The need for substance
Recently, my excellent (indie) publisher, Diane Nelson, with great reluctance, had to wind up the company and so I decided to bite the bullet and republish all my books myself. With help from Diane and Sessha Batto, who designed the covers, I spent a few days formatting the manuscripts for republication on Kindle and as paperbacks through CreateSpace.
While I’d still rather be with a publisher who knows what she’s doing and was a great supporter of her authors, I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that, unlike in the old days, not having a publisher was no bar to getting the books out there on the shelves, virtual and real. Ebooks are liberating.
On the other hand, while I get a lot of pleasure both writing and reading them, my residual romanticism would still like there to be some aspect of them that had actual substance. I’m a sucker, for example, for signed copies. Whenever I visit
I always try to make sure I walk past and dawdle in front of a wonderful shop
in the rue Bonaparte which leads from the Luxembourg
gardens down to the Seine. It sells, among
other antiquey things, ‘autographes’ which means letters, signed editions and
other documents written by people such as Louis XIII, the Empress Josephine,
Flaubert, Zola, Montesquieu, Sartre and others. They’re only bits of paper, but
they carry so much more than the ink on them. They still have traces of the
reality of these long dead people.
It’s a feeling I experienced very intensely when I was researching my PhD. My subject was the theatre of Victor Hugo. All I was doing was analysing the texts, looking for themes, the author’s obsessions, any sub-textual clues they gave about him, his time and literary/theatrical stuff. So there was no need for me to look at his original manuscripts; I could do it all from the excellent editions in the library. But I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale in
and was given access to two of the plays. Paris
So there I was, in that wonderful whispering library silence, slowly turning pages that Hugo himself had touched and on which he’d written 2 of his many masterpieces. And, even though my intention had been to do some research, it didn’t happen. I was making little sense of the words or the crossings out and corrections, I was just suspended in some timeless moment, sharing space with him, looking at, touching and breathing in the atmosphere of this object which linked me directly with him, on which his fingers had rested as they made these marks with the pen – I was sharing not in any academic, hypothetical way, but in reality. The object was an extension of Victor Hugo.
On another visit to
(I never tire of the city), I went to the Hugo museum in the Place des Vosges and felt an equally intense link with him there.
He’s a bit out of favour at the moment so his astonishing output, life, and the
many stories and adventures he lived through aren’t as well-known. One was a
particularly tragic event. His favourite child was his daughter, Léopoldine. In
1843, at the age of 19, she married Charles Vacquerie. A few months later,
while holidaying in Villequier, on the Seine,
they were in a boat which capsized. Léopoldine was dragged down by her heavy
skirts. Her husband tried to save her but they both drowned. And, to make it
worse, Hugo was holidaying in the south of with his mistress and
learned the news from reading it in a newspaper. France
He was devastated, consumed with guilt but, time after time through the rest of his life, he wrote some magnificent poems about her. I knew all this and, with young daughters myself, had felt the frisson of how terrible it must have been.
And there, in the Musée Victor Hugo, is Léopoldine’s wedding dress.
When our ebook words leave us, they may carry our thoughts and ideas to others, but they leave behind our substance.