Late in May a catalog arrives from Sotheby’s London which causes my father considerable stir. I’m in the habit of rummaging the mail for goodies that might get his mind off his impending death — pancreatic cancer — and this auction catalog titled “Japanese Works of Art, Paintings and Prints,” and cover-illustrated with a charming white porcelain cat, looks promising. I carry it upstairs to the balcony.
The afternoon sunshine is warm and the usual onshore breeze is blowing. Catalina Island is a dab of blue on the hazy horizon. Santa Monica Bay sweeps inward and sweeps out to the northwest, the shore receding in overlapping points of land which in the twilight will blend in shades of indigo and blue and gray, their lines backlit by the peach glow of a summer sunset. At night perhaps a full moon lofts east to west through the sky, slowly, laying across the black water a trail of shimmering light.
No wonder he loves it here. When you close your eyes you can almost delude yourself that the din of traffic on Pacific Coast Highway is the gentle roar of the surf. He has lived in this house for thirty years, and the seriocomic spectacle of human beings in their cars busily streaming north and south among the immensities of sea and sky and mountain, this quixotic human element, appeals very much to him. Views of a boat in the morning mist, a lone fisherman casting from the beach, a working-class family picnicking…monarch butterflies fluttering, dolphins leaping, red-tailed hawks soaring…
An anthropologist, he is fascinated by people, by the variety of their works and expressions, especially in the context of nature and the cosmos. This quixotic human element is precisely what he likes in the Japanese picture books which he collects, his “Japanese comic books,” he calls them. I, pausing on the balcony threshold with the Sotheby’s catalog in hand, knowing it lists more of the ehon, the Japanese picture books, for sale, hesitate to give it to him, recognizing that I wouldn’t be doing him a favor. On the other hand, he is about to die, I mean, he was given six months to live — four months ago.
Look, he’s practically buried in books already. Surrounded, like a bronze flocked with pigeons. All he needs is a book on his head for a helmet. Books and art catalogs perch on his knees, in his lap, against his chest, on the arms of his deck chair, on the octagonal wooden table beside him; books spill onto the painted red floor at his feet. There’s the Sotheby’s catalog for the much-anticipated June eleventh Kuhne Collection Sale, on its cover the murderous red-striped face of a Japanese actor battling a demon; the Lempertz catalog for June eleventh and twelfth, opened to a rare Bunrei book; Sotheby’s for June sixteenth; Christie’s for June seventeenth; Christie’s for June nineteenth; Butterfield’s; a catalog called stampe e libri illustrati Jiapponesi; Librairie Simonson; Warrack & Perkins; Ursus Books; and so on, with scraps of paper stuck among the pages to mark the locations of beautiful offerings, not because he intends to buy them — he certainly can’t afford to — but because he can’t bear to turn the page on an excellent artwork without dignifying it with a second look. He is thus in the process of beribboning with a scrap of paper Toulouse-Lautrec’s Bestiarye, offered in Kornfeld’s June sale, when I hand over the catalog newly arrived from Sotheby’s for a sale to be held on the tenth of June.
“The tenth?” My father scratches his sparsely haired head, intrigued. He hadn’t known of a June tenth sale. He leafs through the catalog in his usual fashion, randomly at first, nonchalantly, whistling appreciatively, whetting his appetite on prints and porcelains before settling down to devour the section on illustrated books. What with his cancer and the chemotherapy, he really has more appetite for Japanese books these days than for food. The woodblock-printed illustrations in the books come in a variety of styles that reflect hundreds of years of Japanese culture, but he prefers images of wry simplicity and elegant impressionism to a crowded literal realism.
It’s when he arrives at Lot 299 in the catalog that his expression alters. Darkens, you might say. He hands me the catalog and asks me to read him the entry, not quite trusting his eyes. So I read to him of the Toyohiro Kasen, ‘Selected Poets by Toyohiro,’ also known as Kyoka Michinoku no Kami: one volume, twenty-six single-page colour illustrations of the portraits of amateur kyoka poets, dated 1793.
I exchange looks with my brother who has just joined us on the balcony. We both know what the old man is thinking. Could this be the Toyohiro poets book which he bought at auction in 1985 and subsequently lost? The rare Toyohiro which he left in the seatback pocket of a passenger airliner? The near-mythical kyoka book (a book of humorous poems) whose loss has rankled him for eight years?
His eyes are already shining, the sunlight gleaming on his bald brown front. Only last week he lamented the lost Toyohiro and we, his family, regaled him with fantasies of recovering it — fantasies almost as powerful as that of his own recovery from cancer. Could this be the Toyohiro?
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Toyohiro in his imagination. The colors of its woodcuts are bright, fluid and stunning, and the images of the poets immeasurably graceful. As a collector he is partial to depictions of writers and artists, and if the poets’ actual poems, and if representations of their books, appear in the illustrations, as in the Toyohiro, so much the better. But the book’s artistic value doesn’t explain his obsession. There are plenty of gorgeous books he has dreamed of. He kicks himself for not acquiring this or that ehon masterpiece when it was affordably offered him in the past. He indulges in reveries of getting his hands on, say, the Uta makura with the Toulouse seal. But his regret for the lost Toyohiro is profounder and tenderer than these other passions. In losing the Toyohiro he betrayed his trust as a collector, and to find the Toyohiro would be to put its wandering ghost to rest and his own conscience with it.
“Don’t encourage him,” my brother says.
“He wants to believe it,” I say.
“Like he really needs another book.”
“He’s probably grasping at straws,” I say.
Our sister sees the two of us descending the stairs and she plants herself in our way at the bottom. “What? What’s going on?” she says. She won Most Sociable back in middle school; or maybe it’s just the know-it-all nosiness that grad students in psychology seem to develop. “Japanese books?” she says.
“Good guess,” I say.
“He’s out of control,” our brother says.
“Well, if it makes him happy,” she says, and she turns in her shorts and bikini top to the front door, hugging her textbook to her chest.
“Use sunblock,” I remind her.
“Did you say woodblock?” she says.
And we laugh at this allusion to the old man’s single-mindedness. It’s preposterous to think that our father, a cigar smoker in white boxer shorts and a white t-shirt who disappears for long intervals into the alternate reality of his Japanese livres d’artistes, was every groomed by the United States government to be dropped behind Japanese lines for the purpose of eavesdropping on enemy communications. As part of his Signal Corps training during the Second World War he studied Japanese at Yale and at the University of Michigan. This was an adventurous leap for a self-described boy from south Texas. But of course he was drafted, so it wasn’t entirely his choice. He learned foreign languages with facility — Spanish, French — and in college in Austin before the war it had been his own idea to take a class in Japanese. He had an internationalist outlook, the young man who became our father, and it must have disappointed him that internationalism expressed itself as global war. He had expected to use his training overseas, but the war ended, his application to go to Japan with the Occupation led nowhere, and he was discharged in 1946.
Years of graduate study, family life and professorship followed, and it wasn’t until 1968 that he acquired his first Japanese illustrated book while traveling in Tokyo: a three-volume edition of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. The book format attracted him, as did the lovely block-print images of Mt. Fuji seen from multiple perspectives, but this was an instinctive purchase, not a collector’s purchase, and indeed for ten years after, as he acquired hundreds of volumes, he wasn’t really a collector at all, he later realized — oh, perhaps a collector of things, like a child accumulating toy cars or cockles, but not a collector worthy of the name, certainly no connoisseur.
What he lacked, a purpose, an orientation to a goal, came with the sale at auction of the legendary Holloway Collection in London in 1978. The excellence of the offerings — the chance to acquire a first edition of the Kishi Empu, for instance; the gathering of dealers and collectors from around the world; the catching excitement of the event: these things thrilled him to a degree he hadn’t thought possible. The experience was exhilarating but not purely positive. There is something lamentable about the breaking up and auctioning off of a fine rare collection. Later he said he was born as a collector at this time. His interest became focused and intense, he awakened to a mission to develop a study collection, and the collection became truly a single collection of books rather than a stockpile of unconnected entities. The collecting took off.
“Yeah, and never came back to earth,” my brother says.
The collection has muddied the waters of our father’s last days and his relationship with his family. Call them comic books if you want, but his devotion to his Japanese books has lately bordered on mania. Our sister notes that the pivotal time in the old man’s development as a collector, the late 1970s, corresponds to the period when the three of us left home for college — bam bam bam, one after the other. “It’s no coincidence,” she says. “We tell parents to find something to absorb them when their kids leave the nest.”
“We?” my brother says.
Our mother agrees with her. The four of us are in the kitchen munching on wasabi peas and celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter. These days it’s impossible to take for granted the simple act of eating: we are the healthy ones. “The Japanese books gave him something to ooh and aah about,” she says, “something to coddle and covet after you kids left home.”
Psychologizing along these lines, I come to a paradox. Just when he learned with confidence to lay his shaping hands on the collection, to attempt to order its variety by developing it into a study collection, he learned at the same time to relax his grip on it. He seemed to sense that the collection into which he had breathed life now had an inner drive of its own, as a child does, and he might nurture it, he might shepherd it, but he had better not stifle or confuse it with his ego. He became less hardcore, more easygoing about the books. We no longer dreaded the solemn after-dinner hour when a book was brought downstairs, the table meticulously wiped dry, and the question sternly put to all, “Are your hands clean?” He no longer stood watch behind your chair but was content to let you explore the book yourself and delight in whatever images you chose. Likewise he mellowed in approaching dealers, corresponding with collectors and scholars, welcoming students into his house, and in general negotiating the monastic cloisters and vicious backrooms of the art world. The books were the thing, and sharing them with an appreciative community, the Japanese art cognoscenti, became his great pleasure.
Alternatively, he was just giving himself more license to blow money on antiquarian comic books. Developing a study collection, he sometimes had to buy books he didn’t “really” want. A study collection must be representative. He might not care for the kimono pattern book, but if it was culturally important, if it filled a thematic and stylistic gap in his collection, he might just have to override his personal tastes and acquire it. Yeah, go, pop! The appeal of the books broadened to include their technical and ethnographic variety: sex, food, landscapes, animals, domestic life, work life, country, city, costume, entertainment — it’s all recorded in these woodblock picture books, a library of data in graphic art form, and he being its caretaker, seeing himself as a vehicle for the realization of this grand project — the Collection — he could justify any expenditure. Our mother, an anthropologist herself, running a business in workplace rehabilitation, noticed large chunks of her bonus checks disappearing into the polychrome black hole of the Japanese books. The trouble was, these were not the affordable nicknacks they used to be. The art market had caught up with him. The Japanese wanted the stuff now too, and it was no longer possible to put together the kind of collection he had managed to assemble on a professor’s salary.
Paranoid about the light and the marine air, he hadn’t opened his casement windows or raised his Venetian blinds more than once in twenty-five years of collecting. He protected the books from a host of everyday perils: sheathed them in quality plastic, shelved them horizontally in glass-fronted bookcases, and waged incessant war against the silverfish. This caring for the books was a passion of his, a standard he judged himself on. He was never clearer about this than in his last days. His mission was to rescue these little books from the ravages of time, history and indifference, from city-devouring fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, atom bombs and scissors-happy dealers: to reclaim them from the chaos of the world and, as a kind of artist, to shape them into a collection of elegance and utility that would stand as a celebration of the human spirit.
Hence the horror he felt at losing the Toyohiro in 1985. To forget this extremely rare and beautiful book of poets in the seatback pocket of an airplane! To leave it orphaned and exposed to the eyes of stewardesses and the waywardness of fortune, dust, janitors, human thickheadedness and every kind of mortality! He inquired of the lost-and-founds and the airline corporate offices, he alerted his contacts in the museums and auction houses, he wrote letters, he kept records, but he never recovered the book. A simple theft was something he could live with, but the possibility that between flights the Toyohiro was swept into a plastic garbage bag along with cocktail napkins, peanuts wrappers and the latest issue of Newsweek and then made its way irretrievably into some far-off landfill — this was too dreadful. This was a sin.
So imagine his consternation and rueful excitement when eight years later an unusual Toyohiro comes up for sale at Sotheby’s. Could it be the same book? We admonish him not to expect it. A timely fax arrives from Blackfriars Road in London, from the Oriental and India Collections Office of the British Library. “Could this be the Toyohiro you left in the plane? The possibility is high and you should of course get in touch with Sotheby’s immediately.” The fax’s valediction reads “cliff-hangingly.” Our father’s mood exactly. In reply, he shares his doubts with his friends at the British Library: “It would seem to be a copy of the same lost book, but not mine which had the Hayashi seal and a different title.”
Maybe, maybe not. That evening with his family he brainstorms at the dining room table. The two Sotheby’s catalogs (May 22, 1985, Toyohiro, Lot 224; June 10, 1993, Toyohiro, Lot 299) lie open on the table for comparison. Slides of the lost Toyohiro are scattered across the table. Could the new Toyohiro be a previously unknown second volume to the lost Toyohiro? Or an unknown copy of the Toyohiro, of which only three have hitherto been described, one at New York’s Metropolitan, one at the British Library, and the one he lost in an airplane? Or could it be the same book? — in which case it must contain on its last page the Hayashi seal. The new catalog doesn’t list a collector’s seal for Lot 299, but it wouldn’t necessarily do so. Confusingly, the new title Kyoka Michinoku no Kami differs substantially from the 1985 title Jusan-ban Kyoka Awase. The numbers of illustrations, the signatures, the conditions of the two books seem to match; the dimensions in centimeters do not significantly vary; but there is this damnably different title. In his weakened state our father sits at the head of the table while my brother and I run up and down the stairs with the ponderous reference books. Mitchell doesn’t list the Toyohiro poets book. Brown uses the 1985 title. Hillier uses the 1993 title. The mystery persists. Our father proposes a theory whereby a lately added title slip leads to variant readings of the title. In any case, the presence or absence of the Hayashi seal will be a vital identifying clue. He will telephone Sotheby’s in the morning.
He is not a religious man, my father, but it’s no misuse of words to say he breathes a sigh of spiritual pleasure that the Toyohiro should come available to him at this late hour in his life. If it’s the lost poets book, or even a previously unknown copy, here’s a chance at last to redeem his sin of losing it in the first place. How appropriate that 1993 marks the book’s bicentennial. Two hundred years of Toyohiro! How right it would be.
At boot camp they warned him that the Japanese soldiers could march in their sleep and shoot rifles with their eyes closed. Maybe in collecting ehon he has found a symbolic way to keep fighting the war? This is a Freudian theory my sister could develop. Isn’t there some buried motive in the martial diction into which he and others of his generation slip when they speak of “capturing” some new acquisition for their collections?
Over the years I have playfully baited my father by accusing him of plundering Japan’s artistic treasures. I dress him up as a sort of merry English imperialist in a pith helmet and safari shirt spiriting ehon out of old Nippon, a stack of books under each arm and a winning grin on his face. But there’s no question in my mind that in collecting the picture books of Japan he honors a culture he admires, a culture that through language, art and imagination appeals to him. His motives, if he has had grandiose motives in collecting, are not exploitive but peaceful, in keeping with his belief that through art two cultures may come to know each other and to forge lasting bonds. To care for the collection has meant not only battling the silverfish but also collecting books ethically, guarding his dignity and reputation in an art market tainted by fraud, self-interest and petty alliance. And it means studying the books, orienting them with reference to established scholarship, shedding new light where possible, and recording his hard-won knowledge for the sake of others. Here is the collector par excellence, retiring to his dimly lit room, poring over reference books, crouching before bookcases, sitting on the edge of his bed bewitched by an illustration of a frog or a butterfly, a farmer or a poetess, then returning to reality and scribbling notes onto index cards.
His file of index cards swelled with time. His compulsiveness was not that of the bibliographer but of the anthropologist, and he noted not only facts about the books but also details of the subculture he had become a part of, the world of dealers, collectors, curators, scholars, auction houses, a world in which the arts often take a back seat to ambition and money-mindedness, an uplifting world in which a generous collector allows another to win a book his heart has fixed on, an absurd world in which a collector sits at auction and has a favorite dealer sit beside him to do the bidding, a bureaucratic world in which a museum loses a book you loaned, blames it on United Parcel Service and will not talk to you except through their lawyers — like any world a world of good and bad, a microcosm complete with its own heroes, villains and mythologies.
In the early years, collecting out of Los Angeles was a hindrance. How many times did dealers from the Continent promise him a book only to sell it to someone closer to home. But the obstacle gave him an excuse to travel. From Japan to Poland to Norway to Italy, he so liked to travel in quest of Japanese picture books that we teased him with tales of caches of ehon in pristine condition to be found in some distant collector’s paradise. He’d go to Timbuktu and knock on doors if you made the case that during the War a trunkful of Japanese books had made its way across the Axis to Italy and from there in the baggage of some foolish general’s wife had been taken to North Africa whence by camel it was transported to a southern outpost…
“We’re enabling him,” my sister says.
“Enabling him? To do what?” I say.
“We’re looking the other way while he behaves totally irresponsibly,” she says.
“We’re humoring him. He’s sick,” I say.
“It’s not that easy.” And to prove it she produces the results of a Rorschach inkblot test which she administered to him (she needed one more subject for her psych paper), and the results leave her breathless. “Everything everything he sees relates to Japanese books,” she says. “He is totally disconnected.” She seems rather distraught herself. She holds up the inkblot master sheet and her yellow legal pad crowded with handwritten notes. “In one inkblot he actually saw Japanese fireman’s boots,” she says. “Where did he get that?”
A grim smile from my brother.
“Weren’t you just saying the important thing was his happiness?” I say.
“His answers put him radically out of touch,” she says.
“Out of touch with what?” I say.
“We’re all getting pulled into this,” my brother says, clenching his jaws. “Especially you,” he says, meaning me.
My mother retreats to her office in the San Fernando Valley. My sister attends psychology classes and goes home to her husband. My brother trades the stock market and goes home to his wife. Me, on leave from my life and family in Alaska, I’ve been furnishing just enough verisimilitude in my dad’s last days that he rarely has to emerge from the droll, scintillating universe of his illustrated books. It sometimes seems that he can’t be reached at all unless you hold the right key or know the right password, and the key is inevitably cut like a woodcut, and the password is inevitably “Japanese books.”
I suppose all serious collectors are to some degree obsessed. The collector is never done whose collection remains imperfect. It’s this rule of the collector’s way of life that keeps my father hungry in spirit when most of his other appetites — Chinese food, for example — have abandoned him.
Toyohiro’s Kyoka Michinoku no Kami, Lot 299, offered in the upcoming Sotheby’s sale, appears not to be the Jusan-ban Kyoka Awase which my father bought in 1985 and lost in an airplane. The evidence suggests it’s another copy of the same book but with a different title. In an early-morning phone call, he discusses Lot 299 image by image with Yasuko, the specialist in Japanese prints in London. Is there a cover title slip? A preface title? Is the cover original? Is the cover title printed or written?
Some of these questions aren’t as easily answered as you might think, and Yasuko of Sotheby’s doesn’t have every answer. It’s a rare book, she confirms. Good impression. Water damage not serious. No Hayashi collector’s seal.
All of the images from the 1985 Toyohiro recur in this new book of mysterious provenance, but interestingly in a slightly different order. Maybe the book was restrung? My brother and sister and I pounce on this conclusion, inflaming our father’s hopes, keen to prove this new book is the book, the lost book. Maybe someone cut or rubbed out the Hayashi seal to conceal the book’s origins. The art world is full of talented scoundrels. Maybe the colophon page with the Hayashi seal was replaced by a seal-free colophon, the pages were reordered and rebound with silk threads, then the book dipped in a puddle of rainwater to create a few water stains and complete the disguise.
Our father rejects the conspiracy theory, though he enjoys it. Any mischief is possible in the art world, but in fact we’re not talking about a forged Botero, but a little book of poets whose objective value would hardly justify the effort and risk of disguising it and bringing it to market.
Be that as it may, he wants the book. And whether it’s his old copy or not, he intends to buy it. He’ll bid first and satisfy himself with answers later. He must have it.
He would travel to London himself to examine the book, but his illness and its treatments — the chemotherapy treatment, the crisp bacon treatment, the cannabis treatment — don’t permit it. Nothing has been more therapeutic than his daily dose of Japanese books. He immerses himself in the ten-volume Osana Genji, for example, which he just acquired in April during an inspiring and romantic, dizzyingly profligate (business class, Waldorf-Astoria) trip to New York City with our mom. Our parents had $80,000 in the bank on New Year’s Day — their “cash cushion” — and in five months he has spent half of it on art. Expensive freaking therapy! The Sotheby’s estimate for the Toyohiro book is two to three thousand pounds sterling. “It better stop there,” mom says. The estate planning attorney wants her to invest in life insurance immediately. My brother tells her it has to be done before she’s 65 for maximum returns. She’s 64. Our father doesn’t care: he’ll be dead and the money won’t be any use to him or the collection.
Ominously, in the days leading up to the big sale, the old man stays silent about the Toyohiro. He has determined to own it and there’s nothing more to be said. His silence makes the family apprehensive. The market for Japanese books has become extremely competitive and it remains to be seen if the Japanese buyers are out in force. We wait. In the meantime he speaks of expanding the collection to include “modern Japanese books in the woodblock medium.” Is he serious? Even more ominously, he’s busily investigating concept book art. Books by Anselm Kiefer, Hans Bellmer, Sam Francis, Buzz Spector catch his eye. One hot afternoon the family, sitting on the balcony, are astonished to hear him say that, though it’s a bit “late in the day,” he has become enamored of contemporary book art, so much so that his fervor for the Japanese books might be said to have correspondingly cooled; it might even be said he would only be “going through the motions” should he decide to acquire any Japanese theater books at the upcoming Kuhne sale; he has even traitorously thought of trading in a few of his prize Japanese woodblock books for Matisse’s Jazz, the preeminent piece of book art of the twentieth century.
“No way, this is sick.”
“I told you he’s out of control.”
“At least his tastes haven’t ossified.”
“Don’t believe him, he’s full of it.”
What should we make of his infatuation with cutting edge book art? A reckless departure? A “syncretistic evolution”? It has something to do with the primary attraction of the book itself — the book in hand — that mirror of the mind — the magic vessel of infinity that, opening and closing, entices ten-month-olds and septuagenarians alike. Maybe he’s distancing himself from the Japanese books out of psychic necessity, knowing he’ll soon have to “close up shop.” Or ideally he’s looking to surpass the categorical restrictions of “Japaneseness” and “woodblock printing,” the better to get at the root of the book experience, the primal experience that has held him in thrall all of his years as a collector.
The tenth of June arrives. It’s auction day. He has vowed to win the Toyohiro poets book, the book fate decreed he must have. Neil Davey of the Japanese Department of Sotheby’s London phones him at 7:52 am Pacific time. Davey relays his bids while Yasuko bids against him, agenting for a different buyer. The bidding for the Toyohiro opens at £1,100 and quickly gets out of hand. Someone bids our dad up. The numbers keep rising, way above the high estimate. This may be the last great adrenaline rush of his life. He must have the book. He gives Davey a final go-ahead. When the bidding is done, when the dust has settled, when the hammer has fallen, Neil Davey in London remarks, “Terribly hot day here. We’re having a Sotheby’s lunch tomorrow. We’ll raise a toast to you.”
I’ll bet they’ll raise a flupping toast! And they’ll bill him for it! Isn’t it odd or unethical — or something — to have two Sotheby’s proxies bidding against each other? The hammer price for the Toyohiro is £11,000, almost four times the high estimate. With commission our dad owes the house £12,938.75. At the exchange rate of 1.5319, he just bought the Toyohiro for upwards of $18,000.
Remember, it takes two to tango. When a sale goes over estimate, there has to be an underbidder. The Toyohiro proves a sort of grail that another party prized almost as highly as he did. In spite of the cost he’s pleased, exhausted but satisfied. He assumes his mysterious opposite is a Japanese dealer/collector, but it might actually be one of his old nemeses like Mme B or Gerhard P. Sweet victory!
“You were shilled,” my brother tells him.
“Oh my god, he’s like a drug addict,” my sister says.
Our dad appears to have gone literally organically metabolically insane. He has waved goodbye to reality. There’s no reining him in. Nobody even noticed Lot 305, which he bought on the same day, or the two lots he bought next day at the Kuhne sale. When the bill finally comes from New Bond Street in London, the balance due is £25,465.82. Sterling.
There is no way to hide this disaster from our mother. One night over fatty bits of lamb chop, crusting baba ganoush, yellow scalloped potatoes and curling triangles of pita bread (not that he ate any of it), she asks him to write a check for the accountant. There isn’t any money, he tells her. They go back and forth about it until it becomes clear there really isn’t any money. He spent it all in the June auctions. They’re down to pennies. Never mind the accountant — they have a credit card bill, medical bills, education bills, and she can’t suck any more bonuses out of her business, and he insists he apprised her ahead of time that he would use the money at auction.
She’s flabbergasted. “There was $40,000 in that account!”
“I’m well aware of that,” he says, “and you may not care about that cushion, but I feel very strongly about it.”
Oh my god, did he just say that?
“Well, I didn’t spend it,” she yells.
Our mother doesn’t sleep that night. Since New Year’s he has spent $80,000 on art. “That represents years of hard work,” she says, vexed and frightened. The bonus money she thought she could hold back and put into life insurance without his knowing it is no longer available. Like a gambler or drinker he has dragged her into debt.
I resolve not to fan the old guy’s fanaticism anymore. He’s 72 years old. What is this, a make-a-wish foundation for 72-year-olds? I figured the least we could do was indulge him about the books, but he’s gone too far. The water heater bursts and floods the basement, the wiring in the wall behind the tv in the upstairs middle room explodes and emits a stench of hydrogen sulfide, and all of these repairs cost money but there is no free money that he doesn’t remorselessly suck into those glass-doored wooden bookcases that once furnished the captain’s quarters on a ship.
Seventy-two years old. The same age as the critic Irving Howe who died last month, a death noted in the chemotherapy waiting room edition of The New Yorker. We age like wines and cheeses. We’re aged in death’s cellar till we’re optimally ripened and consumed.
The high of the chemotherapy cycle passes, and a day comes when the old man doesn’t get out of his pajamas. He asks for more milk and drinks it up, proud of himself, sitting up in the bed.
“There’s plenty more milk,” I say.
“You don’t mind?” he says.
“No, I don’t mind,” I say.
“You sure?” he says.
“I’m positive,” I say.
“It’s proper. I really think it’s proper. It’s wonderful,” he says. “Too much.”
“Well, it’s worth it,” I say.
“I appreciate that,” he says.
I have no idea what we were just talking about. Milk? Or were we talking in code about the Toyohiro? Everything feels crazy.
One morning in early July I find him sitting on the balcony with one of his Japanese comic books, laughing at a woodblock illustration of a man with a mule’s face bestriding a mule with a man’s face. Confined by his illness, he travels through space and time just sitting on his balcony opening the leaves of his beloved books — plum blossoms in snow, an old map of Edo, lovers entangled, an intricate kimono, an ethereal Fuji. Collecting is a way of life, a modality through which inner and outer experience meet, and the reserves of strength and cheer which he draws on at the end of his life derive in large part from the picture books, from his enjoyment in their comic, lyric, blood-curdling, erotic and meditative variety, and from his satisfaction in showing them to visitors, packing them off to curators, sending photocopies to scholars, answering the queries of students, and making notes on his ubiquitous index cards in an increasingly trembling hand until at last his strength gives out and he puts his pen down and can do no more.
He sets the book aside, and as he rests in the sun with his eyes closed you can sense the philosophical tinkering of his mind. The books have given him “a lot of fun,” he says. He describes himself as “a funny little person in time and space, making the faintest impression on the world,” and with that he shapes a small box with his hands, just so, and so, and with a gentle laugh he squashes his hands together to suggest there was nothing really there.
Shortly after his death there arrives in the mail the Neiman Marcus Portfolio for Fall 1993 offering shoes and coats in the latest fashions. You can order, for example, Lot 12: the “black suede speed-lace lug bottom booties with ribbed sweater cuffs from Rangoni for Roberto Vianni.” In the accompanying plate, one of these booties stands with its one-and-three-quarter-inch heel perched triumphantly atop a stack of…Japanese books. Alternatively you can opt for Lot 14, a pair of “lizard-embossed and calfskin shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo” for only $155, featuring “micro-wedges and black leather vamps with brown textured leather toes, vamps, and heels.” In the picture the shoes lie casually across some open Japanese books, the exotic background offering figural sketches as well as calligraphy.
That Japanese illustrated books have become classy props for American advertising may strike critics as a tumble underfoot more than an elevation. My father would have gotten a kick out of the ads, and instead of anathematizing he would have rationalized them, holding them up as examples of cultural flux both horizontal (Italian shoes, American market, Japanese books) and vertical (high and low culture, art and advertising). Clearly, Japanese books had arrived.
Which is more than can be said for the Toyohiro. He never got to see it before he died. He wondered aloud about it, but when a month had passed since the June tenth sale and still no Toyohiro, we urged him to call Sotheby’s and demand an expedited mailing. He wouldn’t. On July fifteenth, a Thursday, Mr. K, the Sotheby’s accounts administrator, assured me by phone that our shipment #4870 was in the mail and would arrive Monday or Tuesday.
“Fantastic,” my father said on receiving the news. “Won’t it be something to hold that book in my hands?”
Standing at his bedside, noticing the panting effort of his speech, I realized that he didn’t care anymore. He had already let go of the Toyohiro. In a twist, an ironic reversal, my father was the one doing the humoring now, speaking the words he knew we wanted to hear from him. He was too proud not to disengage from the books when he knew the time had come for him to do so, and the energy he had left he devoted to his family, approaching the end not as a fool but as a man.
I stop in his room once more and look around, aware of the mingled scents of the wooden bookcases, the reams of centuries-old washi paper, cigar ash, sweaty coins and the wool of his favorite Greek sweater hung over a chairback. The Venetian blinds have been raised, and seeing the ocean from his windows I think how the tunnels of his mind must have been adorned with incredible inkblots as he passed on to whatever blankness or vastness.
The book of poets, the Toyohiro, lies innocuously on the edge of the card table. I open it and run my fingers across the fiber texture of a page. It’s the eve of my departure for Alaska — it’s time I got back to my wife and baby and resumed my life in the north — and I certainly won’t be taking this book on any airplanes. I sit and rest with it for a minute, opening the pages in my hands, unversed in the Japanese script but knowing beauty when I see it, moving from one ravishing image to the next and thrilling as I never quite did before.