Tuesday, 27 January 2009


"I took the Elementa Geometriae from the shelf," my uncle continued, "because I was convinced my eye had not fallen there by chance. It was indeed the English translation by John Dee, mathematical scholar, astrologist and traveller, chemist, crystal-gazer, and reputed summoner of spirits by White Magic, who enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and who practiced alchemy in Bohemia under the patronage of Emperor Rudolph II. And inside the cover was the same crest that you're looking at, Yolande, the Palatine lions and blue-and-white lozenge of the Heidelberg Library.

"I held in my hands a book that should not be in France and that had disappeared even from public view in England, after Dee lost Queen Elizabeth's favour and James came to power. Your father looked at me with eyebrows raised in amusement, and said, 'Do you think mathematics will help me?'

" 'Dee believed the universe to be divided into three spheres: the natural, the celestial and the super-celestial. He thought number and proportion to be of practical use to the navigator, architect, and musician because it reflects the secret organization of these three spheres. Look, here he writes, 'By number, a way is had, to the searching out and understanding of every thyng, hable to be knowen.'

"Your father took the book from me, and read thoughtfully. He said, 'I have tried to divine some numerical pattern in the way the cards are dealt, and remember each card played in order to hazard the chance of my card appearing next in the deal, but I still lose.'

" 'Dee was thought to call up angelic assistance in his understanding of number. But he wasn't the only one to think of mathematics as magical. Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and Henry Agrippa all thought along similar platonic lines.'

" 'Wasn't Bruno burned as a heretic? I think I have one of his books here, Let me see.'

"Your father replaced Euclid and quickly found Ars Memoriae, Theses De Magia, and Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres. They all bore the same crest on their inside covers. Somehow the most dangerous books of the Reformation, books that had been expunged from libraries from Rome to Krakow, books that had been shredded or burned in witch hunts and auto da fe, had escaped and made their way into your grandfather's possession. But your father said, 'It's no use, I think it all a hopeless jumble of incoherent nonsense. My father wasted his life pouring over books like this, it made his mind feeble. He always ranted about incantations and elixirs of immortality and forbidden knowledge. If he had learned anything he would be alive today, n'est-ce pas? Or he would have left a pile of alchemical gold. At least his books are worth something.'

" 'They are worth more together than piecemeal.'

" 'I know. But however grand a fool he was, I still honour the old man. I've tried not to sell anything important, or become a wastrel. But my library is open to you because you have promised to help me, and I cannot continue to lose like this or it will soon all be gone.'

We sat down to a simple meal at a table set up in the corner of the library, overlooking his garden, served by a single boy and a housewoman, then took out the cards you have there, Yolande, and he began to teach me how the game was played."

My uncle had always spoken to me as if I were an adult, even in my infancy. Perhaps he did not know how to speak to a child, or perhaps he was already talking to himself. But I was growing tired of all the history, and my head began to nod, so my uncle lifted me from the floor and took me to my bed. He tried to pry my father's cards from my fingers but I clutched the pack to my breast and rolled onto them, falling into a deep sleep, dreaming of staircases, playing card people, mazes of books, and men burning at the stake.

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