The rare book dealer Rick Gekoski is raving over his latest acquisitions: “It’s like discovering a herd of unicorns,” he says. “For a time, when you see them together, you think they must be quite common. But when you buy your unicorn and take it home to your little smallholding, then your neighbours will fall over with astonishment. That’s what’s going to happen with these books. After a year or two passes, each one is going to look like a little marvel and the prices will seem reasonable, even cheap, in retrospect.”
Perhaps he chose the analogy of the unicorns at random, or maybe it popped into his head because he’d been reading the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the part where Harry follows a trail of blood in the forest and discovers a dead unicorn and sees Voldemort drink its blood.
If Harry Potter was on Gekoski’s mind, it is because J.K. Rowling is one of more than 50 authors who have agreed, at his invitation, to go back to a first edition of one of their books and annotate it at will. However unlikely it sounds, that a writer would revisit a work he or she finished decades ago and risk uncovering its errors, to say nothing of the potential agony of rereading a younger self, this is exactly what they have done. The resulting copies, with their anecdotal scribbles, deleted paragraphs and occasional exclamations of self-loathing, are to be auctioned at Sotheby’s next month in aid of the writers’ charity English PEN, which defends the rights of writers and readers and promotes freedom of expression around the world.
The list reads like a roll call of major British, Irish and Commonwealth authors from the past half-century, including 16 Booker prize winners and plenty more shortlisters, two Nobel laureates and winners of other literary gongs. Seeing the spines all lined up on a shelf at Sotheby’s is like seeing a collection of paintings made by a collector with a judicious eye: Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, John Banville, Joanna Trollope, P.D. James, Howard Jacobson, Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby, Frederick Forsyth, Colm Toíbín, Helen Fielding, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and many more.
The idea of asking authors to annotate their first editions as a way of raising money for PEN came originally from the literary agent Peter Straus, who is well known in the book world for his laconic but encyclopedic recall of Booker prize winners and other literary lists. He first suggested it in 2005, but it was only when Gekoski joined the board of PEN in 2010 that he took charge of the idea and made it work. Together with his wife, Belinda Kitchin, he set about making a list of authors and choosing which of their titles was most likely to make a good price at auction. He then wrote to each of them, suggesting which book he’d like them to use. In most cases he supplied the first edition, which he sourced through his contacts in the trade. When writers asked him what “annotate” really meant, he told them, “… like ‘Humpty Dumpty’, ‘It means whatever you want it to mean. Though I have my own sense of it, it would be impertinent for me to tell you how to respond to your own book.’ And I sometimes added, ‘Whatever it is, please do a lot of it!’”
J.K. Rowling had only agreed to annotate a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on condition that it was a genuine first edition, from the first print run in 1997 of only 500 copies, 300 of which had gone to libraries. Gekoski had to find one of the remaining 200. “So she was quite surprised,” he said cheerfully, “that two days later, I came up with a copy and said, ‘Let’s go ahead.’”
It had cost him £20,000 (he will be reimbursed after the sale). But now, “freely annotated” by its author, with more than a thousand words “on the process of writing, editorial decisions and sources of inspiration …” along with 22 illustrations, it is likely to go for a great deal more.
Sotheby’s has released a short paragraph to give a flavour of what’s inside – though what she describes is so familiar, it’s already part of JKR mythology. “I wrote the book … in snatched hours, in clattering cafés or in the dead of night … The story of how I wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is written invisibly on every page, legible only to me. Sixteen years after it was published, the memories are as vivid as ever as I turn these pages.”
The last time a rare copy of a Rowling book was auctioned was in 2007, when one of only seven handwritten, illustrated copies of Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard raised £1.95m ($3.98m) for Lumos, the charity (formerly The Children’s Voice) that she founded and chairs. It was bought by Amazon, which put pictures of it on its website as a preview for its special collector’s edition, which went on sale, with a share of the profits donated to the charity, the following year. This time Rowling’s lawyers have inserted a clause in the contract that restricts the buyer from “using the book for any commercial and/or marketing purposes”. But Gekoski doesn’t think that will be much of a deterrent to buyers: “There’s no question about it, it’s in a category of its own. It will make the highest price. It is the über-definitive version of what you might argue is the publishing sensation of the century.”
Harry Potter is the obvious popular favourite, but so many other authors have spent hours, even days, poring over books that they thought they had proofread for the last time. And for some of them it has not been an enjoyable or an edifying experience.
“It was an appalling experience in my case,” the novelist John Banville said. “I can’t bear to revisit my own work. I physically can’t bear it. But they asked, and it’s a charity, and so you do it.
“I remember Ed Victor, my agent, saying that his wife Carol once gave Stephen Spender a lift home from some event, and Spender was complaining about it, and she said, ‘Well why did you go?’ And he said, ‘Well they invited me months ago, and I thought by the time it came round I’d be dead.’ I work on that basis. Now that I’m teetering on the brink of being ancient [he’ll be 68 in December], they do come round, and you have to do them.”
Banville agreed to annotate The Sea, which won the Man Booker prize in 2005. “It was strange to reread this book,” he said. “I went through it with one eye shut, reading through splayed fingers … dreadful all around. The only thing that I got from it was the opportunity to defile my own book. It’s like peeing all over it. Take that, you swine!
“Even doing proofs is painful, so you don’t want to revisit the thing. I mean, readers are always disappointed when you talk about your work. You have to say to them, ‘Look, you’re talking about work you may love … I’m talking about work that I loathe …’ It’s nothing to do with me any more. Really, it has nothing to do with me. I looked through The Sea, and there is the odd sentence that I think, ‘Well, that’s quite nice.’
I can’t say in all honesty that it’s as if it was written by somebody else, but it was written by a different version of myself, and in a way, it’s more radical, because the selves we leave behind are more strange to us than strangers.”
. . .
Tom Stoppard, who returned to the 1967 Faber edition of his first play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, also discovered passages he hated “Overkill!” “Too complicated!” “My first editions contain lines from which I have to avert my eyes, eg on p.49 – horrible! There are lines I don’t recognise at al l…”
At least a playwright can cut and adapt in rehearsals. David Hare donated his own 1991 copy of Racing Demon – “the copy of the play I used to make changes for all subsequent productions”. But Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, looking through his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966, adds a note to “The Early Purges” which might well have been accompanied by a sigh: “One of the most popular in schools since it can start a good argument. But at this stage, I’d like to rewrite it.”
Lionel Shriver, asked to annotate We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange prize in 2005 and was then made into a successful film, took a mordant relook at the novel and made comments both on the process of writing it, and on readers’ reactions to it. One of these involved criticism of her choice, in the book, of a tiny elephant shrew that Eva, Kevin’s mother, gives her small daughter Celia for Christmas as a pet. Celia christens the beloved creature “Snuffles”, but soon, fatefully, Snuffles disappears. Celia is inconsolable. Kevin is suspected, and Eva, finding the bathroom sink mysteriously blocked, pours down Liquid-Plumr and leaves it to do its job.
“So I got stick from some book group for my lack of political correctness in including an endangered species as a pet in my book. But in fact it’s not endangered. I made a note in the margin with a tiny little drawing – though it didn’t come out very well.”
Against the opening paragraph she has written: “I am usually very private about first drafts & protect them from prying eyes until the manuscript is finished to my satisfaction. But when I sat down unceremoniously to begin my novel, my partner sidled up behind me & read that first paragraph; with so little at risk, I let him.
“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’s just right.’
“He would not see any more of the book until it was through. But that small reassurance comforted me during all the proceeding chapters. The first paragraph remains word for word as I originally wrote it.”
And at the very end of the book, “Forever your loving wife, Eva”, she notes: “It was so odd – when I wrote that last line, I burst into tears.”
For Ian McEwan, who has annotated a first edition of Amsterdam, which won the Booker prize in 1998, it wasn’t so much revisiting the text that upset him as the physical act of marking the pages. “The sensation of writing in any hardback book always seems transgressive, unless it’s in pencil in the margin. And in this case I used black ink, so it was rather like defacing my own novel.”
Rereading it, he said, had been a trigger for certain memories. “I remembered sitting in on rehearsals at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – it was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a conductor I admire – and I was reminded of how I almost prefer rehearsals to an actual concert; you get to know passages very well, the piece gets taken apart, and I can remember thinking perhaps there was another novel in there. Later I wrote a libretto for an opera by Michael Berkeley, For You, which was based on the character of a conductor and composer.”
. . .
Some authors have illustrated, as well as annotated their texts. Graham Swift has added a series of small pencil illustrations to a first edition of Last Orders. Kazuo Ishiguro has done full-page drawings on the endpapers of The Remains of the Day, and at the beginning of each new section of the text. He has also written copious notes throughout the book, some anecdotal, such as one that explains that the title “came about on a deserted Australian beach, when I asked a group of writers – Michael Ondaatje, Victoria Glendinning, Robert McCrum and Judith Herzberg (from Holland) – to come up with something for my almost finished, as-of-yet unnamed novel …” Other notes offer insights into his craft: “I’ve always been drawn to the ‘diary entry’ way of narrating a story in which the timeframe keeps shifting as the book progresses and the narrator’s emotional and intellectual position keeps shifting with it. This method is particularly good for highlighting a character’s levels of self-deception, I find.”
It is this kind of commentary – the aside to one’s self, which doubles as a conversation with the reader – that makes so many of these books such a pleasure to read. More intimate than any interview, the author is supplying details about the process of writing no interviewer could ever know to ask about. But the writers realise their most casual additions will be critically read.
“Oh God. Am I sounding smug?” asks Helen Fielding in the margin of Bridget Jones’s Diary. “Am I supposed to be criticising the book saying how much better I’d do it now? Trouble is, I think I peaked.” And as she reads a list of Bridget’s wasted years of “[m]illions of cheesecakes and tiramisus …” she notes: “Mmm. Hungry now. Bored by writing notes. Slightly puffed up by thoughts of PEN people reading notes, rather as if I am Ernest Hemingway or something, though obviously not dead.”
Philip Pullman has given a copy of Northern Lights, the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, “marked for reading”. It shows how, before a public event, he will précis certain passages, rewrite others, and cut bits out to move the narrative on more swiftly. His neatly inscribed undulating erasures are in soft pencil; white labels have been stuck over paragraphs and new sentences handwritten on top.
Alan Bennett has drawn a little self-caricature on the title page of his annotated edition of The Uncommon Reader. Edmund de Waal has pasted a handmade envelope on to one of the pages of the illustrated edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes. Inside is the photo of his grandmother, Elisabeth, which is reproduced on the opposite page.
Two of the most coveted books will be those whose authors are both dead, but whose illustrators have added new drawings to their first editions. Roald Dahl’s Matilda, published in 1988, went on to become a hugely successful film (in 1996) and musical (in 2010), but it was Quentin Blake’s illustrations that made it such a memorable edition, and his new drawings on the front and rear endpapers are a delight. Similarly, it’s hard to think of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first published in 1971, without the wild, seedy, scratchy illustrations by Ralph Steadman. They captured the spirit of Thompson’s “gonzo” journalism in 1971 and in the 55 pen-and-ink drawings he has added to the copy for PEN there’s no sign that it has diminished – new drawings for each chapter are scrawled across the text leaving a trail of blobs and blots in their wake. New characters face old ones across the gutter: “Hot Damn!!” our hero exclaims at the gaming tables, “I Won!!!!!”
Sotheby’s is not putting estimates on the books. Philip Errington, its books and manuscripts specialist, who oversaw the sale of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, says this is its usual practice for charity sales: “The market will decide on the night.” Gekoski agrees with the decision: “The writers have gone out of their way equally.
If you then say an estimate for this writer is £300 to £400 and an estimate for that writer is £12,000 to £15,000, it’s an invidious comparison.”
He is obviously delighted with his haul – 50 top authors is more than he ever dreamt of – and admits to only six or eight people whose omission he regrets. “I can tell you books that are likely to do well. The Steadman and Matilda; Ishiguro, the Barnes of course. Hilary Mantel will do well. Wolf Hall is the book that opens the new set of doors for her and here is this extraordinarily forceful annotation of how it’s done …”
Jeanette Winterson asked if she could submit two books, her first, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published in 1985, and her recent (2011) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “because they go together”.
“Is this character Jeanette, me?” she scribbles in the margins of Oranges. “I really believed I could write myself as a fiction. And stories seem to me to be the truth of life. And growing up.”
Then: “Better to nail yourself as a fiction than as a fact.”
To the end of Why Be Happy? she has added almost a prose poem: “In this night-soaked bed with you, it is courage for the day I seek. That when the light comes I will turn towards it. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder. And in the morning we will get dressed together and go.”
The final annotation is shared between Winterson and her partner: “I think I should sit down with Susie Orbach and write ‘The Possibility of Love’.
“What do you think Susie?”
Then, in another hand: “I think I should, I think you should, I think we should.”
One of the most generous and personal donations was made by Julian Barnes. It was also one of the first. When PEN made an initial request for annotated copies in 2007, Barnes had been one of the few authors to reply. He decided to donate the copy of Metroland, his first novel, which he had given to his parents when it was first published: “To Dad & Mum with love from Julian 1980” he had written on the opening page. He also included the cuttings of reviews that were folded between its pages, and the letter he had written to go with it. “Dear Ma & Pa – Well, here it is! The cover’s jolly good, anyway, whatever you may think of the insides.”
Under the original dedication he has written, in his precise hand, in red: “Annotated July 2007 for the benefit of PEN.” And then an asterisk directs the reader to a second, later note, in black, below: “who finally got around to organising the sale in 2013 … (which allowed me time for a few more, minor, emendations).”
First Editions, Second Thoughts, a charity auction of contemporary first edition books, annotated by their authors, with all proceeds to English PEN, will be held on May 21 at Sotheby’s, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1. To browse the catalogue visit www.englishpen.org/FEST; to register to bid visit www.sothebys.com/pen. The books will be on public display at Sotheby’s on May 20-21, 9am-4.30pm