Saturday, March 17, 2012
Six Poems from the Greek by Lawrence Durrell
One of the things I have learnt in my short years as a bookdealer, is to look out for the small things: the ephemeral, early, before-they-were-famous pamphlets or articles or booklets that might otherwise get overlooked. This is a perfect example of that kind of material. It has been sitting so long in my 'for the blog' folder that I confess I have forgotten exactly where I got it but I know it cost me next to nothing as part of a job lot at an auction. But it's an exciting item, not least because it has a very rough and ready feel to the printing and, of course, for its rarity. I ended up cataloguing it as follows:
8vo, 18pp, stapled into printed card covers. The upper cover as well as the title page bear a half-tone reproduction of a photograph depicting the head of a Greek statue. The staples are rusted and the edges of the card covers are a little browned but overall the booklet remains in excellent condition. The text comprises Durrell's free translations of six poems, three each from the Greek poets, Anghelos Sekilianos (1884-1951) and George Seferis (1900-1971). According to Durrell's 'Note', he was keen to bring these poets to the wider audience of the English-speaking world and makes a call for "translators fully equipped to render these poets as they deserve to be rendered", a job for which Durrell "does not feel himself to be properly qualified". How much influence such an ephemeral publication can have had on the trajectory of the two poets careers is debatable but certainly both went on to be nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature and in Sefereis's case, to win one in 1963. There was an ongoing relationship between Seferis and Durrell. Durrell continued to promote Seferis's work through critical writing and personal friendship: Seferis, it appears, returned the compliment of translation. This delicate publication is now very rare. It is thought that less than 50 copies were printed and certainly, outside institutional collections, the book is very difficult to find: British and American auction results record only two sales in the last 40 years, both at Sotheby's and possibly of the same copy.
It took a little while but by maintaining faith in this as a valuable and interesting item I eventually sold it late last year to a North American University for several hundred pounds. A smiliar item in this category which also ended up on this blog some time ago was a signed Bernard Leach tract, overlooked and undervalued at an antiques fair. Very often bookdealers don't have time to consider every last booklet or pamphlet that comes their way and so they go on the shelves with a couple of pounds on them without thought to the possible rarity and importance because they seem such small things... Equally, in a mixed auction lot, even a dedicated book auction, these are the kinds of items that simply don't get catalogued as stand-out items. Of course, the dream would be that, one day, sitting among a small pile of Holy Cards and religious tracts and postcards on a table at a fair would be the small and very unassuming first-publication by Rolfe, Tarcissus, The Boy Martyr of Rome. I haven't seen a copy for sale for a very long time but it would certainly be multiple thousands.