Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 6
By J. C.
The tidiness virus courses through London’s second-hand bookshops (see NB, last week). Even the Archive Bookstore – the original temple to chaos – has succumbed. “You can get through to modern first editions now”, Tim, the owner of the shop in Bell Street, close to Marylebone Station, told us last week. We detected a note of apology undermining his pride. “It is possible that my assistant has been weeding too diligently.”
Sherry was being dispensed in tea mugs. An impecunious customer was being offered a handsome loan, while a hopeful seller was facing a pitiful sum for his books. An elderly gentleman with a resemblance to the Major in Fawlty Towers was explaining to a young woman from Poland that his late wife had been a stripper. On certain days, browsers listen to Chopin improvisations rising from the basement, where stands a piano with wooden keys. The Polish woman was filming everything for a course in documentary at Royal Holloway. She couldn’t believe her luck. Even in its disgracefully tidy state, the Archive Bookstore is unique.
As the camera rolled, we took advantage of strangely accessible shelves. The mission is to celebrate the bountiful second-hand trade, and to find a neglected work by an established author as alternative to vile Christmas fare, for about £5. All books are bought to be read.
The notion of the “Catholic novelist” seems quaint now, but some of the most populart names in post-war British fiction were once thus classified: Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh. Across the Channel, François Mauriac (1885–1970) was the high priest until the onset of a reformation brought about by a band of young, atheistic rebels, one of whom wrote The Rebel. Mauriac’s stature began to dwindle from the moment Sartre attacked him for denying his characters free will. Numerous works were translated into English after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1952, but Mauriac has scant presence here now. Titles such as Life of Jesus are unlikely to create a revival, though a new film of his best-known novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, with Audrey Tatou of Amélie fame in the title role, might help when it is released in the UK and US next year.
We were ignorant of The Unknown Sea, until finding it on the orderly shelf. Published in French in 1947 (Les Chemins de la mer), it tells the story of the Revolou family in Bordeaux, Mauriac’s native region. The familiar counters of French fiction are present in the opening chapter: money and property (not the same thing), love and marriage (ditto), the faithful servant, the errant husband, the revolver in the drawer. Mauriac said he made use of “devices that came from silent films” in the writing of his novels, including a “sudden opening”, and a deliberate absence of preparation for the reader. When asked if his faith had hampered or enriched his literary life, he answered “yes, to both parts of the question”. As we left the Archive, after handing over £1.50 for The Unknown Sea in a handsome 1962 Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Gerard Hopkins, Tim was talking about a signed Leaves of Grass he had sold for a song. The Major was trying to find the Polish for “striptease”. The November evening seemed much cheerier.