Reading spines up or down?

Among the minor cultural differences that separate countries is the question of the orientation of the text on the spine of books that identify their title and author when conveniently packed on book shelves: going up

Les Misérables   Der Zauberberg

proudly as French and German books, or going down

The Big Sleep  Il Principe

as English or American or Italian books? When books are ordered by topic or author, this leads to rather uncomfortable switches of orientation of the head as one scans bookshelves for the right oeuvre to read during a lazy afternoon.

Actually, these are more or less contemporary examples, and it seems that these conventions change with time. For instance, I have an old English paperback from 1951 where the title goes up instead of down:

The Greeks
The Greeks

Another from 1962 goes down. When did the change happen? And why? And how do other languages stack up? Is it rather a country-based preference? Are the titles of Italian-language books printed in Switzerland going up (like the French and German ones do), or down? And does this affect the direction in which shivers run along your spine when reading a scary story of murdered baronets in abandoned ruins?

(There’s of course the solution, admittedly snobbish, of writing the title and author’s name horizontally

Le comte de Monte Cristo
Le comte de Monte Cristo

as the Pléiade does, for instance).

Jacques Ménard, author of Nicolas Bourbaki

My punning title about James Maynard must have given me somewhere the undeserved reputation of a Borges specialist, since I’ve just received a curious reworking of the story of Pierre Ménard.

The email address from which it came ( jlb@limbo.ow ) is probably not genuine, so I wonder who the author could be (the final note “Translated, from the Spanish, by H.A.H” is of course suggestive, but one would then like to see the original Spanish…)

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.

Proust, my family and Australia

When I was reading Proust, I noted with some amusement the character named simply “Ski” in the first volume of his appearance, a sculptor and amateur musician who is later revealed to be properly called “Viradobetski”, an actual name which was too complicated for the dear Madame Verdurin to try to remember. I just learnt from my better educated brother that

Proust s’est inspiré d’Henri Kowalski né en 1841, fils d’un officier polonais émigré en Bretagne. Il était à la fois compositeur de musique et concertiste.


Proust used as model Henri Kowalski, born in 1841, son of a Polish officer who emigrated to Brittany. He was a composer as well as a concert player.

to quote an authoritative list of Proust characters.

That Henri Kowalski is, it turns out, the son of Nepomus Adam Louis Kowalski, whose brother was Joachim Gabriel Kowalski, one of whose sons was Eugène Joseph Ange Kowalski, one of whose sons was Louis André Marie Joseph Kowalski, the fourth son of whom was my father. This puts me at genealogical distance (at most) six to a character from Proust. (Of course, rumors that Viradobetski was inspired by someone else can be safely discarded).

Wikipedia has a small page on Henri Kowalski, who was quite active and successful as a musician, and a rather impressive traveller. He spent thirteen years in Australia, leaving enough traces to be the subject of public lectures at the university of Melbourne. There are a few of his pieces on Youtube, for instance here. He also wrote a travel book which I now intend to read…

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