Thursday, May 28, 2020
As this month ends, I may or may not have had it with everything. I'm still deciding. But lord what a ridiculously terrible time it is. And it looks to be more of the same in the months ahead. I don't know why I talked about balance at the end of my last post, but doing so turned out to be eerily prescient, since I am now suffering from intermittent vertigo. Several episodes have overtaken me in the last week and I have an appointment to see my doctor on Monday. Wish me luck. I've never had anything like this before and am hoping it will simply be a case of an ear infection or misaligned neck or some such thing. Meanwhile daily life continues, in spite of everything, as Ryan returns to his office to work, a few days a week. He's being extremely careful, as am I. Still, anxious days, anxious days, anxious days, one after another. I keep myself very busy to allay the worry. Which is one reason I'm writing right now.
A few days ago I began reading The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume Five 1936-1941, but will save any words about or from her for next time. I will mention that Volume Three is utterly splendid, especially her description of her friendship and relationship with Vita Sackville-West, which gives me a jumping-off point for the story I would like to tell today. It involves a short stack of shabby books, the town I grew up in, some old friends, the used book trade, and Vita Sackville-West's influence and reach. Painting, too. This is a long story, so please pull up a chair and stay a while. And don't worry, there are many pictures to ease the way.
I'll begin with the following item, a thin fairly common book around here, Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 edited by Nancy MacKnight (Charles Scribner's Sons 1979). I picked up this copy in 2010 for four dollars, I think at a library sale, since there's no bookseller's price inside the front cover. I've had other copies over the years, but I keep this one because of what's tucked inside it. It's in decent condition, I'd say very good in a good dust jacket:
The back cover shows the homes of both parties, during their correspondence. Vita's of course is Sissinghurst; Andrew's is called Windslip:
The book is about not much, really, just some gardening, gifts, bits of family and travel news, and this and that. It's an unlikely exchange, but one which both writers obviously treasured as the years passed. This copy once belonged to a Mrs. Hills, whose home address label is pasted inside the front cover. Also inside the front cover is a letter to her from Andrew:
May 8, 1979. Lea Andrew Reiber writes to Mrs. Hills, who lives in a nearby town, to thank her for writing a letter to the editor to point out a mistake in a recent newspaper interview with himself. The error is that Vita is misspelled Veda. Also present is the newspaper clipping of Mrs. Hills's correction, and a comical letter of apology to her from Reiber's interviewer. My bookplate now resides under the front flap of the dust jacket. It's a wonderful copy for its association items, and I particularly treasure Andrew's letterhead from Addison, Maine.
I grew up in Addison. Soon after my parents divorced, circa 1972, my mother and my new stepfather and my two sisters and I moved from Bar Harbor to a little farmhouse in Addison. Our house was a few miles from Cape Split, on the way to the small fishing village of South Addison. Our favorite beach to go, and the closest, was (and still is) there. It's by a causeway of sorts between the sandy beach itself and a tidal mudflat overlooking South Addison. The sandy beach faces a number of islands, and open ocean. Past the beach, a neck of land with a loop road around it is Cape Split itself. But right before you come to the causeway, beach, and neck, is a wide field. In that field there is a tiny cemetery, with only a few headstones and markers. Some spruce trees grow nearby, and an old apple tree. But mostly the field is grass. If you stand on the path by the cemetery and look one way, the view out to the islands and ocean is before you. If you turn and look the other way, up the field, there is Windslip. And in the cemetery, if you look closely at a small plaque on a piece of granite fieldstone, the one with an American flag by it, you may be able to read the name Reiber. It's weathered over the years, but here he is.
Our family lived in Addison for about twelve years, all told. My older sister's first boyfriend lived near Windslip and when he was a teenager he used to caretake for "Old Andrew" or "Lea" as he was sometimes called, too. I don't remember ever meeting Andrew himself. Maybe my mother and stepfather did. I'll have to ask them one of these days. Even though it's not a town, it's just some houses on a road, Cape Split had a reputation as a happening kind of place back then, because the painter John Marin had lived there, and the Marin family carried on the art tradition with their Cape Split Place Gallery for several years. Artists and other creative types were around, as were back-to-the-landers like my parents, in the 1970s and 80s. I do remember attending openings at the Gallery, when I must have been about nine and ten years old. It was quite a place, out there on the leading edge of nowhere.
When we moved away from Addison in 1985, I had to finish up high school in a new place. A boy who befriended me had a mother who was a writer. He told me that she would make the trek to Cape Split to see "Old Andrew" many times over the years, with their whole family in tow. He remembered it well. I told him that he drove right by our house on the way there. Addison and Cape Split are in my memory and heart forever.
Fast forward two decades. I'm a used book fanatic, living in Bangor, Maine. I've worked in bookstores for years, and I may have even just opened my own shop. Ryan and I seek out used books whenever and wherever we can. One trip takes us way downeast, past Addison, to Machias. A man named Jim runs a little secondhand book barn there. He bought it with the adjacent house - lock, stock, and book - either from the previous bookseller or from his heirs, I don't think I ever knew which. Suffice it to say that the previous bookseller was named Charles Hilt, and he was also a professor at the nearby University of Maine at Machias. In one alcove of the book barn, which is really a garage of sorts, is a nook of shelves filled with books about England. Mostly nondescript stuff from the 1950s, about kings and queens. Nothing special, nothing I want, common fare. However, after looking more closely, I do see a few items that are just the kind of things I most like. Oddments. Here are two of them:
Those spines. So dear, so shabby! Such well-loved books! I've had them for twenty years now myself. But obviously they were loved long before that. Something interesting is inside the front cover of John Fothergill's memoir An Inkeeper's Diary (Chatto & Windus 1931):
What's that? Written in fading ink, on the front pastedown?? "Windslip" / Cape Split / Addison, Maine / 1944, in what looks to be Lea Andrew Reiber's handwriting. The front free endpaper also carries some writing:
What a mish-mash! And barely visible with the copious, glorious foxing! From the top down, I think the "Fothergill / Bio-F / 1st Ed" notation must be that of a bookseller, perhaps Charles Hilt. The black ink name is anyone's guess. However, the blue ink name, we do know. W. Sinclair. Who is he? Dearest Andrew, the book, tells us that Walter Sinclair was (pp.21-22) one of the "theatre people (who) found their way to Cape Split.... Walter Sinclair, a producer and director, and his companion Andrew Reiber, an actor.... took houses in Addison or one of the surrounding villages. Then in 1939, they discovered Windslip, a cottage dating back to Revolutionary times. It was nearly past repair, but with careful planning and attention to historical accuracy, the two men had it restored to its original beauty. Overlooking the sea, the cottage stands on a rise, amid ancient apple trees.... When Walter Sinclair retired from the theatre, the two friends took up permanent residence in this beautiful spot. There they could read and write..." They also created a fine garden, and kept poodles. Please, someone, tell me more, about these men and their lives.
I don't think anyone will. So, back to Sinclair's inscription. Under his name is written "Compliments not of the / author" which I have to assume is an in-joke of some kind between Sinclair and Reiber, as if the book was a gift to Reiber or something. I wish I knew. I do love the little pinned advertisement, too, for Fothergill's inn, the Three Swans.
As if that isn't enough, there's even more going on in this busy book - I've written in pencil on the front pastedown, that Windslip was the home of Andrew Reiber, and inside the back cover I've tipped my bookplate in, next to a small bookshop ticket from Telecote Bookshop in Santa Barbara. All I have left to do is READ THE BOOK. Which I plan to do! Honestly, it looks great. And the foxing is only on the endpapers.
How about the other book spine, the one showing a book by James Agate - a theatre person's memoir, Ego 7: Even More of the Autobiography of James Agate (Harrap 1945). The book isn't marked up at all, but does contain these loose items inside the front cover:
Here's a closer look at the postcard, from 1975 (I wonder if the Nancy who wrote it is Nancy MacKnight, but that's one more thing I don't know):
And the lists of notes, which I find endearing to no end, partly because I do the same thing as I read - make a list with page numbers and quotes of interest. The notes here look like Reiber's writing, and correspond to the pages in Ego 7. Such as this, on p. 27: "A voice like damson-coloured velvet". I wonder if I could find all the other Egos. There are NINE VOLUMES in all, in this series. And, as with Fothergill, I've read none. So much to look forward to!
The lists of notes, by the way, are written on the backs of some scrap paper, these:
Old blank checks, from a bank in Machias. Machias, about half an hour up the coast from Addison. Back to the book barn again, Jim's book barn, in Machias. After our first visit, Ryan and I returned to make sure we'd seen what there was to see. If there were any other association copies to do with Windslip, Reiber, and Sinclair, we wanted to find them. There wasn't much. Trust me, we really looked. And I couldn't bring myself to buy the English kings and queens stuff without some kind of definite association or provenance. Even though I seem to remember Jim telling me that Charles Hilt got a lot of the books from Windslip, at least the ones the heirs wanted to sell, when Reiber died. HOWEVER...! All was not lost! We did find something great. Just so, so great. At least to me. It's been a long time now, but I'm pretty sure I bought this book there, on our second visit:
I could probably go back into my own diaries and find out, but I can't face the shelf of them just now. Look at this book instead: James Lees-Milne's anthology The Country House (Oxford 1982). Bought for four dollars in 2003, according to my code in pencil inside the back cover. In pen, written inside the front cover, is this:
Jim, otherwise known as James Lees-Milne. Dearest Andrew, and Vita. On the page together. I cannot even TELL you how pleased I was to find this book. Although, honestly, Ryan might have been the one. I can almost see him walking toward me in the book barn, with the book in his hands. It might be my favorite association copy, of all my books. Its story is so tenuous and intricate! How this book about British country house life through the ages came to tiny, remote Addison, Maine, sent from one Vita-admirer to another, and then was rereleased out into the moving, living world of used books, for me to find years later, well, I find it more than slightly amazing. Not to mention, me living a few miles up the road in Addison, age fifteen when the book was inscribed in the first place, interested in boys, mostly, although records and books a close second and third.
But wait, there's more. Stay with me, please. I do have one final book to mention today. One I think we found on the first trip to Jim's book barn, but it also could've been the second. I'm not sure because I didn't pencil my price/date code inside the back cover, Curses!! Moving on... in my last post I showed the stack of Virginia Woolf books I have on hand, and in that stack is her novel based on the life of Vita Sackville-West, and the ancestors in her lineage, Orlando. My copy came from Jim's, and looks like a hardcover first U.S. edition (Harcourt, Brace 1928), but I'm not sure from the copyright page information if it really is or not. There's no dust jacket present, so it's kind of a moot point, value-wise. It's still of great value to me, however, because of this inscription inside the front cover, and the accompanying slip of paper, that was used as a bookmark:
1979, Windslip. I was twelve years old. Not that this is all about me me me, but! It kind of is. Would anyone else care about this book, and its tender inscription "With love / to Charley / my closest friend", and how about the old bank deposit ticket with the name Charles E. Hilt on it, faded with age on its lower end, where it stuck out of the book for years? I don't know, but I sure care, and that's why I'm writing this down today.
Back to Virginia Woolf for a second - inside the front cover of Dearest Andrew is one more paper item, a bookmark with a picture and quote on it:
Betty! I have your book! Were you also known as Mrs. Hills? Nice little picture of the Woolfs' country home, Monk's House, Rodmell, Sussex. (Which I've never seen, since each volume of her published Diary has exactly zero photographs in it! I mean. Come on. Whose editorial decision was that? I had to return to Frances Partridge's books to find photographs of the denizens of Bloomsbury instead.) And a pertinent quote about the threads of life and fiction that hold us together. This will help me circle back to Virginia Woolf, next time. I do want to note some of what she writes about Vita Sackville-West, and others in their purview, before the experience of reading her Diary fades from mind. Not that I'm planning on finishing Volume Five any time soon, because I'm not. I know the ending and don't want to hurry to get there.
How I wish that Dearest Andrew also contained Reiber's side of the correspondence! Alas, it does not. I wonder where it is now. Did Vita Sackville-West keep his letters? I have no idea. But OH how I would love to read the entire back-and-forth, between the two households. I find it poignant that Andrew wanted the book to be dedicated to Vita's memory:
I haven't mentioned yet that several of the photographs in the book, including the one of Andrew at the very end, were taken by a documentary filmmaker who lived with his wife and son in South Addison. They were friends of my parents, and when I was a teenager I used to babysit the son. What a small world it is, truly.
Would you like to see the old orchard at Windslip? Here it is. I took some pictures last summer when it was very green. In the fall we see deer under the trees, searching for newly fallen apples:
The house itself is there behind the trees and no longer fully visible from the main road. I miss the old mailbox, that for years still said Windslip. It's long gone now. Although it's probably just in the barn! Things tend to stay in place, downeast. Even though the view to the house itself is obscured, the field between the house and the ocean is still wide open. And the path by the cemetery still leads to the beach. What a place to rest, forever. I hope he's happy there, where he loved to be. I took this photograph on a March day at Cape Split, two years ago, after a very long winter. The grass is the ochre color I particularly love, scrubby and sere. Andrew's stone, with the nearly-illegible plaque on it, is in the lower right corner:
I think the flag is there because among so many other things, Reiber was also a Marine, or was in the Army or Navy. During World War II? The plaque said, I'm almost sure of it, but it's weathered so much that I haven't even read it during my many visits in recent years. When I go back, I'll check and see if I can make it out.
I know I've mentioned my interest in Vita Sackville-West before (here, for one), and I'm glad I've finally explained how far back that interest goes. She's not just the author, the poet, the fascinating personage, the mother too, of other authors, and the character of Orlando. She's also wrapped up by association in a place, for me, Cape Split - a place in books, and a real place I know well. I've painted that field, the cemetery, and beach, many times. In fact when I began to paint from the landscape, over fifteen years ago now, Cape Split was one of the first places I made a beeline for. I painted the apple tree, the spruces, the cemetery, the view up the field toward Windslip, the ledges, and the sand beach. I still head there to paint, when I can. And, two and three years ago I sold so many paintings - I mean we actually had cash on hand - that we bought some land there, Ryan and I. We may build a tiny off-the-grid painting camp at some point, if I ever have that kind of cash again - but if I never do, the land will remain as it is, a spruce forest, a home for hermit thrushes and song sparrows, and chickadees, and that's fine with me.
The land is about a mile from Windslip and the beach, on a little dirt road off the Cape Split Road. If I build anything at all, I might make a memorial bench, as a quiet place to sit and listen to the birds. I'll dedicate it to my older sister's first boyfriend. John, who has since died, the one who once worked for Andrew Reiber. Our family knew his family well. They were our neighbors and best friends, when my sisters and I were little. Their family had been on Cape Split for generations. Whenever I think of the land we bought, which years ago belonged to them, it brings me such satisfaction I can hardly put it into words. It's a full-circle kind of feeling. One of my favorite places on earth, Cape Split, because of childhood days, and because of Marin, and Reiber, and books, and art, and because of my own delight in spending time there now. I love to walk the beach. I love to paint the islands offshore. I loved Cape Split when I was young, and I love it still. It's nowhere special, really, just another place at the end of a road, with a few houses here and there, by the ocean, like so many other places in Maine. But it means the world to me. Thanks for listening to why.