“a veritable feast of the tales behind some of the most iconic titles to have graced British publishing, and fascinating anecdotes about the authors who wrote them…. a gem of a book, tales about Tolkien, Potter, Orwell, Larkin, Hemingway and more, representing a treasure trove of trivia for book fans. Really, every library should have one!” (Publishing News)
Based on the radio series Rare Books, Rare People, from BBC Radio 4, Tolkien’s Gown tries to do several things at the same time. It profiles the publishing history of 20 major books (largely) from the twentieth century, and describes the ways in which they have later entered the rare book trade. My own involvement in the sales of these books – and often with their authors – is described. There is, to be sure, some serious content, but the idea is to tell stories about someone having fun, and wishing to share it with his readers.
In my Catalogue Number 10, issued in the spring of 1988, as item 243, I offered the following book:
“Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita, London, 1959. First English edition, a presentation copy from Nabokov to his cousin Peter de Peterson and his wife, dated November 6, 1959, and with the author’s characteristic little drawing of a butterfly beneath the inscription.”
The price was £3250, and it sold, though I do not remember to whom. A few weeks later, I received a letter from Graham Greene, who was himself a book collector, and to whom I regularly sent my catalogues.
Dear Mr. Gekoski,
If your copy of Lolita, which isn’t even the true first edition, is worth £3250, how much is the original Paris edition inscribed to me worth?
What a great book! The Olympia Press Lolita inscribed by Nabokov to Graham Greene! The book is an ultimate example of what rare book dealers call an “association copy” – one presented by the author to someone of importance. In this case, Greene was not only important in himself, but he had played a crucial role in the publication of Nabokov’s novel. The inscription to Greene added immensely to the book’s value – as an uninscribed copy, at the time, was worth about £200.
I wrote back immediately, in similarly minimalist style.
Dear Mr. Greene,
More. Would you care to sell it?
In the (very) short correspondence that ensued – none of the letters ever more than a couple of sentences – Greene indicated that he might consider a sale, as he also had the first English edition inscribed to him, and didn’t feel he needed both. I said that I would happily pay £4000 for the Paris edition, and he agreed that he would bring it on his next visit to England. I replied that the weather in London was bracing, and that only a fool would brave the heat in the south of France. He should come without delay, if only for the sake of his health.
In the event it wasn’t until November that the meeting took place, in his room at The Ritz. As he opened the door to his room, I was surprised by how tall he was, and by the expressiveness of his wet cornflower blue eyes. After we had drunk a quick vodka, he produced the Lolita: published in two small dark green volumes, redolent of the Paris of the 50s. The inscription was breathtaking: “For Graham Greene from Vladimir Nabokov, November 8, 1959,” which was followed by a drawing of a large green butterfly, under which Nabokov had written “green swallowtail dancing waisthigh.”
“It’s fabulous,” I said, “almost perfect.”
He raised his eyebrows, just a little. What was wrong with it?
“In a perfect world it would be inscribed in the year of publication [which was 1955], and it would be the first issue, instead of having the new price sticker on the rear cover.”
He nodded. He was known to be fond of bibliographic niceties.
“But it’s terrific – real museum quality.”
“I’ll talk,” he said.
“I’ll give you £4000.”
“You fail to understand me, Mr. Gekoski, in the light of what you say I will take less.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Greene, you fail to understand me. I won’t pay less.”
He considered this for a moment.
“Would you like another vodka?” he asked.
We spent most of next few hours talking about Conrad and Henry James. I think he began to take me seriously when I said that I thought that Henry James was funny, and couldn’t understand why no one else did. He agreed wholeheartedly. We drank another vodka, in total critical harmony.
“I’m not in that league,” Greene said, with the conviction of someone who had thought a lot, reached the truth, and did not regret it. “Conrad and James were Grade A novelists. I’m Grade B.” We had a final vodka in his honour: Grade B was pretty respectable, we reckoned.
He promised to keep in touch, which turned out to be more than a polite form of leave-taking. A few minutes later, I was decanted into Piccadilly by an obliging porter, clutching my Lolita, having made a new friend.
At nine the next morning the doorbell of my flat rang, and the pony-tailed, amiable figure of Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, peered in. Did I have anything in stock, he asked cautiously (I was in a bathrobe, ingesting aspirins), that his wife might buy him for a Christmas present?
However bad your hangover, you don’t send Bernie Taupin away, much less his chequebook-clutching wife. Well, I admitted rashly, I did just buy something rather nice….
It was more than nice, it was irresistible: Bernie was both a Greene collector and a Lolita-admirer. Once he had his hands on the book, it was clear he was never going to let go of it. I’d made a mistake, and I realised it immediately. Never sell a great book too quickly: you need time to do a little research, have a think, get the price to the right level.
“How much is it?” asked the willing Mrs. T, seeing the bibliophilic lovelight gleaming in her husband’s eye.
“Nine thousand pounds,” I said, hoping this might put her off.
She didn’t even blink, or ask for a discount. Five minutes later, I had a cheque, a headache, and an appalling sense of regret. I wasn’t sure if I had undersold the book – nine thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days – but I was certain I had under-owned it. You like to savour a wonderful book, have it near you for a while, until the magic begins to wear off, and commercial imperatives reassert themselves. Alas, poor Lolita, I hardly knew her.
Lolita was first published by Maurice Girodias in Paris in 1955. Girodias, who described himself as “a second-generation Anglo-French pornographer,” was the son of Manchester-born Jack Kahane, whose Obelisk Press had published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the 1930s. Girodias founded the Olympia Press in 1953 and was committed, like his father, to publishing good quality, sexually explicit literature in English. Some of his authors were writers of the highest quality – Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, J.P. Donleavy – while others (often writing under pseudonyms) were straightforward purveyors of what Girodias termed DBs (dirty books). These were usually issued under different imprints, one of which was puckishly entitled The Traveller’s Companion Series. But even his pornographic books (The Enormous Bed, Rape, How To Do It, With Open Mouth) were literate and well written. Many were ghosted by well-known writers like Christopher Logue and Alex Trocchi, who were always happy to make a few francs while having fun.
At this time Vladimir Nabokov, with a couple of respectfully reviewed books out in America, was a relatively obscure figure, quietly but brilliantly lecturing at Cornell University. He was anxiously seeking a publisher for his new book:
“the enormous, mysterious, heartbreaking novel that, after five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labours, I have more or less completed. It has no precedent in literature.”
But Lolita had been turned down by five successive American publishers. Though The Partisan Review had agreed to publish an excerpt, it stipulated that it must appear under the author’s own name – which Nabokov, worried that a naive American public would identify the first-person narrator with himself, declined to allow.
Prospective publishers thought Lolita, however much they admired it, a dangerous book. Its middle-aged hero, Humbert Humbert, is sexually besotted with a 12 year old. Lolita is certainly not the adolescent nymphet portrayed by Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film: she weighs five and a half stone, has measurements of 27-23-29: palpably still a child. The novel was doubly shocking: not only was it a sympathetic rendering of the inward world of a paedophile, but the object of his affections is a sexually aware, provocative little girl. It is not wholly surprising, in the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s that one prospective American publisher recommended that it “be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
It is continually surprising to me that Nabokov got away with it so comprehensively, but if you look at the opening paragraphs, you get some idea of how:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the plane to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
This faces the issue squarely enough, but the playfully sensuous elegance of the language is enough to make the most hardened paedophile detumesce. Whatever this is going to be, the opening announces, and whatever disapproval it may engender, this is not your usual DB.
Indeed, several readers of the resulting edition demanded their money back. This wasn’t up to the usual Olympian standard, they complained. You could hardly even understand it, as if it were written in a foreign language. Which, of course, it was. English was for Nabokov, as it had been for Conrad, not a second, but a third language. (Refined Europeans of the period usually had French as their second language). Nabokov’s first publications, dating from the early 1920s, were in Russian, and were followed by several books in French. It wasn’t until 1941 that he published his first book (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) in English. His English, again like that of Conrad, was suffused by a sense of discovery and delight in the linguistic possibilities of a new tongue. It was sensuous, arcane, both idiomatic and formal, roiling with breathtaking and unexpected constructions. It sounded fabulously new, freshly invented, and it is all too easy to imagine it spoken in a Russian accent.
Failing to find an American publisher with the nerve to take on the book, Nabokov was advised to send the manuscript to Girodias at The Olympia Press. It was an unlikely choice, based on a combination of ignorance and expediency, and was almost certain to end in tears.
Girodias was something of a rogue, a cosmopolitan bon viveur who made up each year’s prospective publishing list by inventing a bunch of steamy titles, issuing a prospectus for them, and then desperately trying to find someone to write them once the orders came flooding in. Nabokov, by way of the most extreme contrast, was a highly refined Russian aristocrat, committed only to the highest forms of literature.
But Girodias had a great eye, loved Lolita, and agreed at once to publish:
“I was struck with wonder, carried away by this unbelievable phenomenon…the story was a rather magical demonstration of something I had so often dreamed about but never found: the treatment of one of the major human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate. I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship.”
Knowing that Girodias was notorious as a publisher of sexually explicit work, Nabokov wrote to him with some concern:
“You and I know Lolita is a serious work with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such. A succes de scandale would distress me.”
But succes de scandale is just what he got, and it was the best thing that could have happened to him. If the naïve college professor thought that the publication of such a book might be met with universal admiration, Girodias certainly did not. He liked a fuss: it was good for sales. After a couple of quiet post-publication weeks, the book was banned in France, under pressure from the English Home Office. After a quickish legal battle, the ban was rescinded, but it had brought the novel directly into the public eye.
When Graham Greene chose Lolita as one of his three best books of the year, in the 1955 Christmas issue of The Sunday Times, it brought a hitherto obscure novel to the notice of the English reading public. But the book rocketed into notoriety when John Gordon, the editor of The Sunday Express, attacked it in response to Greene’s praise:
“Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography. Its central character is a pervert with a passion for debauching what he calls ‘nymphets’, girls aged from 11 to 14. The entire book is devoted to an exhaustive, uninhibited, and entirely disgusting description of his pursuits and successes.”
Greene responded by forming The John Gordon Society – members included Christopher Isherwood, Angus Wilson, and A.J. Ayer – which was dedicated to examining and condemning “all offensive books, plays, paintings, sculptures and ceramics.” An immediate campaign was begun to make sure nobody used dirty words in games of Scrabble.
Though pleased by the burgeoning sales, Nabokov was a little chagrined by the furore: “My poor Lolita is having a rough time. The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, Philistines might never have flinched.”
He had been sufficiently anxious about his position at Cornell to wish to publish the novel under a pseudonym, but Girodias had eventually talked him round. If the novel ever had to be defended in court, appeals to its literary merits would certainly be undermined if its author wouldn’t own up to it.
American publishers soon renewed their interest in the book, noting how many copies of the Olympia edition were being imported into America, unprosecuted by the vigilant moral guardians in U.S. Customs. Greene was actively hoping to get it published in England. Soon enough, Nabokov no longer needed Girodias, whose lax business practices he found increasingly infuriating. The contract they had agreed gave Girodias a generous one third of any future English language and translation rights, which were likely to add up to a lot of money. Nabokov tried to find a way to break the contract, but couldn’t.
After some negotiation, Girodias agreed to a smaller percentage, and Putnams published the book in America. It sold over 100,000 copies in the first three weeks, the hottest best seller since Gone With the Wind. There was some reaction against the novel – the town of Lolita, Texas changed its name to Jackson, and Groucho Marx declared he would wait six years to read it, until Lolita was eighteen – but most reviewers admired the novel for the masterpiece it certainly is: an engrossing mix of tragedy and comedy, opulently well written. The following year it was published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, on November 8, 1959.
So it turns out that the date on the inscribed Olympia Press Lolita that I bought from Graham Greene was publication day of the English edition – a fact that I discovered somewhat later. But when a copy of the Weidenfeld and Nicholson Lolita turned up at Sotheby’s two years ago, inscribed on the same date, I seemed to be the only person in the rooms who recognised its significance. I bought it relatively cheaply and sold it relatively well. As for the original copy that I purchased from Graham Greene, I bought it back in 1992 for £13,000, and soon sold it on to a collector in New York. He got a bargain. When the book reappeared at a Christie’s sale in 2002, it fetched the astounding price of $264,000. I was sitting in the rooms at the time, feeling astonished, and sick with seller’s remorse.
Still, I’ve done pretty well out of Lolita, though not as well as Nabokov or Girodias. On the proceeds, Nabokov was able to retire from his teaching position, to devote himself to writing and butterfly collecting. Girodias, suddenly rich from this unexpected windfall, opened two Parisian night-clubs, a restaurant, three bars, and a theatre. Five years later he went bankrupt.
Some Reviews and Responses
“This is essential reading for any booklover, but it is also a supreme example of a natural and skilled storyteller at work. It is wonderfully paced and full of rich and fascinating detail.” (Colm Toibin)
“Dealer Rick Gekoski’s account of some of the rare books that have passed through his hands is packed with tantalising trivia, laced with great humour and full of detailed descriptions that will have any bibliophile slavering.” (Independent on Sunday)
“Rick Gekoski lets us in on some of the remarkable volumes he has bought and sold, as well as the ones that got away. It’s an engaging read, and he marries a skill for story telling with some insightful literary criticism…” (The Telegraph)
“through it all shines his infectious love of books. Delightful reading for book collectors.” (Sunday Telegraph)
“Hugely entertaining account of the great books and their worth as literature – and as first editions – by the fabulously infectious American bibliophile. Think Bill Bryson, only on books.” (Tatler)
“Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown is an irresistible mix of droll humour, shrewd literary criticism and fascinating anecdote, by a dealer in the fetishistic world of modern first editions. The perfect bedside book for bibliophiles.” (David Lodge, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year 2004).
“A fascinating backstage look at his own rare-book trade, with some memorably bizarre encounters with literary giants, William Golding and Graham Greene among them.” (Selina Hastings, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year 2004)
“….page after page of delight …. a worthy enough counterpart to the essays of Charles Lamb.” (Sunday Times)
“Rick Gekoski, a modern-first dealer who has dragged many a huge beast of a book back from the jungle and brought it blinking in the spotlight like a 40ft ape…. Gekoski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us (Ted Hughes’ copy of Sylvia Plath’s Colossus; Sons and Lovers in transcendentally rare dustwrapper); and by skill, luck and chutzpah has managed to.” (The Guardian Bibliophile)
“No lover of fiction will want to miss out on the skeletons in these closets.” (The Big Issue, Pick of the Week)
“He is (also) a very good storyteller….a winning combination of glee and disbelief. The book is full of cherishable stories.” (Sunday Telegraph)
“Book aficionados will be titillated by Gekoski’s wealth of inside knowledge and tasty gossip morsels.” (Financial Times)
“an irresistible collection of stories and anecdotes” (Classic FM Book Review)
“Without exception, his anecdotes and analyses are riveting and entertaining. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a superb primer for rare-book dealing…. Gekoski’s little histories of the great modern firsts are replete with insight and hilarious reminiscence….One can see that Gekoski had no future as an English lecturer. He can write and talk.” (The Australian)
“…a beautifully produced volume. …a rich mix of reminiscence, literary history and hard price information….Gekoski’s judgments are always interesting…and his reminiscences of authors and collectors…are priceless. Few books bridge the chasms between biography, bibliography and the market place: this one does.” (Rare Book Review)
“With a raconteur’s flair, Gekoski traces the path between the composition of a literary work and the creation of a valuable object. Central to these highly polished, entertaining and often amusing stories is Gekoski himself. The book dealer finds himself written into a William Golding novel, is given Tolkien’s academic gown, acquires Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and Other Poems inscribed to Ted Hughes and ends up on the receiving end of hostile phone calls from J.D. Salinger’s lawyers. A pure pleasure
“Of particular interest is not so much Gekoski’s understanding of book values but his carefully telescoped literary insights…Rick Gekoski’s love of books is infectious. He makes you want to revisit the books worth reading, or at least, appreciate the dusty tomes on your bookshelf you had forgotten about.” (Seattle Times)
“For no obvious reason, business at the Readers Loft in DePere, Wis., was double the usual for Black Friday. “It seemed that a lot of people were out browsing and in groups,” manager Melissa Olm said. For customers looking for help, she added that her handselling favorite is Nabokov’s Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski (Carroll & Graf), which she called “one of those quirky book-lover titles. It’s nonfiction essays on well-known authors and their book collecting history.” (Publisher’s Weekly)
“Tolkien’s Gown is set to keep the chattering classes chattering for quite some time…Rick really is a great raconteur. Each chapter is told with distinguished style and sartorial elegance, and the content remains highbrow without being at all stuffy or exclusive…It’s an inspirational book, and more importantly a lot of fun to have around, much like its author.” (Zembla)
“wildly readable…. irresistible for anyone who digs real-life yarns stuffed with triumph, tragedy and a litany of mishaps…” (Toronto Star)
“There is something about Rick Gekoski that is larger than life. It may not be strictly English trade practice but certainly adds to the gaiety of the nation.” (The Book Collector)
“Erudite, gossipy and delightfully readable…If you are wondering what to buy someone bookish for a present, look no further than Tolkien’s Gown. It’s opinionated, it’s funny, it’s stuffed full of deliciously arcane trivia. It’s a cracker.” (The Mail on Sunday)
“A treasure trove. There’s nothing dusty about this fellow: he’s an enthusiast whose academic background ensures his grasp on literature (the book is full of pithy literary criticism, inserted almost as throwaway remarks) but whose instinct is always for the terrific human story behind the book…. A bibliophile’s delight.” (New Zealand Herald on Sunday)
“This is not just a book of war stories from the rare book trade. There are philosophical diversions, clever apercus and entertaining digressions…beautifully produced, entertaining, thought-provoking, provides great value remarkably cheaply.” (New Zealand Press)
“Oh the joy of a great book that should never end….A fantastic book for literature lovers and a solace for would-be authors.” (North and South)
“You couldn’t ask for a more entertaining guide than Gekoski, who sparkles with laughter and sheer relish.” (Wellington Dominion Post)
“He has arguably invented a new genre…When he steps aside from being funny to make a big critical point, he often gets it dead right….Tolkien’s Gown is full of fascinating things.” (PN Review)
“I wonder why we don’t have an annual dinner where awards are given? I would nominate Rick for Best Memoir, by a long shot. His chapters…all breathe fresh air into what have been very stagnant waters for way too long.” (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America Newsletter)
“This utterly charming volume of bibliophilic memoir rests on a particular dilemma. Gekoski is a rare-book dealer, as well as a lover of literature: every book he treasures, he might also have to sell. From Graham Greene’s copy of Lolita to a rare Ukrainian Animal Farm, Gekoski delightfully spices each essay on the book with the hard facts of how much cash changed hands, and a plethora of priceless asides – some gloriously gossipy, some ruefully wry. For all the fun, there is a serious subtext about what we value, and the bizarre nexus between price and worth, rarity and fame. The antithesis of fousty and dusty, with fatwas, lawsuits and an appearance in a Golding novel, this is a find indeed.” (The Scotsman)
“Gekoski writes with verve and displays considerable knowledge of literature and literary worth both financial and artistic.” (Year’s Work in English Studies, 2004)
“One of the Five Best Books on Bibliomania” (Wall Street Journal, 2010)
See also the blog entry by Observer columnist and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, John Naughton.