“Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” by Donald Barthelme
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable,” he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations. What if one of them fell into the hands of the authorities? Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would very likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moralright to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. We agreed that the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to. We decided to refer to the event as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams.” A handsome script was selected from a catalogue and we picked a cream-colored paper. Magnus said he’d see to having the invitations printed, and wondered whether we should serve drinks. Colby said he thought drinks would be nice but was worried about the expense. We told him kindly that the expense didn’t matter, that we were after all his dear friends and if a group of his dear friends couldn’t get together and do the thing with a little bit of eclat, why, what was the world coming to? Colbv asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said,”Certainly.”
The next item of business was the gibbet. None of us knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans. The important thing, as far as he recollected, was that the trapdoor function perfectly. He said that just roughly, counting labor and materials, it shouldn’t run us more than four hundred dollars. “Good God !” Howard said. He said what was Tomas figuring on, rosewood? No, just a good grade of pine, Tomas said. Victor asked if unpainted pine wouldn’t look kind of “raw,” and Tomas replied that he thought it could be stained a dark walnut without too much trouble.
“Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free” |Haute Culture Publisher Luis de Miranda Interviewed
Biblioklept: What is Haute Culture Press?
Luis de Miranda: Haute Culture is a new venture in luxury publishing with a mission to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world. Since your site is called “Biblioklept,” I’ll start by saying that we are a new kind of Robin Hood: we give to both the “poor” and the “rich.” We offer free e-books to the modern global reader interested in discovering hidden gems of classic European literature and, simultaneously, we offer individuals of greater means the opportunity to become mini-Medici’s, actively supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious limited edition book that will increase in value year after year.
This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free. The sales of our limited luxury editions—each a distinctive art object—support the distribution of free e-books for each of our titles. Buyers of our limited editions, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers.
Furthermore, as e-books become cheaper and cheaper, I want to create a model that does not depend on the diminishing revenues of e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.
Biblioklept: Is the possible disconnect between electronic books and “luxury” an issue? Does this new publishing model privilege the book as an aesthetic object?
LdM: This model privileges the free distribution of quality literature and it reinvents the physical book as a cult object. I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of screens, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentleman’s library” (or “gentlewoman’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making, while at the same time subsidizing the free distribution of our e-books and building a new global audience for iconic European literary masters.
Biblioklept: Is Haute Culture the first group to employ this model, to your knowledge?
LdM: Yes. We are innovating and experimenting. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring uncharted territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge. We might fail or we might create a new path that the others will soon follow.
Biblioklept: Why did you choose A.H. Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice as the first book in this series?
LdM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. In December 2013, it will be on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Volume I of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It is a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have some personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.
Biblioklept: What is Tammasaare’s book about? Why is it important?
LdM: Truth and Justice is considered Tammsaare’s most important work. It was written during the rise of dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—and it captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Though it’s deeply rooted in Estonian peasant life, the first volume deals with timeless literary and philosophical issues, developing a vigorous, straightforward narrative that addresses the dual nature of the human psyche.
The book’s characters, storylines, and language continue to inform Estonia’s culture today. References to Truth and Justice are pervasive, and one hears its echoes in contemporary Estonian literature, as well as other art forms. One need only call two men “Andres and Pearu” for any Estonian to understand the nature of their relationship.
Volume I presents life in an Estonian village, as farmers battle against nature during the last quarter of the 19th century. The two main characters, both unique and powerful men, represent the essential conflicts of human nature: not only good vs. evil, but also hope vs. conservatism, conquest vs. pettiness. The saga explores how human impulses compete with each other and complete the characters.
Although the first volume seems entirely dedicated to peasant life in rural Estonia at the threshold of modernity, the book deals with fundamental issues that are quite relevant today. You might say this book reflects what we are trying to do at Haute Culture. Truth and Justice is a story of simple people who work the land endlessly, striving to build a world were truth and justice prevail, where good is fostered and protected, not killed by conformity or lack of courage. Beautiful things grow slowly like plants. Perhaps this is a lesson for all the capitalists of the world.
Biblioklept: What future plans do you have for Haute Culture? What other books would you like to publish?
LdM: We are currently translating a Russian book by the cult novelist Yuri Mamleyev, called Shatuny. We are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Shatuny is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth. Maybe we are obsessed by truth?
Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate only genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.
English is now the international language and I believe it’s possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LdM: When I was 18, I had a summer job at a bookshop in the Pompidou Center in Paris. At the end of my first day, I took about 20 books home with me, feeling that I had found Ali Baba’s cave, but a few days later I felt guilty and replaced all the books on their shelves.
My daughter, six, brought home some books from the library a few weeks ago. “These are good,” she reported, showing them to me. “They have medals on them.”
In the last weeks of last month, I got behind three bemedaled or bestickered books (okay, these aren’t really stickers anymore, but I don’t know what to call the stickers—blazons? Emblems? Medals?)—here they are:
Jim Crace’s Harvest, beblazoned with a Man Booker Finalist blazon. From The New York Times’s review earlier this year:
In its poetry of the precarious hereafter, “Harvest” calls to mind J. M. Coetzee’s finest and most allegorical novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Like Coetzee, Crace asks large questions: How will ordinary people behave when ripped from their mundane routines, cut adrift from comforting old verities? What suppressed capacity for cruelty may surface? What untested gift for improvised survival?
Next: Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, bemedaled with an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 medal. I don’t know what 2.0 means here, but the sticker I’ll admit is immediately off-putting. I also originally read the title as The Twelve Tribes of Hottie, also off-putting. The actual premise of the book seems really good though. From The New York Times again:
When the country was too distracted to notice, caught up as it was with two world wars and the Depression, a great movement of people, of some six million African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, was upending the social geography of the country itself. The Great Migration would figure into much of the literature and music of 20th-century urban life — Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and Coltrane — and, decades after it ended, it still lives in myth and shadow, casting a spell upon race relations to this day and captivating the lives and imaginations of its descendants.
Still, there has been no novel like “The Grapes of Wrath” that looks squarely at this migration, which might have been the promise and yet not the purpose of so raw and intimate a book as “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the debut novel of Ayana Mathis. The story it tells works at the rough edges of history, residing not so much within the migration itself as within a brutal and poetic allegory of a family beset by tribulations. The narrative opens in 1925, as Hattie Shepherd, a 17-year-old wife and mother newly arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia, administers mustard poultices and droplets of ipecac to save her infant twins from the pneumonia that has crept into their limp bodies. Because of her desperate circumstances in the cold of the North, she loses her twins “in the order in which they were born.”
Finally, Olen Steinhauer’s An American Spy, bestickered with A New York Times Notable Book sticker. You know what? Im just gonna go ahead and borrow from The New York Times review again:
Not since John le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity. In this intensely clever, sometimes baffling book, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom, and which side is up.
So three books, all from major houses, all garnering accolades (in the form of stickers!), and all prominently and favorably reviewed by The New York Times. I’m sure there’s nothing troubling in this at all.
Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:
IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo.
I was looking for an image to accompany a riff I wrote on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. The riff circles around the skyship adventurers The Chums of Chance, characters who are both “real” in the novel and also “literary” — that is, they are the stars of dime novels that other characters in the novel read. I was hoping that maybe some creative soul had created a Chums of Chance book cover that I could use with the post. Through a few basic searches and a Metafilter board, I found my way to something far more intriguing—the strange watercolor and collage pieces of Charles August Albert Dellschau.
Here’s a little background on Dellschau (from John Foster’s excellent article–chock full of images!—at Observatory):
It turns out that the drawings/watercolors were the work of one Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830 – 1923). Dellschau was a butcher for most of his life and only after his retirement in 1899 did he begin his incredible career as a self-taught artist. He began with three books entitled Recollections which purported to describe a secret organization called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau described his duties in the club as that of the draftsman. Within his collaged watercolors were newspaper clippings (he called them “press blooms”) of early attempts at flight overlapped with his own fantastic drawings of airships of all kind. Powered by a secret formula he cryptically referred to as “NB Gas” or “Suppa” — the “aeros” (as Dellscahu called them) were steampunk like contraptions with multiple propellers, wheels, viewing decks and secret compartments. Though highly personal, autobiographical (perhaps!), and idiosyncratic, these artworks could cross-pollinate with the fiction of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz. The works were completed in a furiously creative period from 1899 to 1923, when air travel was still looked at by most people as almost magical. Newspapers of that period were full of stories about air travel feats and the acrobatic aerial dogfights of WWI were legend.
Verne, Oz, and steampunk are all clear comparisons. I’d add to them the manic spirit of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, the buzzing claustrophobia of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and the cartoony contours of turn-of-the-century comics.It also reminds me of Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. And of course, Dellschau’s work resonates strongly with Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, more ludic than lunatic. His work shows an obsession fueled by science and science fiction alike, as well as a frankly adolescent sense of line, proportion and color. I love it. See more here and here.
The following is the complete text of an email someone sent me today:
I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?
It seems that I have stolen many books. Let me elaborate on these and the occasions on which I thieved.
Although packs of baseball cards such as I used to steal from gas stations as a young boy are not books per se, this is how my thieving began. Perhaps. Or perhaps my thieving began further in my past than my memory now reaches.
I stole from a university library Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass–an earnest accident that I did not seek to right after I noticed I had escaped with it and that the magnetic gate had not reacted with its electronic screeching to alert the responsibles.
From the same erudite friend I stole The Captive Mind by Milosz, and also Le Parti pris by Francis Ponge. Perhaps Grass’s The Tin Drum too.
From an institute in France I stole an edition of selections from Apollinaire’s Alcools, as well as a Surrealist anthology. And both of André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos. From my host family I stole a book of Blaise Cendrars’s poetry.
Accidentally from a bookstore I stole Washington Square by Henry James. Honest.
From a library I stole Nicholas Mosley’s Serpent, as well as a book called The Art of Not Working, or some such title.
I have probably stolen ten or so other books. Titles escape me. That’s not too bad, I suppose.
Oh yes, I also stole that book Marilyn Manson wrote in the 1990s, and I gave it as a gift to a romantic interest. How unromantic this seems now.
I think I stole many books as an adolescent. Some of these I placed in my pants, held against my abdomen by the pressure of my pants waistline or belt. I think I stole numerous books related to sex when I was young.
I don’t think I’ve hardly ever borrowed a book and not returned it.
I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?
You know, I don’t normally do that (i.e. this), but I guess I could start.
If anyone else feels like anonymously confessing to book theft, email me.
There’s something gently elegiac about Marshall Brooks’s Paperback Island, which collects over a dozen essays on reading. While Brooks’s essays on books, libraries, publishers, and the friendships that hold all of them together are never dour, they nevertheless evoke a world now shifting into the realm of memory alone.
It’s fitting then that the starting point for the book is beat legend Tuli Kupferberg’s funeral. Here, Brooks runs into Susanna Cuyler, who lends him her apartment in New York just so he can read her book Not Just Another Voice there: “There was no overlooking the fact that her apartment and her book are virtually one,” writes Brooks. This early detail hooked me, encapsulating so much of the themes of time, place, and friendship that Paperback Island emphasizes.
The lead essay in the collection is “Paperback Island.” Here, Brooks relates an adolescent friendship codified in books: “Besides symbolizing the excitement of what books can mean to people, especially young people who are in the process of formulating their own world, these books are all that remain to me of this once close friendship.” Brooks renders the transformative power that this bookswapping friendship had on him, set against the backdrop of the culture shift of the late sixties and early seventies:
Informationally, and in other ways as well, the early 1970s prefigured the Internet. Vast amounts of information, heretofore beyond the reach of the masses, became available. The visually compartmentalized newsprint portions of Harper’s Magazine and the encyclopedic paperbound Whole Earth Catalog come immediately to mind, as does the collectively-produced—via the Boston Women’s Health Collective—1970 paperback, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Design-wise, they all accelerated the absorption of information from off the printed page in completely innovative ways, which today’s web pages perforce echo. In conjunction with FM radio, foreign films, Super 8 film, Swinger cameras, stereo records, tape cassettes , early video, offset printing, the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, and such empowering movements as Women’s Lib, etc. , they revolutionized the lives of everyone, and youth culture in particular.
It would perhaps be easy for Brooks to have crammed his book with anecdotes illustrating the effects of these changes, but instead Paperback Island focuses on something much more personal, following the tone of its eponymous essay. There are memory-essays for Tuli Kupferberg, James T. Farrell, and Sidney Bernard, whose rogue journalism collection This Way to the Apocalypse I am now on the lookout for. In the background of all of this looms Harry Smith, the poet-publisher and founder of The Smith, where Brooks cut his teeth in the seventies. Smith’s influence on Brooks resonates in loving passages like this one:
A legendary figure in the American small press movement, Harry more than fulfilled the role of patron-protector for countless contributors to his press. He impressively looked the role, too, nowhere more so than when he grandly made the circuit at small press fair . . . The Smith published scores of unknown and neglected writers . . . The press resembled nothing else in the publishing world large or small partly for this reason. I had always assumed that a place exactly like it existed, somewhere. That it had to. (Why else write, really?) A place where poetry counted for everything. Fate, in its greatness, encouragingly provided for its existence, and Harry Smith supplied that place.
It’s that sense of place that comes through so strongly in Paperback Island, whether Brooks is describing the offices of The Smith or the hotels that James T. Farrell adored. Brooks also captures the strange ways that microlibraries evolve from place, time, and friendship (he inherited many of Farrell’s paperbacks). I think most bibliophiles will instantly understand Brooks’s impulse to collect, catalog, keep the tomes.
And of course there are the bookshops, the wanderings, the meanderings, the notes on books and how we find them. A late riff on visiting a Boston Barnes & Noble finds Brooks picking up a Nook and reading a passage from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—his first time with an e-reader. The moment is not couched in resentment or alienation but simply experience—encountering an old book in a new way.
I should point out that Brooks has illustrated Paperback Island with photographs—of people, places, books—the things that make the book. (Books are made out of other books, some writer said). The photos are printed in rich color and add a documentary dimension to the book. Here’s a striking image of the closing of the Upper West Side branch of Shakespeare & Company—an image that perhaps captures more of the elegiac underpinnings of Paperback Island than I can do in words:
Paperback Island is shot-through with bibliophilia, a love of books that encompasses writers, readers, libraries, and publishers, yes—but also the mechanics of the book, the physical properties. It’s a love letter to books and the people who make them—and not just the writers and publishers, but the readers who make them, preserve them—and the friends who pass them on, make sure that others read them.
In a latter essay, “Physical Allure of the Book,” Brooks writes, “My friend Roger Skillings became a writer on account of picking up a Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners in a train station in Rome.” I’ll end this write-up in what I take to be the spirit of Brooks’s book, sharing a little anecdote of my own about a book I can’t part with.
In 2002 I was wandering Jimbocho, an area of Tokyo crammed with nearly 200 bookshops. I found, lying in the gutter but unsullied, a paperback Penguin Book — The Essential James Joyce, edited by Harry Levin. I glanced around, trying to see if the book was somehow connected to a nearby vendor, but it didn’t seem to be for sale. In any case, I surreptitiously slipped the book into my bag and walked on. I read “The Dead” on the train ride home. I’ve kept the book to this day, even though I have no need of a Joyce digest. I can’t help it. I love it.
Lydia Davis has won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize—and the £60,000 that go with it.
Here’s Davis’s short story “Money” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (and also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)
I don’t want any more gifts, cards, phone calls, prizes, clothes, friends, letters, books, souvenirs, pets, magazines, land, machines, houses, entertainments, honors, good news, dinners, jewels, vacations, flowers, or telegrams. I just want money.
According to the Man Booker press release,
Sir Christopher Ricks, chairman of the judges, said her “writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations.” Davis then is not like any other writer and she follows, and contrasts with, the previous winners of the prize -Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.
I love love love Davis’s work, including her essays, and am glad to see her win the money and the award. Maybe it speaks to a shift in what people are willing to accept as fiction. Or maybe not.
If you’re at all interested in Davis’s work, I highly recommend The Collected Stories, which collects her first four volumes (read my review if you need more persuasion).
Here’s Davis reading some of her stories:
You can also read some of her work here.
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!”
But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
From “The Symphony,” Chapter 132 of Melville’s Moby-Dick. The speaker is, of course, Ahab.
Layla Alexander-Garrett’s memoir Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector of Dreams is new from Glagoslav. Their blurb:
The Sacrifice is Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece. The film was shot in Sweden, during the summer of 1985, while Tarkovsky was in exile; it turned out to be his final testament. Day after day, while the film was being made, Layla Alexander-Garrett – Tarkovsky’s on-site interpreter – kept a diary which forms the basis of her award-winning book Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector Of Dreams. In this book the great director is portrayed as a real, living person: tormented, happy, inexhaustibly kind but at times harsh, unrelenting, conscience-stricken and artistically unfulfilled.
I’ve been riffling through it over the past few days. Alexander-Garrett describes her time with Tarkovsky in vivid detail—there’s a concrete richness to the book, and the author doesn’t try to psychoanalyze or interpret or otherwise interpose herself between the reader and the subject. More to come.
Book shelves series #53, fifty-third—and final!—Sunday of 2012: In which I take a few photos at random.
I somehow managed to squeeze 52 weeks of shots out of all the book-bearing surfaces of my home (—oh—I did one week from my office).
For the last in this series (yay!) I simply walked through the rooms of the house, took a few shots, and then put them in digital frames.
For the most part, my method was thoughtless, although I did grab a pic of a bookcase new to our house (second pic, top left) that dominates my son’s room.
I also took a pic of Perec’s essay collection because one of his essays inspired this (awful, awful) project.
From that essay, “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”:
We should first of all distinguish stable classifications from provisional ones. Stable classifications are those which, in principle, you continue to respect; provisional classifications are those supposed to last only a few days, the time it takes for a book to discover, or rediscover, its definitive place. This may be a book recently acquired and not read yet, or else a book recently read that you don’t quite know where to place and which you have promised to yourself you will put away on the occasion of a forthcoming ‘great arranging’, or else a book whose reading has been interrupted and that you don’t to classify before taking it up again and finishing it, or else a book you have used constantly over a given period, or else a book you have taken down to look up a piece of information or a reference and which you haven’t yet put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its rightful place because it doesn’t belong to you and you’ve several times promised to give it back, etc.
So, what did I get out of doing this project?
1. Photographing books is difficult—I mean physically. They all reflect light differently.
2. Doing a regularly-scheduled project is difficult.
3. I have too many books.
Okay. That’s it. Finis.
Book shelves series #52, fifty-second Sunday of 2012: In which, in this penultimate chapter, we return to the site of entry #1.
The first entry in this project was my bedside nightstand. This is what it looked like back in January:
This is it this morning:
This is the major difference:
The Kindle Fire has changed my late night shuffling habits.
Here are the books that are in the nightstand:
I read the Aira novel but completely forgot about it, which I’m sure says more about me than it.
Have no idea why this is in there:
But it’s a fun book. With pictures! Sample:
Finally, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual—this is one of my reading goals for 2013. It seems like a good way to close out this penultimate post, as one of Perec’s essays inspired this project
“Every library answers a twofold need, which is often also a twofold obsession: that of conserving certain objects (books) and that of organizing them in certain ways”
—Georges Perec, from ”Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)
Book shelves series #51, fifty-first Sunday of 2012
I am very ready for this project to be over. Two more weeks.
At this point, I’ve photographed all book shelves (and other bookbearing surfaces) in the house, but clearly the book shelves aren’t stable.
I mean, structurally, sure, they’re stable.
But their content shifts.
So this week (having three weeks left to fill), I go back to a sitting room in the front of the house where I like to read.
Above, resting on this cabinet, some current reading, including the latest DFW collection and Chris Ware’s Building Stories.
Below, a coffee table (first photographed in #7 of this series):
As usual, a few coffee table books, plus several review copies that I need to look at sometime next week:
One of the coffee table books is by Thomas Bernhard:
To the right of the case, a bin of books—mostly review copies that come in that I plan to write more about:
Book shelves series #50, fiftieth Sunday of 2012
There are fifty-three Sundays in 2012. I ran out of book shelves last week.
Here are some shelves/books from my office (work).
One wall is floor-to ceiling shelves—the whole wall—but most of the space is filled with files, folders, and professional books.
I tried to picture some of my favorite stuff—dictionaries, guides, and anthologies that remain inspiring.
There is also a little corner where I keep stuff I read in my office—review copies or other books that I work with when I have a spare hour.
Here’s a shelf (double stacked, as you might be able to see) that gets constantly shifted around. There are a couple of books about usage here that I like to bring into the classroom.
Of course, the best usage guide is Strunk & White’s classic:
This illustrated copy was a gift from some dear friends.
Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is a favorite.
Book shelves series #49, forty-ninth Sunday of 2012
Unless I’ve somehow miscalculated, this is the last book shelf in my house. It’s difficult to describe the room it’s in—sort of like a storage corridor that serves as an attic (my attic is tiny) with an ersatz workshop. Kids paints and art supplies dominate the top shelf; photo albums and year books the bottom. The middle holds all sorts of books that I can’t bear to get rid of, including a coffee-table history of MAD Magazine which is one of the first books I can remember begging my parents to get me.
There are also many, many back issues of MAD:
Also, lots of old books with out of date info, like a book about Jacques Cousteau, a book of Indian recipes which is more of a cultural guide, and this book of my home state:
Several old music zines (I should probably donate them to a zine library).
I have several dozens of these history packets called Discovery that I loved as a kid—they’d come with a booklet that illustrated the historical event in context, including opposing viewpoints, and they also had cool activities and games. I think they really helped me to learn as a child, and I can’t bear to get rid of them. Apparently Dennis Miller sat for the portrait of Guy Fawkes in the second issue.
The Science in Science Fiction probably deserves its own post it’s so wonderfully weird and silly.
Although this is the last shelf in my house, I said I’d do these posts each Sunday of 2012—and there are four more. I’ll visit the bookshelves in my office, the books in my car, take another look at the books on my nightstand (where I started) and then do a review post. Then I will never, ever do anything like this again.
Book shelves series #47, forty-seventh Sunday of 2012
So this is what happens—books pile up. Okay, maybe that sentence is missing a clear subject: I pile books up.
This stack mounded on my record player over the last week; I intended to shelve about half of these:
My shelving solution is woefully short-term (more double stocked shelves).
Anyway, this shelf is mostly other media, including DVDs, a few records, and playing cards.
Of note (perhaps) are the three illustrated volumes on the left that I’ve had forever.
The illustrated Kidnapped features art by N.C. Wyeth:
The illustrated Kipling was actually my father’s:
Have you read Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels? It’s good stuff.
Like many bibliophiles, I’m a sucker for plain Penguins:
Book shelves series #46, forty-sixth Sunday of 2012
Another double-stacked shelf. This one even has a stack of drifters.
This shelf is at my eye/arm level, and looking at it this way, I see that it gets a lot of shuffling—I can see where I started certain projects for the site.
I can see books that are in line, so to speak, for either proper shelving or for reading.
The mounding stack on the shelf below is a bit out of control, although most of what sits there comes from other places (I kinda sorta wrote about those here).
Below: Unsorted stuff that I’ve been reading of an afternoon:
This is the front stack—books that need proper shelving elsewhere, books that I’ve read (and sometimes reviewed here) in the past few months, or meant to read, or in some other way consulted or read from:
The far right side of the shelf—again, a very mixed bag. I think I originally intended to properly shelf everything here and then got sidetracked:
And here’s what’s behind the front stack—okay, I can see now the edges of an idea I had for shelving; I also see where I just abandoned that idea:
This whole project I blame on an essay by Georges Perec, collected in this one:
This is one of my favorite book covers:
More covers I like from this shelf:
“The Outsider,” by H.P. Lovecraft:
Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me – to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.
I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible, full of dark passages and having high ceilings where the eye could find only cobwebs and shadows. The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. It was never light, so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief, nor was there any sun outdoors, since the terrible trees grew high above the topmost accessible tower. There was one black tower which reached above the trees into the unknown outer sky, but that was partly ruined and could not be ascended save by a well-nigh impossible climb up the sheer wall, stone by stone.
I must have lived years in this place, but I cannot measure the time. Beings must have cared for my needs, yet I cannot recall any person except myself, or anything alive but the noiseless rats and bats and spiders. I think that whoever nursed me must have been shockingly aged, since my first conception of a living person was that of somebody mockingly like myself, yet distorted, shrivelled, and decaying like the castle. To me there was nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strewed some of the stone crypts deep down among the foundations. I fantastically associated these things with everyday events, and thought them more natural than the coloured pictures of living beings which I found in many of the mouldy books. From such books I learned all that I know. No teacher urged or guided me, and I do not recall hearing any human voice in all those years – not even my own; for although I had read of speech, I had never thought to try to speak aloud. My aspect was a matter equally unthought of, for there were no mirrors in the castle, and I merely regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw drawn and painted in the books. I felt conscious of youth because I remembered so little.
Outside, across the putrid moat and under the dark mute trees, I would often lie and dream for hours about what I read in the books; and would longingly picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests. Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence.
So through endless twilights I dreamed and waited, though I knew not what I waited for. Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.
In the dank twilight I climbed the worn and aged stone stairs till I reached the level where they ceased, and thereafter clung perilously to small footholds leading upward. Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock; black, ruined, and deserted, and sinister with startled bats whose wings made no noise. But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness of my progress; for climb as I might, the darkness overhead grew no thinner, and a new chill as of haunted and venerable mould assailed me. I shivered as I wondered why I did not reach the light, and would have looked down had I dared. I fancied that night had come suddenly upon me, and vainly groped with one free hand for a window embrasure, that I might peer out and above, and try to judge the height I had once attained.
All at once, after an infinity of awesome, sightless, crawling up that concave and desperate precipice, I felt my head touch a solid thing, and I knew I must have gained the roof, or at least some kind of floor. In the darkness I raised my free hand and tested the barrier, finding it stone and immovable. Then came a deadly circuit of the tower, clinging to whatever holds the slimy wall could give; till finally my testing hand found the barrier yielding, and I turned upward again, pushing the slab or door with my head as I used both hands in my fearful ascent. There was no light revealed above, and as my hands went higher I knew that my climb was for the nonce ended; since the slab was the trapdoor of an aperture leading to a level stone surface of greater circumference than the lower tower, no doubt the floor of some lofty and capacious observation chamber. I crawled through carefully, and tried to prevent the heavy slab from falling back into place, but failed in the latter attempt. As I lay exhausted on the stone floor I heard the eerie echoes of its fall, hoped when necessary to pry it up again.
Believing I was now at prodigious height, far above the accursed branches of the wood, I dragged myself up from the floor and fumbled about for windows, that I might look for the first time upon the sky, and the moon and stars of which I had read. But on every hand I was disappointed; since all that I found were vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing size. More and more I reflected, and wondered what hoary secrets might abide in this high apartment so many aeons cut off from the castle below. Then unexpectedly my hands came upon a doorway, where hung a portal of stone, rough with strange chiselling. Trying it, I found it locked; but with a supreme burst of strength I overcame all obstacles and dragged it open inward. As I did so there came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that ascended from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.
Fancying now that I had attained the very pinnacle of the castle, I commenced to rush up the few steps beyond the door; but the sudden veiling of the moon by a cloud caused me to stumble, and I felt my way more slowly in the dark. It was still very dark when I reached the grating – which I tried carefully and found unlocked, but which I did not open for fear of falling from the amazing height to which I had climbed. Then the moon came out.
Most demoniacal of all shocks is that of the abysmally unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable. Nothing I had before undergone could compare in terror with what I now saw; with the bizarre marvels that sight implied. The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying, for it was merely this: instead of a dizzying prospect of treetops seen from a lofty eminence, there stretched around me on the level through the grating nothing less than the solid ground, decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight.
Half unconscious, I opened the grating and staggered out upon the white gravel path that stretched away in two directions. My mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the frantic craving for light; and not even the fantastic wonder which had happened could stay my course. I neither knew nor cared whether my experience was insanity, dreaming, or magic; but was determined to gaze on brilliance and gaiety at any cost. I knew not who I was or what I was, or what my surroundings might be; though as I continued to stumble along I became conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous. I passed under an arch out of that region of slabs and columns, and wandered through the open country; sometimes following the visible road, but sometimes leaving it curiously to tread across meadows where only occasional ruins bespoke the ancient presence of a forgotten road. Once I swam across a swift river where crumbling, mossy masonry told of a bridge long vanished.
Over two hours must have passed before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a venerable ivied castle in a thickly wooded park, maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me. I saw that the moat was filled in, and that some of the well-known towers were demolished, whilst new wings existed to confuse the beholder. But what I observed with chief interest and delight were the open windows – gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry. Advancing to one of these I looked in and saw an oddly dressed company indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly to one another. I had never, seemingly, heard human speech before and could guess only vaguely what was said. Some of the faces seemed to hold expressions that brought up incredibly remote recollections, others were utterly alien.
I now stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realization. The nightmare was quick to come, for as I entered, there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. Scarcely had I crossed the sill when there descended upon the whole company a sudden and unheralded fear of hideous intensity, distorting every face and evoking the most horrible screams from nearly every throat. Flight was universal, and in the clamour and panic several fell in a swoon and were dragged away by their madly fleeing companions. Many covered their eyes with their hands, and plunged blindly and awkwardly in their race to escape, overturning furniture and stumbling against the walls before they managed to reach one of the many doors.
The cries were shocking; and as I stood in the brilliant apartment alone and dazed, listening to their vanishing echoes, I trembled at the thought of what might be lurking near me unseen. At a casual inspection the room seemed deserted, but when I moved towards one of the alcoves I thought I detected a presence there – a hint of motion beyond the golden-arched doorway leading to another and somewhat similar room. As I approached the arch I began to perceive the presence more clearly; and then, with the first and last sound I ever uttered – a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause – I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives.
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and dissolution; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation, the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world – or no longer of this world – yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.
I was almost paralysed, but not too much so to make a feeble effort towards flight; a backward stumble which failed to break the spell in which the nameless, voiceless monster held me. My eyes bewitched by the glassy orbs which stared loathsomely into them, refused to close; though they were mercifully blurred, and showed the terrible object but indistinctly after the first shock. I tried to raise my hand to shut out the sight, yet so stunned were my nerves that my arm could not fully obey my will. The attempt, however, was enough to disturb my balance; so that I had to stagger forward several steps to avoid falling. As I did so I became suddenly and agonizingly aware of the nearness of the carrion thing, whose hideous hollow breathing I half fancied I could hear. Nearly mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so close; when in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness and hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch.
I did not shriek, but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.
But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images. In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.