Chronicle of a “Fort-Rare” Book...
Voltaire wrote that the discovery of the New World was probably the most important event of our globe, and he would surely say that the internet revolution equals it. This New virtual World affects every aspect of our lives – including the most important one, tracking down old books. Thanks to digitalized libraries, free access to the catalogues of booksellers from all over the world and the descriptions of auction sales, one hardly needs to leave his home in order to conduct some research on a specific book. This I experienced lately, trying to “corner” a French book of poetry said to be “fort-rare”, very rare, and happening to be a complex riddle in itself. Ready... Google... Sent.
Diverse Little Poems of the knight D’Aceilly. 1667.
Rare, scare, very scarce… These adjectives often follow a book description but what does it really mean (apart from the fact that it might be expensive, I mean) ? It is well-known, and widely deplored, that almost no records have been kept of the amount of books printed in the 17th or 18th century. It is said that 4,000 copies of the Encyclopédie of D’Alembert were printed but we have no clue of the figures for a vast majority of books – mostly regarding those of a relative popularity like the one I am about to talk : Diverses Petites Poésies du Chevalier d’Aceilly. The first edition, Cramoisy, 1667, 1 vol. in-12, was noted as very scarce in David Clément’s “hard to find books” listing, as soon as 1750 : “ Mr De Cailly had his poems printed under the anagram of D’Aceilly. They are short and quite nice. This book has become fort-rare (very rare) but was reprinted with the travel of Mr Bachaumont and La Chapelle, Amsterdam – 1708.” Three years later, the German catalogue established by Widekind even stated that this book was “impossible to find”. When Charles Nodier, a very famous French writer and publisher of the 19th century , decided to reprint it, he couldn’t find a copy of this first edition, as confessed in the preface of his 1825 edition (Paris, Delangle). He probably copied the poems from “ the excellent Recueil de Pièces Choisies by La Monnoye (La Haye, 1714 – 2 vol. In-12).” He later found a few copies, as testified in a handwritten note he left behind : “ Why is the first edition of these charming poems, the rarest of all our little classics ? Here is the very little known reason : De Cailly who had a lot of copies (...) wrote Premier Volume (Volume the first) on the frontispiece – nothing could have been more disastrous for the book [most buyers probably thought the book was incomplete as such, editor’s note]. At the bottom of the same frontispiece, he added Et se donnent au Palais (Given at Le Palais); everybody took his word for it. People refused to give money for what was given away. Realizing his mistake, D’Aceilly tried to correct it but ended up doing another one. He had all the frontispieces of his books scrapped, which only brought disgrace to the books that were pulp soon after. (...) In forty years’ time, I have come across 5 copies only, two with their frontispieces, and three without them. I had never seen this first edition when I put out mine.” Nodier had apparently taken this book and its author out of darkness. But when a copy of the fort-rare first edition recently appeared on the auction sales website Ebay.fr, all became... very blurry.
DISASTROUS PREMIER VOLUME
Rare does not mean good. Many books have become rare just because they were not good – they did not sell, so only a few copies have been around. The poems of D’Aceilly are not just fort-rares, they are also “ fort-good”. I discovered them a few years ago, as I was absolutely not looking for them. The travel book Voyage de La Chapelle is a best-seller of the 17th century, relating a travel to the French region of Provence. Described as an entertaining reading, it was gently criticized as over-estimated by Voltaire. Voltaire is not always right so I decided to make my own opinion. A humble edition, Amsterdam, 1751, in-12, a very nice copy, cost me 40 euros. Of the travel of Mr La Chapelle, I can not say much, I forgot about it – Voltaire is always right. But I was very impressed by the Diverses Poésies du Chevalier D’Aceilly added to the voyage (for some reason, from the edition of 1708 onwards, the poems of D’Aceilly have regularly been added to this travel.). I had never heard about the author either; but his poems soon found their way to my night stand where they remained for weeks. “D’Aceilly wit soon made him famous both in town and at Court and he made friends with a lot of persons of merit, wrote Briasson in his Bibliothèque Poétique (Paris, 1745 – 4 vol. in-12). On the recommandation of Mr Colbert, Louis XIV awarded him the cross of the Knights of Saint Michel. Of his numerous epigrams only a few are mediocre and the vast majority are remarkable by their naïve style. Satisfied with his condition, he was running away from what others would ardently seek. Happy was he to favour a peaceful and confortable life over pride and ambition ! He was from one of the most dignified families of Orléans, which is still proud of his ancestor. No one knows the exact date of his death.” Nodier said he died in 1673, aged 69. “The witty remarks of this poet, continued Nodier in his preface, sometimes a bit rude, remind us of the libertine philosophy all classical ages have permitted, but are never obscene. To end up, he fights ridiculousness with acridity but never attacks people...” In his own words, D’Aceilly explained he did not intend to print his works : “ I dared not to submit my poems to universal judgement and it took me years to make up my mind.” The book was printed with care, using a different headpiece for each page and some simple but very nice initial letters. D’Aceilly’s verses are well written, their rythms are stirring. He apllied the French “ préciosité ”, or courtesy, of the time to some ordinary (Nodier said “rude”) topics. Here are four epigrams of his (for all I know, D’Aceilly has never been translated into English, which is a shame, so I did translate those myself, caring not so much about rimes nor feet) :
When you talk about Lanssay,
And I have nothing to say,
Don’t be offended as you seem,
That’s all the good I know of him.
Janeton, says the hoax,
To Luc did give the pox,
It is a lie, I assure,
Janeton charged him for sure,
Of Macette’s teeth
Don’t you wonder Macette
Her teeth so bright has kept,
Most of the time they’ve spent
Hidden in a casket.
When mother quarrels you,
Vile girl, said she to you,
You are no good,
Her words are rude,
Let her talk, Isabelle,
Your mother knows you well.
Chronicle of a “Fort-Rare” Book...
It is an ordinary thing for a book lover to look for the first edition of a book he fell in love with – to come as close as possible to the text and its author, I guess. To my delight it was eventually listed on Ebay.fr the other day. To my grievance, the professional bookseller was asking 3,000 euros for it. Despite a full morroco binding (a modern pastiche, a perfect imitation of a 17th century binding) and a very nice condition, it was an excessive price. The book itself is rare, indeed, and might have reached this quoted value hadn’t it been reprinted several times in the 18th and 19th centuries. The good copies of the first edition usually cost a few hundred euros, up to a thousand - not a “fort-expensive” book. Anyway, the description on Ebay.fr was of much interest. The bookseller quoted Nodier telling the story of the inscription Premier Volume (Volume the first) on the “frontispiece”, eventually scraped off by the author. But the picture of the title page he joined to the description showed no inscription nor any mark of scrapping. Yet, it was the 1667 first edition. To begin with, let us say that Nodier called “frontispiece” what is, in fact, the title page – he said Se donnent au Palais was written at the bottom of the frontispiece also and it appears on the title page. Then, as far as Volume the First is concerned, I could only figure out two explanations : whether D’Aceilly had teared off the title pages of the first copies to replace them with some new ones (without the disastrous mention) or Nodier built up the whole story. Contacted, the bookseller confessed he had no explanation and that Nodier was not always fully reliable. That did not satisfy me, so I went... on the internet. The Google miracle operated once again. How could you locate a book in a public library, let’s say in America or Australia, in a pre-google world ? I have no idea, but what took years for Nodier took me 0.55 second on the internet. The copy of 1667 I came across has been digitalized for the openlibrary.org website, with the funds of the University of Ottawa. And guess what ? The title-page is not fully identical to the one of the Ebay.fr copy, it reads PREMIER VOLUME, printed in capital and italic letters, just below the main title ! So it was true. How come, then, the mention disappeared from the title-page of the Ebay copy ? The bookseller mentioned that the book had been recently washed and totally rebound. Would, or could, a binder erase such an historical indication ? No, certainly. Furthermore, Google also indicated another copy (poor Nodier !) which title page was not reading Premier Volume. No doubt about it, the title page was twice printed. What about the book itself, then ? Nodier said it did not sell because of this mistake and the Et se donnent au Palais (Given at Le Palais) – but he was not there, after all. How could he know ? He gave no sources and the book was reprinted as soon as 1671 as Nouveau Recueil de Diverses Poésies du Chevalier D’Aceilly, though there was nothing “ nouveau (new) ” about it (Paris, Michel Brunet, 1 vol. in-12). Who would reprint a book that did not sell ? Other bibliographers give another explanation regarding the rarity of the first edition, such as David Clément : “D’Aceilly did not want his bookseller to sell his book. He would just give it away to his friends (...) No wonder these little poems have become so rare. ” But Clément is wrong. Had he read these poems, he would have known. D’Aceilly (or his bookseller) had the situation clarified in the very first epigrams (the first one is signed S.M.A, another mystery) :
To the authour, of his saying his poems were for free
At Le Palais, D’Aceilly, your book is given,
Every one has to wonder how could this be,
In times like these, everything is for a fee,
Bookseller asks 30 sols for what you’ve written,
– and get them -, do we call it a sale ? - nay !
This is no bargain, it’s a gift I say.
On the same topic, Dialogue between
a Gascon* and a bookseller
The Gascon : Is it you the very kind D’Aceilly appointed to give his poems ?
The bookseller : Yes, Monsieur , I will give them to anyone giving me some good money.
(*an inhabitant of the South-West of France. We are told not to trust the word of a Gascon.)
The term of “given” (donner) is ambiguous in French as it might be used for a drama, for instance – given at such or such theatre. But isn’t it puzzling that these poems, printed before the preface of the author (and after the title page) should comment the title page of the same edition ? How could that be ? Were these verses added afterwards ? And why didn’t D’Aceilly evoke these problems in his preface ? Some of these questions might be answered if we remember that booksellers of the time had three ways to sell a book. The first one was to sell loose pages the buyer had to carry to a binder. The second one was with a temporary binding and the last one with a full leather binding. It was easy to replace the frontispieces in the first formula, as well as adding some pages containing the aforementioned epigrams. This could also be applied to the second case – additional pages would be given to the buyer who would pass them unto his binder. But this could not have happened with the bound copies – if there ever were any. So many possibilities for a sole little book ! What would be the ultimate copy, the rarest of this fort-rare book, then ? Bibliophilists need to know. Would it be a bound copy featuring Premier Volume and no additional epigrams ? Or a copy in its temporary binding, with no frontispiece ? Not even Google could find such copies.
Chronicle of a “Fort-Rare” Book...
I eventually found a copy of this book for myself – a first edition, given at Ebay.fr... At such an affordable price, this is no bargain, it’s a gift I say. It is bound in full contemporary calf and features the additional epigrams and the mention Et se donnent au Palais. But there is something else about it, on the title page... A line has been darkened with ink, at some point in the last 345 years. First, I thought it was to hide an ex-libris, as often. But I took a closer look – and deciphered the hidden words : Premier Volume. Now, I started to wonder : who had interest in darkening this line, apart from... the author or the bookseller themselves ? Come on... could this be ? After all, I can also imagine a zealed bibliophilist making sure nobody would be looking for Volume the Second. I really don’t know, and will never. The simple idea that it might be is enough for me, though - thank God, some answers are not on the internet... yet.
(c) Thibault Ehrengardt – 2012.
Collation of the first edition : (Paris, 1667) 1 vol. in-12, title page, 3 pages, preface (2 pages), 228 pages.
The digitalized first edition featuring Premier Volume : www.archive.org/stream/diversespetitesp01cail#page/n1/mode/2up
The digitalized first edition without Premier Volume : books.google.fr/books?id=YCM_naK034AC&printsec=frontcover&hl=fr&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
The digitalized (and fort-rare) second edition :
Nodier’s edition :