What draws a reader to a particular book? A friend’s recommendation? A sign inscribed “Best Sellers” over a table in a bookstore? A review? For serious readers, it can be something hard to put into words, something highly subjective. Fans of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” eager for its author’s every syllable, used to buy first editions of any title bearing a Thomas Pynchon blurb.
In the case of Marius Kociejowski’s “The Pebble Chance” there were several tugs on my attention, starting with the word “feuilletons.” Not often seen in English, this French word, associated with newspapers, might be translated in various ways: columns, trifles, “casuals” or even essays. That inimitable humorist S.J. Perelman used to refer to his comic pieces as “feuilletons.” Second, this Biblioasis paperback is slightly taller than most trade paperbacks, and its front and back covers are folded back on themselves to create dust-jacket flaps, a design feature common to European books. “The Pebble Chance” is consequently elegant in appearance and a pleasure to handle. Third, the author photograph of Kociejowski, with his handsome Slavic face and prematurely gray hair, makes him look like a Central European poet, a Zbigniew Herbert or Czeslaw Milosz.
In fact, Kociejowski is a poet, now living in London but originally from Canada, to which his Polish father migrated. His most recent collection is “So Dance the Lords of Language: Poems 1975-2001.” He’s also a travel writer with a passionate interest in Middle Eastern poetry and music, having published “The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey” and an anthology titled “Syria: Through Writers’ Eyes.” To earn his living, however, he works as an antiquarian bookseller specializing in poetry.
Kociejowski draws on all these aspects of his life in these engaging, idiosyncratic personal essays. In the introductory “A Factotum in the Book Trade,” for example, he talks about his first job at Bertram Rota, an eminent London bookshop. One day he assisted a senior colleague who had just purchased a collection of 500 rather nondescript titles. “Why these?” Kociejowski wondered.
“My job for the next week or so was to insert slips of paper into the books wherever I spotted a dot in the margins of the pages. The original owner of these books when he spotted a phrase he liked would prick the margin with the tip of a finely sharpened pencil. I was not to miss one. There was one title in particular, again of no value in itself, which described common walks along the seashore . . . dot, dot, dot . . . the lines beside them containing phrases which later I discovered the dotter had lifted whole for his own purposes. . . . We sold those dots for many thousands of pounds.”
Kociejowski makes us wait for the revelation, though some readers will have already guessed it. “What gave this lot value was that most of the books were rubber-stamped ‘JJ’ on the front pastedowns and, incredibly, had been kept together ever since their original owner made use of them in Trieste.” They were works from the library of James Joyce.
Kociejowski tells several such stories. The travel writer Bruce Chatwin — “arguably the greatest prose stylist of his generation” — lived in a flat above the shop: “One day he announced he was going to write on the dwarf-kidnapping trade in the Middle East.” The Spanish novelist Javier Marias came by regularly seeking the more elusive titles of the poet John Gawsworth. Gawsworth had been a close friend of the writer M.P. Shiel, known for his ornate prose and visionary fiction (notably such stories as “The House of Sounds” — much admired by H.P. Lovecraft — and the last-man-on-earth novel “The Purple Cloud”). Shiel was also the duly recognized king of Redonda, a small island discovered by his father. At his death he passed his crown to Gawsworth, and today Redonda’s sovereign is Marias (though there are pretenders to the throne). In a subsequent essay, we are told that Kociejowski is now the kingdom’s official “Poet Laureate in the English Tongue.”
Many of the pieces in “The Pebble Chance” take the form of appreciations, usually of poets, ranging from the Canadians Norm Sibum and Childe Roland to the Irish performer Madge Herron, who scrubbed floors for a living and refused to publish her work, to the Uzbek singer and Sufi Monajat Yultchieva. Christopher Middleton, we are told, possesses “the ability to speak in perfectly constructed paragraphs, with an audible carriage return in the voice.” Eric Ormsby’s poetry collection “Araby” summons up “the quality of the light and how it plays upon both town and landscape” that renders the Arab world “unforgettable.”
From the essay “Do Not Expect Applause: W.S. Graham in Performance” we learn that Graham required vast amounts of drink before being able to face an audience, and on one occasion actually hissed during a reading, “Stop looking at me. Will you stop looking at me!” Kociejowski ends his tribute by declaring that “Do not expect applause” — the last words of Graham’s wonderful poem about a master flautist, “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons” — “should be writ large” above the desk of “any who would create, whether it be poetry or music.”
Not all these essays are about contemporary figures. “Richard Stanyhurst, Dubliner” takes up the perverse joys of that writer’s 1582 translation of the first four books of “The Aeneid,” described by C.S. Lewis as “barely English.” It is either one of the worst poems ever written or, in Kociejowski’s perhaps tongue-in-cheek phrase, a “misjudged masterpiece” prefiguring “Finnegans Wake” in its “verbal incontinence.” The epic’s hero, for instance, is introduced as “a cockney dandiprat hopthumb,/ Prittye lad Aeneas.” I, for one, can hardly wait to locate a copy.
Another essay, “Monsieur, le chat est mort!,” relates Kociejowski’s encounters with a cousin of Ezra Pound, then reflects on that controversial modernist and his admirers. When people came to visit the old poet in Italy, his companion, Olga Rudge, “would sort out those who were serious from those who were merely curious by asking the hopeful visitors to recite from memory a single line of Pound’s verse.” William Cookson, the editor of the literary magazine Agenda, knew the whole of “The Cantos” by heart.
The longest piece of “The Pebble Chance” presents some impressive bibliographical detective work. In “The Testament of Charlotte B.,” Kociejowski unearths a packet of manuscript material surrounding an 18th-century rape and slowly, obsessively tracks down the identities of the people involved, one of whom turns out to be his own great-great-grandfather. It’s almost a miniature version of A.J.A. Symons’s biographical classic, “The Quest for Corvo.”
And what of the title essay? “The Pebble Chance” links together a meditation on Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, Kociejowski’s “continuing poetic silence,” the Italian game of bocce, and the place of skill and chance in artistic creation. It is a little tour-de-force, and, like all the “feuilletons and other prose” in this book, proffers the reader equal measures of autobiography, insight and quirky charm.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE PEBBLE CHANCE
Feuilletons and Other Prose
By Marius Kociejowski
Biblioasis. 196 pp. Paperback, $18.95