When a Book Becomes a Portal to a Previous Self

By Jennifer Levasseur

It’s a special moment when a stranger gives you back the gift of a long-forgotten but much-loved book. It happened to me this week: a woman handed over The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels, mentioning that she’d recently read Sylvia. “Sylvia!” I said, and a flood of memories—no, something stronger: a former me suddenly inhabiting and vying with the now-me—took over. “I imbibed that one in one big gulp,” I said, and she nodded furiously. “That’s exactly it,” she said, “a gulp, and now I need everything else he’s written.”

Some books we read are forever fixed in time, in a physical space. Sylvia, for me, is a season in Paris, in this dream life—this real momentary life—in which I lived in a little studio along the Seine in the shadows of Notre Dame. When I walked the streets to the smells of baking bread and wafting sugar and plumes of cigarette smoke. This woman’s mere mention of Sylvia put me back into thick boots as I trudged through snow to the Christmas markets near the Champs-Elysées and the roasting chestnuts in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, to the puzzle of language half understood, to that particular Paris light and its gray Haussmann buildings and its rows of shops displaying rainbows of macaroons, that boulangerie around the corner that invited bees to sample the glaze of their pastries. And the less romantic images, too: the squat toilets in the classy cafés, the crush of humid bodies on the metro, the shop assistants’ distain when my language failed me miserably.

Sylvia, a lyrical and heartbreaking story of romance and suicide in 1960s New York, pulls me back to those days where I was puzzling my way through Paris and writing my thesis about how author suicide reconfigures a writer’s work, but it’s also the feeling of a dorm cot under my back, a particular pale green tile, the scent of the building’s laundry detergent on the sheets.

I bought the book for him to take him with me into that day and to take us both back to Paris and to the days of Sylvia.

Those sensations trip onto a later date, a continent away, when I was without someone. When I walked into a second-hand bookshop and saw a collection of essays by Leonard Michaels and bought it not only because I love Sylvia (which I do) but because he wasn’t there and buying the book for him put him in that place, even if just in my mind. I bought the book for him to take him with me into that day and to take us both back to Paris and to the days of Sylvia. This, on its surface, makes little sense. Why do I want to connect myself and us with a desperately failed relationship?

But, of course, I do not. Sylvia, in its compulsive sadness and beauty, has become to me much more than a moving novel about a destructive love. It is a portal, a talisman, and, yes, a madeleine. But its power doesn’t exist only in its chance placement in my reading life. I read more than a hundred books during that intensive time (Thank you, American Library in Paris!), but all of those do not have the power this one slim novel retains. It would not be rooted so physically in my memory if it hadn’t expressed such an unresolved, all-encompassing passion. If it hadn’t left me bereft for its characters. If it hadn’t left me feeling undeservedly lucky, even gloriously blessed. 


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