The Odyssey of a Book

Aside

The Odyssey of a Book

In memory of Igor Broytman, book dealer and friend (1960 – 2013).

It is seldom easy to trace the paths that a book has followed along its journey from the original owner to the present one. Sometimes, clues inside the book itself tell the story. Herein lies the stunning revelation of one book’s odyssey through the annals of human history.

In 1827 the first edition of Alexander Pushkin’s The Robber Brothers was published in Russia The copy pictured below was undoubtedly bought by a rich individual, maybe a member of the nobility, since to acquire a book at this time, two requirements were necessary: the ability to read and the means to buy it. The first owner, who remains unknown, placed his own bookplate bearing the imprint ex libris, a Latin phrase meaning, “From the library of ” on the title page.

One hundred and fourteen years later, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The book fell into the hands of a member of the German forces. Deemed extremely valuable, maybe due to the former owner’s renown, the book was presented to Wilhem Keitel, a German Field Marshal of the Wehrmacht, and Reich War Minister. He promptly removed the original ex librisand put his own in its place. This seemingly innocuous act represents both an infamous display of arrogance and a lack of sophistication: the stamp of a soldier’s boot imprint, nails included, showing his name on the sole and a swastika on the heel. It is symbolic of man’s capacity for evil and the meaning is clear: to crush and enslave!

Four years later, the victorious Russian army occupied Berlin. The book was discovered and given to Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Commander of the Soviet forces. In all probability, its provenance from the higher echelons of the Reich hierarchy must have prompted this gesture. Zhukov did not remove Keitel’s ex libris. Instead he put his own on top of it, once again proving true the maxim: O quam cito transit gloria mundi: How quickly the glory of the world passes away!pushkin

The travels of this book and its association with such historic and ultimately doomed figures is a fascinating and unique story. Wouldn’t it be equally enticing to trace the history of the books that we come to hold in our own hands? Finally, we too, might find that we have in our possession evidence of the portents of our collective past.

Paul Belard, July 2013.