Heartwood 9:5 – The Night Watchman by Simonne Jacquemard

Simonne Jacquemard’s intriguing novel The Night Watchman was published over fifty years ago, and though it won France’s highly regarded Renaudot Prize, it appears to be all but forgotten today. That is unfortunate, as it is an exquisitely written work (at least in L.D. Emmet’s translation) which may bring variably to mind Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, the romans durs of Georges Simenon, the novels of Virginia Woolf, or the Greek drama Antigone. The story revolves around the life and interests of Siméon Leverrier, a night watchman and petty thief who discovers a buried well in his back yard and begins to excavate it.

Leverrier is obsessed with geomorphology and has built his own furnace for smelting purposes. The fact that rocks liquefy beneath the thin crust of the earth seems to both fascinate and nauseate him. His excavation of the well is relayed in prose at once lyrical and scientific, oneiric and archaeological (as to this last trait, his digging, in fact, ends up uncovering Gallo-Roman baths and a carved stela from the era of Julius Caesar). Similar to Camus’s Meursault, the protagonist is socially disconnected, much consumed by his own thoughts and interests, and he is also being investigated for murder. In a scene in which the intent is left unclear, Leverrier abducts a young woman, and locks her in his cellar. We later learn that he has put her to work in assisting him in the excavation, otherwise keeping her imprisoned in her cell. But this is not a thriller; we learn very little about Agathe-Alexandrine, and Leverrier is not fixated on her in any typical way (he even must remind himself not to let her starve to death).

Jacquemard is a stylist of the first order. The book braids several narrative threads and signals changes of direction by alternating between standard and indented columns. She also incorporates italicized parenthetical content and makes effective use of repetition and variation (which to this reader brings Virginia Woolf to mind), an example of which can be found in the book’s opening image in which the leaves of trees begin to be individually distinguishable at dawn (variations of this image recur periodically). We also get some entries from Leverrier’s notebooks, and parts of the book are told in the voice of a next-door neighbor and others from that of the man who is prosecuting him for the death of Agathe.

The novel resists any simple summing up, but delves into such things as placing the individual against the deep background of geologic time and the echoes of history; the admixture of good and evil, life and death, crime and justice; mythological symbolism, dreamlike states of mind, and the collective unconscious; doors and thresholds (crossed and uncrossed); thoughts and sensations vs. the mute material substance of the earth and cosmos; and the iterative, diurnal and nocturnal patterns that underlie so much of human experience. This will be spellbinding reading for those attuned to this kind of thing.

Heartwood 9:1 – The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu

Zacharias Lichter is an ugly man with a deformed face, in tattered beggar’s clothes, who is said to be one of the city’s most familiar, bizarre, and picturesque figures. He has haunted the streets and parks for years, and people (who mostly try to avoid him) tend to see him as a madman. We come to learn that he was touched by a divine flame in his youth which caused him to shake off his merchant-family upbringing to study philosophy, but then to withdraw from opportunities in academia despite his well-regarded dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus. He is known to let loose a torrent of words on his vision of an ideal society that would do away with ownership and in which more people would be beggars, as begging “is the profession that brings one closest to God.”

Lichter shares with us his experiences and opinions packed into very brief chapters with headings such as “On Courage,” “On Women,” “On Comfort,” “The Metaphysics of Laughter,” and “The Significance of the Mask.” He believes strongly in the spoken word but is also a poet who scribbles down his poems only to throw them away (though his biographer has preserved some of these and they are sprinkled throughout the book.) He is critical of an acquisitive society, and of the lying he finds everywhere. He is obsessed by the absurdity of a God who would torment Job, and he seeks wisdom in silence. The focus is solidly on Lichter and his ideas but among other characters are his barfly friend Poldy (who is presented as a great philosopher, though he says next to nothing); a chameleonic apprentice, Anselmus, who wishes to develop a “pedagogy of beguilement;” and the feared and detested Dr. S. who wishes to psychoanalyze Lichter.

I suspect you may find Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter to be unlike anything you’ve previously read. It was originally published in Romania in 1969 and has only recently been translated into English (by the author’s wife, Adriana Calinescu, and Breon Mitchell). Despite frequent mentions of the torrential outpouring of his prophecies, Lichter’s sprightly ideas are presented in a concise and careful fashion which makes you slow down as you try to follow their unconventional logic, all the while wondering how seriously you are intended to take them. But there’s a method to his madness, and key concerns are revisited in different ways throughout the book; some of these touchstones include the nature of being, voluntary poverty, poetry, vitalism, orality, the ineffable, and the via negativa. Be prepared to embrace iconoclasm and what Lichter calls perplexity – and to be suffused with a strangely vibrating joy.

Heartwood 7:5 – One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

When their parents die suddenly in a highway accident, Gloria and Constitución, young identical twin sisters, vow to live their lives as a pair, sharing everything equally. They grow up with an aunt until the girls are ready to strike out on their own, which they eventually do, settling in Ocampo, a small town in northern Mexico, where they set up a tailoring business. They work hard, which seems to suit them and to offer its own rewards. They also find their work can shield them somewhat from participating in the town’s typical gossip and chatter, though they still have occasion to point a knitting needle to the sign they’ve posted: “We are busy professionals. Restrict your conversation to the business at hand. Please do not disturb us for no reason. Sincerely: the Gamal sisters.”

Of course, a vow to live inseparably is going to receive challenges, and the biggest one comes when their aunt invites them to the wedding of her son, Benigno. In her invitation she notes that this will be a great opportunity for them to meet men (she has been after them to find men and get married from the moment they moved out of her house). The twins flip a coin, having decided only one of them will go and the other will stay to keep on top of their many sewing orders.

Constitución wins the coin toss and prepares, among quite a bit of muted strife, to go to the wedding. Constitución does indeed meet a man there and he comes to see her in Ocampo one Sunday, the first of what turns out to be weekly visits. The twins eventually decide that they will take turns dating him, surreptitiously, on alternate Sundays. This weekly dating arrangement goes on for months and it introduces some jealousy and suspicion into the lives of the twins. I began to wonder how Oscar would not have discovered the fact that Constitución had a twin in a town noted for its busybodies and gossip, and he does indeed learn this near the end of this novella.

There are other things in this story that are clearly unrealistic, such as middle-aged twins who still choose to dress and wear their hair identically, and the deal-breaker their vow would place on individual development. So, I don’t know how I was so won over by this quirky and far-fetched story but there is something immensely satisfying about this little book. It’s partly due, I’m sure, to Sada’s warm and unusual style, which grew on me more and more as I read. But more than that, it’s the wonderful characters he has created in the twins, the sacrifice and impossible bond of their vow to be “one in two or two by now in one,” and the timeless quality of their small town life. Finally, the book is something of a paean to work: the duty of it, but also the shared, ongoing pleasure the seamstress twins seem to take in the restorative act of bringing together, of making whole and sound what had been (or could have been) torn or separate.

Introducing Heartwood

HeartwoodBook talk among the general public is largely driven by new titles – in the form of reviews, author tours or interviews, and other publicity. But as Ezra Pound said, “literature is news that stays news.” Heartwood seeks to shine a light on older books whose promotional day in the sun has long since past, but whose words are still powerfully alive for those who choose to read them.

More specifically, Heartwood is focused, for the most part, on older fiction that includes international authors, works from small or defunct presses, older or low-profile award winners, and respected titles that deserve a larger audience. The books selected may also be personal favorites, serendipitous discoveries, humorous oddities, or books not-yet-read but kept on hand for when the right mood or moment strikes.

About the name

The image at the top of this page shows the front of the Everett Public Library along with a large circular saw-blade imprinted with a ship, a loading dock and a sawmill. In bygone years, this image was stamped on the sleeves for holding date-due cards that were glued inside the book covers. Books containing these stamps can still be found in our collection.

Though not everything from our logging-era past is praiseworthy (see Norman Clark’s Mill Town for examples), it is from this image and heritage that the series takes its name. An online glossary of sawmilling terms includes this entry for heartwood:

In a cross section of a log, the heartwood is the centre and dead portion where growth rings appear. This area, between the pith and sapwood, may contain phenolic compounds, gums, resins and other material that usually make it darker and more decay resistant than sapwood.*

Libraries strive to preserve the meritorious while also bringing in new, high-demand materials. Many of the titles featured in Heartwood have withstood multiple collection evaluations, in some cases over a period of decades. This is not to say they all meet some ironclad measure of excellence. But, for one reason or another, the titles included here have proven more durable than many others, and they offer a wide diversity of reading experiences that go far beyond the merely contemporary.

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Heartwood