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Bargain Days at Bryn Mawr, An Interrupted Conversation, and A Sunset in Trieste

book revWith apologies to Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” but at the Bryn Mawr–Wellesley book event, “The best is yet to be, the last of the sale, for which the first was made.”

It’s true. The bargain glories of half-price Thursday and box day Friday are yet to be this week at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

Okay, the first was not made for the last. In fact, the vast stock is routinely ransacked during Monday’s paid preview, but the beauty of Bryn Mawr now, as always, is that the table-sweeping dealers of day one always leave gems in their wake. Almost without exception, some of the sweetest surprises surface on the last day.

 A Sunset Surprise

Once upon a time a long time ago, I was passing through Trieste on my way to India. It was the middle of September and I was watching the sun set from the little bridge called Ponterosso, which spans the Canale Grande. I’d been strolling through the streets of the city thinking of James Joyce, who had lived there on and off in the years between 1904 and 1920. Much of Ulysses was written in Trieste, not to mention Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and the play Exiles. Thinking the sunset was over, I went off to find a place to have dinner. I hadn’t gone far when something made me walk back to the bridge, one of those mysterious, slightly paranoid cover-your-back feelings. The sky was black and the street lights were coming on as I gazed the length of the canal toward the harbor and the Gulf of Trieste, watching, wide-eyed, as the night was savaged by one of the darkest, deepest, reddest, most passionate skies I’ve ever seen. It was as if the sunset had been dead and buried and had come flaming back to life, lifting the whole mass of settled night on its back. And there it stayed, burning like a fire on the horizon while I stood staring at the vision for what felt like a full ten minutes. If it hadn’t been so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

When I first made the connection bet-ween that surprise sunset and “the best is yet to be notion” of the last days at Bryn Mawr, I considered building a column around the analogy, but, as may be obvious, the event, still so vivid in my memory, seemed too grand for a mere book sale—at least until I thought about Joyce and the grandeur of Ulysses. My next thought was that this was, after all, no mere book sale but one that was distinguished by the late Peter Oppenheimer’s donation, discussed here on March 20 (“Remembering My First Bryn Mawr Book Sale and a Man Who Was Interested in Everything”). I’d stopped by last weekend to see his books before they were scattered to the wind during Monday’s chaotic preview. As I scanned the Oppenheimer tables fresh from my Trieste sunset reverie, it was hard not to take special notice of his copies of The Exile of James Joyce and Ulysses Annotated with its cover image of Dublin and the Liffey. It was clear that Peter had spent a lot of time with Ulysses Annotated. 

That night I searched online for Trieste and the Ponterosso and found that in 2004 the city and the James Joyce Society had erected a statue of Joyce shambling across the little bridge and installed him right about where I’d been standing when I witnessed that once-in-a-lifetime sunset. It’s one of those appealingly human sculptures, like Princeton’s own true to life J. Seward Johnson depictions of the man reading a newspaper and the boy eating a hamburger. The plaque next to the statue says it was installed on June 16, the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. Above Joyce’s name and dates (1882-1941) is a quote from his letter to Nora dated October 27, 1909; “la mia anima è a Trieste” (my soul is in Trieste).

There was no need for a plaque with Peter Oppenheimer’s name and dates at Bryn Mawr. His anima was very much there in his love for the books filling the six tables on the main floor and the tables and bookcases in Collectors’ Corner.

A letter from a Princeton friend and neighbor of Peter’s offers amusing evidence of his passion. Apparently he kept recent additions to his collection stacked waist high in his kitchen or scattered about on his stove top or even in his oven, which had long ago been made obsolete by a micro-wave. Eventually, the kitchen library would have to give way to an influx of new arrivals. As for great finds, Peter had discovered his “coffee table-sized,” leather-bound, two-volume version of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary at a flea market propping up the broken leg of a fold-up card table.

A Darconville Coincidence

Ever since I learned of Peter Oppenheimer’s death, I’ve been trying to recall the subject of our last conversation, which took place at the Princeton Record Exchange sometime late last spring, not long, it seems, before he died. What particularly bothers me is that he’d asked me for some information about a particular book or film I’d mentioned in a recent column. Then something or someone interrupted the conversation, Peter was gone, the issue unresolved, a chance encounter with no denouement, unless these two Town Topics columns could count—and perhaps the one just before, about Alexander Theroux’s fantastic novel, Darconville’s Cat.

In that March 13 column I referred to my quest for Darconville through five years of bookstores and book sales. The search was focused on nothing else. I had no list. It was Darconville, Darconville, and nothing but Darconville, at bookstores, always the same question, always the same answer. At Bryn Mawr and Friends of the Library sales between 2007 and 2012, I kept on the lookout for a copy amid the ebbing, flowing tides of recent fiction, hardcover or paper. People still questing during Bryn Mawr’s closing days will understand that not finding the treasure is essential to the fun of searching. I finally gave up last fall, ordered the book online, read it, and wrote about it.

Almost the instant I began scanning the Oppenheimer tables, there it was—Darconville’s Cat staring me in the face. The photocopy of the hapless New York Times review from May 28, 1981 inserted inside it suggested that Peter had had more than a casual interest in the novel, and had at least read around in it. That the book I’d been obsessed with finding had meant something to him was obvious, if only because it was among a handful of novels by better known authors that were far outnumbered by works of non-fiction. It’s easy to imagine the conversation we might have had, my tale of the quest, his response to the column and the coincidence. Mention of Alexander Theroux would have given him the opportunity to tell me about his Peace Corps relationship with Theroux’s brother Paul and the reunion visits to his home on Cape Cod.

A Last Conversation

Now the only sort of “conversation” Peter and I can have is through the two books I found on Monday after the six tables holding the Oppenheimer collection had been swept during the morning rush. One of the survivors with Peter’s name in it was a curious little book I used to own called Reading Finnegan’s Wake, published in 1959 by an obscure press in Woodward, Pa. Given the surreal nature of the secondhand book market, there’s even a slight possibility that this is my old copy. The other Oppenheimer item I found was an edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems from the mid 1950s, which I bought in spite of the condition (the cover is a mess) because it was the only book I found that Peter had written more than his name in. I should mention that there was no rhyme or reason for the Irish turn this imaginary conversation had taken. The cover illustration on Reading Finnegan’s Wake (“The Ballad Singer”) is by Yeats’s painter brother Jack and on the back board W.B. Yeats himself is quoted quoting James Joyce to the effect that he and Jack “have the same method” and that he just purchased two of Jack’s paintings of the Liffey. What Peter wrote on the fly leaf of his copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems, in his crowded, tiny hand, was this: “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” The quote comes from Yeats’s essay, “The Courage of the Artist.” wake

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr–Wellesley Book Sale, visit http://www.bmandwbooks.com. The sale is at Princeton Day School on the Great Road. Hours: Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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