Joanna Scott is the author of twelve books, including the novels Arrogance, The Manikin, and Follow Me, and two collections of short fiction, Various Antidotes and Everybody Loves Somebody. Her new novel, Careers for Women, has just been published. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN-Faulkner, and the L.A. Book Award.
“The Palimpsest” is part of a series Scott is currently working on involving stories about real and invented books that have been lost, destroyed, forgotten, or remain unwritten.
excerpt from “The Palimpsest”
In a daguerreotype I have of my great-great grandfather Hercule, he is a boy, dressed in knickerbockers and a matching jacket fastened at the neck, trimmed with braids and buttons. A banded cap, seemingly too small for him, is perched on his head like a saucer. His lips are pressed tightly together, his cheeks puffed and dented with the Fourniers’ signature dimples. You don’t need to know the family stories about him to see that the boy in the daguerreotype has a mischievous glint in his eye. Clearly, he was a rascal who loved practical jokes. My hunch is that my great-great grandfather had been told that he mustn’t smile while the daguerreotypist was capturing his image, and his form of protest was to fill his cheeks with air and slowly emit a farting sound—that’s what we’d hear, I bet, if the daguerreotype came with audio.
According to family lore, it was decided by his parents that Hercule would be trained in the apothecary profession. In preparation, he was sent to work for Monsieur Lambertine, a renowned chemist and inventor of a solution used to clean paints from zinc blocks. Tinctura Lambertina was popular with lithographers who were churning out colored advertisements and playing cards at the time. The patent made Lambertine a small fortune, and his laboratory functioned like a factory. Lambertine employed six apprentices, who prepared great vats of his signature potion for sale. Two boys were in charge of pounding minerals into dust, and another boy mixed the ingredients with alcohol. Three boys sweated over the boiling vats, stirring them continuously. Somehow my great-great grandfather secured himself the easiest job: pouring the finished product into half-pint jars.
A small additional duty for Hercule was to carry a daily sample of the tincture to Lambertine to his laboratory on the upper floor, for the chemist to check for consistency. Lambertine was in search of new concoctions that would earn him additional patents and so was usually too busy with his beakers and vials to notice when Hercule set the jar on the table. But one day in September of 1847, he happened to look up when Hercule came in. In fact, Hercule would later report that Lambertine seemed to be waiting for him; he was standing on the opposite side of the table, his eyes fixed on the door, and when Hercule entered, the red-faced old chemist, sprouting a few wiry white tufts from his otherwise bald head, sneered and licked his lips as if he were about to spring on his apprentice and gobble him up. My great-great grandfather Hercule was justly unnerved and so couldn’t be blamed when the jar in his trembling hand tipped and the tincture spilled across a letter that happened to be laid out on the table.