Bernard Breslauer first met Martin Bodmer in the spring of 1938 in Zurich. He described the meeting in these terms: “I was led through several drawing rooms decorated with splendid paintings. Tea was served in Martin Bodmer’s study. It was the first time I met him, and although he impressed me, I immediately felt at ease with him. This patrician had the face of an intellectual whose features, while animated when in conversation, had at rest an ascetic look that the years were to etch deeper still. He gave me an idea of his collection straightaway.” And the author adds further on, “One had the impression at times that it was not he who possessed the library but the library that possessed him.”
Werner Weber had the same impression: “In the rooms of his Library, Martin Bodmer was transformed. When he spoke, his eyes would sparkle, his gaze would go to some point beyond whoever was in front of him. Around him stood more people than there were in reality. Which didn’t prevent him from remaining the man he was and not letting any of the entreaties of the moment slip away, yet something essential held him as if he were standing back. As if time were not passing and he were in a perpetual state of dialogue with the great minds of his collection.” (NZZ, 28 March 1971)
Odile Bongard, who was his personal secretary and associate for 30 years, summed up in a few words, in a file sent to the Board, what characterized the great bibliophile in her eyes: “He was first and foremost a loner, who liked order, simplicity, but above all quality.” She describes the daily rhythms of Martin Bodmer’s life, between his obligations, his holidays with his family, and a few trips: “Telephone call around 10 am or 10:30. He would appear by late morning, acquainted himself with the ‘follow-up,’ providing different things to do. Entering the reading room, he would greet the staff before occasionally going to the card index, where he would take notes. Next he would go over the collections alone, then come back and say a few words or make a few observations. He would return home for 12:30. Afternoons he would often stop by between 3:30 and 4:30.”
What you have achieved will be revealed at the moment when you send forth your spirit.
One can read this inscription in Cologny’s old cemetery on Martin Bodmer’s tombstone. Individuum est ineffabile, the truth of a man resists everything that one can say of him. Yet his work speaks for him. The undertaking of this cultivated patrician was endowed with a soul, a demanding, elevated aim. Zurich and Weimar, those two cultural centers “spiritually shaped” him. He wanted to produce a “spiritual edifice,” bringing together the written traces of the “creations of the human spirit,” a place where “the path of man to himself” (der Weg des Menschen zu sich selber) would be made visible. Thus he envisioned his collection not only as a library, but also as “a museum of documents testifying to the history of the human spirit”: “Although the idea of a museum was far from our mind, the Bodmeriana is closer to that concept than to a library in the usual sense of the term.”
At the time of his 70th birthday, he summarized his vision in a letter to Bernard Breslauer: “The constant worry about the progress of the human mind is, if not the most dynamic concept, then at least the best one can have. In the future, as much as today, it will retain its meaning and its nobility. Let us then carry on our task, each of us at our place, and let us continue to transmit our contribution to the edifice of true culture.”
These are the same reasons that drove him to work diligently on “a summary of human civilization,” led him to found Corona, a literary review organized around an elite group of writers of his day, pushed him, during the war, to serve the International Committee of the Red Cross, and finally sparked in him a new idea, which has taken root since, of providing “intellectual assistance” to prisoners of war.