“Directions for the Construction of the Text” — Albrecht Dürer
THE letters which are usually called “text,” or quadrate, it was formerly customary so to write, although they are now imitated by the new art, as presently I shall show below. Although the alphabet begins with the writing of A, yet shall I (not needlessly) in the first place undertake to draw an I; because almost all the other letters are formed after this letter, although always something has to be added to it or taken away.
First make your I of equal squares, of which three are properly set one over the other; and the top of the top one, and the bottom of the bottom one, divide in two points, that is to say, into three equal parts: then set a square equal to the others in an oblique manner, so that its diagonal be vertical, and its angle on the first point of the top square. In this way, this oblique square shall extend with its angles more to the left than the right. Then produce upwards on either side, after the width of the superposed squares, right lines to meet the sides of the oblique set square. Next do below precisely as you did above, except that you must set the angle of the oblique square on the second point, that is, the one farthest to the right in the bottom of the lowest square; and let fall your lines on either side upon the transposed square: so will I be perfect; only above it draw with a fine pen a tiny in-crescent.
This realization of the impossibility of salvation matches the unrelated condition of melancholy which, in developing its own rituals, promises some relief but not release from suffering and the “feral deseases” so often mentioned in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Among these rituals, in the narrator’s case, are the nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, the unfolding of maps, and the making of plans for imaginary journeys to the most distant of lands, countries that might well lie beyond the sea shown in the background of Dürer’s Melencolia. Like Robert Burton, who was familiar with melancholy all his life, the narrator is a man “who delights in cosmography … but has never travelled except by map and card.” And the summer bed with room enough for seven sleepers where he meditates on stories such as that of the Black Death, with all its paths and coincidences, is of the same century as Burton’s compendium, an era of anxiety when the fear was first uttered “that the great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes.” The narrator’s digressive excursions from the starting point of this realization open up the view—again, a reminiscence from Hamlet—of a world lying far below melancholy, a “dead globe crawling with parasites” whose power of attraction is spent and forfeit. The icy sense of distance as the narrator turns away from all earthly life represents a vanishing point in the dialectic of melancholy. However, the other dimension of the Saturnian circumstances responsible for melancholy does point, as Benjamin has said and in the context of the heavy, dry nature of that planet, to the type of man predestined to hard and fruitless agricultural labor. It is probably no coincidence that the narrator’s only utilitarian occupation seems to be growing herbs. He sends these herbs, dried and in carefully adjusted mixtures, to various delicatessens in Milan and Amsterdam as well as to Germany, to Hamburg and Hannover. Perhaps they bear the words “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” written in Ophelia’s hand.
From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Constructs of Mourning,” collected in Campo Santo.
As the season for giving arrives, Biblioklept reviews three beautiful books that children and adults alike will enjoy.
First up is E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 Christmas classic Nutcracker in translation by Ralph Manheim and beautifully illustrated by the late Maurice Sendak. In 1983, Sendak designed sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s adaptation of Nutcracker and in 1984 he translated some of those designs into a book edition.
According to a 2001 profile with NPR, Sendak was initially unsure about working on what he considered “the most bland and banal of ballets.” However, upon reading Hoffman’s original text, Sendak discovered a work full of “weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece,” an observation he notes in his introduction to Nutcracker.
The NPR profile notes that Sendak intended to bring “Hoffmann’s original story back to audiences, especially by having the main character, a girl named Clara, brought back into the story.” Sendak believed
The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children. . . . [She goes] where the wild things are . . . She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.
These “strange, weird” qualities—the same tones that made Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are a classic of children’s literature—are on display in Nutcracker. Hoffman’s text in Manheim’s translation has a wonderfully episodic, even picaresque quality that restores a sense of adventure—and even peril—to the smooth play we might be familiar with sitting through each December.
Nutcracker’s reading level, length, and tone make it likely appropriate for children over eight or nine, but younger children will enjoy reading the story through Sendak’s marvelous and strange illustrations.
Nutcracker is available in a new hardback edition from Random House.
Next up is Annelore Parot’s Kokeshi Kimonos from Chronicle Books.
Koskeshi Kimonos is a fun and stylish book that uses kokeshi dolls to showcase facets of Japanese culture including attire and family life. The book features folding flaps, pull out sections, and other interactive features that will appeal to younger children. It’s the sort of aesthetically charming book that adults can enjoy as well.
Kokeshi Kimonos will likely appeal to younger readers—five to nine—and seems particularly suited to girls (although this doesn’t mean boys wouldn’t enjoy it, of course). The cute kokeshis are a wonderful alternative to the sterile, plastic world of Barbie and other facile dolls.
Finally, Ernest Raboff’s Albrecht Dürer, part of his Art for Children series. The book is out of print but not impossible to find.
Raboff presents Dürer’s life simply and in clear context, using about a dozen beautiful prints from the German master, as well as many of his etchings. Raboff also hand letters the book, and provides his own sketches and illustrations occasionally to clarify and explain Dürer’s work.
What I love most about Raboff’s book though is the way he integrates elements of art appreciation into his book in subtle, simple ways. Lovely:
I took my kids to the book store today and let them run like heathen.
They had fun. I usually take them separately (and usually they go to the library), but their mother is at work and we needed to get out of the house.
My daughter picked out a few books for her little brother (and then read them to him, sort of).
She also picked out a book of antique paper dolls (Dolly Dingle) and an Anne of Green Gables pop up cottage book to let the dolls live in.
Here’s what I picked out, maybe more for me than them:
A beautiful illustrated Durer biography that’s written more or less like a comic book, and an illustrated edition of Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”