This summer, Susan Vreeland, the bestselling author of such acclaimed novels as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, returns with LISETTE’S LIST, a richly imagined story of a woman’s awakening in the south of Vichy France—to the power of art, to the beauty of provincial life, and to love in the midst of war.
Today, Ms. Vreeland shares with us her memories of the North Hollywood Public Library and the important role librarians have played in her life and her work.
“How the Dewey Decimal System Shaped My Life”
“In the nineteen fifties, when I was nine, my favorite television show was “What’s My Line?” The show opened life’s possibilities of “producing a product” or “providing a service,” and I remember declaring, “I want to be Dorothy Killgallen.”
Later, my aspiration changed. In the North Hollywood Public Library, a venerable building with creaking hardwood floor, the air scented with floor wax, old books, and eucalyptus trees, I met my first poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of A Child’s Garden of Verses. Thus began my love for the sounds of words, rhythm, imagery, and the notion that one could write a poem about anything.
How would you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue.
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Who can forget, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me?” accompanied by a drawing, my first appreciation for the interplay between visual stimulus and thought shaped artistically in words.
Later came One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” croaking “Nevermore,” leading to the three witches in Macbeth. I wanted to be surrounded by books. I wanted to be a librarian, and I started by learning the Dewey Decimal System and working in my junior high school library, then my high school library, then my university library where my job was to sort the books coming down the return chute. An infinitude of topics! It was natural for me to minor in library science, which taught me the rich joys of research, which in turn served me well as I embarked on writing novels and supplying them with historic detail.
It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on nineteenth century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel, Luncheon of the Boating Party.
And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall’s historic “Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944,” a thrilling discovery. His concern about the loss of France’s artistic heritage moved me deeply: “Today the world hopes and believes that the years of struggle will make the content and spirit of French art even more profound, more than ever worthy of the great art epochs of the past. I bow to the memory of those who disappeared, and of those who fell in battle. I bow to your struggle, to your fight against the foe of art and life.”
Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette’s List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family’s seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast rape of Europe’s art by what Chagall called “satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul–the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.” By focusing on one character’s loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding, and threats to national patrimony which is still a concern today.
Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don’t know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities—in the arts, the humanities, the sciences, but librarians get glimpses, and that’s what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.
So, thank you for valuing that key cultural artifact—the book.
Thank you for preserving and disseminating knowledge, beautiful works of the imagination, the human spectacle, a mirror of cultures.
Thank you for the treasure of possibility, of new truths, and ancient ones, where inquiring youths rub elbows with immortals.
Thank you for nourishing civilization in its highest sense.”