28 July 2009

Le Carré - Call for the Dead (1961)

John Le Carré. CALL FOR THE DEAD. Gollancz, London, 1961.

Current Selling Prices
£4000+ /$6000+

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...in fact I dreamt of a fine/fine 'Rebecca' and a shelf full of Gollancz first editions all pristine in their yellow jackets. Orwell was there, Dorothy L Sayers, Gibson's 'Neuromancer', Larry Niven's 'Ringworld', Daphne's even more valuable book 'Jamaica Inn' ...a bunch of early Michael Innes, Visiak's 'Medusa', a 'Lucky Jim'', Charles Williams, Edmund Crispin, Kafka and the first two Le Carré's--with a few signatures and the odd loosely inserted autograph letter a 3 foot shelf of the top titles in fine condition would be knocking on a six figure sum in dollars and with luck even pounds sterling.

Near the top of the list is 'Call for the Dead' Le Carré's debut novel with Smiley as a sort of antiBond figure-- unstylish, plodding, cuckolded. This suspense novel was runner-up for the first prize in the British Crime Writers Association awards for 1961. Plot summary: "A murder passes for suicide . . . A bereaved wife is forced to hide her grief . . . A master spy challenges a favorite pupil to a lethal duel . . . ". Penguin blurb: "John Le Carre's taut, coiled tale of cold-war espionage set in foggy London and introducing a hypnotically fascinating hero, George Smiley, short, fat, and unobtrusive-by all outward appearances a far too ordinary man to be what he really is: a top intelligence officer on the trail of the most fiendishly clever spy ring ever to operate out of East Berlin." Le Carré is now regarded as 'one of the half-dozen best novelists now working in English' (Scott Turow.) Interestingly the special spy language used in the books has apparently been adapted by MI5 itself where it was not used already - lamplighters, dead drops, moles, one time pads, pavement artists etc.,

VALUE? There are a lot about. A decent inscribed copy sold last month at Bloomsbury for £3300 + commission and can now be found listed at £9000. It has made more several times in auction without a signature - £8000 at Sotheby's in 2000 and £5900 (In repaired d/j with minor soiling, unsigned) in 2002. While there are a lot for sale at the moment no one is breaking ranks and the lowest price (a modest example but with a TLS loosely inserted) is £4500. A seller in South Africa (something of an epicentre for silly prices) wants £20000 for a very fresh example from his own collection. He also wants to see extra postage ('Courier Service only for this item.') Beware of dealers selling their own collections.

Another seller at a vertiginous £15K+ for an unrestored but not fine copy suggests that the book would make a very good long term investment. Possibly true if you bought last month's auction copy, but at this price you might wait until well beyond the 2024 Olympics just to get your money back. In fact when a bookseller suggests a book is an investment it is an almost infallible sign that it is not. The book market is notoriously hard to predict and an author who is sexy now may go flat before long. Patrick O'Brian has not gone ahead for several years, the R.D. Wingfield market has become flaccid, John Fowles tanked in the 1980s, Durrell is treading water and even Robert Graves is not the man he was etc.,

OUTLOOK? Le Carre's first two books are always going to be hard to find and a perfect copy could nudge into five figures especially when some optimism returns to the market. The yellow Gollancz jackets are thinnish and prone to wear. Auction records suggest that the book is in a gentle, possibly temporary, decline. His second book 'A Murder of Quality' is a better read and scarcer but not as valuable and may prove a better bet. The consensus is that he has not produced a great book since the 'Constant Gardener'; most of his books beyond the first three are very common (even signed.) Worth noting is the fact that the jacket of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' remained exactly the same for about 10 printings-- this is sometimes turned to advantage by fiendish dealers who marry them with jacketless firsts or upgrade lesser copies. An almost undetectable ruse--as they say in Russia--'not caught, not a thief.'

20 July 2009

Poems in Pamphlet series, 1951 – 1952/3

Single copies or even complete or nearly complete sets of this comparatively unregarded series aren’t hard to find, and compared with the often less attractive Fortune Press volumes brought out by the more commercially minded Reg Caton are distinctly cheap, especially when one considers that a handful of the poets concerned achieved literary celebrity ( not always for their poetry ) later on in their careers. The brilliant debut collection by Charles Causley tends to be singled out by dealers on the Net, but the work of
several other debutants is worth looking out for, including 'Relations and Contraries' by Charles Tomlinson and 'The Outer Darkness' by Thomas Blackburn, as well as volumes by interesting writers, such as Alan Barnsley, Ursula Wood, Peter Russell, Jon Manchip White and Jocelyn Brooke.

Each slim volume had an identical size and design, was bound in card covers and priced at a modest shilling. Each appeared in consecutive months over a two year period and could be bought either from bookshops or directly from the publisher - the American Erica Marx from her home in Aldington on the edge of Romney Marsh.

Marx, whose centenary falls this year, seems to have been unusual among literary publishers in that she had liberal, almost altruistic motives. Little is known about her early life, but we do know that before she established the Hand and Flower Press in Kent in 1940 she operated Les Press de L’Hotel Sagonne in Paris for two years. Presumably, like Caton ( who may have been her inspiration ) she scoured the literary press and especially the many ‘little magazines ‘of the forties ( some of the names of which appear in the separate pamphlets ) looking for those who she felt deserved ( as she explained )‘ publication in book form ‘.

It would seem that by the mid forties she had already begun to publish the work of poets she admired, such as Thomas Fassam, and the 1950 debut of Michael Hamburger predated his appearance as a poet in pamphlet. Of the twenty six poets she published in 1951 and 1952/3 half a dozen can be classed as outright duds, including Marx herself, writing as Robert Manfred; some of the others already had reputations, such as Peter Russell, the expert on Pound, who was already the admired editor of the little magazine Nine, Rob Lyle, who conducted the Catholic magazine Catacomb, F. Pratt Green, who was an admired and prolific writer of hymns, and the novelist Jocelyn Brooke. Causley, Tomlinson, Blackburn and Hamburger consolidated their reputations as poets. Quite a few of the remaining poets became better known for other things.

Robert Waller was to write the intriguing 'Shadow of Authority' (1956), a novel that satirised BBC radio producers, including Geoffrey Grigson and Roy Campbell. Charles Higham, at twenty the baby of the group, became a controversial Hollywood gossip-style biographer, and is still alive. Arthur Constance, the oldest at 60, was a bibliomaniac who by 1951 had already collected a library of 16,000 volumes, including arguably the largest collection of clippings on Fortean phenomena ever assembled —an archive which was scandalously destroyed after his death. Ursula Wood became the mistress of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in a strange ménage a trois; Alan Barnsley, A.J. Bull, Thomas Fassam, Frederic Vanson and Hal Summers ( a Whitehall mandarin in his spare time ) continued to publish verse, while Jon Manchip White went on to an amazingly prolific career as a novelist and screenwriter, even contributing an episode of the Avengers*** in the nineteen sixties.

With Poems in Pamphlet it’s best to buy a complete set of all 25 volumes, which one dealer is offering for a modest $200, admittedly a big mark up on the original 14s 6d for the 1951 set ( including postage ), but a bargain considering the big names included in these sets. Separate copies can work out expensive, especially if signed. For some extraordinary reason Bookbarn International want $69.57 for R.H.Ward’s signed Twenty-Three Poems , which makes Hamburger’s debut volume from Martin Booth’s library, for which The Poetry Bookshop asks a mere $40.23, seem a bargain. Similarly, if you pine for a copy of A Time to Speak complete with tipped in dedicatory note by ex BBC employee Gwyneth Anderson ( one of the ‘ duds ‘) it’s yours for a mere £70!!
Better value, I suppose, is The Elements of Death by gay icon Jocelyn Brooke, for which Peter Ellis demands $142.47. And although I paid just £1.20 for my Causley and less for my other titles, most volumes in the series can be had for between £5 and £8. [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin for throwing light on this slim series. Good to see something affordable and something which if bought carefully (avoiding shacks, barns and the carriage trade) might hold its own in value. Poetry is an investment, sometimes a surprisingly good one...Talking of the great Jocelyn Brooke I have always kept an eye open for his 'Six Poems' which he published privately in 1928. Recently republished (also in 50 copies) by Callum James.
The original has to be into four figures but the 2009 edition is a fine substitute. Mentioned in D'Arch Smith's 'Love in Earnest' it is one of the last flowerings of the Uranian movement:
'Here we may ride, you
and I; the sun is in your hair, and you
have pinned the shivering
early primrose to your coat...
the pale, nude flowers
that I
picked for you.'

*** The episode of 'The Avengers' written by Jon Manchip White was called 'Propellant 23' and aired on 6 October 1962. He also wrote a lot of other 'tellys' including Sergeant Cork (first episode) Witch Hunt, Naked Evil, Mystery Submarine and the movie 'The Camp on Blood Island' (1958) (story and screenplay). Below is an image from his Avengers episode--the plot concerns a lost bottle of rocket fuel and it features Honor Blackman, with Geoffrey Palmer as a nasty piece of work. Manchip White was born in 1924 and currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee where he still writes novels.

17 July 2009

Praise for the Book-Seller

I recently found some kind and encouraging words for the book shop owner in Grant Uden's 'Stange Reading' (Newnes, circa 1936.) It is a short series of sketchy pieces about literary curiosities--forgers, cryptography, 'lexicomania', 'Books which have altered history' etc., In the chapter 'Some types of bookmen' he writes:
For the Bibliopole, or book-seller, there can be little but praise. From the stateliest shop of New Bond Street, Albemarle Street or Charing Cross Road, down to the humblest den in a back street or the tumbled stalls of market places, the vendor of books is a magician.

His rows of friendly bindings are pleasant inns in an arid desert of plate-glass windows, thirty shilling tailors, hat-shops, milliners and multiple stores. His catalogues arrive on the breakfast table as unfailing antidotes to "the petty round of irritating concerns and duties." He may be a bad father, a fratricide or even a member of Parliament, but put him among his books and he is metamorphosed into a benevolent Cheiron with the wisdom of the ages to bestow, the friendly guardian of a treasure house, a veritable panaceist, a successful alchemist, a genuine dispenser of the elixir of life...

Written in the ChesterBellocian high flown manner of the period--a portentous, rhetorical style not unburdened with cliche and platitude but nevertheless refreshing--as a 'benevolent Cheiron' I have nothing but admiration for this Grant Uden. And it is not at all over the top-- surely most booksellers keep a regular supply of 'the elixir of life' under the counter. The slighting reference to MPs shows they were held in low regard even then. There are no bookshops left in Albemarle Street since Thorps left at least 30 years ago, New Bond Street has Sotheby's (sometimes known by rakish dealers as Dotheboys) but Charing Cross Road still has bookshops despite the best efforts of unthinking and unlettered landlords.

09 July 2009

Max Beerbohm, Carmen Becceriense 1890

Max Beerbohm. CARMEN BECCERIENSE. Privately printed (Godalming, 1890).

A great rarity from the 'incomparable Max' as Shaw called him. His first publication which appeared 119 years ago almost to the day. A teacher at his public school Charterhouse, a Mr A.H. Tod, charmed by its prodigious wit, had 25 copies printed at Godalming. It is thought that it was done by the printers of the school magazine 'The Carthusian'. It is so little known that its existence was doubted by an earlier Beerbohm bibliographer. They had thought that John Lane's reference to it (as "Beccerius') in Max's 1895 'Works' was 'light-hearted'. It reads:


Beccerius | a Latin fragment | with explanatory notes by M.B. [N.D.
About twelve couplets printed on rough yellow paper, pp. 1 to 4, cr.
8vo, notes in double columns at foot of page. No publisher's or
printer's name.

The only copy known (at Charterhouse Library) is indeed on yellow paper. The slim pamphlet is an elaborate mockery in Latin elegiacs of 19th Century textual scholarship. Auden said that it was a work of which 'an adult humourist could be proud'. It could be said to prefigure Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' in its style--the fake poem and the over elaborate commentary with undercurrents of academic rivalry and obsessive pedantry. He comments on a line about the applause received by a poet:
'We have it on the authority of an earlier writer that Cornelius Grano was applauded for no less than ten minutes. Whether Lucretius was justified ...in calling the applause "nimius" is not a question of vital import. The true poet is not shackled by petty details but my old friend Professor Mayor is...the question is, however, trivial - indeed its very triviality is the best excuse I can offer for the space I have devoted to its discussion.'

Max also prefigures Joe Orton in his altering of plates in books (something for which Joe, unbelievably, went to jail - because they were library books.) Max tended to alter his own copies. Below is an etching of Kipling from Richard Le Gallienne's 1900 work on him where he has changed the title to 'Rudyard Kipling's soul'. I don't know what the original looked like (although it is a book that can be bought online for £10.) J.G. Riewald, a Beerbohm scholar, says 'the portrait has been worked on...and finally transmogrified into a cruel, bitterly satiric caricature full of loathing-"cleft chin, idiot sneer, and eyes jerking sideways as if in panic...' Max obviously had it in for Kipling as he altered the frontispiece of 'Barrack Room Ballads' into a portrait of the author, blood dripping from his reddened fingernails.

One is more likely to come across one of Max's altered books than a copy of 'Becceriense'. He is said to have 'improved' quite a few books including works of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Pater, Conrad, Housman, Tolstoy, Yeats, Belloc, Henry James, Tennyson and several more Kipling books. As for 'Becceriense', no copy has shown up as far as I am aware - either in catalogues or in auction... it is almost priceless and Beerbohm surely has one or two collectors with very deep pockets.

05 July 2009

Beyond a joke...a price too far

Barry Baldwin. THE PHILOGELOS OR LAUGHTER LOVER. Gieben, Amsterdam 1982.

Current Selling Prices
$100-$800 /£65-£550

This continues the mild rant about pricing in the last post which proved oddly popular. Recently I bought a book on the web about the Philolegos - a collection of very old jokes translated from the Latin and Greek. They date from around 300 B.C. It is basically a thesis and translation with addenda published by Gieben in Amsterdam in 1983. One of the ancient contributors, Philistion, a mime artist and comedian working the stadiums in the time of Augustus is supposed to have died laughing. I found the only copy online whose price was not a joke and paid a slightly ambitious £30 for it. Having read most of it I put on a pile to sell but looked it up again and now found only 3 copies, one at a £100, one on Amazon Canada (haven of awesome pricing) at £190 and one with a German dealer at a mammoth, breathtaking £590. Thus I might sell mine at £60, representing a decent return on my money after 6 weeks. I suppose I shouldn't knock the overpricer as it means that I can come in way under them and appear strangely reasonable (even though I have a nasty feeling it is actually worth about £20.)

These extremely old jokes (some say the oldest in the world) are not exactly ribticklers, taste in humour having changed over time. Take this one (which has been used to date the collection)-
"Whilst attending the games held in honour of the millennium of the city of Rome, an egghead came across a defeated athlete in tears. 'Cheer up' he consoled him, 'I bet you'll win at the next millennial games.' "
An egghead, by the way, is the butt of many jokes and appears to have been a current type- the 'scholasticus' -a sort of vacuous pedant. Here is another egghead joke on the subject of book buying:
" A witty young egghead sold his books when short of money. He then wrote to his father, 'Congratulate me, father, I am already making money from my studies!' "
R.o.t.f.l. (as they used to say.) There are a whole series of jokes about people from the Greek city of Abdera whose citizens were apparently distinguished by their stupidity. Here is one of the better Abderite jokes:
"Seeing a eunuch chatting with a woman, an Abderite asked him if she was his wife. The eunuch replied that people like him could not have wives. 'Ah then she must be your daughter.' "

There are freakish circumstances in which vastly overpriced books can sell. A friend deep in the country had a call from a comic writer in London who needed a book for a sketch. It was Baron von Gagern's deathless work on wanking- 'The Problem of Onanism' (Mercier Press Cork 1955). Because the book amused him he quoted the guy £300 and 2 hours later a courier appeared with a cheque and shot off back to the metropolitan studios with the slim volume. It can be obtained fairly easily for £10. I sold a cookbook to a guy who needed it for a present for his host in Thailand--the man sent a taxi from Birmingham to London to collect it, pushing the £50 price to at least £300. Other books can get unrealistic prices because they are bought as leaving presents, inducements, rewards, for purposes of romance or seduction or because the book is needed urgently or the possession of it will make the buyer lots of money or even clinch a deal.

By the way academic books published in English in Europe are often rare and can command very good prices--look out for Brill, Van Stockum, Kluwer, J.G. Gieben, Martinus Nijhoff etc., Four Courts Press in Ireland are also unexpectedly expensive on occasions.

One of the explanations for absurd prices is that at the time the book was put up it was the only copy available thus giving full rein to the dreams, fantasies and fears of the pricer. An unsaleable collection of vanity published verse printed in Stoke Poges ('Songs at Sunset') in 1961 can thus get priced at £600 because the pricer somehow stopped at that figure in their head ('if they will pay £500, surely they will pay £600' etc.,) Other sellers then come in at £400 and £300--the blind leading the blind. Real value £3.50- a price at which it still might not sell. It's a mad world my masters...

01 July 2009

Checking book values on the web...

The first thing to remember is that most books are of low value or no value. Some books are worth less than nothing. A quick look on ABE (or in the case of newer books, Amazon) will ascertain whether the book is common or not. In the case of a book of negligible value the screen will fill with copies with prices starting at £5 or less, sometimes at £0.01. Prices less than this are not permitted. Do not (at first) put in too much information -author's surname and part of the title will do (e.g. Steinbeck /Wrath) with a few boxes ticked such as 'first edition' 'Dust Jacket' etc., Too much information entered can lead to the impression the book is rarer than it is --this is a ploy, by the way, sometimes used by canny sellers to demonstrate a book is more valuabe than it really is. Beware.

The mistake most people make when valuing books on the web is to take their price form the highest or the mid range. None of the books listed have sold and anybody who had to buy one would choose the cheapest in decent condition; only a mad person would choose to pay more than necessary. Take your price from the low end of books in comparable condition. Considerations of postage and proximity may then be taken into account and you might pay a little more to a reputable, proven dealer. If you were selling the book a dealer might give you between a third and a half of the low price, or if you were to sell the book on Ebay you might achieve half or possibly a tenth and in some cases nothing. Once in a blue moon you will get way more than this, but you will almost never achieve the highest price--nor will the seller even if he waits 150 years.

What about if the book is not on the net? You may have a prize or something so obscure that punters for it are non existent. You can leave the book as a want at ABE and be informed when one shows up but it may take years. In the case of an obviously rare and desirable book you can consult auction records in a library or consult a venerable dealer (preferably from ILAB, ABA, ABAA, PBFA or some recognised book association.) You are not obliged to sell to them and they may charge for an appraisal (usually waived if they buy the book.)

Who are these guys with absurdly high prices? Generally they have had unhappy childhoods, uncles who drank, boorish parents or have been educated at unpleasant and expensive schools. Until the internet came the truly greedy dealer could not make a living as no one would buy from them. Now it is the Wild West out there; although charging an absurd price seems like poor business as your cash flow will be a mere trickle. I am not talking about renowned dealers with fabulous stocks--their prices, although high, are seldom insane and they often have the best stuff. Any serious collector will occasionally have to buy from them and they will sometimes offer terms. It is worth keeping a shit-list of malodorous overchargers as their prices often distort the first few prices in the list--I won't name them but avoid the likes of Len's of Bournemouth, Wainwrights of Peaktown, Books of Venture, Rapturous Editions of America, Books of William Why and various bookbarns, sheds and shacks...not forgetting Attic Books of NH - in a vigorously contended field the world's most overpriced seller.

Good luck. Apart from ABE and Amazon I recommend megasearchers such as the excellent viaLibri which can also take you to world libraries for further research. Also Bookfinder and Addall are very useful. For sobering or unpredictable prices check if copies are currently being sold on Ebay. Lastly Google can sometimes uncover copies for sale on independent sites run by oddballs who have not joined the bookmalls...