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Book Excerpt from The Lagoon

Author Armand Marie Leroi reminisces about the shells that sparked his love of science.

By | September 1, 2014

VIKING ADULT, SEPTEMBER 2014There is a bookshop in old Athens. It is the loveliest I know. It lies in an alley near the Agora, next to a shop that sells canaries and quails from cages strung on the façade. Wide louvres admit shafts of light that fall upon Japanese woodblock prints propped on a painter’s easel. Beyond, in the gloom, there are crates of lithographs and piles of topographical maps. Terracotta tiles and plaster busts of ancient philosophers and playwrights do duty as bookends. The scent is of warm, old paper and Turkish tobacco. The stillness is disturbed only by the muted trills of the songbirds next door.

I have returned so often, and the scene is so constant, that it is hard to remember when, exactly, I ?rst walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop. But I do recall that it was the drachma’s last spring, when Greece was still poor and cheap and you landed at Ellinikon where the clacking ?ight boards listed Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut and Belgrade and you still felt as if you’d travelled east. George—lank grey hair, a bookman’s paunch—sat at his desk reading an old French political tract. Years ago, he told me, he had taught at Toronto—‘But in Greece, they still had poets.’ He returned and named his store for the lyric muse.

Scanning his shelves, I saw Andrew Lang’s Odyssey and three volumes of Jowett’s Plato. They were the sort of books that might have belonged to an Englishman, a schoolmaster perhaps, who had retired to Athens, lived on his pension, and died there with some epigram of Callimachus on his lips. Whoever he was, he also left, in a row of Clarendon blue, the complete Works of Aristotle Translated into English, edited by J. S. Smith and W. D. Ross and published between 1910 and 1952. Ancient philosophy had never held much interest for me; I am a scientist. But I was idling and in no hurry to leave the calm of the shop. Besides, the title of the fourth volume in the series had caught my eye: Historia animalium. I opened it and read about shells.

Again, in regard to the shells themselves, the testaceans present differences when compared to one another. Some are smooth-shelled, like the solen, the mussel and some clams, viz. those that are nicknamed ‘milk-shells’, while others are rough-shelled, such as the pool-oyster or edible oyster, the pinna and certain species of cockles, and the trumpet shells; and of these some are ribbed, such as the scallop and a certain kind of clam or cockle, and some are devoid of ribs, as the pinna and another species of clam.

The shell, for me it is always the shell, had sat in the sunlight of a bathroom windowsill, buried in sedimentary layers of my father’s shaving talc, seemingly forever. My parents  must have picked it up somewhere along the Italian  littoral,  though  whether  in  Venice,  Naples,  Sorrento  or  Capri neither  could recall. A summer souvenir, then, of when they were still young and newly married; but indifferent to such associations I coveted the thing  for itself: the chocolate ?ames of its helical whorls, the deep orange of its mouth, the milk of its unreachable interior.

I can describe it so exactly for, although this was so many years ago, I have it before me now. It is a perfect specimen of Charonia variegata (Lamarck), the shell of Minoan frescos and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The trumpet of Aegean ?shermen, weathered shells with a hole punched through the apex can still be found in Monastiraki stalls. Aristotle knew it as the keryx, which means ‘herald’.

It was the ?rst of many: shells, apparently in?nitely various, yet possessed of a deep formal order of shapes and colors and textures that could be endlessly rearranged in shoeboxes until ?nally, seeing that the mania would not cease, my father had a cabinet built to house them all. A drawer for the luminous cowries, another for the thrillingly venomous cones, one for the ?ligree-sculptured murexes, others for the olives, marginellas, whelks, conchs, tuns, littorines, nerites, turbans and limpets, several for the bivalves and two, my pride, for the African land snails, gigantic creatures that no more resemble a common  garden snail than  an elephant  does a rabbit. What pure delight. My mother’s heroic contribution was to type the catalogue and so become Conseil to my Aronnax, an expert in the Latinate hierarchy of Molluscan taxonomy, though her knowledge was entirely theoretical for she could scarcely tell one species from another.

At eighteen, convinced that my contribution to science would be vast malacological monographs that would be the last word for a hundred years (at least) on the Achatinidae of the African forests or, perhaps—for my attention tended to wander—the Buccindae of the Boreal Paci?c, I went to learn marine biology at a research station perched on the edge of a small Canadian inlet. There, a marine ecologist, an awesome Blackbeard-like ?gure whose violent impatience was checked only by kindness to match, showed me how to peel away the layers of a gastropod’s tissues, more fragile than rice-paper, with forceps honed to a needle point and so reveal the severe functional logic that lies within. Another, a professorial cowboy-aesthete—the combination seems incongruous  yet he was utterly  of a piece—taught  me how to think about evolution, which is to say about almost everything. I heard  a legend speak, a scientist  who had Laozi’s gaunt cheeks and wispy beard and who, blind from childhood, had discovered the one part of the empirical world that need not be seen and still can be known—shell form, of course—and had told its tales by touch alone. There was also a girl. She had wind-reddened skin and black hair and could pilot a RIB powered by twin Johnson 60s through two-meter surf and not ?inch.

All this is, as I said, long ago. I did not, as it happens, ever write those taxonomic monographs. Science always sets you on entirely unpredictable paths and, by the time I walked into George Papadatos’ bookshop, I had long put my shells away.

From The Lagoon, by Armand Marie Leroi. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright © Armand Marie Leroi, 2014.

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