The Forgers by Bradford Morrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”Book collecting,” he memorably told me, though at the time I couldn’t fully grasp his theory, “is an act of faith. It’s all about the preservation of culture, custodianship, and that’s why when I add a book to the collection I’m taking on the responsibility of keeping it safe. And then there’s the joy of the chase, of striving to find a copy of a book that helped make me who I am. But not just any copy--the copy, the most historically interesting and finest copy you can find. Most of all it’s about something I’ve never quite been able to put into words.”
How about we look to Mr. Eliot?
”These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
This book begins with a pair of severed hands.
Adam Diehl, a reclusive collector, is found nearly bled out surrounded by the trampled and torn remains of his exclusive, and expensive book collection.
His hands are never found.
His sister Meghan who runs a local bookstore is devastated because she is very close to her brother, but also because he is all the family she has left. Her boyfriend, Will, who also serves as the narrator of the story never liked Adam very much and the feeling was mutual. They should like each other. They even have the same interest in the same types of books, but see there is a factor here unknown to Meghan that creates a rivalry and a certain amount of disdain.
They are both forgers.
Will is better at it than Adam and like many perfectionists he finds it insulting that someone else would try to pass off what he can do so much better. Of course he is supposed to be reformed after he experienced a brush with the law that nearly landed him in prison.
The desire is still there.
”I would sometimes find myself physically aroused when my hand, my pen, my paper were coordinating so perfectly that a kind of calligraphic, pornographic ballet took place before my eyes.”
Will’s father was a great book collector. He was well respected and venerated in the book collecting world. In fact, the quote at the beginning of this review was his attempt to explain to his son the gentle madness of collecting. If his father had known he was defacing books with forged signatures or that he was changing literary history with his arrogantly conceived counterfeit letters and ephemera he would have been beyond disappointed. He would have felt a complete failure in his attempt to raise someone in his own image.
”Would he have had any choice other than to hand me my loathsome heart bundled up in the butcher’s paper?”
His father was always searching for a more perfect copy of a book for his library. When he did find a better copy he would even keep the inferior copy as well which is fascinating. I often do upgrade a book in my library, but usually I sell or trade the more inferior copy. It is a way to offset the cost of the upgrade and it also frees up more room on the shelves for...another book.
Now Will does see history in the same way as I do. It is all a muddled mess of half truths, but I would never be willing to add to the muddle.
”History is subjective. History is alterable. History is, finally, little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.”
Everyone strives to know singular truth, but the truth is that there are many truths. For any one truth there are several other versions just as true. A historian uses the most accepted version of the truth or makes a case for an alternative truth that he believes or wants to believe is more true.
It is one thing to add thoughts believed to be true to the narrative, but it is quite another to manufacture them from whole cloth.
I’m with Will’s father regarding his activities. Bring me the butcher’s paper.
When Will starts to receive threatening letters, cleverly written in the style and penmanship of Henry James he knows that his secrets are known by someone who holds all the threads of his life.
This starts a desperate search for solutions that will hopefully appease his accuser and keep his secrets safe.
This book may not be a five star book for most other people, but I have to give Bradford Morrow credit for writing a pitch perfect novel about the book business. Most books I’ve read about the subjects of book collecting or working in a bookstore ring falsely for me. I can assure those that are interested in books beyond just the words they hold that Morrow knows his stuff. I often found myself feeling a tingle as he made connections that only the “gently mad” will understand. Speaking of Gently Mad, Nicholas Basbanes, a hero of mine, also endorsed this book.
The character of Will is so interesting because I couldn’t help liking him and loathing him in equal measure. Both diametrically opposed aspects of my feelings about him were tangled in almost every thought I had regarding his behavior. Forgeries are hanging on walls in museums and are locked up under glass in prestigious universities all over the world, and are believed to be real. So a gifted forger like Will can forever alter literary history. He might buy, say an expensive first edition of a Charles Dickens book and add an association inscription to Wilkie Collins thus making the book a priceless one-of-a-kind item that he could then sell at a huge profit. Inscriptions are one thing, but writing letters perfectly in the handwriting of a writer to another writer or to a lover or to a publisher asserting thoughts that never existed before(or probably didn’t)is certainly taking the molding clay and constructing a fabricated creature of words.
The plot is good, but the perspective of the world of books that Morrow presents is like having a window in a flat with a panoramic view of the Hay-on-Wye in Wales.
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