Deciphering inscriptions

Details of provenance, and other information on what makes the Library’s copies of a publication distinctive, form an increasingly important part of processing activity for the European Collections and Cataloguing team. Thirty years ago the Rare Book Department used to maintain a card catalogue of provenance information, albeit on a very selective basis. Nowadays we incorporate such detail into our cataloguing records, often trying to reproduce inscriptions in full, and providing access points for former owners, dedicatees and inscribers. This can, of course, be challenging, since none of us are handwriting specialists. Anyone familiar with early 20th century German handwriting, for example, as represented in the Library’s Schnitzler Archive, can have no doubt on that score. Schnitzler’s handwriting is hugely difficult.

One of the great pleasures of dealing with the Liberation collection is trying to respond to the challenge imposed by the inscriptions.

Inscription in Liberation.c.292

Inscription in Liberation.c.292

Of the items catalogued so far, 41 have been given entries for inscribers and 54 for former owners. Some of the most notable items are, of course, very straightforward, with inscriptions long ago identified and documented by dealers. That doesn’t make them any the less exciting to handle and catalogue. Amongst the first items we processed were books presented by Paul Éluard to René Magritte inscribed “À Georgette et à René en témoignage d’une affection jeune comme le monde, Paul Eluard” (Liberation.c.292),

Inscription in Liberation.b.37

Inscription in Liberation.b.37

and by Jean-Pierre Giraudoux to Louis Jouvet inscribed “Pour Louis Jouvet, compagnon de mon père dans sa mort comme dans sa vie, avec toute mon affection et celle de Suzanne, Giraudoux Montaigne, 28 juillet 1945” (Liberation.b.37). All one needs at most is a familiarity with Christian names and nicknames to be sure of one’s ground.

Often attributions can be more tricky, however, when inscriber or dedicatee are not among the more familiar French cultural or historical figures. 30 years ago the librarian would probably just have given up, but the internet now offers greatly enhanced opportunities for identification. If you google enough possible variants of a signature, you can sometimes strike gold.


Inscription in “Neuf chansons interdites”

Just added to the Liberation collection is a very fragile, 19 page pamphlet with the cover title Neuf chansons interdites, 1942-1944, by François La Colère, and the evocative inscription “bien clandestinement, Louis”. François La Colère is a well known pseudonym of Louis Aragon, evidently the Louis inscribing this item. It was not necessary to research any further, although we could have compared the signature with the several letters from Aragon contained in the Stefan Heym archive, dating from between 1960 and 1975. The dedicatee was more difficult. We initially thought he might be Gaston Baisseble, but worked out in the end that the pamphlet had been presented to a Gaston Baissette.

But was this the Gaston Baissette described in the Wikipedia article as “un médecin hygiéniste”, who after the war became head of the Office public d’hygiène sociale de la Seine? That seemed initially inconclusive, but reading further in the article established that Gaston Baissette was also a member of the French communist party, who had given assistance to Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet during their stay in Nice in 1941, and who had also met Paul Éluard in the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole, where Éluard “était caché clandestinement avec d’autres proscrits”. There are further bibliographical connections too, in that Gaston Baissette gave his name to a French poetry prize awarded each year between 1994 and 2008, and to the médiathèque in Mauguio. What started off as a hard to decipher inscription in a small pamphlet has ended up with a rich patina of association.

David Lowe

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