My Father's Library

Can you know a man through his books?

Violaine Huisman

The author’s father’s library in Paris, where bookcases covered every inch of wall space. All photos: Laura Brunellière. Courtesy the artist.

On an autumn afternoon in Paris, I asked my father to tell me, once again, how he had started collecting books. A milky light glowed through the curtains of his top floor apartment, a few blocks from where he was born, in the seizième. He was nine years old, he recalled, when he began to fill his childhood bookshelves with “Classiques Larousse,” purple postcard-sized paperbacks. Their contents were hardly what mattered. What he treasured was the harmony of their ensemble—the color field painting formed by their spines. A mauve sheen appeared in his rheumy eyes. “Of course, they’ve been out of print for ages now. Gorgeous little books!”

At the age of ninety-one, my father remembered only the distant past. The present had dissolved into an amorphous stream of hours, broken by nurses’s visits and puréed meals. I wedged a footstool between his recliner and wheelchair, and leaned in so that he could hear me through my surgical mask. “Why don’t you take that thing off your face?” he asked. “You know, Papa—the coronavirus,” I faltered. “Yes, of course,” he pretended to remember. He brought my wrist to his lips to dispense tiny kisses along my arm. “Ma chérie adorée! How sweet of you to visit your doddering old father!” His fingernails were yellow and striated, like dandelions before they go to seed. As he dozed off midsentence, his hand still held mine.

My father was ten when the Second World War broke out in France. He told me many times about giving up his collection of Classiques Larousse—his beautiful amethyst paperbacks— when he, his parents, and his brothers abandoned their belongings and piled up in a car to flee the German troops marching on Paris. Over the next six years, his family lost everything: their home, their livelihood, many of their loved ones, and their French citizenship. As Jews, they went into exile in their own homeland, driven there by French anti-Semitic laws. They lived under an assumed name, at the mercy of benevolent strangers, to escape roundups to concentration camps. For my father, the loss of his precious book collection was metonymic of that trauma. Later in life, he erected a citadel of books in compensation.

My father’s erudition was impressive, yet his library had little to do with reading.

To call my father a bon vivant wouldn’t do him justice. He reveled in earthly pleasures with a zeal that bordered on pathology. He was married four times (the third time to my mother), had more lovers than I would prefer to know, and fathered eight children, of which I was the last. He liked nothing better than anything displayed in vast quantities: a cheese platter didn’t deserve its name if it wasn’t larger than the table it was served on; dresses were to be purchased in racks. At restaurants, he was known for ordering the entire menu on behalf of his dinner guests, so he could pick from everyone’s plate. He adored L’Amérique—where I had moved at the age of 19—for its unabashed embrace of consumerism, its gargantuan salad bars, the dizzying heights and prismatic offerings of its supermarket aisles. On our transatlantic calls, my father mourned our separation, at once feverishly affectionate and exasperatingly narcissistic: the combination of the two made me miss him terribly and sigh with relief after we hung up. Putting an ocean between us was my way of sidestepping Papa’s monolithic shadow, of ignoring his treatment of women, of admiring and loving him from a safe distance.

In July of 2020, I closed that distance. I moved my family of four across the Atlantic so that I could be close to my father once more. His mental and physical state had steadily declined in the last several months. He had become too confused to talk on the phone, he was dying, and when he passed, I couldn’t imagine not being by his side.

Books in the library were methodically organized by color.

NOTHING MY FATHER owned surpassed his spellbinding book collection, which he enshrined in its own three-bedroom apartment. His private library amounted to approximately seventy thousand volumes, accumulated over seven decades. The books covered every inch of wall space in the apartment. Large windows were framed with books; bathroom walls were covered in books; even the pantry had been converted into bookshelves. The apartment was his memory palace, a reconstruction of chapters of his life, a material representation of his past, one he could scan in order to compose a coherent self—the three volumes of The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault, his classmate; an entire row of treatises by Renaissance heretic and polymath Pico della Mirandola, purchased in bulk from the green book stalls along the Seine, across from the Académie Française, where he forever attempted to get elected.

The books were methodically organized in series of monochromes. Having multiple copies of the same book didn’t matter: duplicates could even be displayed in the same row as long as they matched. There was the off-white section of the Collection Blanche, the French publisher Gallimard’s iconic series of contemporary literature. There were the cyan rows of Librairie Félix Alcan, no longer in print. There were the vermillion volumes from Flammarion, the daffodil-colored Fayard editions. Well into his eighties, he spent sleepless nights perched on his library ladder, rearranging his books. “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his famous essay on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library,” “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” My father could survey the contents of his collection in his head, and reply, without hesitation, when asked if he owned a specific title. But he would never let anyone borrow it. “You’ll leave a hole!” he would scream when someone attempted to pull out a book. (If his collection were disrupted, his sense of himself might also come unbound.)

A row of books, published by Librairie Félix Alcan. These editions are no longer in print.

My father’s erudition was impressive, yet his library had little to do with reading. Collecting books was an ambition in and of itself; their assemblage a work of art one lived with, almost lived in. A philosophy professor by trade, my father had none of the attributes of a career academic. Half in jest, half in earnest, he called himself a philosopher-businessman, and indeed, his professional life was something of an oxymoron. He wasn’t exactly famous, but enough of a public figure in France for Le Monde to devote a full page to his obituary. In it, he is described as an iconoclast, an unclassifiable, flamboyant, Balzacian character. Precocious and incredibly gifted at memorizing quotes and synthesizing complex theories, he taught literature as a young man, and later philosophy, to high school students. My father devised educational tools to help students pass their bac with the help of a few good lines. “Start with a citation choc,” a sensational quote, my father invariably advised me when I queried him about school assignments. He opened private schools and designed a college-level course on the nascent trade of communication. His immediate success made his business model seem visionary. He opened branches across France, in Europe, in Abidjan, Tokyo, and New York. His first philosophy textbook came out in the late 1950s. The French academic establishment at the time regarded writing a textbook as abhorrent; his manuel de philo sold over five million copies. From there, he published maniacally: anthologies, primers, scholarly essays, compendia, dictionaries. As compulsively as he augmented his own bibliography, he acquired other people’s books by the cartload.

Organizing his recent purchases was one of his favorite pastimes, especially in the middle of the night. He dreaded going to bed and struggled to get to sleep. Around four in the morning Paris time, six hours ahead of New York, my father often called me in search of a loving voice. “Papa chéri! It’s horribly late where you are,” I said. My comment encouraged him to bemoan his insomnia. I listened distractedly, and found myself thinking that my father would not approve of the way I arranged my books in my Brooklyn apartment. I had amassed a haphazard collection of bright-colored American hardcovers and sepia-toned French classics, piled up on my nightstand in the order in which I read them and eventually shelved alphabetically. On French and English spines, the title and author’s name are printed in opposite directions such that some books were always the wrong side up. I was surely not as passionate a collector as my father, but I could relate to the chaos of memories. During those transatlantic phone calls, my father invariably reminisced about the war, his family’s losses, the existential fear he carried with him since. “To philosophize is to learn to die” (citation choc!) he would say, after Montaigne. “I must not be very good at philosophizing,” he would add. He finally convinced himself to go to sleep after a stream-of-conscientiousness soliloquy, summarizing his life story through a series of colorful anecdotes.

My father reveled in earthly pleasures with a zeal that bordered on pathology.

On my visits after I moved back to France, the TV news anchor offered relentless updates of rising Covid cases, saturated hospitals, expanded restrictions, a reality that had no bearing on my father’s routine. The outside world was only shadows from passing clouds, changing the light on his hair and face. I could measure the years separating my father from my daughters as he blankly stared at them on Facetime, waving in the palm of my hand from his Paris apartment. “These are your girls?” he asked. “In a film?” I explained to him that we were synchronized through the screen. They could see him too, I told him, pointing to his image in the right-hand corner. I could tell that he didn’t believe me. He was perplexed rather than awestruck. My father had never used a computer, never owned a cell phone, never touched a screen.

On his last day, my father lay in his bed, framed by a few of the books he held dear. He, who had been a fervent atheist all his life, had asked to be buried with a guide to Jewish prayer, Le guide du croyant israélite, published by his great-grandfather, a notable nineteenth-century French rabbi. The leather-bound first edition rested on his chest as his coffin was lowered to the ground. After his funeral, I went to the apartment that housed his collection. Walking in the door, I could see my father preceding me in his elegant overcoat, and I caught a whiff of his cologne. Among the ocher spines lining the entryway, a volume poked out of its impeccable row. I blew on thick clumps of dust gathered on its top, breathed in the must of aging paper, and pushed the book back in.

Violaine Huisman is the author of The Book of Mother (translated from the French by Leslie Camhi, Scribner, 2021).
Originally published:
May 23, 2022

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