The book as a precious object

Bell, Book and Candle are symbolic objects in the term that describes an archaic form of excommunication, as well as being the title of a 1950s Broadway comedy, the book representing faith and learning. But I suggest that another term ‘precious object’ can be applied to individual copies of books which memorialize important relationships usually through inscription. Newton’s own annotated copy of his Principia in Cambridge University Library is an example of a precious object because of the intimate relation that particular copy has with the author through his annotations. But the precious object is the physical book itself not its printed text. Three examples of books that are ‘precious objects’ are in the Liberation Collection 1944-1946 in Cambridge University Library, a collection of books, still being added to, published mainly in France after the Liberation of Paris and before the end of 1946 on the subjects of the war, the occupation and the liberation. Two books are by collaborators and one is by a member of the resistance. The two collaborators, who were actively sympathetic to the Nazi cause and all that it stood for, were both killed before the war had ended for what they believed in while the resistance fighter survived the war and lived on into old age.

Robert Brasillach, born in 1909, was journalist and author who before the war had written widely, from sentimental novels, to a history of the cinema. As the war approached he took an increasingly pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic position which he promoted through his writings, becoming editor of Je suis partout an extreme pro-Nazi magazine in which he openly advocated the extermination of the Jewish race. He was arrested during the Liberation of Paris, and was imprisoned in Fresnes prison on the edge of Paris with his brother in law Maurice Bardèche in the same cell. He was tried and was executed by firing squad in February 1945. While he was in prison he wrote poems which he arranged to be published in an anonymous edition after his execution which he knew was coming and made little effort to avoid. They were published in September 1945 under the pseudonym ‘Robert Chénier’ – André Chénier, a Royalist poet and Robespierre’s last victim in the French Revolution was a particular hero of Brasillach who saw himself as a latter day Chénier. The book was entitled ‘Barreaux’ (Liberation.c.73), the bars of a prison, and was published by Édition de Minuit et Demi, a play on the name of the famous clandestine publisher Éditions de Minuit. A month later another edition of Brasillach’s poems was published entitled Poèmes de Fresnes (Liberation.c.427) printed in Louvain in Belgium without publisher or place of publication. I have still not found out who published it because Bardèche, Brasillach’s self-appointed apologist and publisher after his death maintained (563:8.c.95.198) that the first ‘authorised’ edition of the poems was published in 1949 under his own imprint Sept Couleurs (the UL has a 1964 printing of this edition at 9001.d.1109).

The copy of the Louvain edition in the collection has a printed statement on the page facing the title page, ‘le présent tirage, constituant l’édition originale des “Poèmes de Fresnes” de Robert Brasillach, comporte 5 exemplaires sur Madagascar, 25 exemplaires sur vélin supérieur, tous numérotés à la presse et quelques exemplaires marqués H. C.’

Exemplaire H. C. imprimé pour André GIDE. Exemplaire sur vélin pur chiffon à la main.

It is because of Brasillach’s difficult relationship with Gide that this copy, specially printed, on a different paper for him, is so interesting. In 1930 the young Brasillach had published in La Revue française an ‘Oraison funèbre pour M. Gide’ (La Revue française no.48, 30 November 1930) in which he suggested that Gide belonged to the past, had nothing more to contribute and might as well be dead. It came to be known as Gide’s obituary but according to one of Brasillach’s biographers Pol Vandromme (738:47.d.95.271), while it was insolent and somewhat sardonic, it was meant to portray Gide as the representative of the literature of the ‘post-war period’ which in the view of Brasillach and his colleagues was now over. Gide was one of the corpses of the past that lay in the way of the ‘new wave’ and needed to be cleared away. He cannot have been pleased. Brasillach chose to reprint the article in his collected works published in 1944 and after his execution in 1945 someone close to him arranged for the printing of this individual copy of the poems which must have been sent to Gide. This unique copy, by being created for him and sent to him posthumously as a gift on behalf of a man he must have regarded as an enemy, is indeed a precious object.

Les Maudru

After the fall of France Joseph Kessel, already a well-known author, wanted to visit Paris to see his friends and his mother. Unable to obtain a visa from his contacts in Vichy to enter the occupied zone he obtained forged papers and spent a few days in Paris observing the conditions of the occupation and learning from his friends about acts of defiance and protest that were the first manifestations of ‘Resistance’. He then wrote a novel, completed in February 1941 entitled Les Maudru (Joseph Kessel, Les Maudru [Paris] : Julliard Sequana, 1945), which was the first novel written in France in which acts of resistance are described. His biographer Yves Courrière (Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, Paris : Plon, 1985) calls it a novel with a simple plot and characters that are stereotypes but Kessel used the book to express his own doubts and hopes which he believed were shared by many others in France. He realized that possession of the two typescripts of the book was dangerous and would incriminate him if discovered. He destroyed one but gave the other to his mother, telling her that she should destroy it too. It is difficult to understand why he would give it to his mother if he thought that its possession was so dangerous. Perhaps he could not bring himself to destroy it and knew that in spite of his warning she would probably keep it.  She did and at the end of the war returned it to her son, and he was able to publish it. In 1945 Kessel gave a numbered copy (but without a number) of Les Maudru to his mother with an inscription in French and Russian which reads in translation:

‘To my dear Mamoussia [‘mummy’], who saved this little book in memory of the terrible years and with the hope of better times. I kiss you strongly [Signature in Cyrillic]’

The recognition in the inscription to his mother that this book only exists because of her loyalty to him and to his work, for which he is now thanking her, gives this copy a satisfying circularity, and makes it a precious object.

Philippe Henriot, born in 1889, was a poet and journalist. He was a member of the Catholic anti-semitic nationalist right, and while he was anti-German at the beginning of the war, he changed his position when Germany invaded Russia believing that Communism must be defeated at all costs. He developed a propaganda war on behalf of the Vichy government and was a skilful and convincing broadcaster, who was known as the French Goebbels and his broadcasts attracted large audiences.

In 1943 he joined the Milice, the Vichy paramilitary force that was established to fight the Resistance and in 1944 he was appointed as Minister of Information and Propaganda.  His broadcasts and command of Vichy propaganda hit hard as the loss of French lives grew following the D-Day landings and the allied bombing of French cities and towns. But on 28 June 1944 he was silenced by the Resistance to whom he was so resolutely opposed when disguised as Milice a group entered his apartment in Paris and shot him in front of his wife. In retaliation the Milice murdered the Jewish politician Georges Mandel while Henriot was given a state funeral in Notre Dame with 2,000 people filing past his coffin – just two months before the Liberation of Paris.

In 1946 a book of his poems (Philippe Henriot, Poèmes. La clairière aux sources, Soleil Noir, n.p. 1946) was published by a sympathizer, J. Pierres. In the copy in the Library’s collection his mother Clothilde Léonie Duffié, his wife Marie Jeanne and his son and daughter, André and Marie Marguerite, have written inscriptions to their son, husband and father. A handwritten statement by Pierres on the next page explains that in a few copies for friends and family he has included some extra pages which include a photograph of Henriot lying in an open coffin, an editorial he had published on the subject of Easter 1944 and what Easter stands for, together with the last words of his last editorial published the day before his death.

The inscriptions read:

“Prévu [?] le 20 septembre 1947. En souvenir du martyre!.. Que ses amis le vengent en faisant triompher son idéal…tant de générosité et d’amour. M. J. Ph. Henriot”

Planning for 20 September 1947. In memory of a martyr. His friends will avenge him by bringing about his ideals . . . such generosity and love.


“En pleine union de pensée et de coeur avec tous ceux qui t’ont connu et aimé Ta mère, Henriot Duffié”

In complete harmony of thought and feeling with all those who knew and loved you. Your mother.


“En souvenir de mon papa avec l’espoir de vous connaître un jour. Marguerite Henriot”

In memory of my father and in the hope of one day getting to know you.


“Toute la sympathie de son fils. A.Henriot”

With all my sympathy; your son.

The statement by J. Pierres:

 “Promoteur de ce petit livre, je me permets d’ajouter ma signature à celles si émouvantes qui la précèdent.

Je l’accompagne d’un feuillet que je réserve aux seuls vrais amis qui vénèrent sa mémoire et propagent son idéal, désirant ainsi vous témoigner dès maintenant avec ma confiance, toute ma vive sympathie, J. Pierres

 As the instigator of this little book, I have allowed myself to add my inscription to the moving examples that precede it.

I have added a few pages to copies which I have kept for a few true friends who value his memory and propagate his ideals, and want you to be fully aware of my very real sympathy for you.

The first four inscriptions make this copy of the book a unique expression of the deep feelings of his mother, wife and children. For his family it is no longer just a book –  it has become a precious object.

If these three books are ‘precious objects’, precious in particular to the families and friends of the authors, why have they come on to the market at modest prices more than 60 years later? It seems that the passage of time has diminished their significance for their descendants. One can understand this in the case of Gide who did not have children and presumably had a large library which would have been dispersed after his death. But in the case of Kessel and Henriot it appears that these books were no longer seen as precious to their families who did not feel the need to keep them as heirlooms for future generations.

One wonders if the preciousness of these special copies is quite short lived, until they fall into the hands of the collector to whom they are precious in a different way.

Charles Chadwyck-Healey

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