Saturday, 17 January 2009

Insouciant


My uncle Adraste was a thinking man and a reader. He lived for his books, those he published and those he sold, and only believed a thing once he had read it somewhere. He was not a story teller and the tale he began came with many long pauses and silent reflections.

"I heard of your father before I met him," my uncle Adraste told me, "or at least, of his father's vast library of occult and hermetic books, which turned up in the shops when the son, your father, had a gambling debt to pay. De verbo mirifico Lyons edition, De harmonia mundi, John Dee's Monas hieroglyphica." My uncle tapped his finger on his temple as he recited the titles of books, as he always did. "Your grandfather's ex libris was currency in the trade, because these were books that always found a ready buyer. The first time I met your father, he came to me with Pico della Mirandola's Apologia. He was a young man, dressed like a courtier, and was in a hurry to make the transaction. I asked him if he had read the book he was trading for several gold louis. 'Never. It's all in latin and I don't have patience for the ravings of jesuits and monks,' he said. I told him, 'Mirandola believed that man was created by God outside the chain of being, the only creature able to approach the angels through the exercise of his intellect, or descend to the animals. ' 'Well it's animals for me today, because my intellect is wanting exercise, and I have a card game waiting.' your father replied. He was a very handsome man, and you have his eyes, always looking around for something of interest."

"And then?"

Again my uncle paused, as if reluctant to continue. "I told him I would pay him better than he was getting elsewhere if he brought his books to me."

"Well?"

"He turned up often after that, always with a book for sale in hand. Many of them were indeed the ravings of jesuits and monks, memoirs and dull sermons that my competitors had probably declined to buy, but I always paid him something for them and over the first year of our association he came to see me a dozen times or more. He was ever bright and witty, with a light manner that dispelled gloom and care around him. His happy disposition made him welcome in all the salons, among those of the houses of Orleans, Conde and Conti and others who displayed arms of pure descent over their portals, as well as those of their enemies: the Madame de Maintenon, the Count of Toulouse and the children of the King who had acquired their privileges more recently. These rivals for His Majesty's attention were locked in a deadly competition for power and affected an ironic insouciance at court, but he was different, genuine, unaffected and always ready to laugh at himself. He never dressed in anything but the fashion of the season, in expensive silk coats with full-dress'd skirts and buttonholes worked in silver thread, and unstitched cuffs. He was always on the way from one gathering to another, carrying messages between the two court factions.

"Though he was often in a hurry, there were days when he didn't mind idling away an afternoon in the shop. On those occasions I would happily converse with him about the books he brought me, or show him the latest pamphlets by Daniel Defoe or a drama on stage in London. He spoke English and German very well for a French noble, and I soon discovered his ignorance of literature was a pretense, or perhaps simply the fashionable attitude of the time, and that he had an inquisitive and quick mind. He was always interested in the habits and customs of foreigners, in the workings of clocks and mechanical devices, and took a boyish delight in the same curious and bizarre objects that you like to play with in the shop: dried plants, stuffed birds and animals, shells and corals, strange weapons and musical instruments, artificialia, mirabilia, and naturalia, miniatures, ostrich eggs, dragon bones, boars tusks, aegyptian mummies, fish embedded in stone, manuscripts with hieroglyphs, armillary spheres and astrolabes, ivory polyhedra, and automata. I often think that if the loss of your parents had not endowed such a solemn expression to your pretty face, you would be the very image of your father: you share the same taste for the rare and grotesque."

3 comments:

hba said...

Please, be warned that if you should ever, ever come across a tome entitled "De Vermis Mysteriis", please do not read it without extreme caution. It would be best if you did not read it at all...

Young Geoffrion said...

Alas, its invocation, Tibi, magnum Innominandum, signa stellarum nigrarum et bufaniformis Sadoquae sigilim has failed to render up even a mouse!

HBA said...

You need a blood sacrifice, that's why...