Charles Nodier (1780-1842)
You all knew the worthy Theodore, on whose grave I come to lay flowers, praying Heaven that the earth lie light upon him.
These two scraps of phrase, which are also known to you, tell you that I intend to dedicate to him a few pages of obituary notice, or funeral oration.
It is twenty years since Theodore retired from the world, to work or to do nothing, which of the two was a great secret. He had a plan, but what this plan might be we didn’t know. He was spending his life among books, and concerned himself solely with books, which led some few to think that he was writing a book which would render all books superfluous; but they were wrong, obviously. Theodore had profited too well from his studies to be ignorant of the fact that this book was written three hundred years ago. It is the thirteenth chapter of Rabelais’ first book.
Theodore no longer spoke, no longer laughed, no longer gamed, no longer ate, went to neither ball nor comédie. The women whom he had loved in his youth no longer drew his eye, or at the very most he looked at them only to look at their feet, and when an elegant shoe of some brilliant colour caught his attention, “Alas,” he would cry, heaving a profound sigh up from his breast, “good morocco wasted”.
He had in past times made sacrifices to fashion: the memoirs of the age tell us that he was the first to tie his cravat on the left, despite the example set by Garat, who tied his on the right, and in spite of the vulgar mass who persist to this day in tying it in the middle. Theodore no longer cared about fashion. In the past twenty years he had had only one dispute with his tailor: “Sir,” he said to him one day, “this suit will be the last I will take from you if you should once more forget to make up my pockets in-quarto”.
Politics, the laughable accidents of which had made the fortune of so many fools, never managed to distract him for more than a moment from his meditations. It had put him in bad humour, ever since Napoleon’s rash undertakings in the North, which had made Russian leather more expensive. He nonetheless approved of the French intervention in the Spanish revolutions. “It is“, he said, “a glorious opportunity to bring back from the peninsula the chivalric novels of the Cancioneros.” But the expeditionary army paid no attention to these whatsoever, and he was sorely vexed. When one spoke to him of Trocadero, he responded ironically, Romancero, which caused him to pass for a liberal. The memorable campaign of Monsieur de Bourmont on the coasts of Africa filled him with transports of joy. “Thank Heavens,” he said, rubbing his hands together; “we will have the Levants that much cheaper,” which caused him to pass for a Carlist.
He was walking on a populous street last Summer, flicking through a book. Some honest citizens, leaving a cabaret on unsteady legs, came over to beg of him, a knife at his throat, that he might, in the name of the liberty of one’s opinions, cry, “Long live the Poles!” “I ask nothing better;” replied Theodore, whose thoughts were an eternal cry in support of the human race, “but may I ask why?” “Because we are declaring war on Holland, who are oppressing the Poles on the pretext of not liking the Jesuits,” replied this friend of the Enlightenment, a formidable geographer and an intrepid logician. “Heaven help us;” murmured our friend, piously clasping his hands together, “are we thus to be reduced to the so-called paper from Holland, of Monsieur Montgolfier?”
The eminently civilised gentleman broke his leg with a blow of a cudgel.
Theodore spent three months in bed consulting book catalogues. Given as he constantly was to take emotions to the extreme, this reading made his blood seethe.
In his convalescence, even his sleep was horribly agitated. His wife awoke him one night in the midst of the anguishes of a nightmare. “You arrive just on time”, he said as he kissed her, “to keep me from dying of fear and pain. I was surrounded by monsters who would have given me no quarter.”
“And what monsters have you to fear, my darling, you who have never done a soul harm.”
“It was, if I remember aright, the shade of Purgold, whose deathly scissors bit an inch and a half into the margins of my soft-cover Aldines, while the shade of Heudier pitilessly plunged my most beautiful princeps-edition volume into acid, drawing it out white, but I have good reason to believe that they are in Purgatory at the very least.”
His wife thought he was speaking Greek, for he knew some Greek, to the extent that three shelves of his library were laden with Greek books whose pages had not been cut. Nor did he ever open them, content to simply show them, cover and spine, to his closest acquaintances, but citing the place of publication, the name of the printer and the date, all with an imperturbable self-assurance. Simple souls concluded that he was a wizard. I do not believe so.
As he was fading away before our eyes, his doctor was summoned, by chance a man of wit and a philosopher. You will find him if you can. The doctor realised that a stroke was imminent, and he wrote a delightful report on the illness in the Journal des sciences médicales, where it was given the name of morocco monomania or bibliomaniacal typhoid, but there was no mention of it at the Académie des sciences, because it was in competition with the cholera-morbus.
He was advised to take exercise, and since the idea appealed to him, he set out early the next day. I was too fraught to leave his side for one step of the way. We headed towards the quays, and I was very glad of this, for I imagined that the view of the river would be a source of recreation to him, but he did not turn his gaze from the direction of the embankment. The embankment was as unencumbered by book-stalls as if it had been visited that very morning by those defenders of the press who in February had drowned the Archbishop’s library. We were in a better way on the quai aux Fleurs. There was to be seen a wealth of books, but what books? All those works, which the papers had spoken well of in the past month, but which tumble infallibly, from the editorial office or from stockrooms of the bookshops, into the fifty centimes box. Philosophers, historians, poets, novelists, authors of every genre and every format, for whom the most pompous of reviews are but insurmountable limbos to immortality, and who pass, disdained, from the shelves of the bookshops to the banks of the Seine, that deep Lethe, where they contemplate as they moulder the certain end to their overweening career. There I unfurled the satined pages of my in-octavos, amidst those of five or six of my friends.
Theodore sighed, but it was not for seeing the works of my intellect given over to the rain, from which the perfunctory awning of waxed canvas gave scanty protection.
“What,” he asked, “has become of the golden age of open air book-sellers? It was here that my illustrious friend Barbier collected so many treasures that he came to put together a separate bibliography of a few thousand articles. It was here that the wise Monmerqué, on his way to the palace, and the wise Labouderie, leaving the city, used to prolong, for hours on end, their learned and fruitful perambulations. It was from here that the venerable Boulard took a metre of rarities every day, measured out with his cane, for which his six houses in their plethory of books had no place to spare. Oh, how he had longed at such times for the Horace’s modest corner of earth, or the elastic baldachin of that fairy pavilion, which would have covered the army of Xerxes if need be, and could be carried as easily on one’s belt as a knife sheathe. And now, the pity of it: what do you see but the imbecilic scourings of this modern literature that will never be ancient, whose life is done in twenty-four hours, like the flies on the river Hypanis, literature well worthy in fact of the coal-ink and the pulped paper which shameful typographers, almost as stupid as their books, reluctantly afford it! And it were to profane the name of books to bestow it upon these rags scrawled with black, which have seen almost no change in their fate since leaving the rag-and-bone man’s basket! The quays are now no more than a morgue for the momentarily renowned!”
He sighed again, and I also sighed, but not for the same reason.
I hastened to carry him away from there, for his state of excitation, which grew with every step, threatened to bring on a lethal fit. This was bound to be a black day, for all was contributing to the sharpening of his melancholy.
“There,” he said as he passed it, “is the pompous facade of Ladvocat, the Galiot du Pré of bastardised letters of the nineteenth century, an industrious and prodigal publisher who would have been worthy of being born in a better age, but whose deplorable activities have cruelly multiplied the number of new books, to the eternal detriment of the old ones, forever unpardonable sinner of cotton paper, of ignorant orthography, and of the mannered vignette, fateful tutor to academic prose and fashionable poetry; as if France has had poetry since Ronsard or prose since Montaigne! This palace of bibliopoly is the Trojan horse that brought all the pillagers to the palladium, the Pandora’s box that loosed all the evils upon the Earth! I still love the old cannibal, and I’ll give a chapter to his book, but I’ll never look on him again!
“And here,” he continued, “the shop of the worthy Crozet, with its green walls, the most amiable of our young publishers, the best man in Paris to distinguish a binding by Derome the elder from a binding by Derome the younger, and the last hope of this latest generation of book-lovers, if such can yet arise amidst our barbary, but I will not today enjoy his conversation, from which I always profit! He is in England, where, by right of legitimate retaliation, he is struggling with our grasping invaders from Soho Square and Fleet Street over the precious remnants of the monuments of our beautiful tongue, forgotten for two centuries in the ungrateful land that produced them! Macte animo, generose puer!...
“And here,” he began again, going back over his steps, “here is the Pont des Arts, whose useless balustrade, with its ridiculous railings of a few centimetres wide, will never bear the three-centuries old in-folio that so delighted the eyes of ten generations with the vision of its pig-skin cover and its bronze clasps, a profoundly emblematic path, in truth, which leads from the Château of the Louvre to the Institute, along a way which is not that of science. Perhaps I am mistaken, but the invention of this type of bridge should be for the educated man a flagrant indication of the decadence in letters.
“Here,” says Theodore once more, passing the Place du Louvre, “is the white emblem of another busy and ingenious publisher. It long caused my heart to beat faster, but I no longer see it without a tinge of pain, since Techener took it to mind to have reprinted in Tastu characters, on dazzling paper, and under a bedizened hardcover, the gothic wonders of Jehan Bonfons de Paris, Jehan Mareschal de Lyon, and Jehan de Chaney d’Avignon, little pearls that weren’t to be found anywhere, and which he diffuses in charming counterfeits. I abominate snow white paper, my friend, and there is nothing I don’t prefer to it, aside from that which it becomes on receiving, under the pitiless presser’s unmerciful blows, the deplorable imprint of the notions and stupidities of this age of iron.”
Theodore sighed more deeply than ever; his condition was steadily worsening.
Thus we arrived at the rue des Bons-Enfants, at the rich literary bazaar of Silvestre’s public auctions, an establishment frequented by the learned, through which in a quarter century more inestimable curios have passed than one could ever contain in the library of the Ptolemies, which was perhaps not burned down by Omar, whatever our doting historians might say. Never had I seen so many splendid volumes laid out.
“Pity those who sell them!” said I to Theodore.
“They are dead,” he replied, “or they will die from it.”
But the room was empty. The only person to be found was the indefatigable Monsieur Thour, making facsimiles with patient exactitude, on carefully prepared cards, of the titles of works which on the previous day had escaped his daily scrutiny. Happiest of men, who possesses in his cardboard boxes, arranged by subject matter, the faithfully reproduced image of the frontispiece of all known books! For him it is in vain that all of the productions of printing will perish in the very next revolution which the progress of perfectibility will provide us. He will be able to bequeath to the future the complete catalogue of the universal library. There was certainly a wondrous touch of prescience in foreseeing from so distant a point that moment when it would be time to compile an inventory of civilisation. A few more years, and it will be done with!
“God forgive me, my good Theodore,” said the honest Monsieur Silvestre, “you’re out by a day. Yesterday was the last auction. The books which you see are already sold and awaiting delivery.”
Theodore swayed and went pale. His forehead went the colour of a somewhat worn lemon morocco. The blow that struck him echoed in the depths of my heart.
“Ah, such is the way of things,” he said with an air of defeat. “I know of old the pain brought on by such awful tidings. But still, to whom belong these pearls, these diamonds, these fantastic riches that would be the glory of the library of de Thou and of the Groliers?”
“As usual, Monsieur,” replied Monsieur Silvestre, “these excellent classics of first edition, these ancient and perfect editions, autographed by celebrated scholars, these striking philological rarities, which the Académie and l’Université have never heard of, go by right to Sir Richard Heber. It is the share of the English lion, to whom we graciously yield the Latin and Greek that we no longer understand. These beautiful natural history collections, these master-pieces of method and iconography belong to Prince … , whose studious tastes yet more ennoble by their use a noble and immense fortune. These mysteries of the Middle Ages, these morality plays like unto phoenixes, whose analogues simply do not exist, these curious dramatic essays of our forefathers will go to swell the exemplary library of Monsieur de Soleine. These ancient burlesques, so fine, so elegant, so handsome, so well conserved, make up the lot of your amiable and ingenious friend Monsieur Aimé-Martin. I don’t need to tell who owns these fresh and brilliant moroccos, with their triple rule, their large filigree, their sumptuous compartments. He is the Shakespeare of the small-holder, the Corneille of the melodrama, the gifted and often eloquent interpreter of the passions and the virtues of the people, who, after having somewhat disprized them in the morning, bought them at their weight in gold in the evening, though not without grinding his teeth, like a mortally wounded boar, and not without turning to his competitors a tragic eye, shaded by black brows.”
Theodore had stopped listening, He had just placed his hand on a rather good-looking volume, to which he hastened to apply his elzeviriometre, that is to say, a 6-inch rule divided almost to infinity, with which he decided the price, alas, and the intrinsic quality of his books. He placed it alongside the accursed book ten times, verified the damning calculation ten times, murmured a few words which I didn’t hear, changed colour once again, and collapsed in my arms. It was with great difficulty that I managed to carry him to the first carriage that was passing.
My entreaties, in an attempt to drag from him the secret of his sudden suffering, were for a long time bootless. He no longer spoke. My words no longer reached him. “It’s typhoid,” I thought, “and typhoid at its worst.”
I held him close. I continued to question him. He seemed to yield to a communicative impulse. “You see in me”, he said to me, “the most unhappy of men! That volume was the 1676 Virgil, untrimmed, of which I thought I had the giant edition, and it carries the day over mine by a third of a line in height. An ill disposed or forewarned wit could find there even a half-line. A third of a line, almighty God!”
I was thunderstruck. I saw that delirium that was taking hold of him.
“A third of a line!” he repeated, threatening Heaven with a enraged fist, like Ajax or Capaneus.
I was trembling in every limb.
Little by little he fell into the deepest torpor. The wretched man was living only to suffer. He started from time to time: “A third of a line,” biting his knuckles. And I would say again, quietly, “Blast books and typhoid!”
“Be reassured, my dear friend,” I breathed tenderly in his ear each time the fits returned anew. “A third of a line is of no great matter in the more delicate affairs of this world”.
“No great matter?” he cried, “A third of a line in the 1676 Virgil? It was a third of a line that increased the price of Monsieur de Cotte’s Nerli Homer by a hundred Louis, a third of a line. Ah, do you hold for no great matter a third of a line in the stiletto that is piercing your heart?”
He collapsed completely; his arms went stiff; his legs were seized by a cramp with nails of iron. The typhoid was visibly creeping over his extremities. I would not have wished to lengthen by one third of a line the short distance that separated us from his house.
At last we arrived. “A third of a line,” he said to the doorman.
“A third of a line,” he said to his wife, wetting her with his tears.
“My budgie has flown away,” said his little girl, who wept as he.
“Why did you leave the cage open?” replied Theodore. “A third of a line!”
“The people are in revolt in the Midi and the rue du Cadran,” said the old aunt, who was reading the evening paper.
“Leave the blasted people out of this,” replied Theodore. “A third of a line!”
“Your farmhouse in the Beauce has burned down,” said his servant as he laid him in his bed.
“We must rebuild it,” replied Theodore, “if the estate is worth the trouble.”
“Do you think that it is serious?” the nanny asked me.
“My good woman, haven’t you read the Journal des sciences médicales? What are you waiting for? Go and get a priest.”
Luckily enough, the curate entered at that moment, come to chat, as was his wont, about a thousand tit-bits of literature and bibliophily, from which his breviary had not completely torn him, but he thought no longer of them once he had felt Theodore’s pulse.
“Alas, my child,” he said to him, “the life of a man is but fleeting, and the world itself is not set upon eternal foundations. It must have an end, as must all that has had a beginning.”
“Have you read, on that subject,” replied Theodore, “ the Treatise on its Origin and its Ancientness?”
“I learned what I know of such things in Genesis,” said the respectable pastor, “but I have heard tell that a sophist of the last century, by the name of Monsieur de Mirabeau, wrote a book on the subject.”
“Sub judice lis est,” Theodore interrupted brusquely. “I have proved in my Stromates that the first two parts of the World were from the hand of this sad pedant of a Mirabeau, and the third by father Le Mascrier.”
“Eh? Good God!” started the old aunt, raising her glasses. “So who made America?”
“That’s not the question, “ continued the priest. “Do you believe in the Trinity?”
“How could I not believe in the wonderful volume of De Trinitate by Servet,” said Theodore, lifting himself up to halfway on his pillow, “since I saw a copy of it offered for the meagre sum of two hundred and fifteen francs by Monsieur Maccarthy, and for which he himself had paid seven hundred pounds at the sale in La Vallière?”
“We are not discussing that,” said the preacher, somewhat disconcerted. “I asked you, my son, what you thought of the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
“Alright, alright;” said Theodore, “it was just a misunderstanding. I will defend before and against anyone that the Toldosjeschu, whence that ignorant pantaloon of a Voltaire drew so many silly fables, worthy of the Thousand and One Nights, isn’t but a wicked piece of rabbinic foolishness, unfit to figure in the library of a man of learning.”
“Heaven help us,” sighed the worthy cleric.
“Unless,” continued Theodore, “one were to some day find the copy of it in chartâ maximâ, which is mentioned, if my memory serves me right, in that unpublished salmagundi by David Clément.”
This time the curate shuddered noticeably, arose, shaken, from his chair and leaned towards Theodore to have him to clearly understand, without varnish or equivocation, that he was infected to the core with bibliomaniac typhoid, which had been spoken of in the Journal des sciences médicales, and that the only thing he need concern himself with now was the saving of his soul.
Theodore had not, his whole life, hidden behind that inconsequent negativism that is the science of fools, but the darling man had gone too far in his books, in the vain study of the letter, to have had the time to fasten onto the spirit. In full health, a doctrine would have given him a fever, and a dogma tetanus. He would have struck his colours in moral theology before a Saint-Simonist. He turned his face to the wall.
From the length of time during which he did not speak we would have believed him dead, if I, drawing near to him, had not heard him faintly murmur, “A third of a line. Oh just and bountiful God, where will you give me back this third of a line, by just how much can your omnipotence repair the binder’s irreparable error?”
A bibliophile from among his friends arrived a moment later. He was told that Theodore was dying, that he was delirious to the point of believing that Father Le Mascrier had created one third of the world, and that he had lost the power of speech in the last quarter of an hour.
“I’ll see for myself,” said the book-lover. “By what pagination error can one know the real 1635 Elzevir edition of Caesar?” he asked Theodore.
“153 for 149”
“Very well, and the Terence of the same year?”
“108 for 104”
“The Devil,” said I, “but the Elzevirs were having a bad time of it that year with figures. It’s a good thing they weren’t called on to print log-books.”
“In perfect health,” continued Theodore’s friend. “If I were to listen to these people, I would have thought you a breath away from death.”
“A third of a line away,” replied Theodore, whose voice was gradually failing.
“I’ve heard the story, but it’s nothing compared to what happened to me. Just think of it; eight days ago, in one of those bastard and anonymous sales that you only find out about via the notice on the door, I missed out on a 1527 occaccio, as magnificent as your own, with the binding in vellum, from Venice, the “a”s pointed, witnesses everywhere, and not one page remodelled.”
“Theodore`s every faculty was concentrated on one thought: “Are you at least certain that the “a”s were pointed?”
“Like the iron tip on a lancer’s halberd.”
“It is therefore beyond doubt, but that it was the vintisettine itself.”
“The very one. We had had a very pleasant meal that day: charming ladies, green oysters, witty companions, Champagne. I arrived three minutes after the final bid.”
“Monsieur,” cried Theodore in a rage, “When the vintisettine is up for sale, one does not dine.”
This last effort used up what little of life was still animating him, and which this conversation had sustained like the breath that plays on a dying spark. But still his lips babbled: “A third of a line,” but these were his final words.
Once we had given up hope of saving him, we rolled his bed close to the library and began to bring down one by one those volumes which his gaze seemed to call for, holding longer before him those which we judged most likely to delight his eye. He died at midnight, between a Deseuil and a Padeloup, his hands lovingly clasping a Thouvenin.
The next day we escorted his cortege, at the head of a throng of grief-stricken morocco craftsmen, and we had placed on his tomb a stone bearing the following inscription, which he himself had parodied from Franklin’s epitaph:
IN HIS WOOD BINDING
AN IN-FOLIO COPY
OF THE BEST EDITION
WRITTEN IN A LANGUAGE
FROM THE GOLDEN AGE,
WHICH THE WORLD
NO LONGER UNDERSTANDS.
TODAY IT IS
WITH AN IMPERFECT FRONTISPIECE,
EATEN BY WORMS
AND BADLY DAMAGED BY ROT.
ONE DARE NOT EXPECT
THE TARDY AND SUPERFLUOUS HONOURS