An ideal hypothetical list

A few months ago, for purposes that will remain clouded in mystery for the moment, I had the occasion to compose an ideal list of rare books of various kinds, which do not necessarily exist.

Here is what I came up with:

(i) “The Elements of the Most Noble game of Whist; elucidated and discussed in all details”, by A. Bandersnatch, Duke Dimitri, N. Fujisaki, A. Grothendieck, Y. Grünfiddler, J. Hardy, Jr., B. Kilpatrick and an Anonymous Person.

(ii) “Vorlesungen über das Ikosaeder und die Auflösung der Gleichungen vom funften Grade”, by F. Klein; with barely legible annotations and initialed “HW” on the first page.

(iii) “Histoire Naturelle”, Volume XXXIII: Serpens, by George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, edition of 1798; initialed “A.K.” on the title page.

(iv) “Chansons populaires de Corse, Navarre et Outre-Quiévrain”, collected and commented by P. Lorenzini.

(v) “奥の細道” (Oku no Hosomichi), by Matsuo Bashò.

(vi) “On the care of the pig”, by R.T. Whiffle, KBE.

(vii) “La Chartreuse de Parme”, by Stendhal.

(viii) “Der tsoyberbarg”, by T. Mann; Yiddish translation by I.B. Singer of “Der Zauberberg”.

(ix) “Les problèmes d’un problème”, by P. Ménard; loose manuscript.

(x) Opera Omnia of L. Euler, volumes 1, 2, 7, 11, 13, 23, 24, 30, 56, 62, 64, 65 and 72.

(xi) “Discorsi sopra la seconda deca di Tito Livio”, by N. Macchiavelli.

(xii) “An account of the recent excavations of the Metropolitan Museum at Khróuton, in the vicinity of Uqbar”, by E.E. Bainville, OBE.

(xiii) Die Annalen der Physik, volumes 17, 18, 23 and 25.

(xiv) “Diccionaro y gramática de la lengua Tehuelve”, anonymous; attributed on the second page to “a Humble Jesuit of Rank”.

(xv) “Le roi cigale”, French translation by Jacques Mont–Hélène of an anonymous English romance.

(xvi) “Mémoires du Général Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo”, by himself, with an Appendix containing the “Journal historique du blocus de Thionville en 1815, et des sièges de cette ville, Sierck et Rodemack en 1815”.

(xvii) “Le Comte Ory”, full orchestral score of the opera by G. Rossini with Libretto by E. Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson.

(xviii) “Absalom, Absalom”, by W. Faulkner; first edition, dedicated To R.C. on the second page.

(xix) “Ficciones”, by J-L. Borges, third edition with page 23 missing.

(xx) “Die Gottardbahn in kommerzieller Beziehung”, by G. Koller, W. Schmidlin, and G. Stoll.

(xxi) “The etchings of the Master Rembrandt van Rijn, faithfully reproduced in the original size”, anonymous.

(xxii) “The memoirs of General S.I. Kemidov”, by Himself.

(xxiii) “Catalogue raisonné des œuvres d’Anton Fiddler”, by W.B. Appel.

(xxiv) “Zazie dans le métro”, by R. Queneau.

(xxv) “The mystery of the green Penguin”, by E. Mount.

(xxvi) “Χοηφόροι” (The Libation Bearers), by Aeschylus; an edition printed in Amsterdam in 1648.

(xxvii) “The Saga of Harald the Unconsoled”, Anonymous, translated from the Old Norse by W.B. Appel.

(xxviii) “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”, by P.G. Wodehouse.

(xxix) “The Tempest”, by W. Shakespeare.

(xxx) “The 1926 Zürich International Checkers Tournament, containing all games transcribed and annotated according to a new system”, by S. Higgs.

(xxxi) “A day at the Oval”, by G.H. Hardy.

(xxxii) “Harmonices Mundi”, by J. Kepler, initialed I.N on the second page.

(xxxiii) “Stories of cats and gulls”, by G. Lagaffe.

(xxxiv) “Traité sur la possibilité d’une monarchie générale en Italie”, by N. Faria; loose handwritten manuscript on silk.

(xxxv) “Broke Down Engine”, 78 rpm LP record, interpreted by Blind Willie McTell.

(xxxvi) “Les plages de France, Belgique et Hollande”, by A. Unepierre.

(xxxvii) “La Légende du Cochon Voleur et de l’Oiseau Rageur”, traditional folktale, translated from the Arabic by P. Teilhard de Chardin.

(xxxviii) “Discours des Girondins”, collected and transcribed by a parliamentary committee under the auspices of the “Veuves de la révolution française”, published by Van-den-Broeck, Bruxelles in 1862.

Impressions de la recherche

Although my knowledge of French literature is rather shamefully fragmentary, I’ve at least, this year, managed to close one gap: I read À la recherche du temps perdu between January and last week-end. This was where I found a very funny allusion to esoteric monographs (it’s in the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).

Did I like the book? This is probably far from the right question to ask in any case, but it’s therefore worth investigating in a post-modern spirit. Since I finished the whole of the seven volumes in about seven months, during which time I had to take care of many other activities, and also started (and often stopped) reading a fair number of other books, I was certainly finding something in Proust that kept me engaged in his work.

One technical aspect of Proust’s style that struck me was how he manages to capture the way that crucial events or characters will first appear informally and casually in life. Here’s for example the first time the narrator meets Gilberte while playing at the Champs-Élysées:

Retournerait-elle seulement aux Champs-Élysées? Le lendemain elle n’y était pas; mais je l’y vis, les jours suivants; je tournais tout le temps autour de l’endroit où elle jouait avec ses amies, si bien qu’une fois où elles ne se trouvèrent pas en nombre pour leur partie de barres, elle me fit demander si je voulais compléter leur camp, et je jouai désormais avec elle chaque fois qu’elle était là.

And here is the first appearance of the jeunes filles, among whome is Albertine:

J’aurais osé entrer dans la salle de balle, si Saint-Loup avait été avec moi. Seul je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel à attendre le moment d’aller retrouver ma grand-mère, quand, presque encore à l’extrémité de la digue où elles faisaient mouvoir une tâche singulière, je vis s’avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons, de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes qui exécute à pas comptés sur la plage — les retardataires rattrapant les autres en voletant — une promenade dont le but semble aussi obscur aux baigneurs qu’elles ne paraissent pas voir, que clairement déterminé dans leur esprit d’oiseaux.

This comes with no warning or no articifial build-up of something is going to happen, drumroll, drumroll.

I was also very touched by the last pages, which certainly affected my overall impression and reaction in a way that I’ve only felt before when finishing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (after which I went into a rather intense faulknerian phase during my PhD years). It seems that to understand Proust (as much as I can…), I would have to re-read the whole text, in the light of these last pages. Is that the expected reaction? It could well be… Will I do it? Who knows…

On a different note, I was amused to see that while the first Pléiade edition is a rather straightforward edition of the novel with short notes and biographical information (rather like the Library of America editions of Faulkner, for instance), the second edition succombs

Proust, compared
Proust, compared

to editorial inflation on a magnificent scale: the variants, esquisses, notes and notes on the esquisses, take up more space than the actual text!

Here is the first volume of the old edition:


compared with the second of the new edition:


This can of course be helpful, as are certainly useful the 125 pages of Liste des personnages cités which allow you to quickly locate all the places where Rembrandt, or the Marquis de Norpois, or Saint Simon, or any other character, real or imagined, makes an appearance in the whole text.


(There is a similar list for names of places and names of works of arts, again real or imagined).

Another thing I noticed is that the first edition doesn’t use accented letters as capitals at the beginning of sentences, while the second does:

No accent
No accent

compared with

Second, accented
Second, accented

Is the Kierkegaardian idea true? and other queries

In February, I was invited to give talks in Bristol and Oxford, and I spent the night after the second talk in a guest room of Worcester College. While looking at the brochure explaining the history of this college, I noticed that a previous guest had left a cryptic inscription, which I took a photograph of:


Can anybody make a guess of what is the first line? It is

What is the **** historical perspective?

but I can’t read the missing fourth word!

And what is the Kierkergaardian idea, really?

The many ways of affineness

Last Saturday, the OED Word of the Day was affineur. Now, I know very well what an affineur is (my favorite is Jean d’Alos, and I especially like his renowned Tome de Bordeaux, the excellence of which can probably be confirmed by Mr. Quomodocumque), but for a few seconds I had in mind the picture of a fearsome algebraic geometer busily transforming all projective varieties into affine ones.

I looked at the adjacent words in the OED; there is quite a list of them involving affine-ness in some way (listed here with dates of first use, as recorded in the OED); actually, affineness is not in the list:

  • affinage 1656
  • affinal 1609
  • affine 1509
  • affine v 1473
  • affined 1586, 1907
  • affineur 1976
  • affining 1606
  • affinitative 1855
  • affinitatively 1825
  • affinition 1824
  • affinitive 1579
  • affinity 1325

It is interesting to think of an algebraico-geometric meaning for each of them (especially the tongue twister affinitatively, and affinition)…