TOLKIEN’S GOWN AND OTHER STORIES OF GREAT AUTHORS AND RARE BOOKS By Rick Gekoski. Constable. 250pp. $39.99
Tolkien’s Gown is based on Rick Gekoski’s highly successful BBC radio series, Rare Books, Rare People, which was also broadcast on the ABC in Australia recently. The book intertwines descriptions of twenty great works, bar one, of twentieth century literature and their place in the first edition marketplace. Some of the books covered include The Hobbitt, Brideshead Revisited, The Catcher in the Rye, The Satanic Verses, Lord of the Flies and The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Rick Gekoski began his book collecting when a doctoral student at Merton College Oxford. He is the author of a critical study of Joseph Conrad, and the co-author of a bibliography of William Golding, as well as having written numerous reviews and articles. He gave up academic life in the early 1980s when the “confines and strictures of university life” became “uncongenial”. As Gekoski says in his introduction, “encouraged by both my wife and Mrs Thatcher” – the latter’s government supplying a cheque for £27,000 in redundancy pay – he became a fulltime rare book dealer, specialising in twentieth century first editions and manuscripts. Gekoski who operates at the top end of the international market was soon earning more than his lecturer’s salary.
The title Tolkien’s Gown could turn out to be a little confusing as it turns up in Google searches and bookseller lists. Hobbit fans are probably not the ones for this delightful literary potpourri. The title in fact comes from the time in Oxford when Tolkien moved out of Merton College. Gekoski was offered, by Tolkien’s scout, Tolkien’s old college gown. Gekoski called this his “Precious” and now regrets that he “declined the further offer of several pairs of Mr Tolkien’s shoes, and a few tired tweed jackets”. The Gown ultimately became item 197 of Gekoski’s second catalogue. Gekoski says that his description might now seem a little “over-arch”: “original black cloth, slightly frayed, and with a little soiling (including soup stains according to rumour!), spine sound”.
Gekoski muses that now those stains might have eventuated in a DNA environment in a “small army of Tolkiens … brandishing epics”. The gown sold quickly to an eccentric American academic for £550 (a significant figure for the early 1980s) and led to a sardonic dialogue in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement with the writer Julian Barnes, who wondered about the price level of D H Lawrence’s underpants, Gertrude Stein’s bra, and James Joyce’s smoking jacket!
One of the joys of Tolkein’s Gown are the many vignettes of leading authors who, by and large, turn out not to be terribly nice people, notably J D Salinger, Harold Pinter and Ted Hughes. Graham Greene, at least in his dealings with Gekoski, comes across as one of the exceptions! Greene invited Gekoski to buy a first edition of Lolita inscribed to Greene by Nabokov. Negotiations took place over vodka drinking in Greene’s suite in the Ritz. This subsequently led to Gekoski eventually having the run of Greene’s flat in Paris and unearthing bibliographical treasures unknown to Greene fans.
A far less pleasant interaction came with Ted Hughes after he sold Gekoski his inscribed copy of the first edition of The Colossus from Sylvia Plath, which also had Plath’s inscription to her beloved father Otto. Many would find it strange, or perhaps not, given the Hughes-Plath mythologies, that Hughes would sell such a treasure. Hughes resented particularly that Gekoski had made a profit of more than 10 per cent on the sale.
Harold Pinter, the playwright, went further, even refusing to speak to Gekoski, except through his office. Gekoski had legitimately bought Philip Larkin’s High Windows, inscribed to Pinter by Larkin. This had emerged from an auction sale of the property of Pinter’s first wife, the actress Vivian Merchant. Another dissatisfied and irascible author was William Golding who was far from satisfied with Gekoski’s efforts to sell the manuscript of The Lord of the Flies. Gekoski managed to obtain quotes up to a quarter of a million pounds, but Golding’s reaction was a critical one, “snorting with contempt”. Gekoski notes that unless manuscripts are iconic, Golding’s wish for a million pounds was unachievable, although Gekoski does cite the recent sale of Jack Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road for two million dollars.
Tolkein’s Gown is a fascinating mix of eccentric characters from the literary and book worlds. Who would dare to invent the thirty stone figure of Dennis Silverman, the Controller of the New York City Teamster’s Union Pension Fund, ultimately indicted for fraud, and the owner of the finest James Joyce collection of his generation? Gekoski warns about the peculiarities of D H Lawrence and Winston Churchill collectors, providing some examples!
Tolkein’s Gown is a source of much information on some of the classics of modern literature and also how to ascertain that the price is right! If you enjoyed John Baxter’s A Pound of Paper, which was published last year to great acclaim, you will love Tolkein’s Gown.