Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2015 Issue

Louise Labé, Head Corner Stone.

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The 1555 first edition of Louise Labé's poems. Photo by Stephane Briolant.

This is the kind of book that you’ll see once in a lifetime. Or, more likely, that you’ll never see in a lifetime. This is the fiery and disturbing testimony of a one of a kind woman, who lived in Lyon, France, in the 16th century, and whose sensuality—not to say eroticism—, gave birth to a masterpiece of French literature. Her name was Louise Labé, and her passionate poems keep on disturbing people almost five centuries after they were published chez Jean de Tovrnes, in 1555. An original copy will be sold in Paris this winter, bound in contemporary vellum; it is said to be “the nicest known copy,” by the expert for the sale, Benoit Forgeot.

 

Our book will, no doubt, attract a lot of curious during the exhibition for the sale, next December. “We’ll be careful,” says Benoit Forgeot, “but every book will be accessible to all.” This is one of the miracles about auction sales. “I’ll attend the exhibition, yes”, casually confesses Mr Wolfi, a serious collector, who buys nothing but books from the 18th century bound in contemporary full morocco. “I can’t afford the Louis Labé, but I’m not sure I’ll ever see a copy again.”

 

People will pack the exhibition room, but not for this book only, as we’re here talking about the sale of Pierre Bergé’s personal collection. “Trees lose their leaves in autumn,” explains the 85 years old businessman and collector, former companion of Yves Saint Laurent. And these are gorgeous leaves! A first edition of St Augustine’s Confessiones (circa 1470); a 1532 edition of Villon’s works, the first edition of Montaigne’s Essais, “printed in Bordeaux by Simon Millanges,” reads the catalogue, in 1580; the first edition of Lafontaine’s Fables (Barbin, 1668), in full contemporary morocco; and so on, and so on... not to mention the manuscripts, or the modern books. “There’ll be six sales,” explains Mr Forgeot. “The first one, which will be held on December 11, at Drouot’s, is quite impressive; but we have some nice surprises for the following ones, especially for the last one.”

 

The book of Louise Labé is just one jewel among a breath-taking treasure. Many of Pierre Bergé’s books are head corner stones of the history of French literature—but they are real stones, made at the time when the edifice was built. A lot of these books have a pedigree. The copy of Montaigne, for instance, made some noise when it was sold, a few years ago, for several hundreds of thousands euros; and the copy of Louise Labé “was listed in a catalogue of Pierre Berès’ bookshop (catalogue 85, (...) 1994, N°173),” reads the remarkable catalogue of the sale (yet to be published). “The bookseller had bought it during an anonymous sale in Lyon, in 1985.” Okay, let’s put it straight. If you don’t own one or two buildings in Manhattan, this book is unlikely to land on your bookshelf. The appraisal is 300,000 to 400,000 euros—before commission. “But it will sell for more than that,” sighs Mr Wolfi.

 

 

Lovely Ropie

 

Louise Labé’s book contains 27 pieces of work only; “one of the most precious books in the history of French literature,” reads the catalogue. Louise Labé was an outspoken woman, who can be called a feminist before the term was coined—she was actually among the women who coined it. Louise Charly said Labé (1526-1568) had received a good and manly education. She was a very good rider, could wield a sword, and Dandeline’s Dictionnaire Historique reads: “Dressed as a man, she valiantly fought during the siege of Perpignan, and made herself terrible under the name of Captain Loys.” She also probably partook in a tournament in Lyon—King Henri II allegedly noticed her on that occasion. She married a rope maker aged 16, thus earning the nickname of La belle cordièreLovely Ropie.

 

She was also a learned woman, who could speak French, Spanish and Italian. She received, says Du Verdier, “Lords, gentlemen and people of quality, at home”—elletenait salon, as we say in France. Music, literature, poetry, philosophy, all topics were discussed. And some more down to earth topics were also thoroughly explored in her bedroom. She was close to another poetess, Pernette du Guillet; both women are described by the contemporary historian Paradin as “exceling both in knowledge and poetry.” But another contemporary writer, Claude de Rubys, describes them as “two distinguished courtesans(...) with no literary existence.” Indeed, Louise Labé was probably a courtesan; or rather, a ‘free lover’, who sold—or gave away, according to merits—her favours. “This woman was both honouring and dishonouring literature,” claims Pierre Bayle in his Dictionary (Paris, 1820). “Dishonouring because, being a writer, she was also a courtesan; honouring because men of lettres were better received by her—and often for free—, than the ignorant, yet ready to pay her a fortune.”

 

Her poems weren’t meant to be published—so she said, as anybody else; but are today studied by the most learned French professors. “Never had the soul and the body been so slightly separated,” writes Thierry Maulnier in 1939. “A nuptial fusion of knowledge and sensuality.” Louise Labé used her body and soul as weapons to gain independence. “The time is come that the severe laws of men stop preventing women from studying sciences,” she writes, then urging her female peers to “look beyond the distaff and the bobbin laces.” A hell of a woman, indeed; who became even more fascinating a few years ago when a researcher called her a “paper creature”. Indeed, Mireille Huchon, in her book Louise Labé, a paper creature (Droz, 2006), considers her book as a compilation “elaborated in Jean de Tovrnes’s shop by a group of writers close to this printer.” But this controversy aroused just after Labé’s work was featured on the program of a prestigious national exam, l’agrégation—making it suspicious to some, while others denounced another attempt at belittling the input of women in literature. “Louise the warrior,” claims Mireille Huchon, “who set the biographers’ imagination afire (...) is nothing but an epic exaggeration, a clever invention.” But her thesis lacks evidence.

 

Labé’s book was reprinted in 1556, in a smaller format—in-16°—, and then... nothing, until 1762! This 1762 edition, the only one during the course of the 18th century, was duly printed in Lyon, and it has also become quite rare—the copies listed on international websites are sold around 1,000 euros. “Louise Labé (...) was rediscovered in the 19th century,” writes Laurent Angard.  “The poetess like Marceline Desbordes Valmore or Renée Vivien, made hers Louise Labé and her freedom of speech, to celebrate the emancipation of both customs and women.” She stands today among the most praised poets of the French Renaissance, though she was only published three times in almost 300 years!

 

A Carnal Copy

 

In a filmed promotional interview for the sale, Pierre Bergé confesses that he hardly opens his antiquarian books—out of respect, or fear to damage them? In the case of Louise Labé, it seems like neglecting a lascivious and fiery beauty waiting for you— doesn’t Umberto Eco, in the preface of the catalogue, compare bibliophilism to onanism? Poor Umberto! This is yet such a carnal copy, printed at the very time Louise Labé was laughing, writing, and loving. And we can almost feel her warm breathing on our neck, as she whispers: “I live, I die: I burn and I also drown / I’m utterly hot and all feel is cold. / Life is too soft and too hard for me to hold/ my joy and my heavy burden are mixed in one. / I laugh at the same time that I weep and frown; / the tarnish of grief has marred my pleasure’s gold; / my good flies away, but stays until it’s old; / I wither just as I find out that I’ve grown / This is how love guides me, so changeably / that when I think the pain has me controlled, / with my very next thought I find that I am free. / Then, just as I trust in joy so certainly / that the peak of a yearned-for hour makes me bold, / he shows me my familiar grief unfold.” And our copy is even more deeply rooted in its time, as it was actually annotated at one point by a contemporary reader, “Le plesir des lettres”.

 

This book testifies of the necessity for the soul to take onto flesh to manifest; in fact, it testifies of the necessity of books. And it’s quite representative of the collection of Pierre Bergé, made of classics in their original form. A rich man’s collection; but a rich collection, indeed.

 

 

- La Bibliothèque de Pierre Bergé, Premier vente, 11 Décembre 2015 (Pierre Bergé & Associés / Sotheby’s).

- Picture courtesy of Pierre Bergé & Associés / Benoit Forgeot.

 

(c) Thibault Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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