The last time I saw Saul Steinberg was a year ago, in February. I had invited him and his friend Prudence to dinner, along with two women friends of mine from Milan, a city to which he felt close ties. A few days later, to thank us, he sent my wife, Cella, and me a copy of a map of interwar Bucharest that Prudence had found in the New York Public Library.
The communication, as so often before, bore his unmistakable mark: the large white rectangular envelope had been folded in half, into a square; at the top left, the sender’s name, street, city, state, and zip code had been stamped in blue ink; at the top right, beneath a row of six 32-cent stamps showing the American flag, a label had been improvised out of what looked like sand-colored wrapping paper. On it the artist had drawn a box and written FIRST CLASS. In fact, the label had come from a roll of masking tape and matched two similar scraps at the bottom and the right of the square. The bottom half of the envelope was covered with six black lines of calligraphic handwriting, indicating the person and the address to which it was to be sent. It seemed a typical Steinberg collage.
The large-scale map folded inside the envelope was a black-and-white photocopy. The gift was accompanied by a note: “Dragii mei, A map of Bucuresåüti (NY Public Library) the center—enlarged. The map has no date, but from some signs, I can guess, it is 1924 cca. I’ve marked my Strada Palas, Liceul Matei Basarab, Circul Sidoli, etc. We both enjoyed the evening. Cu drag, Saul.” As usual, the body of the text was in English, but the salutation (“Dragii mei“—“My dear friends”) and the sign-off (“Cu drag“—“Affectionately”) were in Romanian. With a red pencil, he had drawn an arrow from his Strada Palas to Strada Rinocerului (Rhinoceros Street).
He also spoke to me on the phone about that map, in which he had located the magical Palas district of his childhood. He seemed deeply affected by the past—by the sonority of the old street names, to which his rumbling voice and wonder-filled annotations indeed restored a degree of exoticism and fascination. His voice took on musical inflections as he kept repeating the name Gentilaå?, Gentilaå?, a street close to the market that we both remembered well. Then more street names: Fetitåüelor (Young Girls), Gîndului (Thought), Gratåüioasa (Gracious), Zefirului (Zephyr), Visåüinelor (Sour Cherries), Parfumului (Perfume), Trifoiului (Clover). He said Gratåüioasa several times and continued with Diminetåüii (Morning), Stupinei (Apiary), Turturelelor (Turtle Doves).
He kept returning to the Palas district and wandering off to names he discovered with delight still in his memory or saw hypnotically for the first time. “Concordiei and right next to it, look, Discordiei. So…Concord and Discord! And here we have Trofeelor [Trophies], Oitåüelor [Little Sheep], Olimpului [Olympus], Emancipata [Emancipated]. Listen, Emancipata! Isn’t it wonderful?” Emancipata. We were speaking English: he did not seem comfortable…
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