Missing books repurposed in Christmas still lifes

Whenever we can’t find a book, it’s usually — well, sometimes — because the wife of our bosom has repurposed it for decorative use around the house.  This is never more likely than at Christmastime, when her seasonal knickknacks come out of storage and she wants books to complement new still life arrangements. 

Consider, for example, the small scene just above (now dismantled; Christmas is over). Central to the arrangement is a useless gadget called a Weinachtspyramide (her folks are German) that makes a propeller-like thing revolve when the candles are lit and generate rising heat.  As a decorative item, it could have stood alone.  But the still life artist in our home saw that its organic character would be enhanced by mounting it on a pair of brownish books and garnishing it with a green wreath on the wall above.

One of those brown books was an old, cheap collection of six Shakespeare plays that we value because it was our father’s.  It was in this volume we first read OthelloBelow the Shakespeare is a 1902 edition of an 1834 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton entitled The Last Days of Pompeii, a story inspired by an enormous, nightmarish, 15- by 21-foot painting by the Russian painter Karl Briullov, also famous in its day. We picked it up (cheap) at a used book shop a year or so ago, thinking that we’d like to find out why the now-obscure Bulwer-Lytton used to be so popular. We haven’t read it yet — there was no hurry, and anyway we’d lost track of the book till we spotted it under the Weinachtspyramide several weeks ago.

You know Bulwer-Lytton: he began his first novel, Paul Clifford, with the immortal line “It was a dark and stormy night,” which not only inspired Charles Schultz but also gave rise to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

On the living-room buffet, propping up a clock (by no means antique), saluted by one of the Magi who seems to have wandered out of his creche, and flanked by a Christmas candle, we found three books by the late Alfred B. Harbage, the Shakespeare scholar whom we belatedly discovered in 2010.  These volumes (especially Theatre for Shakespeare) were the year’s most notable additions to Emsworth’s Shakespeare library. And Professor Harbage’s A Kind of Power: the Shakespeare-Dickens Analogy was also the most valuable addition to our Dickens library in many years.  We’ve appreciated Professor Harbage as much for the pleasure of his prose as for his insights and his scholarship.  To the left of the still-life scene is part of Emsworth’s Christmas present: a vintage set of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. We’ve been enjoying these volumes tremendously: not just the stories and poems, which are still mesmerizing, but also some of the hack work he wrote for the penny magazines, which is also fascinating in its way.  We’ve now read, for the first time, Poe’s only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

In another collage of miscellanies, next to the living room fireplace, we found a 1937 Somerset Maugham novel entitled Theatre. Frankly, we’d forgotten we had this book too, even though Maugham is one of the reasons we’re going to read the Bulwer-Lytton book. They’re both formerly popular authors whom nobody reads anymore — except Emsworth, who loves Maugham’s short stories and thought Maugham’s 1943 novel The Razor’s Edge one of the best things he read in 2010. (His Cakes and Ale, which we read a couple of years earlier, was also a pleasure.) If Maugham, then why not Bulwer-Lytton?

William Harnett's "Old Models": probably no coincidence

The still-life artist to whom we are married paired Theatre with, appropriately, a stray collection of O’Neill plays, the plaster bust of Schubert that used to sit on our piano, and a cello (strictly decorative).  The fact that she and I saw William Harnett’s 1892 still life “Old Models” in the wonderful new American wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts just before Thanksgiving is surely no coincidence.

A still life on our library desk consisted, with elegant simplicity, of a creche (also imported from Germany) and an arrangement of seven volumes of George Eliot’s novels that we snatched up (a steal!) on a Sunday afternoon ramble through central New York last fall.  Over the course of the last month the seven Eliot books could have been seen in several different configurations of lying down and standing upright.

We were especially happy to rediscover on a bedroom dresser, in situ, Volume II of a vintage edition of Granville-Barker’s classic Prefaces to Shakespeare. Now that Christmas is over, we’ve reclaimed it, re-read Granville-Barker’s preface to Romeo and Juliet, and reunited the book with Volume 1. In perhaps her most explicit homage to her favorite still-life masters (Chardin, Cezanne, and the aforementioned William Harnett), our domestic still-life artist had matched it with a volume of de Maupassant, some greenery in a pewter vase, a Christmas lantern, and our wedding picture.