Friday, May 28, 2010

Corinne West & Kelly Joe Phelps: "Amelia"

Not Joni Mitchell's tune from Hejira, but a very different song by Corinne West, performed here with Kelly Joe Phelps. The pair (are they a couple?) will shortly be releasing an EP of six songs (this one's not included); it's called Magnetic Skyline. There are two cuts streaming on Kelly's website, and so far I have to say I've liked everything I've heard.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Man Without Qualities

Do certain books exist largely to remind us of our own intellectual inadequacies? If so, this one will do for me. So many writers I admire have raved over this novel that I long felt that it was practically my duty to read it, even back in the '70s when the only edition available in the US was the old Capricorn paperback that sneakily concealed the fact that it only contained a small fraction of the work Musil wrote.

I tried reading The Man Without Qualities three or four times over a period of years. Each time, after I had bogged down and given up, sooner or later I would come across another essay about the book that convinced me that it really was something I owed it to myself to finish. So I'd pick it up again, start from the beginning, and push ahead a little further than the last time, but in the end I never made it past the first section, "A Sort of Introduction." And that's as far as I'll go with it, I think. Either something's lost in translation or it's just too steeped in a fundamentally Central European sensibility for me to appreciate.

Anyway, back in the '90s I picked up the first two volumes of this Secker & Warburg set in a used bookstore. (As it happens, they were sold to the store by a friend of mine, whose name is still written inside them and who bought them in London in 1973.) I can't remember where I picked up the third -- probably at a book sale. The cover treatment on Volume 3, which was first published in 1960 and reprinted five years later, must be the original design. The earlier pair are reprints from 1966-67; the designer is Ian Miller and the figure in the cover photo, which looks like a still from some classic '50s or early '60s black and white British film, is unidentified but presumably not Robert Musil. There's a newer, more complete translation now, but I've never tried it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Approach to the City (6)

The city's elongated central plaza occupied a kind of plateau, partly natural and partly sculpted out of the hill by human hands. A park, shaded by oak trees and crisscrossed by carefully maintained brick paths, ran down its center, and there were three gazebos or small bandstands, currently deserted, at regular intervals. The downhill side was tenanted by a row of prosperous shops -- a goldsmith, a bookshop, a furniture store, and others he couldn't see from the corner -- while facing them on the far side of the park stood the towered municipal building, a bank, a library, and some modestly imposing white mansions that he took to be the homes of the wealthy. The pedestrian traffic here was the heaviest he had seen, and he had to keep a sharp eye out for bicycles, which veered through the crowd at alarming speeds.

He crossed to the municipal building, the lower storey of which was bisected by a broad flagstone arcade. He followed this until it intersected with another, perpendicular passage; here there was a little enclosed garden, a goldfish pond, and a bulletin board covered with a variety of notices, not all of them official. After giving the papers a cursory glance he continued on his way. Where the arcade emerged at the rear of the building there was another garden, this one planted with azaleas and rhododendrons, then a strip of green lawn, and finally the base of a long series of timber steps that zigzagged up to the top of the hill. The steps were slick and a little arduous to climb -- no surprise, then, that he was the only one using them that morning. The surrounding hillside had been terraced and planted with dwarf willows and Japanese maples, a little too fussily for his taste, he thought, but when he turned around and rested for a moment a magnificent view of the city and the river in the distance lay before him. He stood for a while even after he had caught his breath. The hills on the opposite shore were partially obscured in mist, but he could make out the far end of the bridge and the lot where he had left his car the day before.

It took him another ten minutes to reach the summit. As far as he could see from where he stood the undulating ridge had been planted with great beech trees surrounded by expanses of green lawn. A dirt path wound through, paralleling the river until it suddenly made a sharp turn inland and down a long gradual slope. He followed it until he came to a little pond, on which a dozen or so ducks and geese, and farther off, an aristocratically aloof pair of swans, were floating and dipping their beaks beneath the surface. There was a wooden bench by the pond and a petite young woman was sitting upon it, alone. He guessed her to be about twenty-four; she wore a dark floral print skirt, a white blouse, and a little open jacket that was, perhaps by intent, a size too small. She had a kind of little carpetbag next to her on the bench, and on her left shoulder perched a single white dove that swiveled its head alertly at his approach.

He stopped a few yards away and called out a good morning; she responded with a rather birdlike nod and a chirped hello, then immediately turned her attention away from him and began rummaging in her bag. After a moment she stood and held up five uniform light blue rubber balls; with a sharp snap of her hand she tossed first one, than another, than the rest into the air in quick succession. As the balls descended she caught them with quick, even motions and sent them aloft again; they rose, arced, and fell, she rolled them onto her shoulders and down the back of her arm, she crossed her hands and wove them around herself in intricate figures. After thirty seconds of this she took a deep breath and her face assumed a graver expression, then she suddenly closed her eyes and slowed her pace; impossibly, the balls found their way back into her hands again, time after time, without the slightest deviation from their circuit, like particles orbiting the nucleus of an atom. He stood astonished and motionless. Finally she opened her eyes again, seemed to reorient herself, picked up the pace once more, and in a final flourish whirled the balls into a pattern too intricate for him to make out until all at once they came to rest, all together, perfectly nestled in one outstretched hand. The dove had not moved.

She remained frozen for a second, until he began to applaud wholeheartedly and shouted "brava!" She executed a curt little bow, straightened again, shrugged her shoulders like a marionette, then, smiling shyly and barely glancing in his direction, she sat back down, stowed the balls in her bag, and began whispering something to the bird. He stood stock-still, debating whether to speak or what to say, but already she seemed to have broken whatever connection had briefly existed between them. There was no hat beside her or any other sign that she expected remuneration for her performance. After a moment he said "good day" again, she acknowledged it with a quick nod without meeting his gaze, and he walked slowly off, still spellbound by what he had just witnessed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Approach to the City (5)

He awoke at first light, dressed at once, and went out to find a newspaper. Overnight the temperature had dropped to within a few degrees of freezing and there were wisps of light fog lingering above the pavement. Nothing was open in the square, but he found a little food market a block further on and bought a paper, a baguette, an apple, and a small package of butter. The heavy-set middle-aged man at the register wore a flannel cap that was much the worse for wear and looked like he was still half asleep. He put the things in a paper bag and handed them over, then sat back on his stool as if he thought he would doze off until the next customer appeared, which looked like it might not be for a while.

On his back way through the square he passed a solitary window-washer, who greeted him as effusively as if he were an old friend and then returned to his duties, working methodically and efficiently as he cleaned first one window of the tavern and then another. Two of the fingers of his right hand were missing, and he stepped over to the next storefront with a slight limp, still smiling and nodding as his new acquaintance walked on.

When he reached the pension he stowed the package on the bureau and went down to the breakfast room, newspaper in hand. He had been mistaken: there were several other guests already seated around the tables, including a young couple, but no sign of the woman who had signed him in the night before. A slight young woman with an accent that was difficult to place poured coffee for him and asked him what he'd like. He ordered eggs, sausage, and a croissant, and unfolded the paper while he waited for her return. There was nothing of note: some local elections, sports, a few snippets of international news, and the usual weddings and such. There were some letters hotly debating some kind of construction proposal, but without knowing the background he was unable to form an opinion about who was in the right. Only in the advertisements did he find something of interest. He folded a corner of the page, carefully tore off a square, and folded it neatly inside his coat pocket. The waitress brought his plate and he ate at a leisurely pace, looking out through the plate glass door into the little patio beyond, where a single white azalea, sheltered under the splayed-out limbs of what he thought might be a quince tree, was not quite ready to bloom. Three men came in, dressed in suits; he supposed they were there on a business trip or perhaps belonged to a religious group. They were chatting merrily together and bantering innocently with the waitress, who didn't quite seem to know how to respond.

He gathered his things and brought them downstairs to the reception desk to check out. When no one appeared he stuck his head into the breakfast room and caught the waitress's attention. She disappeared into the kitchen, and a moment later a thin, balding man in a dark gray turtleneck appeared, found the appropriate paperwork, asked if everything had been satisfactory, and accepted the proffered payment with a thin, distant smile. Shown the advertisement, he recognized the address and said it was not far, just a few blocks up the hill.

By now the sun had driven off the last of the fog and chill and gave promise of a fair day. There was some wind coming off the river, as there nearly always was, but it was slack this morning and barely disturbed the dust and remains of dead leaves along the sidewalks. In the ten minutes it took him to climb to his destination -- he was not far from the clock tower now, and a view of the river was opening up behind him -- he became warm enough to remove his jacket and fold it over his arm.

The street curved across the hill in a slow arc, sloping downwards and away on its distant end. There was a green embankment on the upper side, and the other was lined with uniform two-storey red brick residential buildings with yards in the back but no space between. There were a few bicycles chained to the railings in front, and a wagon and trike parked along the sidewalk, but the children he supposed were either still having breakfast or had already gone to school.

He found the number, climbed the stoop, and rang the bell. A small dog barked within but there was no answer. He waited, tried again, then took out his pen and left a note in the box saying that he would come back in the afternoon. He walked further down the street, to the point where it dipped down along a high stone wall and bent out of sight. Off the hill, inland from the river, was a low wooded valley with a patches of meadow and a few stone buildings and spires. He gazed out for a moment, then turned around, retraced his steps to the intersection of the street that climbed past the clock tower, and set his course for the top of the ridge.

(To be continued)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Written & Printed And Bound

This space having been notably deficient in color of late, I will try to atone with these scans of one of the most visually dazzling books I know, a privately printed poem by the American educator, poet, and maker of books Loyd Haberly (1896-1981), who not only wrote and printed and bound it but also designed the typeface, which is known variously under several names, including Paradiso and Gregynog (the latter because it was designed during Haberly's brief tenure as director of the Gregynog Press in Wales).

The cover is decorated paper over boards; the leather spine has NEECHA, the name of the poem, stamped in gold.

Here's the title page, which is noticeably wrinkled because of the handmade paper Haberly employed. (Making paper, though, was the one major step in the bookmaking process that he, unlike the papermaking historian Dard Hunter, didn't get involved in.)

But the glory of this book is the page spreads, all eight of which appear below. I'm afraid some of the scans are less than ideal, but they're the best I could do with my hardware and without risking damage to the binding. Around each text block Haberly has arranged a pattern made up of colored squares. Each square is an individual piece of type, and since the pages were printed by letterpress he must have printed each color separately, meaning that some pages -- the two that have yellow, red, green, and blue squares, in addition to the black text -- would have to have gone through the press five times. If you look very carefully, you'll notice that some of the squares are slightly out of alignment with adjacent squares of different colors. I'm not a printer and so I don't know the tricks, but I can't imagine how he managed this. I guess it's no surprise that the book is short, or that Haberly only printed 32 copies.

The poem itself is no great shakes, I'm afraid, but Haberly thought enough of it that he produced two versions. The one above is from 1944; a year earlier he had printed an edition of 48 copies, set on a smaller page size, without the mosaic border but with three hand-colored vignettes. Both editions were completed while Haberly was associated with Washington University in St. Louis. He later continued his printing activities at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. The collection of handmade books that he left to Fairleigh Dickinson is now at Drew University. There are other collections of his work at several institutions, including the University of Iowa and the New York Public Library as well as the Multnomah County Library, which recently sponsored an exhibition dedicated to Haberly. The best overview of his work is an article by Jay Satterfield in Books at Iowa, 58 (1993). An online version is available.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Approach to the City (4)

The pension recommended by the waitress was only two blocks away, down one of the little side streets that led off the square. The street -- alley might have been a better word -- was cobblestoned and curving, and his echoing footfalls were the only sound to be heard as he searched for the number he had been given. The building was narrow, two storeys high, with white curtains in the downstairs window and a lantern shining above a low stoop outside. He rapped tentatively with the knocker, waited a moment, then rapped again, firmly this time. He was about to give up and retreat to the tavern when he heard a door shut somewhere in the interior, followed a moment later by the sound of the lock being unlatched from within. The woman who opened the door -- just a few inches wide at first -- looked to be about thirty, he thought; she was tall and rather grave looking, her dark braided hair tied up in back, and he suspected he had interrupted her preparations for bed. He mumbled an apology and said he'd been told she had rooms to let and was that true? She said yes and beckoned him in.

The cramped lobby was dominated by a bird cage as tall as a man, in which a dozen yellow finches were hopping and chirping in agitation, whether at his presence or for reasons of their own he couldn't tell. There was no reception counter, just a little wooden writing desk with a ledger and a fountain pen and one caned chair with a man's valise resting on it. The wallpaper was cream-colored, in good order, and had some kind of faint floral pattern on it that was only noticeable on close inspection. "You're alone?," she asked, though it was quite evident that he was. "Any bags?" He hadn't. She seemed unconcerned at this; she entered his name and particulars in the ledger, told him that he could settle the bill in the morning and that breakfast began at seven.

"Will you be going out again?" she asked.

For a second the question struck him as a bit intrusive, but then he reflected that he might be her only lodger and that she might want to lock up for the night. He said that he wanted to mail some letters and asked if there was a postal box nearby. There was, she said, and indicated its location, which was in the square where he had eaten.

"I'll leave the street door open, then, and please be sure to lock it behind you when you return."

"Of course." She handed him the brass key to his room, which was on the third and uppermost floor; there was no tag or ring. As he climbed the winding stairs the birds suddenly became quiet and when he looked down he realized that the woman had drawn a shroud over their cage.

The room was small and low-ceilinged and it was stiflingly hot when he first went in, but as soon as he opened the window over the street the night air quickly made it bearable. The furnishings were spare -- a high and narrow single bed, a little desk with a straight-backed chair, and a little bureau with a potted plant -- but there was neither a stain nor a fleck of dust or cobweb anywhere; the adjoining water closet was also spotlessly clean. He hung his coat on a hook on the back of the door, looked out on the silent streetscape for a moment, then fished out the postcards and pen and sat down to write. It didn't take him long; he wrote three cards, each with nearly identical messages, then separated and licked the stamps and firmed them down with his thumb.

He left his coat in the room when he went down stairs; he didn't think he'd need it. The lobby was quiet and dark except for a single nightlight, and there was no sign of the pension-keeper. He stepped into the street and began to retrace his steps towards the square. The little tavern was still in operation -- there were lights on and he could see some patrons at the tables by the window -- but other than that the square was deserted and nearly all of the lights in the surrounding buildings had been extinguished. He dropped the cards in the box and was about to turn back when something caught his eye; there, at the far corner of the square, an animal sat on its haunches observing him alertly but, it seemed to him, neutrally as well. He thought at first that it might be a dog, but as he peered through the shadows he saw that its proportions were all wrong, its legs too spindly and long. He took a step or two in its direction; the coyote remained still at first, then rose and darted off in a single quick motion.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Approach to the City (3)

He walked upriver along the promenade for a few blocks, until he came to the bottom of a broad street that wound steeply up through the city. A stout, gray-haired woman was selling newspapers and souvenirs from a little shaded kiosk on the corner; he fished some change from his pocket and bought some postcards, and then, on further reflection, a cheap ball-point pen and some stamps. The stamps were a light emerald green, and framed between their perforations was an engraving of the river, depicted, he thought, from not far from where they stood. He stowed his purchases in his coat pocket, nodded his thanks, and started up the hill.

The street was too steep for carts and omnibuses, which kept to the more gradual slopes on the edges of town, but not beyond the capabilities of a strong walker, which he was. Other pedestrians, young and old, were climbing with him, and a few as well were heading down towards the river, planting their feet firmly so as not too tumble headlong. The sun was directly on his shoulders now. In another hour, or perhaps a little more, it would light up the sky above the opposite shore with vermillion and then disappear for the night. The wind was blowing up the river and for the first time that day he felt a bit of a chill and was glad of the exertion. After a ten minutes' climb the street leveled off and opened into a compact little square surrounded by three-storey stone buildings decorated with iron railings and windowboxes full of geraniums. In the center of the square was a brick plaza encircling a lone, peeling sycamore. There was a bench beneath the branches and there he sat for a moment to catch his breath.

On the building opposite a purple-flowered vine -- he thought he knew its name but couldn't come up with it -- had been trained up the downspout of the gutters and then along the eaves. The door swung open, and as a couple in their twenties emerged he heard the clinking of dishware within. Talking it for an eatery of some sort -- he hadn't had a meal since morning and was feeling an increasingly thirst -- he got up and crossed to it and turned the knob of the heavy wooden door. He had not been mistaken; it was a kind of tavern, low-ceilinged and dusty but boisterous and busy. The smells wafting from the kitchen were promising; a passing waiter, towel slung over his shoulder, nodded and waved him into the interior. There were no private booths, just large common tables surrounded by wooden benches. As soon as he sat, exchanging nods with the group of three men sitting further along the table, a fortyish waitress in a dark skirt and blouse appeared with silverware and a placemat woven from some kind of stiff fiber, and asked him what he wanted. He hesitated for a second, realizing that there was no menu. The waitress indicated a blackboard beside the bar, and stood by patiently as he mulled over the limited options. He ordered a ham sandwich and a beer.

The three men were soon joined by two friends and then by a young woman whom he surmised was the wife or the girlfriend of one of the men who had just sat. They each gave him a nod; they seemed in high spirits -- though not drunk by any means -- but he knew little of their language and could make out only a smattering of broken phrases. The other tables were quickly filling up; over the jumble of conversation and the clinking of silverware and china the diners slowly raised their voices. When the waitress returned with the sandwich and a full glass he could barely make herself heard to thank her. She waved him off anyway as if it were nothing.

The sandwich was delicious, the ham tender, aromatic, roughly and thickly carved and enclosed by slices of an excellent, crusty sourdough. When he had drained his dark, bittersweet beer he ordered another and sat nursing it for a while. When he tired of watching the other patrons in the room he looked out through the windows, where the evening shadows were inching steadily across the square. Finally he stood, settled the bill, and asked the waitress if there were rooms to be had nearby. She mentioned an address, and when he hesitated gave him directions and said it wasn't far. He drew on his coat and went outside. There were lights on now in the buildings that ringed the square. Above them, looming on the hill above, rose the clock tower, illuminated by spotlights.

(To be continued)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Approach to the City (2)

As the climb across the bridge turned into a descent he turned his gaze onto the city that lay ahead. Beginning at a broad promenade that paralleled the river just above the waterline, the buildings rose in broken columns and spirals, their ascent of the irregular slopes interrupted by little squares and plazas and by cobblestone streets and alleyways that opened momentarily to his view before bending out of sight. Many of the rooftops were surmounted by terraces and roof gardens, though little grew there this early in the season. Above, in the background, loomed the stark, unweathervaned spire of a clock-tower, its lower stories concealed by the intervening buildings. Beyond that, groves of first sumac and maple and then tulip and sycamore shaded the higher ground; here and there, through the branches of the uppermost trees, he could see glimpses of what seemed to be open parkland at the crest of the hill.

In the river just offshore a fishing boat, its little skiff in tow, was slowly closing a seine around a school of silver herring that had come upriver to spawn. The fish, forced into an ever tighter pocket, leaped and thrashed at the surface, a lucky few springing over the edges of the net to freedom. Gulls circled and dove at those that remained encircled; the crew of the boat waved them off, half-heartedly, to scant effect. In a few moments the noose had been set and the dripping haul winched up. Trapped by each other's bodies, the herring were now still. The crew swung the seine into the stern, fussed with the tackle and rigging for a few moments, then released the catch into the hold.

The span of the bridge soared inland well past the shore, until it converged with the hillside. The road ahead passed through a stark gash cut in the exposed rock of the ridge, but his course lay elsewhere; he veered to the left side, to the opening of a ramp that cloverleafed steeply down to the city. There was no pedestrian lane here, but no traffic either; clumps of grass and a few spindly seedling maples poked through the cracks in the pavement. When he reached ground level he stood for a moment in the shadow of the bridge, Above him, swallows were swooping in and out, butressing their nests with mud and straw, and paid him little mind.

The city's great wrought iron gates were open and unattended. In front of him stretched the promenade he had seen from the bridge; at this end there was little activity, just a few pedestrians and one handcart whose contents were hidden beneath a tarp. The man conducting it paused in his labors just long enough to nod and say good morning. He removed his cap, not out of courtesy but rather to mop his brow, and then resumed his course.

The fishing boat had moved upstream and a little further in the offing. It had dispatched its tender, which was occupied by a lone figure who controlled the end of the seine. Slowly the larger boat played out the line and the skiff moved off, describing a broad slow circle in the water.

(To be continued...)