At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 8

The Library and its Contents

After dinner our host conducted us to a vast gallery adjoining his study; it was the library. There were to be seen ranged on oaken shelves an innumerable army, or rather a grand assembly, of books in duodecimo, in octavo, in quarto, in folio, clad in calf, sheep, morocco leather, in parchment and in pigskin. The light fell through six windows on this silent assembly extended from one end of the hall to the other, all along the high walls. Large tables, alternated with globes and astronomical apparatus, occupied the middle of the gallery. M. d’Asterac told us to make choice of the place most convenient for our work.

My dear tutor, his head high, with look and breath inhaled all these books drivelling with joy.

“By Apollo!” he exclaimed, “what a splendid library! The Bishop of Séez’s, over rich in works of canonical law, is not to be compared to this. There is no pleasanter abode in my opinion, actually the Elysian Fields as described by Virgil. At first sight I can discover such rare books and precious collections that I have my doubts, sir, if any other private library prevails over this, which is inferior in France only to the Mazarin and the Royal. I dare say, seeing all these Greek and Latin MSS. closely pressed together in this single corner, one may, after the Bodleian, the Ambrosian, the Laurentinian and the Vatican also name, sir, the Asteracian. Without flattering myself I may say that I smell truffles and books at a long distance and I consider myself from now, to be the equal of Peiresc, of Grolier and of Canevarius, who are the princes of bibliophiles.”

“I consider myself to be over them,” said M. d’Asterac quietly, “as this library is a great deal more precious than all those you have named. The King’s Library is but an old bookshop in comparison with mine — that is, if you do not consider the number of books only and the quantity of blackened paper. Gabriel Naudé and your Abbé Bignon, both librarians of fame, are, compared to me, indolent shepherds of a vile herd of sheep-like books. I concede that the Benedictines are diligent, but they have no high spirit and their libraries reveal the mediocrity of the souls by whom they have been collected. My gallery, sir, is not on the pattern of others. The works I have got together form a whole which doubtless will procure me knowledge. My library is gnostic, oecumenic and spiritual. If all the lines traced on those numberless sheets of paper and parchment could enter in good order into your brain, you, sir, would know all, could do all, would be the master of Nature, the plasmator of things, you would hold the whole world between the two fingers of your hand as I now hold these grains of tobacco.”

With these words he offered his snuff-box to my tutor.

“You are very polite,” said M. Jérôme Coignard.

Letting his transported looks wander over the learned walls he continued:

“Between these third and fourth windows are shelves bearing an illustrious burden. There is the meeting place of Oriental MSS., who seem to converse together. I see ten or twelve venerable ones under shreds of purple and gold figured silks, their vestments. Like a Byzantine emperor, some of them wear jewelled clasps on their mantles, others are mailed in ivory plates.”

“They are the writings of Jewish, Arabian and Persian cabalists,” said M. d’Asterac. “You have just opened ‘The Powerful Hand.’ Close to it you’ll find ‘The Open Table,’ ‘The Faithful Shepherd,’ ‘The Fragments of the Temple’ and ‘The Light of Darkness.’ One place is empty, that of ‘Slow Waters,’ a precious treatise, which Mosaïde studies at present. Mosaïde, as I have already said to you, gentlemen, is in my house, occupied with the discovery of the deepest secrets contained in the scriptures of the Hebrews, and, over a century old as he is, the rabbi consents not to die, before penetrating into the sense of all cabalistic symbols. I owe him much gratitude, and beg of you gentlemen, when you see him, to show him the same regard as I do myself.

“But let us pass that over and come to what is your special concern. I thought of you, reverend sir, to transcribe and put into Latin some Greek MSS. of inestimable value. I confide in your knowledge and in your zeal, and have no doubt that your young disciple cannot but be of great help to you.”

And addressing me specially he said:

“Yes, my son, I lay great hopes on you. They are based for a large part on the education you have received. For, you have been brought up, so to say, in the flames, under the mantel of the chimney haunted by Salamanders. That is a very considerable circumstance.”

Without interrupting his speech, he took up an armful of MSS. and deposited them on the table.

“This,” he said, showing a roll of papyrus, “comes from Egypt. It is a book of Zosimus the Panopolitan, which was thought to be lost and which I found myself in a coffin of a priest of Serapis.

“And what you see here,” he added, showing us some straps of glossy and fibrous leaves on which Greek letters traced with a brush were hardly visible, “are unheard-of revelations, due, one to Gophar the Persian, the other to John, the arch-priest of Saint Evagia.

“I should be very glad if you would occupy yourselves with these works before any others. Afterwards we will study together the MSS. of Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemy, of Olympiodorus and Stephanus, which I discovered at Ravenna, in a vault where they have been locked up since the reign of that ignoramus Theodosius who has been surnamed the Great.”

As soon as M. d’Asterac was gone, my tutor sat down over the papyrus of Zosimus and, with the help of a magnifying glass commenced to decipher it. I asked him if he was not surprised by what he had just heard.

Without raising his head he replied:

“My dear boy, I have known too many kinds of persons and traversed fortunes too various to be surprised at anything. This gentleman seems to be demented, less because he really is so, but from his thoughts differing in excess from those of the vulgar. But if one listened to discourses commonly held in this world, there would be found still less sense than in those of that philosopher. Left to itself, the sublimest human reason builds its castles and temples in the air and, truly, M. d’Asterac is a pretty good gatherer of clouds. Truth is in God alone, never forget it, my boy. But this is really the book ‘Jmoreth’ written by Zosimus the Panopolitan for his sister Theosebia. What a glory and what a delight to read this unique MS. rediscovered by a kind of prodigy! I’ll give it my days and night watches. How I pity, my boy, the ignorant fellows whom idleness drives into debauchery! What a miserable life they lead! What is a woman in comparison with an Alexandrian papyrus? Compare, if you please, this noble library with the tavern of the Little Bacchus and the entertainment of this precious MS. with the caresses given to a wench under the bower; and tell me, my boy, where true contentment is to be found. For me, a companion of the Muses, and admitted to the silent orgies of meditation of which the rhetor of Madama speaks with so much eloquence, I thank God for having made me a respectable man.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54