|TWEETALIGE PUBLICATIE IN BRABANT CULTUREEL|
A VOTARY OF THE DESK
Essay including European memories by Sandi Stromberg
In my first memory of desks I am crawling through a labyrinth of gray metal ones stacked precariously in the dusty window of an old shop-front, waiting for my father. He bought one of those Army-surplus desks and brought it home, where it sat as a part of the essential décor for many years.
It was on that desk that he studied enigmatic subjects like Old Testament and Greek. And it was there that one day he wrote in red ink on a rectangular slip of white paper my name, Sandra, in Greek letters. For years I carried that hieroglyph in my pocket, reading it carefully from time to time, trying to decipher its mystery.
I suppose, in a way, that feeling of mystery attached itself to the desk and led to my subsequent preoccupation with those structures on which one can pile papers and pens and books and notepads and letters.
Inside the drawers of this desk, which my father had carefully cleaned and repainted, lay blank, smooth sheets of paper-some with lines, some without. And there were pens in the middle and a proper light, a florescent tube that spread half of the length of the desktop. My dad always kept the surface neat, or perhaps that was my mother. And when they were out during the day, I would search the drawers, looking for hidden compartments and secret clues to the mysteries of language.
I am still looking for those clues inside and on top of desks. But unlike my father's desktop, mine is cluttered with parts of articles, long commissioned and always due yesterday; with books and magazines which I must not forget to read; with clippings and passages pertinent to my next work; with pens that no longer work but from which I have an inability to be parted; and dictionaries in a variety of languages.
I like to think that this mania for words and desks came to me from the spirit of some monastery-enclosed monk, like one of the more sane in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. In fact, it was the medieval monk who used one of the first desks devised, a writing box set on a table in an intriguing place called the scriptorium. I picture my monk lost in the words and worlds of the Greeks and Romans and Arabs, copying meticulously their precious manuscripts and keeping them safe in his box.
My first desk was a small walnut Chippendale with a fold-down leaf and one drawer. Support for the leaf was precarious; the hinges allowed the top to come down too low. And I always lived in fear that if I wrote on it too rigorously or earnestly, the desk would fall apart. So I kept a few precious papers in it and procrastinated creating on its solemn surface the stories, which I thought I longed to write. Instead, I memorized Spanish dialogues and Latin declensions at the formica kitchen table while mother fixed the evening meal.
I looked with longing at the sensible gray desk where my father studied (for his bachelor of divinity), at the wide expanse of space, at the sturdiness, and promised myself that when I had a desk like that I would write something great.
By the time that desk was relegated to the basement to be buried beneath the paraphernalia of our lives, I was in college, installed in a dormitory room at a sensible wooden desk with two drawers. Its top was spread with notes for term papers on Russian writers and the concepts of good and evil. And I was too caught up in the eternal question of "Who am I?" and in playing hands of bridge, to pursue creation of literary masterpieces.
This desk had been the long-suffering victim of serious and not-so-serious students. Its top bore the scars and initials of indifferent ownership, and on occasion the jagged edges splintered into my unsuspecting legs and hands. Still the desk was mine; its surface was well supported; and we became fast friends. Here I conjugated Russian verbs and declined Russian nouns, carefully writing the Cyrillic script which is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet to the Slavic sound system. It was as though I were unraveling the mystery, which my father had first printed in red ink on that pure white slip of paper.
When I married, I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and set about to learn a language outside of academia. Taking French in Geneva was like living in a language laboratory. For hours, I conjugated verbs at the huge mahogany desk, a true French bureau, which covered half the living area of our furnished apartment. On its surface I began to play with words, not only in French, but finally in English itself. But before I could put much on paper, it was another city and another country. And instead of a bureau, I now had an escritorio in the middle of Madrid. Actually, it was my mother-in-law's vanity table inherited by her son, but for me it was a place to enhance my knowledge of Spanish life and language.
While I discovered the escritorio came from the word 'to write' (escribir), I continued to find the French word more intriguing. Bureau had derived from the word bure, a woolen cloth with which 12th century monks covered their writing boxes. By the 15th century the name was adapted to the box itself, then to the piece of furniture on which one wrote, and by the 17th century to the room used for intellectual work.
But my desk was not long an escritorio. My husband was transferred back to Geneva just as I discovered my impending motherhood. And so I found myself with child and without writing table, the vanity having become a diaper-changing station.
I dreamed of various types of desks, poked around the well-ducted corners of Geneva's antique shops, but knew that the object had to be more than just a pretty possession. What I finally found was a creation by neither the aesthetic French nor the elegant English. It was not even from the exclusive antique shops, but rather from an American family returning to the States. Of pre-World War II vintage and built of solid oak, it was totally American in concept. An articulated top allows one to lift a handle and fold the typewriter into a compartment hidden below the surface. And the top is expansive with room for all those things one piles on desks.
Over the years this writing table has moved from room to room and country to country. In Geneva's Old Town, it was a bureau as inspiring as the hourly carillon of Calvin's Cathedral. In Minneapolis two-years later and London four years later, it became a desk, from the Latin discus, 'table', which passed into Medieval Latin as desca, at which my monk no doubt wrote.
Back in Switzerland a third time, but this time in Fribourg / Freiburg on the line between French- and German-speaking Swiss, it became both a bureau and der Schreibtisch. Then atop a hill in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia four years later it did another stint as a desk.
Today it sits in my 18th century Dutch townhouse, Het Wit Anker, in the middle of Bergen op Zoom, beneath the carillon of St. Gertrudiskerk. And I call it my schrijfbureau, a word which by its marriage of Germanic (schreiben) and Romance (bureau) words tells a bit about foreign influences on the Dutch. Of course, we have words derived from both in English, schrijf reminding me of our word scrivener and of Charles Lamb's lines:
A votary of the desk - a notched and cropt scrivener
As a scrivener (though neither notched nor cropt) I have been
tempted to own other desks. In England, there were the elegant though
small Victorian writing desks with beautifully inlaid wood and tiny,
sometimes secret, drawers. In France, there were Empire-style
secretaires with incredible charm, but with the same unstable
fold-down surface of my old Chippendale. In Switzerland, there were
mahogany tables with Florentine leather tops. And in America, there
were modern, multi-shelved and drawered affairs that cried out for
extremes in organization.