It all started on Thursday, August 25th, 1987. I remember the day
because my mother's birthday was the next day, and the year because it
was the last summer before I went off to college. I was in a
bookstore in Harvard Square called Wordsworth ("for the voracious
reader") looking frantically for a present for my mother. I was
looking at the New Hardcovers section when one book caught my eye. It
was dark blue, with only a large white division sign (a horizontal
line with a dot both above and below) on it. Upon closer inspection,
it turned out that the division sign was actually text, as follows:|
Nero Szweldinsce D I V I D I N G T I M E S A NovelIntrigued by the jacket, I opened the book and read the inside front cover.
Dividing Times, Nero Szweldinsce's third book and second novel, is a free-spirited journey through the byways of lower education. William Frowse is a mathematics professor at a renowned university who, by his early middle age, has already achieved his life's work: he has proven the famous Vuenwiecz Conjecture, one of the most imposing problems in modern mathematics. His success catapults him into a sudden midlife crisis; has he already fulfilled his duty to mathematics, is his life effectively over? Feeling that to regain a sense of purpose, he must return to his roots, Frowse resigns his professorship and moves to the town of Bisno, Wyoming, to become a junior high algebra teacher. As Frowse is reintroduced to the pleasures of problems of real life again, after his years in the ivory tower of academia, he begins to learn about the smalltown people whose lives intersect his own, and, not coincidentally, about himself.The inside back cover read
NERO SZWELDINSCE was born in Delanoile, Iowa in 1954. His first book, Freaks at the Crink, was nominated for the Thomas H. Yandry Prize for first novels. Both Freaks at the Crink and his second book, Never You Mind and other Stories, are published by Pristine Press.Above this short blurb was a black-and-white picture of Mr. Szweldinsce. He appeared to be in his thirties, with short black hair that had already done some serious receding. He had what seemed to be a forced smile on his face, as if this were one in a series of photographs taken at the same shoot, and the previous photo was a Tortured Artist take, and he hadn't completely come out of that mode. He wore a white dress shirt (I suppose it could have been yellow or something, since the photo was black-and-white), unbuttoned at the top, and a leather jacket.
My mother likes contemporary fiction, and for a short time she taught algebra (although it was at a community college, not a junior high), so I thought she might enjoy this book. I hadn't seen anything else promising, so I bought it for her.
When I came home for Christmas vacation after my first semester at college, I asked her what she thought of it, and she said that she enjoyed it a great deal, and that I might like it too. Since she is not one to reread books, she gave it to me. I left it in my room at my parents' house when I went back to school, since I was in no great rush to read it. As it happens, the book stayed in that room for a long time.
Around two years later, probably the summer of 1989, I was in the Harvard Bookstore. Unlike Wordsworth, the Harvard Bookstore does not offer discounts, so I don't generally buy new books there, but they have a large used book section, where all books are half the price that is marked on the cover. Since many of the books there are old editions (making the full prices lower already), it is often possible to get very good bargains.
In any case, I was working my way through the fiction section when I came across Szweldinsce's Dividing Times again, this time in a trade paperback edition. The text on the back of the book was the same as that of the inside front cover of the hardcover (I didn't know this for sure at the time, but later I was able to check), and additionally there were some favorable blurbs:
"Often intriguing... Szweldinsce is obviously familiar with the world he describes, and his sympathy for its populace is contagious." - New York Times Book ReviewSeeing the book again and reading the blurbs reawakened my interest in Dividing Times. The list price of the book was nine dollars, but since it was used, I was able to get it for $4.50. Since it was much easier to buy the book a second time than to visit my parents and pick up the first copy from there, I decided to buy it then and read that copy. However, reading the blurbs also reawakened my interest in Wilson Murposs. While I was at the bookstore, I also picked up Murposs' Portrait of Wool, supposedly his best novel. When it came time to pick a new book to read, I passed over Dividing Times in favor of Portrait of Wool, and did not come back to it.
When I graduated from college and moved into a house in the summer of 1991, I cleaned out my room at my parents' house and brought its contents over to my new home. As I was filling up my new bookshelves (I am quite orderly about my book collection, and insist that everything must be in alphabetical order by author, and secondarily in chronological order by date of publication), I noticed that I had two copies of Dividing Times: the hardcover and the used trade paperback. It is odd for me to own two copies of a book, and odder still to own two copies of a book that I have not read. I promised myself I would read it in the near future.
Just a few months ago, in what was still the winter of 1991, another novel by Nero Szweldinsce was published, entitled Over the Mistletoe. Apparently it received much critical praise and provoked an interest in his earlier works, for just a few weeks ago I found a new edition of Dividing Times, this time at Barillari Books, another discount bookstore in Harvard Square. This time, the front cover proclaimed that Dividing Times was written by Nero Szweldinsce, "author of Over the Mistletoe." Well, I thought, perhaps this is just the catalyst I need to finally read this novel. On a whim, I bought this newest edition, determined that, with the fresh start that the new purchase provided, this time there would be no obstacle to my finally reading Dividing Times. When I got home, I put this third copy of the book on the pile of "read soon" books that I keep next to my futon.
Yesterday (Tuesday, May 26th, 1992), I read in the obituary pages of the Boston Globe that Nero Szweldinsce had committed suicide. His manner of death was not specified. "Szweldinsce," the obituary read, "was best known for his most recent novel, Over the Mistletoe, although many hold that his previous book, Dividing Times, was his finest achievement."
Last night, although it was a fair spring evening, I built a fire in my fireplace. Once the logs had caught and the fire was going well, I took my three copies of Dividing Times and tossed them one by one into the fire. I sat in front of the fire, letting the burning books warm me, watching them finally serve a purpose after being neglected for so long.
May Nero Szweldinsce rest in peace.