Considering all the hubbub over Sylvia Plath’s belongings sold at auction in 2018 and again these past few weeks, Gekoski’s chapter on selling her copy of The Great Gatsby in the spring of 1985—to Matthew J. Bruccoli no less—is particularly rousing. Here Gekoski spins a tale within a tale about how fellow collector Maurice Neville once tried to barter a brand new Jaguar for Bruccoli’s first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls inscribed by both Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Anyway, apparently Ted Hughes and his second wife believed the Gatsby to have been stolen, leaving Gekoski holding the bag as it were.
Gekoski seems prone to these types of misadventures, which is probably all the better for his writing career. He is an incredibly gifted storyteller who spins yarns with broad literary appeal, largely avoiding the soulless ‘bought this, sold that’ narrative that bookseller memoirs too often rake over. That said, if you want to know how he bought/sold nine pristine first editions of Ulysses, look no further.
He chronicles personal escapades with Graham Greene, Dr. James Watson, and John Fowles, the latter of whom he describes as overvalued (and antisemitic). “The French Lieutenant’s Woman stormed the gates of the Eng-Lit syllabus: how very exciting, how utterly post-modern! Can you believe it, there are three different endings! It made those slavering American academics quiver with delight as they set examination questions comparing Fowles to Tolstoy.” Oof, that comment hits close to home for those of us with paperback copies of said novel, brimming with undergraduate underlining, on their shelves.
Whether bidding at high-stakes auctions or rummaging through dank cellar cabinets, Gekoski never fails to amuse and to amaze. Guarded by Dragons is a bibliophilic treasure.