The Mysterious Island

By Howard A. RodmanJune 11, 2011

The Mysterious Island

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Les Enfants du capitaine Grant by Jules Verne
L'Ile Mystérieuse by Jules Verne

I'M WRITING THIS BECAUSE I JUST FOUND out that my favorite bookseller in the world, Michel Roethel, is dead.  He was mysterious and his bookstore obscure.  It was on the Rue Lagrange in Paris.  It sold the works of only one author.  And its proprietor didn't like selling books at all: M. Roethel always seemed unhappy when a book managed to leave his shop.  

Some years ago — it might have been in 1984 — I told a friend of my growing delight in Jules Verne, and how I'd so much like to own one of his books in its original format. Verne's novels were first published in the middle of the century before the one before this one. The series was called Voyages Extraordinaires. The publisher and editor was Verne's dear friend Pierre-Jules Hetzel. The bindings were intaglio'd with globes and alembics, elephants and balloons, harpoons and astrolabes. Though they were tooled leather, they gave the sense of dark wood, of hand-turned brass. They seemed not just of another era but of another world. To run your fingers over the cover of a Hetzel octavo was to go on an extraordinary voyage, a Braille of wonder. 

I was told that if I wanted to purchase a Voyage Extraordinaire, the place to go was the Librairie Jules Verne, called l'Île Mysterieuse. I was told they specialized in the author. I was not told that they sold nothing else.

One late-autumn afternoon I walked from the 7th down the Blvd. St.-Germain to the Librairie in the 5th, on the other side of the Boul Mich', in the old Latin Quarter, at the foot of Notre Dame. The windows were dusty, the interior dark, there was no indication that the store was open. 

But the door was unlocked.

I was greeted by an older man in a tweed jacket and a knit scarf. "Greeted," perhaps, is not the right word. He acknowledged my presence with a small nod while I gazed — in rapture, in wonderment — at book after book after book. There were hundreds of them. All extraordinary. All by Jules Verne. At length I found a lovely red-and-gold Hetzel edition of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. And in my best French, I told the proprietor that I wished to buy it. 

In response, he held that book cover-to-cover against an octavo edition of l'Ïle mystérieuse and asked me, what is the passage between the two? I thought a bit, and said, Captain Nemo. He then kept his grip on l'Ïle mystérieuse while holding up to its other side a third book, Les Enfants du capitaine Grant. And this passage, he asked. I said Captain Grant. He nodded and sat back down, as if our business were concluded.

I then asked if I might purchase the 20,000 Leagues. No, he said, I will not sell it to you. I wondered if I'd given the wrong answers, failed the test. These editions, he then said, these are for rich men. For interior decorators. For people who don't know what these books are. You — and here he looked at me for the first time — you are a reader. Wait here. And with that he opened a small door at the rear of the shop that led to a narrow set of downward stairs. Descended. Disappeared.

I stood among the extraordinary voyages for perhaps twenty minutes, at once enraptured by the surroundings and deeply afraid to leave. What if he never came back?

But come back he did, holding an 1870s edition of the novel, identical in every respect to the one I'd been cradling, except that it was bound with cardboard. Marbled cardboard, like a schoolchild's composition book. This one I will sell you, he said. This one is 150 francs. And for 150 francs — something like twenty five dollars — I purchased the loveliest book, more than a century old, that had voyaged extraordinarily from Hetzel, through who knew how many hands, to my own. I opened it. There was the engraving of Nemo, in his underwater suit, at home at the bottom of the sea. The Nautilus itself: mobilis in mobili. In turning the cover I had opened a door to my past and, just perhaps, to my future.

I closed the book and was expressing thanks when he extended a chair and said, chess? It seemed impolite to refuse. He beat me without effort, then did so again. After the third quick defeat he looked up. I'll let you, he said, take your purchase with you. But you must come back.

I did come back. Many times. We'd talk about Captain Grant, about the subcontinental origins of Captain Nemo (aka Prince Dakkar), about the grand adventures of Michael Strogoff. We'd play chess. He'd win. (I later learned that M. Roethel was a FIDE-ranked player with a Morphy number of 3.) The books smelled of must and dust and leather, M. Roethel of citrus and old wool. I was happy there. I never bought a second book. What pleasure in removing a child from its cradle?

In more recent years I'd feared for his health, and would, when I landed in Paris, always hurry that day or the next to the Rue Lagrange, hoping that the shop — and its proprietor — were still there.  In this century the shop was open by hazard or appointment. When I would see M. Roethel, he looked pale. He'd wear his overcoat indoors. But his voice was firm, telling of the authentications and appraisals he'd been performing at the behest of the French judicial system. And, of course, he always won at chess.

One year there was a brief, handwritten note affixed to the front glass:



Sur RENDEZ-VOUS seulement! 
merci de votre comprehension 


The last time I visited, the shop was dark. Back at the hotel, I called his number. After several rings an unfamiliar voice answered. It was Madame Roethel. She said her husband wasn't feeling well, but might I come back next week? I told her that next week I'd be back in the United States. I'm sorry, she said. She couldn't have been more gracious, and when I hung up I was very sad.

I now learn that M. Roethel died last fall. He was 84 years old. There were small notices in the French chess magazines, and a brief piece on a Spanish bibliophile website. It began, Siempre que muere un librero los libros lloran.

M. Roethel's mysterious island could, over time, make you feel like its guest. And M. Roethel himself could, over time, make you feel like a reader. It was his highest honorific.

It is hard not to remember him, at his desk, enclosed by walls of fragrant, irreplaceable books, entertaining his guest with tales of chess with Duchamp, or disappearing into his basement for what seemed like hours to retrieve a particular edition of Les Enfants du capitaine Grant.  Which he'd talk about, over the small wooden chess table, as if nothing else mattered, as if there were all the time in the world.  


LARB Contributor

Howard A. Rodman wrote the films Joe Gould’s SecretSavage Grace, and August, and the novels The Great Eastern and Destiny Express. He served as the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.


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