Wednesday, February 22, 2012

`They Always Serve a Poor Relation'

When a house goes on the market and the owners have already moved out, realtors sometimes decorate the vacant space with furniture and pictures to give it that cozy, lived-in look. The house we have our eyes on – corner lot, plenty of trees, the closest neighbor a Methodist church – is rather eclectically decorated. In one of the bedrooms hang framed, black-and-white photographs of Audrey Hepburn, circa Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the dining room hangs an oversized oil painting of a bewigged string quartet, circa Louis Quatorze. On the granite countertop, arranged on a crystal platter, we spied a round of Camembert and two bunches of grapes, all polystyrene. A convincingly genuine-looking plastic laptop computer, lid open, sits on a desk in the hall. 

In the kitchen, a small chest of drawers upholstered in red velvet caught my eye. On it were three objects, two of them books – Two Little Girls in Blue (2006) by Mary Higgins Clark and volume one of James Clavell’s two-volume Noble House (1981). Orphaned volumes trigger pangs of sadness, though I’ve never sampled the late Mr. Clavell’s oeuvre. 

Next to the books was a statue of a seated monkey, about ten inches tall. He wore a red fez, smoking jacket and pince-nez. His legs were crossed and in his lap was a wordless open book. He resembled a hirsute Sydney Greenstreet. I was expecting a Darwin parody but the likelier object of the put-down, if one was intended by the artist, is The Reader -- abstracted, a little effete, putting on airs, but still fundamentally a monkey. Not a bad likeness, considering. 

Charles Lamb was a superb essayist and, at his best, a mediocre poet, but just as simian sculpture has its charms, so do third-rate poems. Here is the final stanza of Lamb’s “The Men and Women, and the Monkeys.” 

“The slights and coolness of this human nation
Should give a sensible ape no mort’fication;
’Tis thus they always serve a poor relation.”

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