In her memoir, ‘What Language Do I Dream In?’ Elena Lappin recounts the tale of a novel being returned to her, years after she and her family had left behind their home in Prague.
I’ll leave you to read the story in its entirety (and if you’ve not already done so, would urge you to seek out the memoir) but I can tell you of my excitement on learning of Lappin’s ‘slim paperback with a shiny red, blue and white cover…’ slipping from its envelope, and my surprise at the twist borne by its blue-inked inscription, added to the title page by her brother. She says of the experience, ‘I was speechless.’
The image here is of my own returned book, or rather, set of books, the retrieval of which last year had the same effect on me as Lappin describes. What surprised me most about our reunion, after perhaps three decades apart, was how exactly the tiny marbled object matched my memory.
Inside the holder, which is made of soft card, are five little hardbacks, described on their flyleaves by their publisher (Heinemann Gallery Five) as ‘The Jan Pieńkowski Fairy Tale Library.’ The memory I have is not just of the stories themselves but of their physical form (their shape, the weight of them in my hands, the texture of their covers) and the wild promise captured in the swirl of their marbled fronts and end-papers.
I don’t know how old I was when I first owned them, though the edition is dated 1977 so I must have been at least three or four, and I’d hazard a guess that I was given them before my family moved to the US for the first time, which happened when I was six. Nor do I know for sure where I was when I read them, but I’ve a sense it was in an upstairs room, possibly in the eaves of a house, and most often at night.
All I know for sure is that I turned their pages addictively, repeatedly, compulsively, so that when I held them again after such a long time, it was as though we’d never been parted. Pieńkowski’s silhouette images leave room for the imagination, and are somehow larger then themselves. It’s those images which drew me back each time. I think I was trying to look behind them, or beyond them, for something, and when I couldn’t find it, had to look again.
I wrote Silver and Salt before the little box was returned to me, but had it in mind from the off. Today’s re-make (Penguin, 2005) is a glossy, expensive single-volume hardback. Large and heavy, it’s not a thing for a small child to turn in her hands, over and over, and goes nowhere to echo what the original was for me. Instead, attempting to make Silver and Salt like that little box of stories, I drew on my memory. I wanted readers to look at my silhouette characters and try to find something behind them. Apart from Ruthie, none of my characters is given what creative writing courses today call a ‘point of view.’ A reader is shown them from the outside, only, and is told what they say and do. I wanted my readers to open a small box, and for stories to come falling out in such a way that they could be folded up and put away again, to do whatever stories do when we’re not looking. And I wanted the light and the dark of those tales, with their promise of something beyond the now.