3. Someone May Pluck Your Flower
I know how to get around outside, have even learned how to act when people greet me: you gauge your smile, your gestures of surprise, your delight or courtesy by observing the other person’s smiles, gestures, and courtesies. I tried it out on neighbors, in the elevator. Which proves that social life is mere fiction, I said to Carla when she congratulated me. She said this incident is making me cynical. Of course, if you didn’t start thinking it was all playacting, you might shoot yourself.
Now then, Paola said, it’s time you went back to the office. Go by yourself, visit with Sibilla, and see what feelings your place of work inspires. Gianni’s whisper about the beautiful Sibilla came back to me.
"She’s your assistant, your girl Friday. She’s fantastic and has kept the studio running these past few weeks. I called her today and she was quite proud of having made some amazing sale or other. Sibilla-don’t ask me her last name because nobody can pronounce it. A Polish girl. She was majoring in library science in Warsaw, and when the regime there began to crumble, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she managed to get a permit to come study in Rome.
She’s sweet, maybe too sweet, she must have figured out how to win some bigwig’s sympathy. In any case, once she got here she started looking for a job and never went back. She found you, or you found her, and she’s been your assistant for nearly four years now. She’s expecting you today, and she knows what happened and how she should behave."
She gave me the address and phone number of my office. After Largo Cairoli feeds into Via Dante and before you get to the Loggia dei Mercanti-you can tell it’s a loggia from a distance-you turn left and you’re there. "If you have trouble, go into a caf'e and call her, or me, and we’ll send a team of firemen, but I don’t think it will come to that. Oh, bear in mind that you started off speaking French with Sibilla, before she learned Italian, and you never stopped. A little game between the two of you."
So many people in Via Dante. It feels good to pass by a series of strangers without being obliged to greet them, it gives you confidence, makes you realize that seven out of ten people are in the same condition you are. After all, I could be someone who is new to the city, who feels a little alone but is getting his bearings. Except that I am new to the planet. Some man waved hello from a caf'e door, no call for theatrical recognition, I waved back and it went smoothly.
I found the street and my studio like the boy scout who wins the treasure hunt: a sober plaque on the ground floor said STUDIO BIBLIO. I must not have much imagination, though I suppose the name sounds serious-what was I supposed to call it, Roman Holiday? I rang, went up the stairs, saw a door that was already open, and Sibilla on the threshold.
"Bonjour, Monsieur Yambo… pardon, Monsieur Bodoni…" As if it were she who had lost her memory. She was indeed quite beautiful. Long, straight blond hair that framed the perfect oval of her face. Not a trace of makeup, except perhaps for a slight touch of something around the eyes. The only adjective that came to mind was darling. (I am dealing in stereotypes, I know, but it is thanks to them that I have been getting by.) She was wearing a pair of jeans and one of those T-shirts with an English message on it, SMILE or something like that, which emphasized, modestly, two adolescent breasts.
We were both embarrassed. "Mademoiselle Sibilla?" I asked.
"Oui," she answered, then quickly: "ohui, houi. Entrez."
Like a delicate hiccup. The first "oui," uttered almost normally, was quickly followed by the second, which caught briefly in her throat as she was breathing in, then the third, as she exhaled again, with the faintest quizzical tone. The overall effect was of childish embarrassment and at the same time a sensual timidity. She stepped aside to let me come in. I noted a tasteful perfume.
If I had had to explain what a book studio was, I would have described something much like what I now saw. Bookcases of dark wood, filled with antique volumes, and more old books on the heavy, square table. A little desk in a corner, with a computer. Two colorful maps on either side of a window with opaque glass. Soft light, broad green lampshades. Through a door, a long narrow storage room-it seemed to be a workroom for packing and shipping books.
"So you must be Sibilla? Or should I say Mademoiselle something-I’m told you have an unpronounceable last name."
"Sibilla Jasnorzewska, yes, here in Italy it causes some problems. But you’ve always just called me Sibilla." I saw her smile for the first time. I told her I wanted to get my bearings, wanted to see our prize books. That wall in the back, she said, and she went over to show me the correct bookcase. She walked silently, brushing the floor with her tennis shoes. But maybe it was the moquette that muted her steps. There hangs, adolescent virgin, a sacred shadow over you, I was about to say aloud. Instead I said: "Who wrote that, Cardarelli?"
"What?" she said, turning her head, her hair twirling. "Nothing," I said. "Let’s see what we have."
Lovely volumes with an ancient air. Not all of them had a title label on the spine. I took one from the shelf. Instinctively I opened it to look for the title page, but I did not find one. "Incunabulum, then. Sixteenth-century blind-tooled pigskin binding." I ran my hands over the sides, feeling a tactile pleasure. "Headcaps slightly worn." I flipped through the pages, touching them to see whether they squeaked, as Gianni had said. They did. "Wide, clean margins. Ah, minor marginal staining on the endpapers, the last signature is wormed, but it doesn’t affect the text. Lovely copy." I turned to the colophon, knowing it was called that, and slowly sounded out: "Venetiis mense Septembri… fourteen hundred ninety-seven. Could it be…" I turned to the first page: Iamblichus de mysteriis Aegyptiorum… It’s the first edition of Ficino’s Iamblichus, isn’t it?"
"It’s the first… Monsieur Bodoni. You recognize it?"
"No, I don’t recognize anything, you’ll have to learn that, Sibilla. It’s just that I know that the first Iamblichus translated by Ficino is from 1497."
"Forgive me, I’m trying to get used to it. It’s just that you were so proud of that copy, it’s really splendid. And you said that for now you weren’t going to sell it, there are so few around-we’d wait for one to appear in some American catalogue, since they’re so good at jacking up prices, and then list ours."
"So I’m a canny businessman, then."
"I always said it was an excuse, that you wanted to keep it to yourself awhile, so you could look at it now and then. But since you did decide to sacrifice the Ortelius, I have some good news."
"Ortelius? Which one?"
"The 1606 Plantin, with 166 color tables and the Parergon. Period binding. You were so pleased to have discovered it when you bought Commendatore Gambi’s entire library on the cheap. You finally decided to put it in the catalogue. And while you… while you weren’t well, I managed to sell it to a client, a new one. He didn’t seem like a real bibliophile to me, more like someone who buys as an investment because he’s heard that antiquarian books appreciate quickly."
"Too bad, a wasted copy. And… how much?"
She seemed afraid to say the amount; she got a form and showed it to me. "In the catalogue we put ‘price on request,’ and you were prepared to deal. I immediately named the highest price, and he didn’t even try to bargain, just signed a check and was off. ‘On the nail,’ as they say in Milan."
"We’ve reached these levels now…" I didn’t have a sense of current prices. "Well done, Sibilla. How much did it cost us?"
"Basically nothing. That is, with the rest of the books from the Gambi library we’ll easily make back, little by little, the lump sum we paid for the whole lot. I took care of depositing the check in the bank. And since there was no price listed in the catalogue, I think that with Mr. Laivelli’s help we’ll come out quite well on the financial side."
"So I’m one of those who don’t pay their taxes?"
"No, Monsieur Bodoni, you just do what your fellow dealers do. For the most part, you have to pay the full amount, but with certain fortunate deals you might, how do you say, round down. But you’re ninety-five percent honest as a taxpayer."
"After this deal it’ll be fifty percent. I read somewhere that citizens should pay every penny of their taxes." She looked humiliated. "Don’t worry about it, though," I said paternally. "I’ll talk it over with Gianni." Paternally? Then I said, almost brusquely, "Now let me take a look at some of the other books." She turned around and went to sit at her computer, silent.
I looked at the books, flipped through their pages: Bernardino Benali’s 1491 Commedia, a 1477 edition of Scot’s Liber Phisionomiae, a 1484 edition of Ptolemy’s Quadripartite, a 1482 Calendarium by Regiomontanus. Nor was I exactly lacking when it came to later centuries: there was a fine first edition of Zonca’s Novo teatro, and a marvelous Ramelli… I was familiar with each of these works, like every antiquarian who knows the great catalogues by heart. But I did not know I owned copies of them.
Paternally? I was pulling out books and putting them back, but in fact I was thinking about Sibilla. Gianni had given me that hint, clearly mischievous, and Paola had delayed telling me about her until the last minute, and had used certain phrases that were almost sarcastic, even if her tone was neutral-"maybe too sweet," "a little game between the two of you"-nothing particularly rancorous, but she seemed a hairsbreadth away from calling her a slyboots.
Could I have had an affair with Sibilla? The lost maiden newly arrived from the East, wide-eyed and curious, meets an older gentleman (though I was four years younger when she got here) and falls under his spell, after all he is the boss and knows more about books than she does, and she learns, hangs on his every word, admires him; and he has found his ideal pupil-beautiful, smart, with that hiccupped oui oui oui-and they begin working together, all day every day, alone in this studio, partners in so many trouvailles great and small; and one day they brush against each other by the door and in that instant the story of their affair begins. But me, at my age? You’re just a girl, go find a boy your own age for God’s sake, don’t take me so seriously. And she: No, I’ve never felt anything like this before, Yambo. Was I summarizing some movie everyone knows? And it goes on like a movie, or a romance novel: I love you, Yambo, but I can’t go on looking your wife in the eye, she’s so dear and kind, and you have two daughters and you’re a grandfather-Thanks for reminding me that there’s a whiff of the corpse about me already-No, don’t talk that way, you’re more… more… more than any man I’ve ever met, boys my age make me laugh, but maybe it’s right that I should leave-Wait, we can still be good friends, just seeing each other every day will be enough-But don’t you see, that’s just it, if we see each other every day we could never remain friends-Sibilla, don’t say that, let’s think this through… One day she stops coming to the studio, I call her and say I’m going to kill myself, and she says don’t be infantile, tout passe, then later she is the one who comes back, unable to stay away. And it goes on like that for four years. Or does it end?
I seem to know all the clich'es, but not how to put them together in a believable way. Or else these stories are terrible and grandiose precisely because all the clich'es intertwine in an unrealistic way and you can’t disentangle them. But when you actually live a clich'e, it feels brand-new, and you are unashamed.
Would it be a realistic story? In recent days I felt that I no longer had desires, but as soon as I saw her I learned what desire is. I mean, someone I just met for the first time. Imagine being around her every day, following her, seeing her glide around you as if she were walking on water. Of course this is mere speculation; I would never start something, in the state I am in now, something like that, and besides, with Paola, I would really be the prize swine. For me, this girl might as well be the Immaculate Virgin, I cannot even think it. Great. But for her?
She might still be in mid-affair, maybe she wanted to greet me with tu and my first name; fortunately in French you can use vous even when you are sleeping together. Maybe she wanted to throw her arms around my neck-who knows how much she too might have suffered in recent weeks-and here she sees me come along, pretty as you please, saying how do you do Mademoiselle Sibilla, and now won’t you leave me to my books, very kind of you thanks. And she understands that she can never tell me the truth. Perhaps it is better like this, time she found herself a boy. And me?
That I am not quite all here is a matter of clinical record. What am I brooding on about? With me sharing my office with a beautiful girl, of course Paola would play the part of a jealous wife-that is just a game old married couples play. And Gianni? It was Gianni who spoke of the beautiful Sibilla, maybe he is the one who has fallen for her, maybe he drops by my office all the time with some tax excuse, then hangs around pretending to be enchanted by the squeaking pages. He is the one with the crush, I have nothing to do with it. It is Gianni, old enough to smell a little like a corpse himself, he is trying to steal away, has stolen away, the woman of my dreams. Here we go again: the woman of my dreams?
I thought I was going to be able to handle living with so many People I do not recognize, but this is the greatest hurdle yet, ever since those senile fantasies entered my head. What pains me is that I might cause her pain. So you see, then… No, it is natural for a man not to want to hurt his own adoptive daughter. Daughter? The other day I felt like a pedophile and now I discover I am incestuous?
And after all, my God, who said we ever slept together? Maybe it was just a kiss, a single kiss, or a platonic attraction, each understanding what the other felt but neither ever speaking of it. Round Table lovers, we slept for four years with a sword between us.
Oh, I also have a Stultifera Navis, though it does not look like a first edition and in any case is not a first-rate copy. And this De Proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus? Completely rubricated from top to bottom-too bad the binding is modern, antique style. We can talk business. "Sibilla, the Stultifera Navis isn’t a first edition, is it?"
"Unfortunately no, Monsieur Bodoni. Ours is the 1497 Olpe. The first is also Olpe, Basel, but from 1494, and in German, Das Narren Schyff. The first Latin edition, like ours, appears in ‘97, but in March, and ours, if you look at the colophon, is from August, and in between there were also April and June editions. But it isn’t so much the date, it’s the copy; as you can see, it’s not terribly appealing. I won’t say it’s a reading copy, but it’s nothing to ring the bells about."
"You know so much, Sibilla, what would I do without you?"
"You were the one who taught me. To get out of Warsaw I passed myself off as a grande savante, but if I hadn’t met you I’d be just as stupid as when I arrived."
Admiration, devotion. Is she trying to tell me something? I murmur, "Les amoureux fervents et les savants aust`eres …" I anticipate her: "Nothing, nothing, a poem popped into my head. Sibilla, we should be clear about something. Perhaps as we go forward I’ll seem almost normal to you, but I’m not. Everything that happened to me before, and I mean everything, you understand, is like a blackboard that’s been sponged clean. I am immaculately black, if you’ll pardon the contradiction. You should understand that, and not despair, and… stand by me." Did I say the right thing? It felt perfect, it could be understood in two ways.
"Don’t worry, Monsieur Bodoni, I completely understand. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait…"
Are you really a slyboots? Are you saying that you are waiting for me to get back on my feet, as of course everyone is doing, or that you are waiting for me to remember a certain thing? And if the latter, what will you do, in the coming days, to remind me? Or do you want with all your heart for me to remember, but will not do anything, because you are not a slyboots but a woman in love, and you are holding your tongue to avoid upsetting me? Are you suffering, not letting it show because you are the marvelous creature you are, yet telling yourself that this is finally the right time for the two of us to come to our senses? You will sacrifice yourself, never doing anything to make me remember, not trying to touch my hand some evening as if in passing so that I might taste my madeleine-you who with the pride of all lovers know that although no one else can make me smell the scents that will be my Open Sesame, you could do so at will, simply by letting your hair brush my cheek as you lean over to hand me a form. Or by speaking again, as if casually, that banal phrase you spoke the first time, which we spent four years embroidering, quoting like a magic word whose meaning and power only we knew, we whom our secret set apart? Like: Et mon bureau? But that was Rimbaud.
Let us try at least to get one thing clear. "Sibilla, perhaps you’re calling me Monsieur Bodoni because it’s as if today I were meeting you for the first time, even though after working together we may have begun to use tu with each other, as often happens in such cases. What did you call me before?"
She blushed, emitting again that modulated, tender hiccup: Oui, oui, oui, in fact I called you Yambo. You tried to make me feel at ease from the start."
Her eyes glittered with happiness, as if a weight had been lifted from her heart. But using tu does not mean anything: even Gianni-Paola and I went to his office with him the other day-uses tu with his secretary.
"Well then!" I said cheerfully, "we’ll pick up exactly where we left off. You know that in general picking up where I left off may be helpful to me."
How did she take that? What did picking up where we left off mean to her?
Back home I spent a sleepless night, and Paola stroked my hair. I felt like an adulterer, yet I had done nothing. On the other hand, I was not troubled for Paola’s sake, but for my own. The best part of having loved, I told myself, is the memory of having loved. Some people live on a single memory. Eug'enie Grandet, for example. But to think you have loved, yet not be able to recall it? Or worse still, you may have loved, you cannot remember it, and you suspect you have not loved. Or another possibility, which in my vanity I had not considered: Madly in love, I made an advance, and she put me in my place, kindly, gently, firmly. She stayed because I was a gentleman and behaved from that day on as if nothing had happened, in the end she enjoyed working there, or could not afford to lose a good job, maybe was flattered by my move; indeed, her feminine vanity, without her realizing it, had been touched, and although she has never admitted it even to herself, she is aware of having a certain power over me. An allumeuse. Or worse: This slyboots took me for a ton of money, made me do whatever she wanted-clearly I had left her in charge of everything, including the revenue and the deposits and maybe even the withdrawals, I sang cock-a-doodle-doo like Professor Rath, I was a broken man, I stopped going out… Maybe this lucky disaster will allow me to get out of it, every cloud has a silver lining. How wretched I am, how I sully everything I touch, she might be still a virgin and here I am making a whore of her. Whatever the case, even the mere suspicion, disavowed, makes things worse: If you cannot remember having loved, you will never know whether the one you loved was worthy of your love. That Vanna I met a few mornings ago, that was a clear case-a flirtation, a night or two, then perhaps a few days of disappointment and that was all. But here four years of my life are at stake. Yambo, could it be that you are falling in love with her today, when maybe nothing existed before, and are now rushing toward your ruin? All because you imagine you were damned then and want to rediscover your paradise? And to think that there are lunatics who drink to forget, or take drugs, Oh, if only I could forget it all, they say. I alone know the truth: Forgetting is dreadful. Are there drugs for remembering?
Here I go again. If I spy you passing at such regal distance, with your hair loose and your whole bearing august, vertigo carries me off.
The next morning, I took a taxi to Gianni’s office. I asked him straight out what he knew about Sibilla and me. He seemed floored.
"Yambo, we’re all a bit infatuated with Sibilla-myself, your fellow dealers, lots of your clients. There are people who come to you just to see her. But it’s all a joke, schoolboy stuff. We all take turns kidding each other about it, and we often kidded you: I have a feeling there’s something between you and the lovely Sibilla, we’d say. And you’d laugh, and sometimes you’d play along, as if to imply outrageous things, and sometimes you’d tell us to lay off it, that she could be your daughter. Games. That’s why I asked you about Sibilla that evening: I thought you’d already seen her and I wanted to know what impression she’d made."
"So I never told you anything about me and Sibilla?"
"Why, was there something to tell?"
"Don’t joke about this, you know I’m an amnesiac. I’m here to ask you if I ever told you anything."
"Nothing. And you always told me about your affairs, perhaps to make me envious. You told me about Cavassi, about Vanna, about the American at the London book fair, about the beautiful Dutch girl you made three special trips to Amsterdam to see, about Silvana…"
"Come on, how many affairs did I have?"
"A lot. Too many, I thought, but I’ve always been monogamous. About Sibilla, I swear to you, you never said a thing. What’s got into you? You saw her yesterday, she smiled at you, and you thought it would have been impossible to be around her and not think about it. You’re human; I certainly wouldn’t have expected you to say, Who’s this hag,… And besides, none of us ever managed to find out whether Sibilla had a life of her own. Always relaxed, eager to help anyone as if she were doing him a special favor-sometimes a girl can be provocative precisely because she doesn’t flirt. The ice sphinx." Gianni was probably telling the truth, but that meant nothing. If something had happened and Sibilla had become more important to me than all the others, if she were The One, I certainly would not have told even Gianni about it. It would have had to remain a delicious conspiracy between Sibilla and me.
Or not. The ice sphinx, in her off-hours, has her own life, perhaps she already has a man, keeps it to herself, is perfect, does not mix her work and her private life. I am stung by jealousy of an unknown rival. And someone will pluck your flower, mouth of the wellspring, someone who won’t even know, a fisher of sponges will take this rare pearl.
"I have a widow for you, Yambo," said Sibilla with a wink. She is gaining confidence, how nice. "A widow?" I asked. She explained that antiquarian book dealers of my stature have certain methods of procuring books. There is the fellow who shows up at the studio asking whether his book is worth something, and how much it is worth depends on how honest you are, though in any case you try to make a profit. Or the guy is a collector hard up for cash, he knows the value of what he is offering, and the most you can do is haggle a little over the price. Another technique is shopping the international auctions, where you can get a bargain if you are the only one to realize a book’s worth, but your competitors are not fools. Thus the margin is minimal, and things get interesting only if you can set a very high price for your find. Then too you buy from your colleagues: one might have a book that is of little interest to his sort of client, so his price is low, but you know a collector who is lusting after it. Then there is the vulture method. You identify the great families in decline, with the old palazzos and the ancient libraries, and you wait for a father to die, a husband, an uncle, at which point the heirs already have their hands full selling the furniture and the jewels, and they have no idea how to appraise that hoard of books they have never examined. "Widow" is just a manner of speaking: it could be a grandson who wants to turn a quick buck, and if he has problems with women, or drugs, so much the better. Then you go look at the books, spend two or three days in those great shadowy rooms, and formulate your strategy.
This time it actually was a widow. Sibilla had received a tip from someone (my little secret, she said with a pleased, mischievous air), and it seems I have a way with widows. I asked Sibilla to come along, since by myself I ran the risk of not recognizing the book. What a lovely house, Signora, why thank you, yes, perhaps a cognac. Then off to browse, bouquiner, hojear… Sibilla was whispering the rules of the game. Typically you find two or three hundred volumes of no value: you immediately spot the various pandects and theological dissertations, and these will end up in the stalls of the Sant’Ambrogio market, or else the eighteenth-century duodecimos of The Adventures of Te l e m a c h u s or the Utopian journeys, all bound identically, perfect for interior decorators, who will buy them by the meter. Then lots of sixteenth-century small-format stuff, Ciceros and rhetorics for Herennius, cheap junk that ends up in the stalls of A lazza Fontanella Borghese in Rome, where people pay twice what it is worth just so they can say they have a sixteenth-century book. But we look and we look, and there-even I noticed it-a Cicero, true, but in Aldine italics, and no less than a Nuremburg Chronicle in perfect condition, and a Rolewinck, and Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, with its splendid engravings and only a few pages browned-rare for paper of that time, and even a delicious Rabelais by Jean-Fr'ed'eric Bernard, 1741, three quarto volumes with illustrations by Picart, splendid red morocco bindings, gold-stamped covers, gilt bands and decorations on the spines, green silk doublures with gilt dentelles- the deceased had kindly covered the volumes in light-blue paper to protect them, so they made no impression at first glance. It’s certainly not the Nuremburg Chronicle, Sibilla murmured, the binding is modern, but collectible, signed Rivi`ere amp; Son. Fossati would snap it up-I’ll tell you about him later, he collects bindings.
By the end we had identified ten volumes that at good prices would have netted us, conservatively speaking, at least a hundred million lire: the Chronicle alone would fetch an absolute minimum of fifty million. Who knows how they got there-the deceased was a notary, his library was a status symbol, and he apparently had been a miser, buying only books that didn’t cost him much. He must have acquired the good ones by accident forty years earlier, in the days when people would throw them at you. Sibilla told me how we handle these situations, I called the signora over, and it was as if I had always done this job. I said there was a lot of stuff here, but none of it was worth much. I slapped the least felicitous examples onto the table: foxed pages, moisture stains, weak joints, morocco bindings that looked as though they had been sanded, pages wormed to lace. Look at this one, Dottore, Sibilla said. Once they’re warped like this you can never get them back to normal, even with a press. I mentioned the Sant’Ambrogio market. "I don’t know if I can even place them all, Signora, and you realize that if they remain in stock our storage costs skyrocket. I’ll offer fifty million for the lot."
"You call it a lot?!" Oh, no, fifty million for that splendid library, her husband spent a lifetime assembling it, it was an offense to his memory. On to phase two of our strategy: "Well, Signora, look, the only ones really of interest to us are these ten. I’ll tell you what, I’ll offer you thirty million just for them." The signora does the math: fifty million for an immense library is an offense to the sacred memory of the departed, but thirty million for just ten books is a coup; she’ll find another book dealer who is less picky and more munificent to look at the rest. Sold.
We came back to the studio as gleeful as kids who had just played a practical joke. "Is it dishonest?" I asked.
"Of course not, Yambo, cos`i fan tutti." She quotes too, like me. "She would’ve got even less from one of your colleagues. And besides, did you see the furniture and the paintings and the silver? Those people are filthy rich, and books mean nothing to them. We work for people who truly love books."
How would I manage without Sibilla? Tough and gentle, wise as a dove. The fantasies began to haunt me again, and I reentered the terrible spiral of the day before.
Luckily, the visit to the widow had completely worn me out. I went straight home. Paola remarked that I seemed more unfocused than usual, I must be working too hard. Better to go into the office only every other day.
I tried to think of other things: "Sibilla, my wife says that I collected writings about fog. Where are they?"
"They were horrible photocopies, little by little I transferred them to the computer. Don’t thank me, it was fun. Watch, I’ll find you the folder."
I knew computers existed (just as I knew airplanes existed), but of course I was now touching one for the first time. It was like riding a bicycle: I put my hands on it, and my fingertips remembered on their own.
I had gathered at least a hundred and fifty pages of quotes about fog. I must truly have taken the subject to heart. Here was Abbott’s Flatland, a country of just two dimensions, inhabited only by planar figures: triangles, squares, polygons. And how do they recognize each other if they cannot see each other from above and so perceive only lines? Thanks to fog: "Wherever there is a rich supply of Fog, objects that are at a distance, say of three feet, are appreciably dimmer than those at the distance of two feet eleven inches; and the result is that by careful and constant experimental observation of comparative dimness and clearness, we are enabled to infer with great exactness the configuration of the object observed." Blessed are these triangles who wander in the mist and can see things-here a hexagon, there a parallelogram. Two-dimensional, but luckier than I.
I found I could finish most of the quotations from memory.
"How is that possible," I asked Paola, "if I’ve forgotten everything that has to do with me? I made this collection myself, with a personal investment."
"It isn’t that you remember them because you collected them," she said, "you collected them because you remembered them. They’re part of the encyclopedia, like the other poems you recited to me on your first day back home."
In any case, I recognized them on sight. Beginning with Dante:
Just as the gaze commences to rebuild,
as soon as the fog first begins to clear,
all that the mist that filled the air concealed,
so I, piercing that dense, dark atmosphere…
D’Annunzio has some lovely pages on fog in Nocturne: "Someone walking by my side, noiselessly, as if in bare feet… The fog enters my mouth, fills my lungs. Toward the Canalazzo it hovers and gathers. The stranger becomes grayer, fainter, turns to shadow… Beneath the house of the antiquarian, he suddenly disappears." Here the antiquarian is a black hole: what falls in never comes out.
Then Dickens, the classic opening of Bleak House: "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…" And Dickinson: "Let us go in; the fog is rising."
"I didn’t know Pascoli," Sibilla said. "Listen to how lovely it is…" Now she had come quite close so she could see the screen; she could have brushed my cheek with her hair. But she did not. She pronounced the verses with a soft Slavic cadence:
Motionless in the haze the trees; the long laments of the steam engine rise…
O pallid impalpable fog, hide what is far away; O vapor climbing the sky of a new day…
She balked at the third quotation: "Fog… percolates?"
"Pe r colates."
"Ah." She seemed excited to have learned a new word:
Fog percolates, a puff of wind filling the gully with strident leaves; lightly through the barren stand
the robin dives; beneath the fog the cane field pales, giving voice to a fevered tremor; above the fog there rise the bells of the far tower.
Good fog in Pirandello, and to think he was Sicilian: "You could slice the fog-Around every streetlamp a halo yawned." But Savinio’s Milan is even better: "The fog is cozy. It transforms the city into an enormous candy box, and its inhabitants into pieces of sugar candy… Women and girls pass hooded in the fog. A light vapor huffs around their nostrils and at their half-open mouths… You find yourself in a parlor stretched by mirrors… you embrace, each still fragrant with fog, as the fog outside-discreet, silent, protective- presses against the window like a curtain…" The Milanese fogs of Vittorio Sereni:
The doors flung vainly open onto evening fog no one getting on or off except a gust of smog the cry of the newsboy- paradoxical-the Tempo di Milano the alibi and the benefit of fog things hidden walk under cover move toward me veer away from me past like history past like memory: twenty thirteen thirty-three years like tramcar numbers…
I collected everything. Here is King Lear: "Infect her beauty, you fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun." And Campana? "Through the breach in the red, fog-corroded ramparts, the long streets open silently. The awful vapor of the fog droops between the palazzos, veiling the tops of the towers, the long streets as silent and empty as if the city had been sacked."
Sibilla was enchanted by Flaubert: "A whitish day passed beyond the curtainless windows. She glimpsed treetops, and in the distance, the prairie, half-drowned in fog that smoked in the moonlight." And by Baudelaire: "The buildings sank into a sea of fog, / And deep in hospices the dying heaved…"
She was speaking other people’s words, but for me it was as if they were rising up from a fountainhead. Someone may pluck your flower, mouth of the wellspring…
She was there, the fog was not. Others had seen it and distilled it into sounds. Perhaps one day I really could penetrate that fog, if Sibilla were to lead me by the hand.
I have already had several checkups with Gratarolo, but in general he approves of what Paola has done. He likes the fact that I have now become almost self-sufficient, thus at least eliminating my initial frustrations.
I have spent a number of evenings with Gianni, Paola, and the girls playing Scrabble; they say it was my favorite game. I find words easily, especially esoteric ones like ACROSTIC (by adding on to TIC) or ZEUGMA. Later, incorporating an M and an H that were the first letters of two words going down, I start from the first red square in the top row and go all the way past the second, making AMPHIBOLY. Twenty-one times nine, plus the fifty-point bonus for playing all seven of my letters: two hundred and thirty-nine points in a single play. Gianni got mad. Thank God you’re an amnesiac, he yelled. He said it to boost my confidence.
Not only am I an amnesiac, but I may be living out fictitious memories. Gratarolo mentioned the fact that in cases like mine, some people invent scraps of a past they never lived, just to have the sensation of remembering. Have I been using Sibilla as a pretext?
I have to get out of it somehow. Going to my studio has become torture. I said to Paola, "Pavese was right: Work’s tiring. And I always see the same old part of Milan. Maybe it would do me good to take a trip; the studio runs fine without me, and Sibilla is already working on the new catalogue. We could go to Paris or somewhere."
"Paris is still too much for you, with travel and all. Let me give it some thought."
"Okay, not Paris. T o M o s c o w , to Mo scow… "
"That’s Chekhov. You know quotations are my only fog lights."