Two Old-Time Book-Lovers


I HAVE been amusing myself with Charles Mouselet’s Petits Mémoires Littéraires, and bring to the Club some of his reminiscences which may possibly in others, as in me, touch a secret sensitive nerve.

Book-lovers are a race apart which has not been studied enough ; they open a field of interest and amusement hitherto unexplored. Fifty years ago, among the connoisseurs of books who were to be seen most often at the publishers’ shops and secondhand stalls of Paris were two agreeable and talkative elderly men, Van den Zande and François Grille. Van den Zande, who had filled a post of distinction under the government, lived at Batignolles, one of the rural suburbs, in a house with a pretty garden. He was a widower, rich, genial, given up to his worship of rare editions. It is seldom that a book-lover is not something of an author. Van den Zande had many verses on his conscience, for the most part spicy tales in rhyme such as are obsolete nowadays, which gives the date and the gauge of his talent. A thorough-going epicurean, despite his gout, Van den Zande gathered about his table every Sunday a party of his own age and tastes.

François Grille also had filled important public offices, and in the discharge of his functions he had come in contact with a great many people, and had received a quantity of letters, long and short, signed by more or less illustrious names. On his retirement he published several volumes of them, full of amusing incidents, and accompanied by sharp, malicious little notes, biographies in a dozen lines, in which there was always a salient point. Grille lived in seclusion with his family at The Pond, beyond Bougival, in the neighborhood of Paris, whence nearly his whole correspondence is dated, and Heaven alone knows how much the worthy man wrote. He came to town from time to time, where his visits were chiefly to the booksellers.

Strange to say, Van den Zande and François Grille had never forgathered either in their favorite haunts or anywhere else. Yet they wished to meet, and they had friends in common, Barbier and Quérard among the rest. Each sent the other one of his books, and this led to an interchange of letters which resulted in a regular correspondence.

The first letters of the two book-lovers contained a mutual profession of faith, and they agreed on many points. “ I have the same opinion as you as to the great Arouet,” says Van den Zande. “ Everything which has been well and rightly done since ’89 we owe to him. . . . Three authors are my bugbears, namely, Châteaubriand, Victor Hugo, and Lamartine.” Grille makes exception in favor of Lamartine, to whom he once addressed an epistle ; it was Grille’s mania to write epistles to everybody. He also had the habit of sprinkling his letters with verse. Van den Zande cannot repress his astonishment at such fecundity : —

“ You are a tough jouster, my dear sir : if my muse should attempt to keep up with yours she would soon be asthmatic. I do not know what your age may be, but I am sure you never think of it. As I am nearly seventy-two I needs must remember mine. ... It will always give me pleasure to receive your letters, but I can only promise to answer them at long intervals.”

We detect the apprehensions of the epicurean who feels his privacy and his indolence threatened. However, not to offend his brother-in-1etters, he dedicates a lively little story to him ; too lively to be included in the next edition of his tales. What temperaments the generation of Van den Zande were blessed with ! A story too lively for publication at seventy-two !

François Grille rejoices over the promise of the story ; he rejoices in prose and verse. Yet he had just undergone a shock in an accident to the person he held dearest, — his wife had broken her arm It had been successfully set, and he writes, “ To-day she is better, as you will see by a fable I have composed while sitting with her.” Soon afterwards he speaks of a visit from their dear Quérard : “ Dear Quérard was at The Pond yesterday. He is the Breton in full bloom, kind, gay, frank, everything I like best. . . . Your ears must have burned, for we talked a great deal about you. My little house pleases him, my wife charms him, my cordiality delights him, yet he will not admit that anything surpasses your Batignolles, your table, and your attractive academy.” Here Van den Zande saw his chance, and he writes : “ . . . Why do you praise the Sunday breakfasts at Batignolles without knowing anything about them ? Why will you not accede to my repeated invitations? I will drop our correspondence until I have seen you and pledged you at my own board. It strikes me that you ought to have some desire to know me by sight.”

One would suppose that François Grille must yield to such amiable importunity. Not at all. He explains his theory, which is odd and of doubtful civility : he does not care to see the people he is fond of, Van den Zande no more than the rest ; it suffices him to write to them. To write forever ! He goes on to explain his views on this head, first in verse, then in prose. “ For ten years,” he says, “ I corresponded frequently with M. de Fortia, M. de Reiffenberg, Peignot, and the bibliophile Laporte, and I never saw the first two ; the last two I saw but once. For forty years I have had a friend at Niort whose face I never have seen and who is eighty-five years old ; he writes to me weekly in prose and verse. I shall never shake him by the hand, yet I am very much attached to him, and he has a real tenderness for me. ... I see neither Plato, Horace, Molière, nor Voltaire, yet I live with them, and they never scold because I do not visit them. I live by the heart. I have a paternal affection for Voltaire, and what do I see of him ? His works and his shade ! ”

Van den Zande ceased to press his platonic correspondent, who, being left to himself, again reopened the fire of his inextinguishable vivacity on Batignolles. Van den Zande pulled his nightcap over his ears, but a plaint escapes him despite himself : “ I have warned you already that my Dobbin cannot keep up with your Pegasus. . . . Your epistles come in showers, in floods, in cataracts ! ” We are forced to believe that there came a moment when he lost his patience and let his invisible comrade feel it ; certain sharp words must have been exchanged, for on December 22, 1852 (note the date), Van den Zande wrote to Grille : “ If the charm is broken you have done it ; I have begged but one thing of you : not to write to me every day, because I am not up to answering so many pretty letters, and I am jealous of them.”

This is touching, and as the request was not exorbitant, after all, one might suppose that Grille would hasten to acquiesce. But that would show small knowledge of Grille. Grille cannot live without writing to Van den Zande, so no truce for Van den Zande. Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve the booklover of Batignolles had an accident : on his way to take some sugar-plums to a friend’s children he slipped and fell. He was lifted into a carriage, and was obliged to keep his room with his leg on a chair. It was a trifle at first, a strain of the muscles of his left calf, but he fancied himself cured too soon, and a week afterwards thought fit to preside at an anniversary dinner. He gives an account of it to his “dear metromaniac ” François Grille, who had not failed to overwhelm him with condolences in every known metre for the whole eight days. Van den Zande enumerates the guests, and gives the bill of fare, on which figures a sugar-cured ham and a monstrous capon stuffed with truffles ; sherry after the soup, Rhine wine after the fish, excellent Médoc, delicious Sauterne, Chambertin for which he pays five francs a bottle at first hand. At dessert he read the company verselets he had composed in the omnibus. “They all laughed, the Abbé Lavigerie louder than anybody. We wound up with Moët, and there you are.”

This banquet brought on a relapse. Van den Zande’s knee swelled ; a blister was applied, and he took to his bed with fever. He wrote a note of fifteen lines to Grille, which he naturally supposed would be unanswerable : “ My dear sir, . . . I am no longer in a condition either to write or receive letters : I entreat you to intermit our correspondence until my recovery.” This was the last.

Grille turned a deaf ear ; he was evidently impelled by an instinct which dominated every other feeling. Van den Zande’s son-in-law was forced to interpose : “ It is absolutely impossible for my fatherin-law to thank you himself for your inquiries about his health. When he is well you will learn from him all the details of his illness. Then you can send him some more easy and racy verses. . . . I have none of your letters except those which have come since the patient has been unable to receive anything himself. As soon as he is better we will collect and skewer them.”

Van den Zande lingered for some weeks, but died on the 1st of April, 1853. The day previous the Abbé Lavigerie called upon him, but Van den Zande excused himself after a few courteous words. Grille survived him for some years.