Monday, December 06, 2021

Monday afternoon


I stepped into a little café that was simply a small room with a counter in the rear and a table on either side of the door. The woman behind the counter gestured for me to sit and brought me a menu, which listed just two or three choices. I ordered tea and a pear torte, which turned out to be a delicious warm mélange of fruit and cream swathed in puff pastry, and which was accompanied, for some reason, by a ficelle in a wax bag. When the bill came I was a bit surprised to see that the total came to $60, but even as I reached for my wallet a man strode out of the kitchen, picked up the bill, looked at it, frowned, then began a heated argument with the woman that I couldn't follow, as it was conducted in a language I couldn't identify. I broke off a piece of the ficelle, which was also quite tasty, and waited for the outcome.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Ambition (II)

Edward Gibbon:
Diocletian, who, from a servile origin, had raised himself to the throne, passed the nine last years of his life in a private condition. Reason had dictated, and content seems to have accompanied, his retreat, in which he enjoyed for a long time the respect of those princes to whom he had resigned the possession of the world. It is seldom that minds long exercised in business have formed any habits of conversing with themselves, and in the loss of power they principally regret the want of occupation. The amusements of letters and of devotion, which afford so many resources in solitude, were incapable of fixing the attention of Diocletian; but he had preserved, or at least he soon recovered, a taste for the most innocent as well as natural pleasures; and his leisure hours were sufficiently employed in building, planting, and gardening. His answer to Maximian is deservedly celebrated. He was solicited by that restless old man to reassume the reins of government and the Imperial purple. He rejected the temptation with a smile of pity, calmly observing that, if he could show Maximian the cabbages which he had planted with his own hands at Salona, he should no longer be urged to relinquish the enjoyment of happiness for the pursuit of power.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
More "Ambition"

Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Few "Regrets"

I pulled out this slender letterpress chapbook the other day when I was looking for something else. I had forgotten that I owned it. The cover reads Sonnets Translated from Les Regrets of Joachim du Bellay 1553, the publisher is "the Uphill Press, New York," and the translator (who is also the printer) is identified only as A. H. It bears a date of 1972, and the statement of limitations at the back indicates that one hundred and ten copies were printed. (My copy, number 38, is inscribed to a noted architect and his wife, "in old friendship," but that's a tale for another time.)
It didn't take much to identify the person responsible, an arts administrator and biographer of Woodrow Wilson named August Heckscher. But neither in his 1997 New York Times obituary nor in the Wikipedia article devoted to him is there any hint that he was also an avid amateur printer, translator, and poet (probably in that order of importance). For that information you have to refer to the likes of Joseph Blumenthal, the noted printer and author of Typographic Years: A Printer's Journey through a Half-Century 1925-1975 who has this to say:
Among his public activities, Heckscher was Consultant in the Arts for President Kennedy and a Commissioner of Parks who planted thousands of trees in New York City. In his living room in New York, he set type by hand and printed fine small books and ephemera, often with the help of his son Charles. More recently he has set up "The Printing Office at High Loft" at his summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine, where with young apprentices he prints and publishes modestly but with éclat.
A little more digging turned up this photo of Heckscher and his sons at work from a 1962 profile in Life magazine.
Letterpress printing was probably never a particularly common hobby, but it did have its aficionados in postwar America, many of whom had day jobs in unrelated fields and carried out a collegial kind of artistic underground in their off-hours. (Broadcaster Ben Grauer, proprietor of the Between Hours Press, was a notable example.) It was negligible from an economic standpoint (hobby printers were careful not to take business away from professionals, and generally their productions were simply given away to friends), but here and there, on presses tucked away in Manhattan apartments or the basements of suburban homes, some fine work was done — and no doubt there are still people doing it.

The brief "Note" attached to this chapbook sets the scene:
Joachim du Bellay journeyed to Rome in 1553 in the service of his uncle, Cardinal du Bellay. The young Renaissance poet and scholar might have been expected to find many rewards during his three years at the center of the classical world. On the contrary, he was extremely unhappy — though it must be remarked that like many who are unhappy when they travel, he was hardly less so when he returned home. In Les Regrets, published in 1558, he poured out in sonnet form the varied pains of exile.
Heckscher tells us that he was inspired to translate the selections while he himself was traveling, in his case in Morocco. Below is a sample; I've cropped the page for the sake of readability on the web. Heckscher's margins are more generous, and of course he would have taken pride in his page design.
The chapbook is rounded off with an Envoi "from a different hand," that is, from A. H. himself:
Sleep, du Bellay, sleep sound and do not fret.
Dislikes and troubles vanish with the past.
The stuffy Roman dames, the Latin cast,
Are one with centuries that rise and set.

The endless littleness of your regret,
The heart in servitude, the soul harassed,
Are eased by kindly death, which gives at last
The peace men seek in life, but do not get.

Your verses still are read: along the Quai
When earliest Paris spring was on its way
And pear-trees flower'd in your beloved Anjou

I bought your book. I heard from far away,
Above the crimes and passions of our day,
Your sad, so human accents speaking through.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

November reading

From the New York Times (December 5, 2021, online version November 23), a long and thoughtful article on the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, the subject of a current retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
There is a curious mix of fatalism and hope in Miyazaki’s work. The forest spirit in Princess Mononoke is murdered, despite the hero and heroine’s hardest efforts; yet the forest lives on. “For me, the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness deep in my heart,” Miyazaki said in a 1988 interview. “I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness inside my heart would also disappear, and my existence would grow shallow.”
"Hayao Miyazaki Prepares to Cast One Last Spell"

And from the Baker Creek Seed Company, a garden catalog like no other, featuring, in addition to seeds, an eight-page spread on former Vice President (and agriculturalist) Henry A. Wallace and an article on the connections between Ethiopia, Benito Mussolini, and the eggplant relative known as melanzana rossa di rotonda.

The Whole Seed Catalog 2022

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Notebook: Home Fires

Sir James George Frazer:
Not only among the Celts but throughout Europe, Hallowe’en, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? and could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

The Golden Bough

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Old Country

It's a frightening thought that I've reached an age where there are now books that I first read almost fifty years ago, and I'm not talking about The Cat in the Hat. A case in point is this Signet Classics edition of Turgenev's The Hunting Sketches, which I first read so long ago that I remembered only that it had about as much to do with hunting as Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America had to do with angling. But I did know that I enjoyed it at the time, and some vague recollection of its mood, coupled with a desire for an antidote after suffering through The Idiot, led me back to it.

I had long ago discarded my old copy. There are newer translations that for all I know may be better than Bernard Guilbert Guerney's, but nostalgia drew me back to this edition and I found a second-hand but still sturdy replacement copy easily enough.

The Hunting Sketches was Turgenev's first book, and its narrator, a member of the Russian landed gentry who seems to have unlimited time on his hands, is thought to have much in common with the author. Not much actual hunting takes place, just the odd game bird or two, but the narrator's travels in search of sport lead him to various encounters with the peasants and gentlefolk of the Russian countryside, a cast of characters that, for a Westernized Russian like Turgenev, must have seemed intriguingly exotic. The individual sketches range widely in tone and subject, encompassing "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral...," and so on. Here and there the descriptive passages get a bit florid (at least in this translation), but overall the tone is dispassionate, even anthropological; at times I was reminded of that other meticulous explorer of foreign lands, Lafcadio Hearn. The most memorable tale is probably "Bezhin Meadow," in which the narrator, having become lost, stumbles onto a night encampment of five adolescent boys, who exchange eerie tales of local ghosts and horrors once they think that the narrator has fallen asleep. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

The book was published in the 1850s, and the Russia it describes has been transformed and transformed again since then, but Turgenev seems like our contemporary, or the kind of contemporary we would have if we deserved him. Within the limits of his class and his background and the inevitable constraints of literary creation he described life as he found it. Naturally the authorities were displeased.

*
In addition to extensive work as translator, Bernard Guilbert Guerney, who died in 1979, had a second career as the proprietor of the Blue Faun Bookshop in New York City, which was in existence from 1922 into the '70s. (There is a Walker Evans photograph of the shop's exterior.) He was born near Odessa as Bernard Abramovich Bronstein or Bronshtein, and one source indicates that he may have been related to Trotsky. Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller, had this to say of him:
He was a great talker and one of the ones who was very resentful about the way things were going: things always used to be better; people are now illiterate; he can't stand people coming in; they don’t know anything, and so on. He was very difficult to do business with, but we got along quite well because we used to talk in Russian or talk about Russia.
Vladimir Nabokov called Guerney's translation of Gogol's Dead Souls "an extraordinarily fine piece of work."

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Visitors


A posh tour bus pulls up outside our house and discharges a group of North Koreans and American supporters, who barge in through our front door carrying books and brightly-colored papier-mâché animals as gifts. Some of the North Koreans carry automatic weapons; there are also some children. I round everybody up and make them leave, then call the police. The police already know about it; they say the tour bus is going all around the country like that and not to worry. When I look at some paperwork tucked into the books I realize that they were bought from a former employer.