Wednesday, July 11, 2018
The library, Trinity College, Cambridge
Just before we left Paris there appeared in one of the national daily papers a lengthy article concerning the state of the tourist industry in France. The tourist industry in France is, in a word, robust. Not merely is France the number one tourist destination in the world, this year’s cohort of visitors is likely to prove the largest in recorded history. No one staying in an apartment near the Eiffel Tower, as we were, would be tempted to suspect this was Fake News; but we didn’t grasp the full implications of it until we got to Charles de Gaulle airport about noon on Monday. Even though the authorities had accelerated the perfunctory process of “passport control” to the speed of the production line in the factory in Modern Times, it took the better part of an hour and a half to run us through the mill. And the torture of the egress from Paris was actually less wearing than that of the ingress to Newark. But to dwell on the only unfortunate twelve hours of an otherwise blissful three-week-long trip would be all wrong.
Our trip devolved in the three stages I outlined in an earlier post: an intensive educational tour in southern and eastern England, a short week of lotus-eating in the Var in the south of France, and a variegated week of cultural, social, and gastronomic immersion in the City of Light.
A professional medievalist can perhaps be assumed to indulge somewhat rarified tastes, but I can now confess that even I was a little dubious about the sustaining power of our proposed tour of great libraries, even one sponsored by so cerebral an outfit as Princeton Journeys. To be sure I myself find few things more engaging than old folios stoutly bound in calf. But how about the famous species homme moyen sensuel, of which there must be one or two representatives among the body of Princeton alumni? Well, I should have worried rather about whether I could match the erudition and the mental energy of my so-called “students”. What wonderful places we went, what wonderful things we saw! Between the expert and imaginative preparations of the travel professionals, and the cohesive bonhomie of our traveling bibliophiles, it turned out to be, as the saying goes, the trip of a lifetime.
I am an Oxford man, and over the years I have willingly if mindlessly participated in the kind of boring banter which the alumni of the two ancient universities sling back and forth. But I have to say that the collegiate libraries of Cambridge seem to me to surpass those of Oxford both in beauty and variety. Such comparisons are of course finally otiose. Better to be simply thankful for the nearly miraculous preservation of Duke Humphrey in the top of the old Bodleian in Oxford or the Wrenn masterpiece at Trinity College Cambridge.
The sitting room at Knebworth House, Herts.
The tour included visits to various ancillary literary shrines: the archives of Canterbury Cathedral, the Dickens Museum in London, and the extraordinary stately home once the possession of Bulwer-Lytton, author of twenty-nine novels, twelve illegitimate children, and the immortal opening line “It was a dark and stormy night…” We also took in a number of antiquarian book dealers in London, including Jarndyce (just across the street from the British Museum), whose extraordinary range of Dickens items was of particular interest to the several Dickens enthusiasts on the tour. Though an English professor and a great admirer of the nineteenth-century novelists, I must confess that my own favorite unaffordable book was of a political genre, and related to my work on anti-Communist literature. There was on offer at Peter Harrington’s on the Fulham Road in Chelsea a signed and inscribed first edition of Karl Marx’s Kapital, vol. the first, 1867. The asking price for this rare item: £1,325,000. One may view this bibliographical phenomenon either as a refutation of Marx’s labor theory of value or as a stunning confirmation of his analysis of the audacity of capitalist commodification.
This library trip did keep us on the run a bit—I gave a few lectures and tried to respond intelligently to the numerous questions that came up—and though I was sorry to see it end, I was more than ready for the down time that followed. We had a wonderful week with our very old and very dear friend Andrew Seth at his paradisal establishment in the south of France: soft, lazy days, lots of reading, lots of challenging conversation, and probably too much good eating. The final week was in Paris, where another very old friend was being fêted by her extensive family for her eightieth birthday. I am not moving all that fast these days, and we limited our activities to a single event or museum per day. There was a big Mary Cassatt show at the Jacquemart-André Museum. At the Petit Palais there was a fascinating exhibition concerning French impressionists who had for longer or shorter periods been exiled in England, mainly as a result of the Franco-Prussian War and the collapse of the Paris Commune. Who knew? Not me. So that’s the brief report. I am back now to sweltering Jersey heat and humidity, and the blog has come back with me.