Essays & Observations

Lost inTranslation

At the Salon International du Livre Ancien in Paris this year, I couldn’t help remembering the opening lines of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey: "They order,” said I, “this matter better in France." And nearly two hundred and fifty years later, they still do.

In years past, the Paris foire was held at the end of May, in the basement of the Maison de la Mutualité in the Latin Quarter. It was a cramped little affair, a book fair in a boutique, with a lot of jostling and Je m’excuse-ing among the visitors trying to get a closer look into the vitrines. There was something sweet about it, like your first teenage amours, with all their frenzied fumbling in the dark. But this year it was April in Paris, and at the Grand Palais on the Right Bank, right across the Seine from Les Invalides, the grand hospital that Napoleon built for his soldiers but which is now the Emperor’s tomb.

The Grand Palais resembles nothing so much as a gigantic greenhouse, and this April, the unseasonably warm weather only reinforced the analogy. So did the landscaping. Either I was so intent on looking at books, or the incongruity of running into a replica of Monet’s garden bridge at Giverny in the middle of a book fair rendered it temporarily invisible to me, but I didn’t notice the petites mises en scènes for a couple of days. Besides the little arched foot-bridge, there was a sandy beach with statuesque rocks and evergreens, and at another intersection, an oasis of flowering trees and shrubs, with park benches where the weary could rest from their bibliographical ardours.

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have – or pretend to have – the patronage of the President of France or the Mairie de Paris, who had a large stand with an exhibition of books from Les Bibliothèques Patrimoniales de la Ville de Paris in the very heart of the fair. I realize that New York is not the capital of the United States, at least not to anyone who’s not a New Yorker, but one has only to imagine George W. Bush as a patron of the New York Book Fair to realize how radically different the French and Americans are in their attitudes toward rare books. Compared with the Paris book fair at the Grand Palais, the New York book fair at the Armory resembled a Long Island garage sale.

For about eight years now, I’ve exhibited at the annual Paris fair, and every year I’m disturbed by my reactions to it. Sometimes, walking around the book fair, I’m overcome by a peculiar malaise, a cloying sense of luxury and elegance. Perhaps it’s a kind of existential bibliographical alienation; or just that congenital American sense of provincial inferiority in the face of Old World culture and refinement.

Dazzled by so much maroquin rouge, I’m embarrassed by the invidious comparison between such luxury and the almost puritanical severity of my own colorless display. Can “original cloth in dust jacket” possibly compete with “reliure de l’époque?” I can’t help trying to translate the French culture of rare books into an American idiom, in hopes of one day selling English and American books the way the French sell French books; but as soon as I try, I feel defeated, frustrated, and even a little angry. It just can’t be done. Try as I might, I just can’t see any real equivalence between American books or English books and French books, or between the culture of the book in France and the culture of the book in America. Or is it just that there isn’t much of a culture of rare books in America? Appearances can be deceiving, but the culture of the book in France certainly has the appearance of superiority.

The first year I attended the Paris Salon, I felt as though I’d walked into the Gérard Mulot of book fairs, with books as appetizing as the chocolates and pastilles that I used to buy for my children at the St. Germain patisserie. I saw dozens of books I wanted to buy – important books; historical, even legendary books; and almost all of them beautiful. I had no sense of their values; no sense of what distinguished one copy of a certain book from another, other than its comparative beauty. I was seduced, enthralled, and, inevitably, deflated. Post coitus tristes est.

The Olympia Book Fair immediately followed the Paris fair that year, and I took the Eurostar to London. I remember how the brilliant blue sky above France disappeared by the time we emerged from the Chunnel into the bleak seasonal-affective-disorder drizzle of England. But what I remember most vividly was the trauma of attending the book fair at the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury that afternoon. Walking into the main room of the fair, I felt suddenly utterly depressed. In the dismal half-light of a seedy room, all I could see was a shambles of random brown books, books so unappealing and indifferent in appearance that I thought I’d stumbled into a church white elephant sale. The contrast with the glamorous books I’d seen in Paris was painful. And even if the cost of everything in London hadn’t been three times what it had been in France, I desperately wanted to return to Paris tout de suite.

In Paris, beautiful books were everywhere; even the appearance of beautiful books. In the lobby of the hotel, there were ledgers bound in faux leather bindings, masquerading as the grand 16th and 17th century folios of engravings that I had seen at the fair. Why I wondered? My first guess was that it is important for the French to be surrounded by objet d’arts, beautiful things, even beautiful empty things – perhaps especially beautiful empty things, when those things are inherently empty. My second thought was that it was simply de rigueur that anything and everything must be decorative in France. More than comme il faut, it was a matter of national pride.

There’s no question that appearance means a lot in France, and that there are those, not only Frenchmen, for whom the binding is far more important than the contents of a book. There is, in fact, a cult of the binding in Europe, which doesn’t exist in America, perhaps because the state of book binding here is so ordinary. If condition is everything to the fastidious American collector, the binding is everything to the French connoisseur. Le beau livre seems to be what it’s all about, unless of course you’re one of those intellectual French booksellers who prefer to handle exclusively Dada, Surrealist, and Situationist literature. Their wares are so ephemeral as to be beyond the reach of the binders. In Europe, the book-binder and the binding can completely upstage the book itself, but even that notion implies that the book itself is more than its appearance, and that would not be considered a logical corollary for a book collector in France. There are just too many beautiful inconsequential books gracing the stands of the booksellers at the Salon in Paris to suggest otherwise. Substance is not essential.

To an American book collector with Puritan ancestry, such excessive preoccupation with the appearance of a book borders on idolatry. But of course, when the image of a rare book represents something in decay, something that has been used, even ill-used, as it seems to for many Americans – for example, an old book printed on wood-pulp paper in a dilapidated brown calf binding – such luxury must seem unseemly, even obscene. But then, Americans have always imagined the French to be obscene.

Despite the preponderance of red Jansenist bindings at any Paris book fair, most rare booksellers in France offer an eclectic variety of books, a variety that seems to reflect the interests and tastes of the French in general. Looking at the books at the Grand Palais, one can’t help being struck by how formulaic, how invariably categorical they are – the same categories of books that I imagine fill the cabinets of discriminating collectors all over France: the classics in red morocco bindings; the delightful and indiscreet examples of 16th and 17th century curiosa; the livres d’artistes and 19th or 20th century literary masterpieces in fantastic designer bindings and elegant slipcases; the odd assortment of Dadaist or Surrealist ephemera; and of course, the pièce de résistance, the coveted edition de tête on grand papier; and, of course, all French. To my eye, these are the kinds of books every self-respecting French person aspires to own, not necessarily for themselves, but perhaps for the cache they bring to their owners.

At a typical Paris book fair, the first thing that strikes you is the condition of the books. They’re almost all immaculate, in parfait état, or at least they are represented as such – the passion for perfection among French booksellers and collectors, and indeed among French women, often entails hiding any blemishes. Skin – la peau – any kind of skin, must be flawless, free of wrinkles, cracks or tears, and the French believe it’s only natural to resort to the occasional nip and tuck at the hands of an expert to achieve the desired appearance.

The old adage, “Condition isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” epitomizes the French attitude toward books far more than it does the American, even though the American book collector has a reputation as a fetishist par excellence. But most American book collectors have never been to France, or to the Salon International du Livre Ancien, where they could certainly learn a lesson or two about fetishism. Or perhaps it’s just that French fetishes are more beautiful and seductive than their American counterparts.

Certainly one can’t help feeling the allure of the rare and beautiful book within the culture of France. Attendance at the fair is invariably impressive; and the people who come to the Salon are drawn from all classes, and from all age groups. In America, book collecting is beyond the reach of most people’s discretionary income, as it must be in France, too. But in America, the average book collector seems to be approaching retirement, whereas in France, one sees young people, even teenagers, looking at books – old books, rare books, beautiful books – not just photo books or modern first editions – and talking to booksellers in an easy sophisticated way. Books, antiquarian books, do not feel foreign to the French; they don’t seem to be some peculiar, even psychologically suspect, penchant of a minority of internalized people.

In fact, the art of the book is subsidized in France, not just because it’s a book or a commodity, but because it’s a thing of beauty, and beauty is the thing the French value the most. Look at the bibliophilic magazine Art & Métiers du Livre. There is no English or American equivalent. Leaving aside the English and American scholarly journals devoted to rare books – The Book Collector and Rare Books and Manuscripts – Art & Métier is a celebration of a national sensibility, or at least of one aspect of France’s devotion to beauty and style. There is nothing parochial or closeted about its presentation or contents; if Elle produced a magazine for bibliophiles, this would be it.

It isn’t simply that the French admire beautiful things; everyone admires beautiful things. But unlike most Americans, who in general don’t own beautiful things, and don’t seem to feel the need to own them, least of all when it comes to books, the French feel it is their civic duty to be surrounded by beautiful things, including books. In France, it feels as if people have treasured and preserved their heritage of beautiful books for centuries, and that they believe those books will continue be treasured and preserved by their children and their children’s children for generations to come.

In America, innovation and obsolescence is the expectation. It is assumed that everything will fall apart – indeed, that everything should fall apart in order to make way for something new and better. Rare books are assumed to be old and decrepit, no less the victims of age and decay than their indifferent owners. It is one reason so many American collectors seem to content themselves with poor copies of books; it fits their idea of what a rare book is supposed to be – worn and torn. To expect something else would be to think differently, and to think differently about the things with which we live in the world; in fact, it would require that we think differently altogether. But if we did think differently about these things, we might have to think a bit more like the French.

Someone said that Paris is the world’s mistress. She is certainly the closest I’ve ever come to having a mistress, a mistress who never ages, and who always knows how to charm you, to lift your spirits and renew your affections. And every time I leave Paris after the fair, it fills me with a sense of loss bordering on despair. I’ve spoiled myself and I’ve been spoiled for a week. Everyone has been unfailingly, lyrically polite. They have all chirped and chimed their bonjours and bonne journées, and made me feel as if I were, or could be, equally charming. It’s true, it’s completely superficial, the friendly formalities of a polite society, delightful at the moment, but like a beautiful woman’s smile, not to be taken personally.

What I feel I’m losing whenever I leave Paris is a more civilized – and civil – way of life than we’re accustomed to, or even capable of, in America. It may be that the French haven’t contributed much to the world lately; they may not be the most inventive or innovative nation; but they have made an art of living, of living well within limits, limits that at times may feel a bit too tight, too constraining, like a fashionable pair of jeans, jeans that accentuate the figure at the risk of immobility. For those of us who don’t have to wear those jeans, perhaps it looks better than it feels, better than it really is. But I suspect that’s just the way it is with beauty.

By the time I get to the Aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle, check in, pass through security, and reach the gate, Paris seems far away, a thing of the past. The words coming over the public announcement system seem strange, disorienting: “You are invited to proceed urgently to Gate 74.” Comment!?!? Are you talkin’ to me?? I’m flustered, delighted to be invited. I want to stop and savor the civility before proceeding a toute urgence to the gate – until I realize that Gate 74 is not where I’m going.

As I wait for the call to board, sitting there among all the business travelers and tourists, the fat and unfashionable, anxious and harried, les gens wearing shorts and T-shirts, life begins to feel normal again. Or course, I still feel a bit like a displaced or misplaced person, but no more out of place here than any where else; or maybe only equally lost. The people around me look like they could come from anywhere in the world, anywhere, that is, except Paris. And most of them look at least a little American. Even before the plane takes off, the enchantment of beauty and style and taste that has buoyed me up for the past week has begun to release me from its spell, and I’ve begun to feel as though I’m almost home.