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Gérard Oberlé

A TRIBUTE to J. Ch. BRUNET by Gérard Oberlé

A TRIBUTE to J. Ch. BRUNET by Gérard Oberlé


An address by GERARD OBERLE on the occasion of affixing a plaque in memory of Jacques Charles Brunet at the office of SLAM in Paris, September 13, 1988 (published in the ILAB Newsletter n°41/42 of May 1989)

As the twentieth century draws to a close, with frontiers about to disappear and the Europe of 1993 in the offing, it may be interesting to observe that for a very long time, indeed for centuries, there has existed a category of persons who took no note of frontiers. These 'avant-garde' Europeans, or rather world citizens, are the people who deal in books - bibliophiles, bibliopoles, and bibliographers.

If it is true, and regrettable, that the first two, the merchants and the collectors, have always had to struggle with the red tape of administration and Customs, the last, in the depths of their secluded studies, revised, collated, and card-indexed volumes printed at Venice, Madrid, Philadelphia, Ulm, or Oxford.

These amiable scholars, zealous servants of the Universal Republic of Letters, scorned all these entirely artificial barriers.

Among these honourable researchers, he whom we honour to-day has deserved more than any other the title of servant of Europe; nor is his competence limited to Europe. His reputation has crossed the oceans from the first appearance of his Manual.

Booksellers have not waited for the Paris Congress to pay homage to Brunet. Twenty-eight years ago, in August 1960, the International League Congress was held at Scheveningen and set up an “Arc de Triomphe” to this great man. An exhibition of documents on the bibliographer's life and works had been arranged to celebrate at once the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first edition, and the centenary of the last edition, of the Manuel du Libraire et de I'Amateur de Livres. Our sadly missed Italian colleague the great bookseller Cesare Olschki had been put in charge of the celebration. Two years later, in 1962, Cesare Olschki - it was his last task - published at Pisa a volume devoted to Brunet, containing an anthology of contemporary tributes to our bibliographer, with texts by Nodier, Janin, Dibdin, Paul Lacroix, Leroux de Lincy, Silvestre de Sacy.

Olschki was much surprised to find that the personality of the author of the Manual no longer seemed, in 1962, to arouse the curiosity of countless people all over the world who continued to use the Manual daily.

When the office of the French association asked me to pay this tribute to-day - which by the way surprised me, as there are plenty of colleagues here much more worthy of this honour than I am - I had the rather mean idea of taking a kind of sounding and asking ten booksellers (not the least eminent!) what Brunet's profession was. You may be surprised to learn that I received only two correct answers; the others thought he was a librarian, a printer, a teacher, or a retired barrister. Since the 1960 Congress, and the regrets of Cesare Olschki, nothing has changed and many booksellers are still unaware that Brunet was one of us; he was a bookseller and the son of a bookseller. Jacques Charles Brunet was born in Paris in 1780. His father, Thomas Brunet, son of Norman peasants, had left his province for the capital where he pursued many different callings before setting up as a bookseller at No. 10 rue Gît-le-Coeur. He took great care over his son's education, but he was not a rich man and in 1792, aged barely twelve, Jacques Charles was forced, in the circumstances of the Revolution, to interrupt his studies and return to his father. From the first years of the new century he acted as an unpaid assistant. His father soon saw that his son had little commercial bent and was more interested in books and their history than in the skill of selling them. But Thomas Brunet was not only a good father, he was an intelligent one. He never opposed the studious avocation of the young bibliographer. Laroux de Lincy has found a short autobiographical text of Brunet with interesting notes on Bruncr senior and the old bookseller's satisfaction at his son's success as a bibliographer. The young man did not wish to be a charge upon his family, and very quickly began to profit by his efforts. In 1802, when only twenty-two, he had already prepared several catalogues and published a supplement to Cailleau's Biographical Dictionary of Books. This first anonymous publication is the embryonic form of Brunet's great work. Encouraged by the success of the work, he launched himself in earnest into the career of bibliography and hardly eight years later the first edition of the Manual appeared. The firm of Brunet itself undertook the publication, a commercial operation which did carry risks for a small bookseller with modest resources. In Dibdin's Tour in France and Germany there are some very sympathetic pages on Brunet father and son. The extravagant English bibliomaniac, not yet then a bibliophobe, describes the rue Gît-le-Coeur as a murky alley-way, and the bookseller's staircase as some sinister monastical corridor: “You reach a door with the notice 'Ring and turn the handle', and Brunet senior receives you, a small skull-cap on his head. 'Is your son here?' 'Yes, sir, open the door at the back and you will find him.' Young Brunet was indeed there, imprisoned between piles of books in an incredible confusion of papers and documents, a pen always in his hand. He was a very incarnation of the God of Work. 'So there you are, M. Brunet - very busy!' 'Yes, sir - I get quite as much pleasure as pain out of it!”

Brunet was perhaps less 'picturesque' than his English colleague Dibdin, but he was much more serious and more reliable. From the publication of his first edition he devoted the rest of his life to completing, perfecting and enriching, without ceasing, in line with the development of the new 19th century bibliophily which he did so much to define, this unique and irreplaceable manual. The seven editions of 1802, 1810, 1814, 1820, 1834, 1844 and 1860 have punctuated the history of bookselling and bibliography with dates which are veritable landmarks. In the Histoire de l'Edition Française, our friend Jean Viardot says: “Continually augmented, improved, and enlarged to embrace new areas of collecting, and growing from the few hundred entries of the 1802 supplement to nearly 40,000, 'Brunet' eliminates, by absorption, all other bibliographies. That was indeed his declared ambition... It was and remains the number one French bibliographical tool in the matter of ancient, rare and precious books, whether objects of curiosity or of use. Its subject is a general one - every printed book, in every country and language and of every class, which fulfils the following conditions: to be at once rare and precious, that is to say difficult to find and worth the search.”

We must remember that young Brunet began his career at a time particularly fortunate for booklovers. And since we are on the eve of celebrating the bi-centenary of 1789, let us recall with Jules Janin that it was the Revolution which opened up the precious and well-guarded - too well-guarded - repositories, the libraries of the Ancient Regime. Our bookish calling would hardly be what it is if the Revolution- perhaps brutally and for some unjustly - had not brought liberty not only to men but also to books. Convents were opened, as were princely libraries, and books came down into the streets for the great delight of booklovers and the great profit of booksellers of the 19th century.

I shall not prolong my chatter by making a survey of bibliophily at the time of Nodier and Brunet, strict contemporaries and both fifty in 1830. I would simply like to evoke the good moments which I owe - which we all owe - to Brunet, for if there is a work which completely identifies itself with its writer, it must be his Manual. We may well say that Brunet has transformed the library index card to a work of art. Browsing through his Manual, we discover the man, the bookseller, the collector and the scholar. The Manual is far more than a simple bibliography setting out references and collations. It is also a work of character. With what humour and with what spirit does our Jacques Charles take certain imitators down a peg or two, such as the deplorable Graesse, whenever the entry gives him the chance. We see a collector at work - and a very great, refined, cultivated, and artistic one. He is also a bookseller, a great professional, a man who has attended sales for fifty years and can spice his commentaries with pointed anecdotes of great interest for the history of our trade.

When I was drawing up my catalogue of the neo-Latin poets I was delighted to read his notes on the famous Courtois sale organised by the bookseller Merlin and of the very raffish practices of our colleagues of the time, who abused the generosity of M. Gomes de la Cortina and made him pay three or four times the proper price for his books.

None of us should forget our debt to this man who until he was eighty-five, weak, paralysed and almost blind, attacked the proof-correcting of his 1865 edition as vigorously as that of 1802. He died in 1867. If you have a moment to spare between the Alcazar and the Eiffel Tower, I would suggest that you go and pause for a moment by his tomb. He is buried with his father in the Montparnasse Cemetery (Circular path 4th division) by a perpetual concession of 1837. Those interested in the cemeteries of Paris might care to know that this is one of the oldest tombs in this necropolis.

When our President telephoned me the other day she was curious to know something of Brunet's private life. I can tell her that he never married, that children did not interest him in the slightest, and that he bestowed deep affection upon a large yellow dog which he took for walks on the quays every morning and evening. No, my dear colleagues, the love of books was the sole passion of his life - that passion which gave him strength to bear the infirmities of his old age and made him happy until his last breath. As the Latin motto of our Association claims, or suggests, it is the love of books which unites us all here, and to conclude my intrusion into the proceedings on this note, I would like to quote you a passage which our beloved patriarch Brunet must have peculiarly savoured. It is an extract from the Philobiblion of the 14th century English book lover Richard de Bury:

“Books are above all the goods of this earth, above king, wine, and women! They are the masters who teach us without rod or cane, without shouting and anger. If you go to them you will not find them asleep; if you question them they will not seek to hide their thoughts.” O libri soli liberales et libri, he said, as he hymned his books in the same lyric register as King Solomon celebrating his beloved: “Deep mine of wisdom, well of pure water, head of corn bursting with sweet grain, golden urn where rest manna and honey, breast swollen with the milk of life, fourfold river of Paradise where the human spirit pastures, fertile olive tree...” and so on. Has such quintessential language ever been used to sing the praise of bibliophily? Having shown us the inexpressible value of books, he comes to this conclusion, startling for the merchant: “Do not fear being deceived by the merchant. In the purchase of books one must not recoil from any sacrifice. For if it is wisdom which gives them value, how can it be possible that their price is excessive?”

I do not want to leave this street without bringing to memory a man I much loved, who helped me much, and whom all those here who knew him will never forget. Georges Heilbrun came to retire here, before he left us to rejoin, in that improbable Parnassus of bibliophiles, his neighbours Brunet father and son.

(Translation, Martin Hamlyn)


Published 28 Apr 2011