Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 5: SIGHT
Chapter 33. Bound for Glory
Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.
HENRY WARD BEECHER
Could it really be thirty years since I first encountered Paul Delrue? For once, the cliché “I remember it as if it was yesterday” rang true, since I could still recall that day in 1979 and the crafts shop next to the cathedral in Chester where a book, bound in blue and brown leather, caught my eye.
The woman in charge took it out of the glass case, but with a puzzled look, wondering why anyone could be interested in such an exotic object. In her estimation, hand-bound books ran a very long last to neckties, T-shirts, key rings, and other souvenirs.
The moment I held the book, even before I opened it, I knew I was going to buy it. My interest might have been less had the binder chosen Traditional Crafts of the Outer Hebrides and not the 1923 first edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia. It wasn’t the text that attracted me, but rather what the neatly typed card inside described as a binding of “tan goat skin, colored Oasis onlays, gold tooling and colored edges.”
What made it so particularly satisfying? Not, as I said, the content. Collectors of first editions want books in a condition as near as possible to that in which they left the warehouse. In collecting terms, rebinding rendered it almost valueless. Besides, Lawrence was not among my enthusiasms. I shrank from his emotionalism and passion, preferring the cooler, drier insights of Graham Greene.
All this counted for nothing, however, beside the elegance, discretion, and sheer craft of the binding. I marveled at the expertise with which two of the colored woodcut illustrations by Lawrence’s friend Jan Juta were reproduced in colored leathers inlaid into the front and back covers and another in miniature on the spine. And when I opened it at last, how naturally it lay on the counter, with none of the tendency of similar books to close of their own accord, a sign of a binding fitted too tightly to the book. Its perfection was that of a sonnet or a fugue: modest, formal, self-contained, in and of itself perfect.
If this were a movie, a simple dissolve would link my paying for Sea and Sardinia to the moment when I walked up to the door of the binder’s home. In practice, it was more complicated. Unusually, he didn’t identify himself with a label on the pastedown, so someone at the shop must have provided his contact details. And his combined cottage and workshop in the depths of the Welsh countryside didn’t exactly invite the casual drop-in.
Even after we met, it took some time to get to know Paul Delrue. The word “reticent” hardly begins to describe his personality. We’d met a number of times before I learned he’d been brought up in a Catholic home for foundlings and only reunited with his birth mother when he was fifteen. There was something doubly Dickensian about first the decision to have him learn a trade, and then have him apprenticed to one of the most antique of them all, bookbinding. By 1967 he’d won so many prizes and acquired such a reputation that he was invited to join the team in Florence working to save and restore the rare books damaged when the Arno flooded in the winter of 1966. The precision and craft in the binding of Sea and Sardinia began to make more sense.
That was the first of many such visits, and a succession of commissions. My collection soon contained Delrue bindings of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and many other books, not to mention sensitive restorations of some favorite books where my copies, though early and rare, were often battered. He gave new life to distressed editions of Wilkie Collins’s pioneering crime novel The Woman in White and to my favorite Dickens novel, the austere Bleak House.
I knew Paul still worked as a binder. We’d exchanged messages over the years, but it was some time since I’d commissioned anything. It was time to renew our relationship. I emailed him to explain my idea.
My next book is called Five Nights in Paris, and deals with the Paris night in all its aspects—scent, sound, taste, vision, and touch. I’m thinking it would be interesting to commission a binding of a book that deals with the same topic. It would be an ideal departure point to talk about the French love of books—and my own, come to that. There are various candidates. For instance, I have many volumes of the first UK edition of Proust in the Scott-Moncrieff translation. Cities of the Plain and Within a Budding Grove have substantial nighttime passages. Another possibility is Ulysses and its wonderful “Nighttown” episode. I have various printings of the Shakespeare & Company edition, although since the city in that case is Dublin, it’s an outside choice. There’s Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Paul Éluard’s Capitale de la Douleur, and Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, a quite sinister surrealist vision of the Paris night.
Even before he responded, I knew what book we would choose. I took my copy of Last Nights of Paris from the shelf. The texture of the cloth, somewhere between suede and well-rubbed velvet, felt greasy; disturbing to the touch; unworthy of Soupault’s text or Williams’s translation. Then change it, murmured an inner voice. I wrapped it hurriedly and walked round to the post office before logic could change my mind. It only occurred to me as the clerk stuck on the stamps that I was indulging in an acte gratuite.