A Typophile’s Notes Books

A rare book is one that costs money

Such laconic and deadpan declarations make up this ‘whoisit’

One of the worst kept secrets among bibliomystery connoisseurs is what a cool but tough little masterpiece The Nijmegen Proof is — and yet, strangely, this slim, 150-page biblio-novel published in 1988 and set in the antiquarian book trade continues to be unsung, unnoticed, and even unread. Perhaps this is because it is never very apparent what is going on in the book — you may even have to read every other page a few times over in order to follow the story.

Who’s who

There is a further complication: almost every character is based on some real person, but given a fictional name. They are drawn from the world of rare book trading across the Atlantic — the U.K. and the U.S. — and feature an array of characters that usually make up the trade: low-end and high-end book dealers, special collection librarians, moneyed collectors, book runners, and auctioneers.

If you are well entrenched in the trade, you can apparently identify who’s who in the book. Barney Rosenthal, the famous manuscript dealer, owned a copy of this novel filled with his annotations pointing out who all these characters and events are based on. (Boy, would I love to get my hands on that annotated copy).

Its author is S. Barkworth, but that’s a pseudonym for Arthur Freeman, a highly respected scholar dealer who is already an ‘insider’s insider’. I can only imagine how much fun he must have had in conceiving and writing this bibliomystery meant to entertain his colleagues in the antiquarian trade. It is not only a whodunnit but also a ‘whoisit’.

One of the oddly mesmerising aspects of this novel is its matter-of-fact, unsentimental attitude to rare books and its hardened, satirical view of high-end dealers and librarians. The characters here go through their routine of wheeling and dealing in a jaded, weary way, as if rare books were just another commodity they have to trade in.

At first, as a reader you feel a bit put off at such nonchalance, but gradually it becomes more appealing, and entertaining and funny, adding authenticity to the rarefied atmosphere they live and work in. “Rare books,” as one high-end dealer defines it, are simply, “books which cost money.” The book is so dismissive of its own plot that even a much-touted auction in the narrative fizzles out!

When the book opens we realise that all these people in the rare book trade have suddenly been alerted to an innocuous sounding item in an auction catalogue, a hidden fragment or Proof that could actually turn out to be the first ever specimen of printing from movable type in the West dated 1441, thereby predating Gutenberg’s 1445 bible.

An antiquities dealer called Pooney (shades of Moses Shapira in the real world) who stumbles on this Proof is met with scorn by his colleagues in the trade who label it as a forgery. Humiliated, he kills himself. His landlord, to recover unpaid rent, seizes his things and auctions them off along with the Nijmegen (pronounced Nymegen) fragments, not knowing its uniqueness.

Absolutely wonderful

However, when the Proof comes up for bidding, and the auctioneer asks for a thousand pounds, he is greeted by stony silence, and is forced finally to scale it down to a disgraceful bid. Then, as it goes up for auction a second time, real-life rare books dealers and librarians disguised as fictitious characters chase the Proof.

If you think all this sounds like a breeze to read, you’d better think again. I had to go over the book at least three times before I even began making out some of what takes place in this book. And I happen to have some familiarity with of the antiquarian world, and still felt more than a little clueless.

I think I’ve been able to guess that the novel’s rather reluctant hero, a scholar dealer called Lieblich, is probably E.P. Goldschmidt, the renowned dealer, F.F. Teutsch the New York dealer has to be the legendary H.P. Kraus, and Fackerly’s, the bookshop, is probably Quaritch or Maggs. Though I could easily be wrong on all scores. I’m sure somebody else in the trade will be pointing to someone else.

The colophon for the book says limited to 650 copies but the print run must have been larger (it is abundantly, easily and cheaply available) and all copies are signed as S. Barkworth, a fictitious signature. (Or is it? — one can never tell with this book).

One of the jacket blurbs for the novel is by Arthur Freeman himself, who says, “Absolutely wonderful. I really admire it.” And why not? It is quite wonderful.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2020 11:12:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-rare-book-is-one-that-costs-money/article22907312.ece

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