This is an essay about random connections that pop up when I start really digging in and researching books. These connections are what make book collecting so great: it’s not just finding a book you want, buying it, and then staring at it occasionally as it sits on your shelf. It’s about realizing that a book you’ve wanted for years is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are tons of interesting tendrils hanging off of that book, dipping into the vast ocean of everything else that’s ever been published… and about finding that things you’ve never known about aren’t actually that far removed from books you’ve had for years.
This particular adventure started, as it often does, with regret; the one that got away, the book with the pretty face that I always thought I’d see again but never did. When I lived in France, I bought as many cool French books as I could, constrained by my college-life means, but helped by the weakness of the Franc before the transition to the Euro and the strength of the dollar before the transition to GWBush. Still, there are some books that I never got around to buying, and others that I visited over and over again in rare bookstores but knew I’d never be able to afford. Two particular books come to mind: the NRF publication of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes and Une Version Inédite du Premier Chapitre de Voyage au Bout de la Nuit de L.-F. Céline. And of course, these books are connected by more than just being sites of regret in my book collecting past.
First the Queneau: he was a mathematician in addition to being a writer and poet, and he is probably most famous for co-founding the literary workshop “Oulipo” (the workshop of potential literature) and writing Zazie dans le Métro, a novel about labor strikes, trains, and transvestites. When I first heard about the Oulipo, it sounded like a bunch of pretentious wankery, until I realized how bizarrely fantastic its approach to literature is. The basic precept is that creativity can be focused and harnessed by applying specific, often mathematical constraints to the creative process (see for example, La Disparition by Georges Perec, an entire novel written without the letter “e”). There are a couple good books on Oulipo that can be had for fairly cheap that explain the concept much better than I can, but suffice it to say that a constraint generates “potential” literature that wouldn’t exist if the creative process were left to operate unfettered.
Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes is generally regarded to be the foundational text of the Oulipo: the potential here is derived from the constraint of the sonnet. Queneau wrote ten sonnets, each line of which interchanges syllabically with the same line in the nine other poems. Even more, the lines have the same general intonation and cadence, such that any one of them could be substituted in a different poem to create a new poem. The result, taking into account a 14-line sonnet is, as the title suggests, 100,000,000,000,000 poems, or, the longest work of poetry ever written. To facilitate the potential creation of all quadrillion of them, the NRF published an edition in which the 14 lines are cut into 14 separate strips, enabling the reader to generate sonnets at will. It was released in a limited edition of 2200 in 1961 and then reprinted fairly regularly. I came across it in bookstores a number of times, but I never bought it, favoring a couple other Queneau titles instead.
One of those titles, and probably my favorite book that I brought home from France, is NRF’s deluxe publication of Queneau’s Exercices de Style. Here, the idea is to tell the same banal story 99 different ways… On a hot day, a man with a long neck and a hat with a cord around it instead of a ribbon boards a bus, yells at another passenger for jostling him, and takes an open seat. Later, the narrator sees the same man in front of a train station talking to another man who points at a button on the first man’s coat. That Queneau was able to retell this story in 99 different voices, to me, speaks volumes about his genius as a writer. It surpasses a mere student’s exercise (to which its detractors have compared it) by its sheer inventiveness, and it does things with the French language the likes of which hadn’t been tried in a literary format since Céline and Journey to the End of the Night (there they are, connected again). In this particular edition, Queneau’s exercises are accompanied by typographical exercises by Massin and 45 visual interpretations by Jacques Carelman (a board game, a Rorschach test, a rebus, etc.), in a cornucopia of artistic output generated by this one little story.
As much as I like this book, and as many times as I’ve flipped through it, I had never really followed up on either Massin or Carelman until recently. It turns out that Massin is a legendary French typesetter and designer, having designed some of the most well-known series in French literary history (primarily the Gallimard Folio collection, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever seen a French book). I had no idea, until I picked up Phaidon’s handsomely published retrospective of his career at Moe’s a few months ago. Looking through the book and getting a handle on Massin’s incredible contribution to French literature in the 20th century stimulated my collector’s itch, and I decided to start looking up some of Massin’s more famous books… which I learned, of course, included Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Also of interest was his rendition of Ionesco’s absurdist play La Cantatrice Chauve, in which he set out to make the type another character in the play, as well as his more recently published edition of Cocteau’s Les Mariés sur la Tour Eiffel, a culmination of over thirty years of effort. (The fact that this book took so long to produce has the added bonus of demonstrating the evolution of his technique, moving from text pasted down manually to digital layouts.) Take a look at the pictures at the bottom of this article to see what it really means for Massin to “typeset” another author’s work… It’s not just a mere decision of font; rather, he totally reinvents the text and creates a totally new reading experience in which the type on the page plays as much of a role to the reader as the words themselves. It turns out Massin also wrote a book, Lettre et Image, which is a survey of type’s role in culture from pre-history up through present day. It is a big, heavy book, and while I haven’t yet read it, the illustrations alone are an incomparable sourcebook for anyone interested in type (such as, oh I don’t know, someone who has recently started a small press). And, in the course of digging up these books, I learned that Cent Mille Milliards is still in print, so after 7 years, I finally own a copy.
However, all this Massin-mania had me looking at my copy of Exercices, wishing it were a first edition, that the binding were a little tighter, and that the boards didn’t have those little imperfections… and so I started digging, and I found out that this particular edition has some interesting variants. In its first state (published in 1961), it featured 33 (not 45) illustrations by Carelman, meaning the book I brought back from France was a revised edition, with additional and revised illustrations. Interestingly, both collections of illustrations are unique, with a good number of the original 33 not appearing in the revised edition. The first edition is printed on heavy, matte paper, and many of the illustrations are on fold-out panels, whereas the second edition is printed on thinner, glossy paper (such that, with the same amount of pages, it is about half as thick as the first edition), with two-page spreads rather than fold-out panels. While the second edition was never issued as a limited edition (to my knowledge), the first edition was split into 3 versions: numbers 1-150 contained an original woodcut illustration numbered and signed by Carelman, and they were housed in a box covered in shirt fabric, secured by a button. Numbers 152-10000 (evens) were published under the Club Francais du Livre imprint bound in green semi-hardcover boards, and numbers 151-9999 (odds) were published under the NRF imprint, with the same cover as the special edition sans the box. (Another Massin tangent: before working as the design director of Gallimard (the French publishing giant one of whose many imprints is the NRF), he cut his teeth working for the French book clubs, meaning that a Massin-typeset book published simultaneously by the NRF and the CFL really covered all the bases.) With impeccable timing, an affordable copy of the special edition showed up on eBay in VG condition but lacking the box (an Abebooks search found one copy in the box for a cool $840), and I put in the first and only bid on it. My Massin collection was growing like a bamboo shoot, and I was really excited to have a piece of art signed by Carelman, an artist who I liked very much.
The weekend the auction ended, I was in Chicago, and, of course, a trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a visit to the rare book room at Powell’s Chicago Bookstore. After perusing a while, I was about to leave empty handed when I spotted a couple cases behind the counter and asked if I could look through them. I reached for a nondescript white book in a black slipcase, simply because it looked interesting… I pulled the book out of the case and noticed it was covered with signatures, and my mind got about as far as, “Is this….???” before I opened it and realized that yes, it was in fact the elusive 100-copy limited edition of the Atlas Press’s Oulipo Compendium, the ultimate English-language resource for the Oulipo. This book had been on my radar for years, but the only way to get it is to order directly from the UK for around $400. This copy was much more reasonably priced, and, while still technically an irresponsible purchase, I jumped at the chance to grab this rarity, especially since it was more impressive in person (as books of this nature often are). The interior is the same, save for the addition of a colophon page, and the book is bound in plain white wrappers, rather than the pictorial wrappers of the trade edition. The real bonus is the dustjacket made from handmade Rives paper, stamped with Atlas Press’s symbols and signed by twenty-six members of the Oulipo (and its poetry and visual art offshoots, the Oupopo and Oupeinpo, respectively).
It shouldn’t have surprised me, looking through the section on the Oupeinpo, that Jacques Carelman was a founding member of the group, just as Queneau had been for the Oulipo. Their collaboration on Exercices suggests as much, and the laws of book collecting coincidences would seem to pre-ordain such a connection. After reading about Carelman’s contributions to the Oupeinpo, my attention turned to the dustjacket to see if I could decipher his signature among the European scrawls… I had to wait for the woodcut to arrive from France before I could confirm it, but yes, there it was on the back, and even reasonably legible. Two Carelman signatures acquired in one weekend… not bad for an amateur book collector, and all thanks to picking up that Massin retrospective that got the ball rolling.
Of course, this was not the finishing point. In the months after the Oulipo Compendium find, I continued to look into books by/about Massin, in order to gain as comprehensive a view as possible of his body of work. Without too much more digging, I found a two-volume pictorial catalog published in French by Librairie Nicaise in Paris. While the books were a little expensive for me to buy sight-unseen (although I was certainly tempted), the name jumped out at me. First: “librairie” in French means “bookstore,” not “library.” Bookstore catalogs are not especially rare, but these books were comprehensive retrospectives/reference books, not catalogs of items for sale. Why would a Parisian bookstore be in the business of publishing books, and of all the hundreds upon hundreds of bookstores in that city, what were the odds that it was a bookstore I had emailed two days prior about an unrelated matter?
Paris is full of a staggering number and variety of bookstores. Bookstores and places to eat – if I think back on my time wandering around Paris, almost my entire memory is composed of looking among the shelves at a bookstore or eating something. As for the variety, there are the booksellers selling everything from cheap paperbacks to rare items out of painted green stands that line the Seine, multi-story emporiums like Gibert-Jeune, corner shops, and more rare book dealers than you can count. The last type was of the most interest to me- there’s really nothing like them in the US. There are plenty of rare bookstores, but almost all of them have a section of cheap paperbacks or standard fiction books, with the real “A” items under glass or in a separate room entirely. The Parisian rare bookstores, on the other hand, house the types of collections you usually only see here in appointment-only dealers. Even getting in the stores can be a challenge- most of the doors are locked, requiring you to ring a bell and subject yourself to the studious gaze of the proprietor. More than one time, I was refused entry to the store, probably because I looked like I didn’t have any money (mostly true, anyway). But there was one store I could reliably count on to admit me- the Librairie Nicaise. This was my favorite bookstore anyway- instead of floor-to-ceiling shelves, it was organized more like a little art gallery or museum, with waist-high bookcases displaying unique and rare items on top of them. Down the center of the shop was a long table, and more than once the owner invited me to sit and take as much time as I needed to peruse whatever interested me that day.
Most of the books at the Librairie Nicaise were limited-edition fine press books housed in clamshell boxes. I often felt a little guilty opening box after box to see what was inside, wondering when I would finally wear out my welcome – especially as it became clear that I would never be able to afford anything there. During that time, I had three authors on my watch list: Queneau, Jacques Prevert, and Céline. One day, I asked the proprietor if he had anything by any of these three, and he showed me a volume of Céline that I would return to look upon multiple times before I finally moved back home. It was a private press volume – published by Balbec, about whom I haven’t been able to find any additional information whatsoever – housed in a gray cloth clamshell case. The book itself was unbound, consisting of signatures loosely laid into the box, printed letterpress on Rives paper. It was illustrated by Thomas Gosebruch, an artist who is about as mysterious to me as the publisher. The text is simply the first chapter of Céline’s Journey to the end of the Night (a piece of text that holds up surprisingly well by itself), although it is printed alongside the original text from Celine’s manuscript.
The original manuscript is what threw me – in all the reading I have done about Céline (who was a primary focus of mine in college as well as in graduate school), I have never uncovered another printing of the original manuscript. Céline dictated his books, rather than writing or typing them himself, and so the original manuscript represents the closest that this text ever was to Céline’s mouth. After all the time I have spent reading poststructuralists work to set the text free from its author figure, the idea of Céline sitting at a desk actually speaking the words that became Journey while a dactylographer dutifully records them is too neat for a romantic like me to discount. That this text is reproduced in one of the single most luxurious books I have ever held just makes it that much more incredible.
The problem was, the book was priced at about $400, which was more than I could ever imagine spending on a book back then. I thought about trying to save up for it, but I knew that I’d fail and just get frustrated, so I wrote it off as something I’d never end up owning. I actually said good-bye to it in my head when I visited the Librairie Nicaise the last time before I left France, and I all but forgot about it when my book collecting habits went on hiatus in my mid 20’s. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started trying to find it again… at which point I realized that I didn’t remember any of the identifying details about it. Eventually, my frustration at not being able to find it converged with my desire to own it, and I decided to spend as much time as necessary finding it again.
I started on Add-all, a website that amalgamates the listings of 30-odd used book sites. I searched “Céline” and “toile grise” (meaning “gray cloth”), hoping I’d catch a mention of the clamshell box in one of the listings. Eventually, it popped up – limited to 100 copies, no wonder I had never seen it anywhere else. And, surprisingly, that one copy was the same one I had seen all those years ago back in Paris at the Librairie Nicaise. I sold off a few books and used the money to buy it off of ILAB, an antiquarian book site that lists a lot of European dealer catalogs. A few weeks went by, I didn’t hear anything, and my emails asking for order confirmation went unanswered. I finally worked up the nerve to place a call overseas, and in my best French and his best English, Mr. Librairie Nicaise told me that he couldn’t find the book, and thus, he couldn’t sell it to me. He said he was going to spend one more week looking and then cancel my order. After a week of not hearing anything further, I assumed the book wasn’t available. The one that got away, indeed.
Still, tying up all of the above with the Librairie Nicaise as the center, all neat and trim, isn’t quite accurate. The whole point is that the connections spew forth such that there is no center at all, just points of interest that sometimes intersect unexpectedly, sometimes over and over again.
Note: the preceding theme will be continued in the upcoming entry: “Quelquechose in the Water: More Observations about Book Collecting.”
Pictures (please excuse the low photo quality – I’m a bad photographer using a worse camera, so hopefully you came here for the brilliant writing, rather than the photos):
Phaidon's Massin book
The cover of Massin's rendition of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano
Interior spread from The Bald Soprano
Interior spread from Letter & Image
Another interior spread from Letter and Image
Cover of Massin's rendition of Cocteau's Les Maries
Interior spread from Les Maries
Cover of Cent Milles Millards
The separated strips
The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style
The story, typeset as a telegram
Fold-out panel of Carelman's interpretation of the story as a board game
Carelman's interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage
Carelman's signed print - "Danse Macabre"
Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium