Celebrating the Pierre Bergé Collection at Albertine

September 10, 2015 | By French Culture

On Wednesday, September 9, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur delivered the following remarks before a lecture by Antoine Compagnon, Professor at Columbia University and Collège de France, in celebration of the upcoming auction of the rare books library of collector Pierre Bergé at Sotheby’s. The event was held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and at the reading room and bookshop, Albertine, in New York. A selection of Pierre Bergé’s library was on view throughout the evening.

Good evening. As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, it is my great honor to greet all of you as we celebrate the upcoming auction of the Pierre Bergé collection.

We are fortunate to be joined by an exceptional guest speaker, Antoine Compagnon, and by a room of antique book lovers: all of you. As you know, promoting books is at the heart of our mission. Just under a year ago, we opened Albertine Books, which has its own selection of antique books.

We are thrilled to be collaborating with Sotheby’s. I want to thank Adrien Legendre, who organized the evening with us, and François-Xavier Schmit, Director of Albertine and our own libraire, who also dedicated great attention to this evening. And a special thank you to Richard Austin, Head of the Books & Manuscripts department at Sotheby’s in New York. Mr. Austin helped organize a traveling exhibition of Pierre Bergé’s collection. It is also my honor to welcome Benoît Forgeot, representing the Pierre Berge Foundation.

Tonight, we are invited take a very special journey into a man’s life through his books. 

Pierre Bergé is so well known that he needs no introduction. He is an entrepreneur, a major arts patron, and long-time companion of Yves Saint Laurent. In 2001, he was named Great Patron of Arts and Letters and he has supported many museum projects at the Louvre, National Gallery in London, and the Centre Pompidou, among others. 

Although he is a public figure, Pierre Bergé remains, for me, and I am sure for many others, a man of mystery. Tonight his books will give us all a means to uncover a deeper understanding of the collector and an opportunity to see him in a different light.  As a library is always an extension of its owner, each book in his collection is a portal to memories from his past and gives us insight into his involvement in art, fashion, and politics.

Although 19th century French literature is the core of his library, with works by Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Emile Zola, and many others, his collection spans more than five centuries and many languages.

It is a true “world library,” containing literature from around the globe. Over the years, Bergé has sought out works by his favorite authors in their original languages. His collection now includes works by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russian; Kafka, Benjamin, and Mann in German; Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Joyce in English; and Miguel de Cervantes in Spanish. This diversity leads me to another reason for which we are honored to be part of this event: what matters to us is not only supporting French literature, but more broadly defending cultural diversity and the promotion of each country’s literary heritage. 

This event also gives us the opportunity to learn more about a very recent and special encounter between Pierre Bergé and Antoine Compagnon. 

Antoine Compagnon needs no introduction either—but I will introduce him anyway. Antoine Compagnon is a Professor of literature at the College de France and Columbia University. He specializes in the Renaissance, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and theory of literature and history of criticism.

He is one of the world’s foremost specialists on Marcel Proust. The mere name of our bookshop, Albertine, makes him feel at home here at the Embassy.  

Professor Compagnon is a passionate scholar whose writing on authors such as Montaigne, Proust and Baudelaire has infused their work with new life for contemporary readers. He has a deep academic knowledge of these authors but is also talented at making them accessible to a wide audience. I was quite amazed a few years ago to see vacationers reading his book, A Summer with Montaigne, on beaches in France. I never knew that Montagine could be a “beach read.” 

There is a delightful video interview on Sotheby’s website in which Professor Compagnon talks with Pierre Bergé about his exquisite collection. We can easily tell that they are kindred spirits. So it was quite surprising to discover that Pierre Bergé and Professor Compagnon only met very recently. 

In the opening paragraph of his preface to the Sothebys’ catalogue for the Bergé auction, Compagnon writes: “I did not want to meet Pierre Bergé… entrepreneurs and professors often clash.”

But it seems to have been a very successful encounter. The conversation captures their shared enthusiasm, knowledge, and respect for one another.  They both agree that Genet is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The only point on which they seem to strongly disagree on is who is more qualified to talk about Montaigne (!)

For Compagnon, their meeting seems to have inspired a new appreciation for the book collector. After meeting Pierre Bergé, Antoine Compagnon went as far as to dismiss Proust’s description of the bibliophile and to conclude that Proust did not understand book collecting—at least not that of Pierre Bergé.

It is a great pleasure to have Antoine Compagnon with us this evening to illuminate Pierre Bergé’s literary treasures—and conversely—to illuminate the man through his collection.

Thank you, and enjoy!

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