-day life is incomprehensible to me, I derive increasing comfort by living in the past. I can while away many a pleasant hour studying the menus in the 1903 Gourmet’s Guide to Europe (don’t miss the Poulet Cocotte Bayaldy at Justin’s in Barcelona) or trying to master the declension of nouns in Volapük (man labom dogis tel, etc.). But my peculiar library also has its practical uses. For instance, it offers me important guidance from the past in the matter of writing film scripts. You see, over the years I have written and produced many film scripts, but lately my creativity in this field has dwindled. I seem to have run dry. But the other day I came across, and bought, a book that is rekindling the fire within.

The book is by Wycliffe A. Hill and is entitled Ten Million Photoplay Plots. It was published in Los Angeles in 1919 and thus deals with writing for films that are silent. This is not necessarily a drawback, and I really think it’s what I need. It lists “The Thirty-Seven Basic Dramatic Situations and Their Sub-Classes,” wonderful stuff like Situation No. 26, “Adultery,” which has eighteen subclasses like “(12) The sacrifice of an uncongenial husband for a lover who is the opposite.”  And “(16) The betrayal of a good husband for an inferior rival in order to make a tool of the latter.” The more I look at television these days, the more I think it’s time to return to the silent film of 1919. With Wycliffe Hill’s book on my desk, I’ve got ten million plots ready to go.