Digging For Books In Paris

Every usable surface was covered in books.  Bookshelves reached to the ceiling and their counters spanned the walls, both piled with tomes about art, artists, movements, and criticism.  In the center of the room was an island of a couple of comfy chairs and a divan with bookcases radiating around them.  Along the back wall there was a desk that had piles of paperwork and more stacks of books.  To the right was a door that lead to a small kitchenette and yet more books. The large windows in front of the shop allowed enough light in to make the otherwise cozy place seem open and airy. The proprietor, Richard Press, was of medium height with close-cropped grey hair, a beard that framed his round face, and tortoise-shell glasses graced his warm, inquisitive eyes.  He was bundle of nervous energy as he fretted around welcoming in our book club by offering us coffee and chocolate torte.

As I waited for the discussion to begin, I browsed his collection of  books.  Being a novice at art and art history, I did not know what to look at or where my interest lay, but like a tide to the moon, I soon found a small pile devoted to literature.  I selected one book about Shakespeare’s sonnets and another based on the the title alone, Carlton Lake’s Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist.  We settled in for our discussion and Richard impressed us all with his knowledge of Japanese history and art, Europe, and WWII.  He spoke in enthusiastic iambs– “WHE-n HIT-ler IN-vades PO-land”– and I felt that not only were his ideas important, but so was his every word.  Afterwards I showed him my selections and told him how much I loved his shop and how someday I imagined a place like it of my own.   “There’s no money in it, but if you really want to do it, come back and we’ll talk.” He eyed Lake’s book, “That’s an excellent choice– you’re going to like that book!” Then he saw my Shakespearean choice and immediately led me to a different book, Shylock is Shakespeare, a study about Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jews and how he came about that knowledge.  I have never read Merchant of Venice, but I swapped the sonnets for Shylock.

Upon hearing about my upcoming trip to Paris, he regaled me with his trips to Parisian book fairs and shops.  He pulled a book off of the shelf that was in French and the title, he told me, translated to Silk and Honey.   “Now why would the author pair those two items together?” he quizzed expectantly.  I felt like I had walked into his personal test, one that determined my merit, and I didn’t really want to fail him.  Were the two items symbolic in French literature– a topic I know nothing about?  Did they share the same metaphor?  Was it because that warm honey rippled like silk?  They both shared the same lustrous sheen? Deciding to expose myself as a literary dunce, I chose the safe route and stated the obvious connection, “They’re both made by insects?”  His eyes widened, “You’re the very first person who has ever gotten this right!”  Feeling a bit like I had won Jeopardy!, I wondered how other people answered as I paid for my books and as Richard bid me adieu and told me to come back to let him know how I liked Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist.

Image via Amazon.com.

As I delved into Carlton Lake’s memoir about being a personal book and manuscript collector in 50s and 60s Paris, I realized that my experience in Richard’s store was more than a mere anecdote.  It mirrored Lake’s life of meeting and establishing connections with idiosyncratic booksellers, some of whom provided him with their own personal tests, as he built his large collection of books, manuscripts, letters, drawings, and other realia of primarily Surrealist French artists and authors.  His collection became so extensive that the University of Texas at Austin persuaded him to donate his collection to them and to continue to build his collection.  Because of his work, the Harry Ransom Research Center has the most complete collection of French manuscripts, so much so that the French often borrow from it.

Lake’s memoir is divided into eleven chapters and each is a vignette of a different book seller and author.  He explains the sale of the books and manuscripts and how those items changed what was originally known about the artists and authors.  They include, but are not limited to, Matisse, Ravel, Gertrude Stein (the one I’m most familiar with), Jean Cocteau, Valery, Eluard, Alfred Jarry, Satie, Celine, Marie Laurencin, H.P. Roche, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Toulouse-Lautrec.  Besides Stein, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec, I am not familiar with the others.  Lake’s affable tone and easy-going storytelling compensates for the ignorance on the part of the reader.  He takes his field of study and occupation, which could easily fall into the arrogant, condescending, esoteric camp, and makes it human.  For example, his description of the bookseller Lefebvre: “Of a little less than medium height, thick through the middle, with a scraggly black beard, he had one feature that riveted my gaze: a weird and wandering eye that seemed lost in its socket and looked everywhere but at me.  It had an ominous aura and in its dark, Levantine setting, made me wonder if this man was really evil or just the hapless victim of some genetic malfunction” (127).

This book reminds me of TV shows that show how things are made.  I had never considered how scholars get their hands on an artist’s primary documents.  I just assumed that the artist held onto everything until they died and willed it somewhere.  Artists often sold their letters and manuscripts while they were alive or sellers got their hands on the stuff through less than honest means.  Sellers also did not sell entire collections, but would often parcel it out piecemeal.  Lake literally was an “archaeologist” since he had to dig and sift through collections, rumors, and disparate personalities to find what he wanted.  Sometimes his excavations ended quickly, sometimes they took years.  It gave me greater appreciation for those who make sure that we have a record of how things came to be.

This is not really a book for everyone, but if you want a glimpse of life in Paris mid-century, have an interest in French culture, or are a book collector, then this book is a must read for you.

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3 thoughts on “Digging For Books In Paris

  1. My accompanying coach in grad school was a close friend of Bernac, the man who wrote THE book on French classical song. He also knew Poulenc, and even had a tie to Debussy. There was a LOT of French everything in his studio, and it was impossible not to be drawn in… I am completely jealous of well you tell of your experience in the bookstore… breathtaking. AND finally: I LOVE THE WORD DIVAN! Here in the Ozarks, we have couches and chairs… no matter what the size, shape, use…My grandmother used the word, and it stirs great memories.

    1. I’m such a rube when it comes to French culture, that I’m jealous of your grad school experience. Divan is a great word! It does harken back to bygone times.

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