Sunday, February 24, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (IV)

The French text of Les Thibaults is readily available in a three-volume paperback edition, but I chose instead to read at least the first six parts in this motley assortment of well-worn volumes, which correspond to the format in which they were first published. (There are seven volumes shown because the third part, La belle saison, has been split into two.) Gallimard reprinted the books endlessly, so these are neither particularly rare nor valuable, and the paper they were printed on is not great, but this is more or less how the average reader from the 1920s until well after World War II would have experienced the novel. Does this matter? Is anything gained by reading Les Thibaults in this form rather than as, say, an ebook? Perhaps not, but I don't read ebooks.

Publishing books under paper covers was the norm in France long before the so-called "paperback revolution" transformed the industry in the UK and America. I don't know whether this was because it was assumed that many readers would choose to have their volumes rebound in any case, as was certainly often done. (Gallimard also issued deluxe editions on better paper.) Three of the volumes above, which are castoffs from a British library, are bound in plain blue buckram, though I can't tell whether it was the publisher or the library that bound them that way. They are wartime Canadian reprints, bearing the Gallimard imprint; one suspects that Gallimard might not have been reprinting these particular books in France, during the ocupation. La belle saison is in its original paperbound format, but the other two have been rebound.

La consultation, with the red spine, has a quarter-leather binding with marbled paper over the rest of the boards; the spine bears the imprint of Selections Sequana, but the interior is simply the Gallimard edition, paper covers and all.

Sequana was (and still is) a long-established French printing firm, and this was probably issued as part of some kind of book club; the firm's name is derived from the goddess associated with the river Seine, as well as with the ancient Gallic Sequani tribe familiar to Caesar. Printed on the spine are the words Fluctuat nec mergitur — it floats and does not sink — which make up the motto of the city of Paris. It is stamped with the number 5 though it actually contains the fourth part of the novel.

The last volume, La mort du père, may have been custom-bound for the owner; it has rather nice blue marbled paper on the boards. The author's name has been truncated as "Du Gard" on the spine.

Books are made up of words, symbols that by their nature can be replicated and reproduced in any number of forms, but in their physical manifestation they are also artifacts that bear traces, however faint, of the time in which they were created. One is under no obligation to read Roger Martin du Gard with this in mind, or even to read him at all, but I think, on balance, that some small advantage is obtained by doing so.

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