‘I started to conceive my library about 35 years ago, during the First World War. The poor quality of the publications available at the time was in keeping with the sad circumstances of the war. Apart from the famous Tempest, my copies of the Inferno, the Odyssey and Faust were very cheap editions – not to mention the small Bible I received for my confirmation. It was a very modest collection indeed!
But still, I already had the ‘glorious pentagon’: Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, who remains unequalled to this day. All I had to do was increase the quality and number of works representing Goethe, and add other great works to this core of Weltliteratur. ‘ (in Fritz Ernst, Von Zürich nach Weimar, 1951, p.16)
The library was to be made up ‘of all that human genius has expressed in words, and in more than words. It would be inconceivable not to include music as it is recorded with written scores. The same is true of works of art that are passed on through illustrations or descriptions. How many old monuments would have been lost for ever, had it not been for eyewitnesses! Moreover, much of the way we see the world has been transmitted by great minds, which have gradually opened man’s eyes. History is the same. It is perceived the way historians, from Herodotus or Toynbee, present it. And what about the natural sciences? All sciences? When we talk about muses and erudition, we should not forget the vast realms of beliefs and faith, philosophy and religion. That is what Weltliteratur is.’ (ibid. p.17)
He added that to find one’s way around this vast undertaking, ‘only the essentials count – that is to say, whatever has managed to stay alive, one way or another, over the centuries. So what are the essentials? Creations of the human mind that have exceeded the boundaries and the expectations of their periods of origin. That is also Weltliteratur!’
Bernard Gagnebin (1915 – 1995)
On 31 January 1971, Bernard Gagnebin, Dean of the Faculté des lettres at Geneva University from 1962 to 1974, wrote the following letter to Martin Bodmer:
‘Dear Sir and Friend,
I thank you for allowing me to look again at your Balzac manuscripts. The five short stories make up part of the Scenes from Private Life, which are themselves a fragment of the immense Human Comedy. You once asked me about one peculiar feature of French literature. It has no author who towers above all the rest, no Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes or Goethe. You asked me whether I considered Balzac to be the greatest author in French literature. My answer is once more “No”. Rousseau and Voltaire are just as great or perhaps greater. So too are Flaubert and Montaigne, and Baudelaire and Proust. One of the specific features of French literature is its multiplicity.
Allow me to take this opportunity to say once more how much I admire the library you have created, expanded, enriched and catalogued with such care over so many years. It really is something unique in a world ruled by technology, sciences and profit. You have created something truly exceptional in the shade of Cologny’s pines, cedars and chestnuts. It must live for a long time to come and must be a rallying point for all those who believe that the mind is superior to matter, and who refuse to be seduced by materialism and facility. The collection you have assembled gives an extraordinary idea of the human adventure, or to be accurate, the greatness of man.
At Cologny, we can trace man’s attempt to discover the world, to communicate with his fellow men through language, art and literature, to invent writing, papyrus, parchment and, before long paper and typography, and gradually to acquire more understanding, more wisdom and great humanity.
This is why I very sincerely wish that you will be able to direct this project for a long time to come, and to bring this admirable collection to life. I send my best wishes for your recovery, as you are dear to us for more than one reason.
Please pass on my respectful compliments to Madame Bodmer and accept, dear sir, my sincere thanks’.