A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There is a particular genre of novel which gives me great pleasure. The novels are marked by their antiquarian themes, mysteries that cross centuries, heroes and heroines who have beautiful brains and massive academic charisma rather than beautiful bodies and massive … anything else, really. I suppose Dan Brown started it off, and a whole generation of potential authors thought ‘now this, I can do, and I can do it WELL’. I get the feeling that the authors have all this research, and the excitement that goes with it and faced with the choice of a PhD or a novel, opt for the novel (or both, for aught I know). Anyhow, I find it heady stuff – I give you Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Codex by Lev Grossman, the collected works of Michelle Lovric, and even, to an extent, Kate Morton. This is the sort of novel where the highest praise one character can give to another is that s/he is a ‘[b]loody good scholar‘. Very often they have libraries and books at their heart, and the mystery has bibliographical clues, so they really couldn’t be further up my street, but The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, which is firmly and exclusively placed in the world of rare books and bibliographical research, potentially tops the lot. The genre also delivers great landscapes, fantasy journeys, crazy adventures, wild coincidences – and bonkers villains who really in my secret soul I think deserve to win, purely for the person-hours they put in and the misplaced ingenuity with which they lay their plots and strew their clues. The word ‘preposterous’ comes unbidden to the mind, but I find in my reading world that can be both good and bad. ‘Preposterous’ I growl, as I send some horribly misconceived work spinning towards the skirting board. But where the novel is a deliciously insane confection of all these ingredients, it’s a compliment.
The author is a writer and teacher, erstwhile rare book dealer, who divides his life between North Carolina and the Cotswolds. The hero of the novel, Peter Byerly, is – yes – a rare book dealer who divides his life between North Carolina and the village of Kingham in the Cotswolds. He is also, refreshingly, an introvert and a geek (or is he a nerd? Never quite sure) – anyhow, a rare books aficionado and expert to his fingertips (of which more anon). He is introduced to the world of rare books at university, and to his mentors the special collections librarian and the conservator. He also meets there in the university library the love of his life, Amanda Ridgefield, for whom he fortunately is also her soul-mate, and the course of their true love certainly runs smooth until Amanda dies before she is thirty – Codex meets Love Story. This is not a spoiler, by the way – the first thing we learn about Peter is that he is a tragic young widower. He leaves the US for the Cotswold cottage that was to have been their home in Kingham, and tries to recover from his bereavement by attempting to lose himself in his other passion, rare books. We first see him in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (where else?), and from an overpriced copy of a work by Edmond Malone on Shakespearean forgery a small Victorian watercolour falls. He turns it over and see the face of his dead wife. Now read on …
The novel juggles three locations and eras with energy and precision: Shakespeare’s London and the following century; the 1980s in North Carolina; and England in 1995. The novel must have been through storyboard hell, but it all hangs together if the reader holds on tight. It is deftly set pre-Internet, and also with the British Library pre-Euston Road, so that Peter visits its treasures in the appropiate setting of the British Museum (I had to check, and yes, the timing was right – tight, but right.) The Mcguffin (do I mean that? I hope I’m using the word correctly) is a document that is the holy grail of Shakespearean studies – the document that directly links Shakespeare the man to his works. It’s hidden away, unregarded and unrecognised waiting to be discovered by the hero. Not to give too much away, Peter’s return to Kingham and his quest to discover why a Victorian watercolour portrays his wife’s doppelgänger bring him and his potential new love interest into dangerous contact with two neighbouring families of warring bibliomaniacs, and with the secret history of Amanda’s family.
When I started this novel, I was very uncertain about which sort of preposterous it would be. I was reading it on a train, and in the very first few pages the hero commits an act of stupid and unprofessional dishonesty – he steals the watercolour. I decided to give him a chance to recognise this and make amends (he does) and then I read on until a few pages later he did something even more egregious. My audible sharp intake of breath made the chap sitting opposite give me a rather old-fashioned look. What terrible thing can have caused this? Reader, prepare yourself: he puts on a pair of white cotton gloves to examine a Shakespeare Bad Quarto of Hamlet. What is worse, this is his first encounter with a 17th century book, and by putting on the gloves he has passed a test set by the librarian. So, the author wants the 10 minute argument, does he? Do not try this at home! White cotton gloves have no place in a rare books room; very clean, well-dried hands do. Cotton gloves are dangerous and potentially damaging to fragile paper, making you dangerously and needlessly clumsy as you lose all sensation in your fingertips (I told you we’d come back to them). Peter courts his Amanda in the Devereaux Rare Books Room of the university library, and they bond over a Kelmscott Chaucer:
From a box on the table he pulled two pairs of white cotton gloves, then he sat by Amanda and opened the book … The pages were heavy between Peter’s fingers as he gently turned them. Even through the cotton tips of his gloves he could feel the texture of the handset type and the woodblock illustrations.
All very sensual and sweet, but no, he couldn’t. Please don’t mislead all these innocent readers! Thank you – just had to get that off my chest.
Apart from that personal very rocky moment (which was followed by these blinking gloves turning almost into fetish objects) I thoroughly enjoyed this gorgeous soup of true love and loss, bibliophilia, bibliomania, forgery, roistering Tudor writers (with the obligatory sad faces when the news comes of Kit Marlowe’s demise) including a great turn by Robert Greene (of ‘upstart crow’ fame); nods to legendary figures of the book world Robert Cotton and Robert Harley whose collections are at the heart of the British Library, family feuding, secret tunnels and outrageous coincidences. Wonderful stuff. ‘Preposterous’, I murmured when I’d finished it, with a great big grin on my face.
To find out the truth about white gloves, see Misperceptions about White Gloves by Dr Cathleen Baker and Randy Silverman (from International Preservation News December 2005.) Reproduced on http://www.betweenthecovers.com/btc/articles/49 (retrieved 10 September 2013)
Charlie Lovett: The Bookman’s Tale. Paperback ed. Alma Books 2013. 300pp
ISBN 13: 9781846883026
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'