COLLECTING RARE BOOKS: “CAHIER D’UN RETOUR” AND “BATOUALA”

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A post by Peter Jordens.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Curtis Small Jr., Senior Assistant Librarian and Coordinator of Public Services for Special Collections at the University of Delaware. Nate Pederson conducted the interview for Fine Books & Collections Magazine. Read the full interview at https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2018/07/bright-young-librarians-curtis-small-jr.phtml. The excerpts below relate to two canonical works in Francophone Caribbean literature.

NP: How did you get started in rare books?

CS: Before starting library school I got a Ph.D. in French literature from New York University. I wrote a dissertation examining the Haitian revolution for independence as represented in French and francophone Caribbean literature. […] Later, while working on my MLIS degree at Simmons GSLIS, I did an archival processing internship at the American Antiquarian Society, and a digital collections internship in Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College. As an MLIS student, I was not set on working in special collections, although I certainly enjoyed being exposed to rare and historic materials. When I went on the job market, it turned out that my general background in literature, along with my internships and teaching experience made me a good fit for the position I have at University of Delaware. I’m very happy things worked out this way!

NP: Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

CS: […] this year at the New York [Antiquarian book] fair I came across a presentation copy of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire (b. 1913 – d. 2008). This book length poem from 1939 is the founding work of the Negritude movement, in which poets from French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean forged a literary aesthetic that reflected their sufferings and aspirations in the face of colonialism. When I saw a copy of the Cahier in a Parisian dealer’s stall in New York, I thought how great it was to discover a first or early edition of a work I had read so many times. When he let me examine it, I realized this copy was inscribed by Césaire to André Breton, the leading poet of French surrealism. In 1941 Breton left France to escape the Vichy regime. While in Martinique on his way to New York, he came across the literary journal Tropiques, produced by the young Césaire and his circle. In a now well-known story, the two poets met and recognized each other as literary kindred spirits. The edition at the New York fair had Breton’s famous, laudatory essay on the Notebook, and a gorgeous poetic inscription from Césaire to Breton. Many readers in the Francophone Caribbean see Césaire as a literary father figure, and I came to see him that way myself while studying his work in graduate school, especially the Cahier. One of my dissertation chapters was devoted to Césaire, in fact. I had to leave the fair in order process what I had just seen.

NP: What do you personally collect?

CS: I’ve always bought books, but more from the perspective of a reader than a collector. Since becoming a librarian I have begun purchasing signed or unsigned first editions in the areas of African American literature and African or Caribbean literature in French. My first “collector’s” purchase came during a Rare Book School course several years ago during “bookseller’s night,” a Thursday evening ritual. I found a copy of the 1922 English translation of the novel Batouala (1921) by Martinican author René Maran. The novel is unknown to most Americans today, but, like Césaire’s Cahier, Batouala is a canonical work in Black francophone literature (and winner of France’s Prix Goncourt. Maran was the first Black writer to win the prize). Set in Africa, it sets out to portray the abuses that resulted from French colonialism. Batouala was widely read and admired by African American intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance period. The copy I found was sitting on a shelf in a Charlottesville bookstore, surrounded by completely dissimilar items. And it wasn’t expensive!

One thought on “COLLECTING RARE BOOKS: “CAHIER D’UN RETOUR” AND “BATOUALA”

  1. In France in 1966,I was lucky to be present in Paris one night at an African Restaurant named “Le Baobab.”. There The celebrated Martiniquan born Poet, Aimee Cesaire, (also one time, President of the French Senate) gathered with a number of notable literary figures including Guyanese Poet, Leon Damas, to honor Langston Hughes, the legendary African- American Author. Hughes’ work, with its positive focus on “Black Folk, The Blues and on the uniquely adaptive expressive traditions of African American CultureAfrican -American Culture, were deeply inspirational for Cesaire’s work; as well as for many Black authors of French Expression infusing their work then, in the historic literary philosophy of Negritude..
    At Le Baobab, on the night in question, I vividly remember, Cesaire, Damas, and Presence African Publisher ,Alioune Diop, saluting Hughes with eloquence. Not a native French speaker, I might not have “gotten everything” . But at the end of a lively atmosphere;of much informal bantering, good wine and great food, Langston was treated to a rare and highly personal parting tribute by a small group of traditional African Musicians called :Les Griots.
    Four singers accompanied by Balafon and their own small hand held drums circled the dining room, serenading the beaming honoree : Langston Hughes. I have a copy of some of the words..(.provided me later by Langston himself): Here’s an extract
    :”An Elephant is an Elephant and you are an Elephant,
    Langston, if you leave….Take me with you” , A lion is a Lion and You Are a Lion.”……Chorus.

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