Do literary prizes guarantee library immortality?

Building up the Library’s collections of contemporary literature, and second guessing which publications from 2013 will have an enduring legacy, is one of the challenges regularly facing the UL’s languages specialists. The listings of new publications in Livres du mois for June 2013 featured 341 new novels in French (excluding all crime and science fiction), another 183 novels in French translation, and 127 volumes of poetry.  Of these the Library can afford to buy only a very small percentage. Many of the choices we make are highly subjective, and we are very dependent on advice and recommendations from academic staff and researchers. Effective collection development is a collaborative effort.

Le peuple de la mer

Le peuple de la mer (Image from Wikipedia)

Purchasing decisions are greatly influenced by literary prize winners, though the debate and arguments which surround these awards, starting with the appropriateness of any short list, is a clear indication of how subjective the exercise is. It is a reasonable assumption that any English specialist in a European university library will usually buy the Man Booker short list. Here in Cambridge we like to monitor a range of European literary prizes, such as the Deutscher Buchpreis and the Premio Strega, but our funds will often only enable us to buy the actual winner, rather than the entire short list.

It is interesting to step back 100 years and to question whether the gaining of a literary award is a guarantee of literary immortality. The answer is clearly no, but it is harder to determine whether the oblivion into which some prize winners have sunk is a justified obscurity. The Prix Goncourt had been awarded since 1903; the Prix Femina (originally known as the Prix de la vie heureuse) since 1904.

In 1913 the Prix Goncourt was awarded to Marc Elder for Le peuple de la mer.  COPAC lists four copies, in Leeds, Manchester and Oxford, and at the British Library. It is a Zolaesque novel about the lives of fishermen in Noirmoutier, on the French Atlantic coast, and rather remarkably won the prize in the face of opposition from Proust’s Du coté de chez Swann, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and Roger Martin du Gard’s Jean Barois. The novel has been republished this year in order to celebrate its centenary. We are now faced with the decision of whether to plug an apparent gap in our holdings, or to decide that in Library terms the text’s availability via Project Gutenberg is sufficient.

Camille Marbo

Camille Marbo (Image from Wikipedia)

The winner of the Prix Femina for 1913, La statue voilée by Camille Marbo, is not currently available via Project Gutenberg. It is no longer in print, and the British Library appears to be the only location in the UK to hold a copy. This title is the second of some 47 novels which the author published. Of the 9 titles shown on COPAC, the majority are only in the British Library and none are in Cambridge

Perhaps in literary terms then, her current obscurity is justified, but Camille Marbo is clearly a major personality of the 20th century. She was a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur and a president of the Société des gens de lettres. She married the very distinguished mathematician and politician Émile Borel, and was an intimate of Marie Curie. In 1967, 54 years after winning the Prix Femina, she published her memoirs under the title À travers deux siècles : souvenirs et rencontres. Again there is no copy in Cambridge, but in this case it is incontrovertibly a gap which we need to fill.

– David Lowe

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