Hors-série sorcery – An Irishman’s Diary about Myles na gCopaleen, Julian Barnes, and limited-edition books

Myles na gCopaleen should have been alive to read an ad from the current London Review of Books for a limited edition of the latest Julian Barnes novel. Not that he would have been surprised by the product's extravagance.

As long ago as 1942, on a forerunner of this page, Myles was lampooning the tendency of publishers to fetishise literature in the interest of commerce, thus: “You know the limited edition ramp. If you write very obscure verse [...] for which there is little or no market, you pretend that there is enormous demand, and that the stuff has to be rationed. Only 300 copies will be printed, you say, and then the type will be broken up for ever. Let the connoisseurs and bibliophiles savage each other for the honour and glory of snatching a copy. Positively no reprint. Reproduction in whole or in part forbidden. Three hundred copes of which this is Number 4,312. Hand-monkeyed oklamon paper, indigo boards in interpulped squirrel-toe, not to mention twelve-point Campile Perpetua cast specially for the occasion. Complete, unabridged, and positively unexpurgated. Thirty-five bob a knock and a gory livid bleeding bargain at the price.”

In fairness to Barnes, and in case his lawyers are reading, we are not for a moment implying that he is a poet, obscure or otherwise. Nor do we question the demand for the writings of a man who won the Booker Prize. Even so, the text of his latest novel has its work cut out to better the packaging of the LRB edition, which is limited to 100 copies, and printed on "150 gsm Logan Book Wove paper".

That's just for starters. As if to say "hold my beer" to Myles, the ad then proceeds to the full glorious detail of the offer:  "Numbers 1 to 75 (plus two hors-série) have been quarter-bound in Harmatan Green 16 goatskin and green Dubletta cloth sides with letterpress label to front, and contain one facsimile page of the author's initial notebook entry. Numbers i to xxv (plus three hors-série) have been fully bound in the same leather and contain a folder of six facsimile pages of holographic notes, night-time jottings and draft typescript with corrections. All copies have wine red endpapers and are housed in Dubletta slip cases lined with suedel."


Phew. I know Harmatan Green well – it's a lovely part of London. But until now, if you had mentioned "hors-série" to me in conversation, I would have assumed it to be an establishment of the kind run by Willie Mullins or Jessica Harrington.

And since when did the "night-time jottings" of authors become literary merchandise? Next they'll be marketing their coffee-stain notes. Oh wait – the LRB is ahead of me there. I see now that the "wine red endpapers" have a designer claret ring-stain: I'm just not sure if the wine-glass was an original Barnes.

Myles’s response to the 1940s version of this was to pursue it to its logical conclusion.

For a mere five shillings each, he announced, book-lovers could subscribe to his own forthcoming volume, which would be designed for “eight point Caslon on turkey-shutter paper with covers in purple corduroy”: “But look out for the catch. When the type is set up, it will be instantly destroyed and NO COPY WHATSOEVER WILL BE PRINTED. In no circumstance will the company’s servants be permitted to carry away even a rough printer’s proof. The edition will be so utterly limited that a thousand pounds will now buy even one copy. That is my idea of being exclusive”.

Maybe he thought this would put an end to such excesses.

On the contrary, he was shutting the hors-série door after the inmates had bolted.

The full-leather Barnes has already sold out, at £350 a pop.

For a mere £175, you might still get one of the quarter-bounds.

Alas for bibliophiles, actual Myles na gCopaleen books were nearly as scarce after 1942 as his invisible limited edition, until a late-career revival sent the real-life Brian O’Nolan back to novel-writing, under his Flann O’Brien hat.

Despite the long hiatus, however, his work continues to be widely enjoyed and studied today.

The latest evidence is a forthcoming two-day conference as Gaeilge at Maynooth University. As its title suggests – "Ón nGruagach Gréaghach go Myles na gCopaleen - Saol agus Saothar Mhuintir Nualláin" – the event will concern not just Myles, but his Irish-speaking family in general. Part of the Léachtaí Cholm Cille series, it runs from April 6th - 7th.

The full programme is at leachtaicholmcille.ie