Perambulatory Christmas Books, 6th series
By J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 6th series. In recent years, it has been our custom in autumn and early winter to find each week a neglected book or curiosity by an established author, purchased from a second-hand bookshop, to ward off Christmas gift-book blues. The price guide is £5, but we might burgle the piggy bank for an extra quid or two if the need arises. All books are bought to be read.
First, some remarks. Second-hand bookshops have been assumed to be in danger for several years now, with reason. New York friends lament the disappearance of neighbourhood favourites. AbeBooks can supply most things at the click of a mouse. Many people find convenience in ebooks and e-readers, and if they are happy, we’re happy too. It makes us even happier to report that all the shops we mentioned last year (sixteen) are still in business. A book is a book is a book. You cannot own an ebook. It has no aesthetic properties: no ornamentation, no weight, no smell; in short, no character. It offers no choice between nice-to-handle and that experience’s opposite. It does not furnish a room.
We began our perambulations, as usual, in the Charing Cross Road area, London’s booktown. Cecil Court continues its bijou existence, hosting several specialist shops, dedicated to cars, theatre, gambling, etc. It is also home to one of our regular haunts: Peter Ellis, at No 18 – rather, our haunt is the pavement outside, where stands a barrow with assorted books at modest prices. Last week, as the nights began to draw in, we lighted on Days of Contempt by André Malraux, just the kind of thing we like: something unfamiliar by someone familiar. The dedication is unexpected: “To the German comrades, who were anxious for me to make known what they had suffered and what they had upheld”.
Malraux (1901–76) was, par excellence, the writer as man of action (a species in graver danger than the book). He was a revolutionary, fought in Spain, served as de Gaulle’s Minister of State, wrote books on art. As the author of Man’s Fate (La Condition humaine), Malraux would once have been mentioned in the same breath as Gide, Mauriac, Sartre, Duras; but his other novels are scarce now. Days of Contempt (Le Temps du mépris) was written in 1935, two years after Man’s Fate. The German dedicatees are early communist victims of the Nazis. Hitler is mentioned in the second sentence. A comrade, Kassner, is about to be interrogated. “Across the table sat the Hitler official. He was true to type: heavy jaws, square head, close-cropped hair . . . .” Things get bad for Kassner before they get better. Both he and his creator, however, believe they can only get worse for the forces of reaction: “This [Nazi] government has to reckon with foreign public opinion . . .”. It turned out not to be that simple.
In 1936, the TLS described Days of Contempt (translated by Haakon M. Chevalier) as “very short, very simple, very moving”, an “epic that deserves high praise”. For our Gollancz Left Book Club Edition, tightly stitched in the usual orange cloth, Peter Ellis charged us £3. We put what was left of our budget towards a copy of the original, ordered by post from Cornfield Books of Brighton (£5), mainly for the pleasure of displaying the cover. In the year of original publication, it had reached its “trentième édition”.