Rick Gekoski, the pickle eating baby, and D.H. Lawrence

Rick Gekoski’s Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People is an illuminating insight into his fifty years of experience buying and selling rare books. The opening chapter reveals how D.H. Lawrence kickstarted his habit…

Rick Gekoski published his first novel, Darke, at the age of 72. But he is perhaps best known for his half a century selling rare books. As the title of his memoir suggests, the treasure he seeks is scarce, carefully buried, and ferociously guarded. But is he himself a dragon, guarding rare books he’s accumulated, or a heroic slayer? It would seem the latter, because once you’ve got the treasure, you want to trade it in for more. His is a life very much focused on the journey rather than the destination.  

A rare book dealer requires two basic skills: to know when a book is buyable and when to sell it for a higher price. The best way to accumulate this knowledge is to serve an apprenticeship in a bookshop. He didn’t. He entered the rare book world as an academic and a collector. Thus, he becomes frustrated at conferences when young collectors demand he pass down trade secrets. But there is no elixir. Knowledge can’t be passed down. All you can do is go slay your own dragons and see what happens.

This ethos of experience shapes his memoir. Over thirteen chapters we see him play ping pong with Salmon Rushdie, upset a Poet Laureate, and get dragged through the law courts on more than one occasion. But our interest at The Digital Pilgrimage is the opening chapter ‘On Sabbatical with D.H. Lawrence’.

It’s late 1974 and the Gekoski’s and their newborn baby are on a first-class plane to New York to see his ferocious mother who is dying of cancer. He’s taken a much-needed sabbatical and ‘wangled’ a contract with Methuen for a critical book on Lawrence. The problem is, he doesn’t have the energy for sustained academic research. What he enjoys more is collecting the first editions he’s been accumulating for the research he has no intention of finishing. It’s all very Dyeresque – something he alludes to.

Research, however, provides him with the excuse to leave his pickle-eating baby with his wife while he visits a secondhand bookseller called William Hauser. ‘Bill’ is nearing retirement and flogging off his books at bargain prices. He visits him five times and the books get cheaper on each visit. We learn that price is not just determined by the value of the object, there are other variables at play. He pays £41 for 12 books and sells most of them, over the coming years, for £333. This would make him a dealer. But as he invests this in more acquisitions, he is also a collector. The fact that he has the books shipped over to Blighty – so that his wife doesn’t find out what he’s been up to – suggests he is either a shrewd businessman or a bit deceitful.   

In 1975 books were cheap but hard to find. For example, unable to procure his own copy of Warren Roberts’ Bibliography of D.H. Lawrence, he photocopies it from his university library and then annotates it with his acquisitions – who he bought from, who he sold on to. He explains that ‘unlike work on the putative critical book, which was glacially slow and unenthusiastic over these years, my collecting was focused, passionate and highly organized.’

He becomes obsessed with Lawrence, detailing all his books sold at auction. Later, he convinces his bank manager to allow his to go further into the red so that he can acquire a collection of Lawrence books from an antiques dealer in Wales that include some rarities, such as signed first editions of Lady Chatterley. The dealer insists on being paid in cash.

Allow me a quick digression. During lockdown, I went a year and a half without drawing out cash. Everything went on my card. Then I went to Yorkshire to visit some relatives. First a pizza take-away in Pateley Bridge refused to accept card and pointed to ‘machine across the road, mate’. Then the following evening, a Thai takeaway would only deliver if we had £42.32 in cash. As a sweetener, they threw in two free bottles of Singha beer and would deliver in 25 minutes.

Back to the dodgy dealer.    

The dealer gives firm instructions to meet him at a train station at 12. He hangs up before checking if this is convenient. ‘He knew I was keen’ explains Gekoski ‘and may well have known that university lecturers have a lot of free time’. Of course, he can’t resist. But takes a friend along with him just in case. The meeting is fraught with danger, but it’s worth it as the dealer’s collection includes some proper treasure, such as Bay – A Book of Poems, published by The Beaumont Press in 1921 and sold in three issues: 500 copies, 50 signed copies, 25 signed copies bound in vellum.

It’s at this point, after he’s been bundled into the back of a car, that he confesses that writers, collectors, raconteurs make ‘our stories smoother, funnier, more revealing’ because it makes for a better story. He is guilty of ‘unconsciously constructing a faux narrative in which I braved dragons, confronted a dragon, returned safely from the hunt with my treasure: a hero, of a modest sort’.

Gekoski may be an unreliable narrator but he’s certainly a compelling one. I only intended to read the opening chapter to get my Lawrence fix but ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting. In doing this I’ve gone on to discover that John Fowles was anti-Semitic and that John Updike had to explain what a blowjob was to Victor Gollancz. All of which, to use an Alan Sillitoe quote, is ‘cheap gossip for retail later’. Wonderful stuff.

This book was kindly leant to me by David Belbin, Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. David is also a writer and a collector of first edition books.

Guarded by Dragons is available in HB for £18.99 from Constable at hachette.co.uk

Further Reading

Publishing Sea and Sardinia: Letters to Jan Juta

Jan Juta’s illustrations in Sea and Sardinia (1921)

D.H. Lawrence was more than a prolific writer. He was also fiercely obsessive over every aspect of the publication process as correspondence with Jan Juta and others testifies during the publication of Sea and Sardinia in 1921.

Born in Cape Town, Jan Carel Juta (1897 – 1990) was a South African painter who illustrated Lawrence’s travel book Sea and Sardinia which celebrates its centenary this year. He also specialised as a muralist, designing work in fresco, glass, metal and wood. His commissions varied from book illustrations, such as those produced for his sister Rene’s travel books Concerning Corsica and Cannes and the Hills to murals created for the Cunard liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. He also authored the short story collection Look out for the Ostriches, and the memoirs Background in Sunshine and Tilting with the Stars.   

Son of Sir Henry Juta, Judge President of the Union of South Africa, Juta was a former student of the Slade School of Art, London who met Lawrence in 1920 when studying at the British School in Rome where he would go on to produce the oil painting of Lawrence that currently hangs in the National Gallery. He was also a keen traveller himself, with his art taking him to France, Italy and South Africa before he settled in New Jersey, America.

Juta would take on a series of prestigious roles during his career including president emeritus of the National Society of Mural Painters, America and chief of visual information at the United Nations Department of Public Information. He also found time to be a lay preacher and reader for Episcopal churches. He covered a lot during his 95 years of life, but it is the 24-year-old Juta that is of interest here as his correspondence with Lawrence reveals a lot about Lawrence’s guardianship of his work.

After sending Juta a copy of Sea and Sardinia and discovering that he liked it, Lawrence wrote to him on 7 June 1921 expressing his desire to see his portraits of Sardinian life with the intention of including them in his travel book. Although he warned that London publishers were ‘jumping for fright at the thought of colour expense!’ it is clear that Lawrence had every intention of ensuring they were included and what follows is a remarkable series of letters to various people to make that happen. 

Firstly, Lawrence wrote to Curtis Brown – his new UK agent – stating he did not want Thomas Secker to publish the book because ‘it would fall dead flat’ and was keen to stress it was ‘an exact and real travel book: no stunt’ and, perceptive as ever, that ‘time will come when people will want such: when they’re sick of stunts and showing off’. Lawrence goes on to recommend publishers who will make it a colour book ‘and not funk it’. Such was his willingness to have a professionally produced book he was willing to take a ‘very small royalty if cost of production is so alarming to the poor souls’.

By the 12 June Lawrence was more buoyant towards Secker – he had just received the remaining advance for Women in Love from him – and began pleading the case for Sea and Sardinia and Juta’s illustrations. Like a naughty child offsetting the affection of duelling parents, he warns ‘for the Lord’s Sake, don’t let Curtis Brown imagine I write you any business. It is high treason in his eyes’.

Lawrence wrote to Juta on the 23 June informing him the pictures had arrived and that he liked them ‘very much’ and that Frieda was ‘enraptured’. Why he was not ‘enraptured’ is anyone’s guess, but either way the message of approval was delivered.      

Top: Juta. L: Juta. M: Map of Sardinia. R: Juta’s portrait of Lawrence

His next task was to contact the printer Max Schreiber about costs. Frugal as ever, he suggests ‘smuggling’ them out the country to avoid import duty. This is all very fitting as Sea and Sardinia, among other things, is very much about the cost of living and reads in places like a balance sheet. This is understandable given Lawrence lived large bouts of his life in poverty. Writing was not just about sharing his thoughts; it was the thing that put bread and butter on the plate. Hence his prolific output. It’s no surprise, then, that he wanted to be involved in the production of the book and not leave anything to chance. This is evident in his letter to Juta the following day when he begins to consider different formats and costs for the book: ‘12/6 for book and folio together, and book 7/6, pictures 7/6 apart’. 

He was also unhappy with the titles used under the pictures such as ‘Path of the Righteous’ and instead preferred to be ‘exact and local’ and ‘real’ suggesting alternatives such as ‘Sunday Morning’ or ‘Church-Goers’. The final titles were even more pared back, consisting of place names: Orosei, Isili, Tonara, Sorgono, Fonni, Gavoi, Nuoro, Terranova. 

Lawrence’s letter to Juta on the 29 June reads like a printing brochure, with precise detail of costs, exchange rates, sizes, plate engravings, and his determination to ’force the hands of the publishers’ and not ‘let them off’. He then relays similar details to Curtis Brown on 2 July, adding that the prints could also be used in a magazine spread. On 30 July he suggests to Seltzer that Schofield Thayer, editor of The Dial, may opt for a couple of pictures or articles from Sea and Sardinia and that this might ‘help pay for the pictures’ to be printed. He then immediately writes to Thayer suggesting Seltzer or Mountsier will send him a copy of Sea and Sardinia even though ‘you won’t like it’ and then ends with a playful prod suggesting The Dial is a ‘cross, irritable paper’.    

In the introduction to Volume IV of The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, the editors quote Samuel Johnson: ‘In a man’s letters his soul lies naked’. Lawrence’s letters to Juta and those involved in the publication of Sea and Sardinia reveal a writer very much involved in every aspect of the publication process. He is fastidious with detail, pre-empts problems, and is happy to go behind people’s backs to get what he wants. He is pragmatic, informative and deceptive. He fights for Juta’s work to be included because he knows it will enhance his text but he also fights for Juta to be paid because he knows what it is to go without.   

Modern writers today may bemoan the fact that they are expected to have a strong social media presence and promote their own work across platforms, but it is unlikely any are quite so committed as Lawrence was.   

Further reading