Fiction | From the Archives of



The Baroness was my first and most loyal client. Previously, before I inherited the firm, she’d been one of my father’s oldest and most loyal clients. In the course of a long collector’s life, she’d assembled one of the finest private libraries of material pertaining to Charles Baudelaire. She was more than a collector, and even the word bibliophile did not quite describe her. She was an obsessive. She lavished on her books the same doting affection other members of her class reserve for horses and wine, and so she accorded as much importance to its binding as to what it contained. To her, bookbinding was an art, a bookbinder an artist almost the equal of the writer. A fine, bespoke binding, she liked to say, was the finest compliment a book could be paid. Whenever I undertook one of her commissions, the Baroness would visit my studio on Rue des Bernardins, keeping an interested eye on the process, without interfering. For her, it was a pleasure to witness a rare book coming into being in an equally rare binding. And as her collection was intended for her private pleasure, and her fortune inexhaustible, she liked to indulge her taste for materials the modern world considers taboo or, occasionally, even criminal. Previously, I’d bound a rare Arabic edition of Les Fleurs du mal in leather made from the skin of a panther. On another occasion, at a time when it was already illegal to do so, I’d bound a first edition of Le Spleen de Paris in real Argentinian pony skin. On this occasion, however, I had reservations about the material she wished me to use. This particular manuscript should be bound, she said, in human skin. When I expressed my reservations, she said she herself would provide the skin, prepared by a master tanner. Although she would not reveal where she’d acquired it, she assured me its provenance was irreproachable. Should I turn down the commission, she said, she’d offer it to my nearest rival. I sensed an implicit threat that a refusal would end our personal and professional relationships. She then proposed to pay me a fee so outlandish I felt compelled to discuss the matter with my wife. The Baroness accorded me a full day to decide. And so, long into the night, we discussed the Baroness’ offer.

Three days later, the manuscript was delivered by a young fellow riding a scooter. He didn’t remove his helmet, leaving his voice muffled and his face obscured. He handed me a leather satchel that, when I checked, contained the manuscript and the skin I would use to bind it. The manuscript was in a large envelope, and the skin folded in a black velvet slip. Because of the value it represented to its owner, I immediately placed the satchel in a safety deposit box I keep above the workshop for that very purpose.

There are many more decisions to be made in binding a book, especially a rare one, than merely the choice of cover material. The gilding, the embossing, the stitching, the stamping, the endpapers, the ex-libris, the board, the frontispiece, the edges, the headband, the joints, the marbling, the slipcase, the title page—all these were decisions the Baroness, for all the trust she invested in me, wished to approve before any work was undertaken. That very evening, I removed the satchel from the box and examined it in order to formulate ideas about each of the aforementioned. Even when asked not to read a book, even the most scrupulous bookbinder cannot help but accidentally glimpse certain words or phrases. In this case, the title leapt out at me: Kreuzungen, here translated as Crossings. The manuscript consisted of what appeared to be three separate handwritten documents, all in French, all jumbled together. One of the two documents in French was written in a hand different from the others, on much older paper. The manuscript appeared to have led an eventful existence—the paper was yellowing, many pages were mottled with damp, the edges were crumpled, many corners were folded over, and the whole thing gave off the smell of old paper, which is nothing other than the smell of decay.

Then there was the matter of the skin. Removing it from its cotton slip, I held it in my hands, unfolding it so I could gauge its dimensions. It was about the size of a man’s back. In my mind’s eye, I’d imagined it as pink or white, the colour of my own skin, but it was brown skin stretched out before me. I told myself it may have been coloured during its tanning. It was as soft and pliable a leather as I have ever known, barely recognizable as human, but all the same its humanness bothered me, so much so that I had to suppress a wave of nausea. I placed the manuscript and the skin back in their respective containers, and the containers back in the satchel, and finally the satchel back in the deposit box, vowing to return to the task the following day, or at least at such time as I could be sure I could stomach it.

I admit I slept badly that night. In one sense, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Bespoke bookbinding is a profession in decline. My father had specialised in luxury binding, but nowadays, the old world of bibliophiles is dying away and a bookbinder’s trade consists mostly in preparing government documents for the archives. But for all its appeal, there was something wrong about this assignment, and when I finally fell asleep, it was thanks to the resolution I’d just made that my wife has been right all along, and that the next day I would call the Baroness to tell her I wouldn’t carry out the commission after all.

Only I didn’t call the next day, or the next, or the one after that. I was conflicted, I’m ashamed to say, and I avoided making the call, as one sometimes avoids doing the right thing precisely because it is hard to do. In fact, it took me a week to call the Baroness, and when I finally did so a man’s voice I didn’t recognise answered the telephone and said that she’d passed away in her sleep the previous week. I was told I’d missed the funeral, which had taken place two days earlier at her estate. The news so surprised me that I forgot to ask what to do about the manuscript.

The following day, as I was walking by the river along the Quai de la Tournelle, meditating on this turn of events, I ran into Morgane Rambouillet, a riverside bouquiniste who specialises in romance novels. Remembering the Baroness was a customer of hers, I mentioned her recent death. Morgane said she’d read about it in France-Soir. According to the newspaper, she hadn’t died in her sleep at all. The Baroness had been murdered, and moreover her body had been found with its eyeballs missing. I was so shocked I hurried to the nearest library to read the report for myself. Sure enough, the Baroness had been murdered and mutilated, but for all that the police, after a quickfire investigation, had concluded the death was suicide, despite there being no note or obvious motivation. I looked through all the other newspapers that day: that one report in France-Soir was the only mention of the incident. I looked through every national newspaper printed the previous week in France: nothing. I even checked the French-language Belgian newspapers for that week: again, only one newspaper mentioned the incident, a report in L’Écho of which the article in France-Soir was a word-for-word repetition.

For days thereafter, my wife and I discussed the matter endlessly. What haunted me, over and above the murder of one of the last of the grandes dames of Paris, was the fate of those two little grey agate wonders, remarked upon by all those who’d known her—her eyes. My father had told me that, in her youth, although not especially pretty, she’d passed as a great beauty thanks to those eyes; they were the wellspring of her charm and, ultimately, the key to her destiny. The marriage to the Baron de Croÿ had turned out unhappily, but the eyes never lost their sparkling, feline quality.

My wife, always more practical than I, thought it was natural I’d been lied to on the telephone. “They have to think of the family’s reputation,” she said. “They’re not going to tell every random stranger who calls that she was mutilated and murdered.” Finally, we concluded that the Baroness must have been mixed up in some shady book business. Rare books can bring out the worst in people. Logically, this led us to the same thought, one that was too awful to utter aloud: could the murder of the Baroness be connected somehow with the manuscript now lying in my safety deposit box?

I waited, over the following weeks, for instructions from the estate—whether to go ahead and complete the commission or to return it to its new owner, whoever that might be. But I never heard from anyone. If I didn’t volunteer the information that it was now in my safekeeping, it was partly out of a sense of dread. Obviously, I didn’t wish to visit upon my own family the fate that had befallen the Baroness. There was only one person in the world, other than my wife, who might know where it was: the man who’d delivered it—and I had not so much as seen his face. I wouldn’t be able to reognise his voice. I wasn’t even sure if it was a man. Given its value, I was quite certain the estate would eventually contact me about the manuscript, and so I left it unbound, resolved to wait until such time.

I waited for several months before I fully accepted the possibility that no one would be coming in search of the manuscript. It had, by accident, fallen into my lap. I decided the Baroness’ conditions no longer applied. Now that it belonged to me, even if accidentally and provisionally, I was free to read it. In one fevered sitting, on a winter’s night so cold ice was forming on the Seine, I read the manuscript in its entirety. It consisted of three stories, all jumbled together in a confusing sequence. For the sake of clarity, I untangled the three different threads, making notes on the sequence in which I found them. The first of the three tales, City of Ghosts, is a kind of noir thriller written by an unknown author in 1940. The second, The Education of a Monster, appears to be a short story written by Charles Baudelaire. The handwriting appears to be authentic, even if the story itself does not, for reasons that will become clear to the reader. The third story, The Seven Lives of Alula, is the strangest of all. It appears to be the autobiography of a kind of deathless succubus. Readers can read each story independently or, by following the page numbers in parentheses at the end of each section, can read the book in the order in which I found it.

And so, having read and untangled the story, working alone in a soft dawn light, I set about binding it. In the end, I chose a conventional, nondescript binding, using a horse leather the French call ‘skin of sorrow’. I had no doubt in my mind that the manuscript was valuable—perhaps even priceless, as the Baroness had contended—but I did not wish the book I was making to draw attention to itself. Once it was bound, my wife also read it. Despite the circumstances of its acquisition, we agreed the book ought to be published. The story of its publication—not to mention its pre-history—would make a compelling book in itself, one I have every intention of writing. For now, this preface must suffice.