Survival of the Dimmest
Darwin’s Letters, Lawrences Crewkerne, £4,540
Darwin’s bicentennial will doubtless bring a fair amount of material to auction over the coming year. First off the mark, on January 20, was a sale of some letters written by Darwin about his grandfather, the physician, poet, philosopher, botanist and naturalist, Erasmus Darwin. One of these letters, undated but contained in one of the 360 copies of H. Farnham Burke’s Pedigree of the Family of Darwin , published in 1888, refers to a pile of letters just received by Darwin and includes the line, “The more I read of [my grandfather] the higher he rises in my estimation.” More significant as a selling point, I suspect, was Darwin’s closing sentence: “Pray forgive this very untidy letter, but I am tired to death with writing letters; half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions.”
Also tipped into the book was an 1824 letter in the hand of Erasmus Darwin’s second wife, Elizabeth. It sold for £4,540 ($6,447).
FDR Autograph and Books
Christie’s New York, $20,000 & PBA San Francisco, $9000
In January 1943, when Franklin D. Roosevelt met Churchill in Casablanca to discuss the progress of the war, he stayed at a villa owned by a Madame Besson-Maufrangeas. There he came across a French language edition of Emil Ludwig’s Roosevelt biography, and in a letter of thanks to his absent hostess for the loan of her charming house, he added a whimsical extra.
“In my room I found this copy of a book I had not read! And I have thought in sending it back to you that I might add the real name of the subject of this book…” Then Roosevelt managed to mangle his hostess’s real name (!), writing on the cover of the biography, “For Mme R. Maufrangeas-Besson, from the subject of the book….” The book together with Roosevelt’s letter raised $20,00 in the February 12 Americana sale at Christie’s.
A rare first-issue copy of Roosevelt’s 1933 book Looking Forward also sold for $9,000. Some 150 copies in paper wrappers had just been dispatched to reviewers when the White House asked for a recall to make several important changes to the text. To the administration’s relief, most copies were still on a truck bound for the post office, and of those already delivered to reviewers, fewer than 10 copies weren’t returned as requested. Imagine what would happen today.
On January 21 PBA Galleries of San Francisco sold an uncorrected version of the advance review copy. Roosevelt later inscribed it to Franklin B. Adams, “This advance copy was changed to correct inaccuracies etc., and I am glad that the public did not see this original.” Also part of the lot were letters from the publishers relating to these first issue copies and other material concerning their disposal.
Zorba the Greek, Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, £6,035
One evening in 1964, when I was 18, I went to a local cinema to see the Michael Cacoyannis film of Zorba the Greek . It was, quite literally, a life-changing experience—but that is another story. I was entranced by the soundtrack (even though it did prompt years of embarrassing and usually drunken attempts at Zorba’s dance at weddings and parties) and, of course, by the brilliant performances of Anthony, Alan Bates and Lilla Kedrova. Kedrova’s portrayal of Madame Hortense quite rightly earned her one of the film’s three Oscars.
The story is filled with memorable quotes: Zorba, when asked if he is married, answers “Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” On the subject of his employer’s reluctance to comfort a Cretan widow, he cries out in exasperation: “God has a very big heart, but there is one sin he will not forgive: if a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go. I know because a very wise old Turk told me.”
There are many, many more great lines; the one about man needing a little madness to cut the rope and set himself free did it for me at the time, but in the context of Fine Books, perhaps the following exchange is more appropriate:
Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die?
Basil: I don't know.
Zorba: What's the use of all your damn books if they can't answer that?
Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can't answer questions like yours.
Zorba: I spit on this agony!
These are all screenplay quotes; I have to admit that my fondness for the film kept me from reading the book. A February 4 sale offered a signed copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel as first published in Athens in 1946. In the original, if slightly torn, jacket, now preserved in a morocco-backed folding box, it was estimated at just £250 but sold for £4,250 ($6,035).
No copy of the Greek first edition features in auction records for the last 35 years, though other editions have been sold. In 2005 an inscribed first French (1947) edition made £900 in a Sotheby’s sale, as part of the Cosmatos library; and that same year a copy of the 1953 first U.S. edition, once owned by the novelist Bernard Malamud, brought $360 at Christie’s New York. Until now, the highest sale price for any Kazantzakis book was in $3,220, at Christie’s New York in 1999, for a 1960, U.S. edition of his most controversial novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Why the big price? The book had belonged to Marilyn Monroe.