Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tomorrow's All We've Got



From songwriter-musician-bookseller-writer Amy Rigby, one track from a collection of old demos from the 1980s and '90s entitled A One Way Ticket to My Life, available from Rigby or Bandcamp.

I like this kind of homemade project. The songs were recorded on cassette, in cramped apartments rather than in a studio, and of course a record company back in the day would have wanted to start from scratch and re-record the vocals under optimal conditions, then layer on a lot of extra crap to make it radio-friendly, and if the producer was on the ball the final product might have sounded pretty good. But it would have lost something too, and a lot of these tracks might not have made it onto the record in the first place. In fairness, only about half of the nineteen tracks here are anything I'd go out of my way to hear again (the rest are tolerable), but for demos that's probably a pretty high percentage, no? Amy's husband Eric Goulden aka Wreckless Eric has cleaned up the recordings a bit but that's all.

In any case, Amy Rigby has just published a memoir, Girl to City, relating how she left Pittsburgh in her teens and set out for the big city and art studies at Parsons School of Design, wound up in a band (as you do), and eventually went on to a solo career, juggling touring, day jobs, relationships, a marriage, and parenting, and managed not to lose her mind along the way. It's a nifty book, full of lively glimpses into New York's bygone downtown music scene, and best of all is that Rigby herself comes off as a whole person, vulnerable and fallible and self-conscious but also surprisingly resilient (and talented). It's available direct from Rigby's website, as well as the usual places.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Scalded to Death by the Steam



I think this is what is called character development. Newlywed Cesca (Ann Dvorak) romps through a disturbingly peppy rendition of the most gruesome lines of the railroad disaster ballad "The Wreck of the Old 97." Just off-screen is her husband, mobster Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), who is about to get his at the hand of her brother, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), whose relationship with Cesca is itself more than a little creepy. From Scarface (1932).

The lyrics to the ballad are sung out of order, as the death of the engineer here occurs before the train crashes. Ann Dvorak was not related to the subject of the previous post.

Friday, October 04, 2019

They Don't Sing This One in Church



I picked this Canadian edition of Josef Škvorecký's novel about his countryman Antonín Dvořák one afternoon in Kingston, Ontario, and read it and enjoyed it soon after, but then I put it away for many years and I can't say I remembered much about it until I picked up a used CD of the New World Symphony the other day, and then of course I had to read it again. It's an odd book, splendid and sad and often hilarious. It's not quite "about" Dvořák and not really about him being in love at all (though that element is in there too), but instead it manages to trace a portrait of him largely through the eyes of the people around him (family members, other musicians, casual acquaintances), sometimes in scenes decades after his death. Many of the characters are historical figures from the music world and quite a number of them are Americans, including Will Marion Cook, the black violinist and composer who winds up having to "explain" (i.e., sanitize) the lyrics of a raunchy African-American musical number during the composer's sojourn in the US. "Is it a kind of spiritual?," asks Dvořák, whose English is limited, and Will replies, "Exactly, except they don't sing this one in church." Dvořák, a devout Catholic but one with an earthy streak, eagerly soaks up the music in any case.

According to an interview with Škvorecký, the title was the suggestion of his English-language publisher. The Czech title is Scherzo capriccioso, and it was originally issued by 68 Publishers in Toronto (that is, by the author and his wife, who were publishers to the emigré community), in an edition with illustrations that sadly weren't used in the translated version. I understand no Czech but Paul Wilson's translation reads extremely well.

One change in the translation that everyone, including the author, seems to have liked, is to move to the very end a chapter involving the celebrated classically-trained black singer Sissieretta Jones. Dvořák is long dead when the chapter opens, and Jones, who had known him and performed for him, is now old, retired, mostly forgotten, and living in Providence, Rhode Island. She receives a visit from an old colleague, and at the same time a phone call from Jeanette Thurber, who as patron of music had been responsible for first bringing Dvořák to America. In the brief chapter the narrative moves back and forth over the years, while in the present a boat outside, rocked by the waves, bumps repeatedly against a dock as Jones reflects on what, if anything, all of it was for. It's a small but unsettling detail, a reminder of the ceaseless tides that in the end carry everything away.

Naturally the novel should be read to the accompaniment of your favorite rendition of the New World Symphony.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Adrift


He arrived knowing nothing of the city and no one there. Cities in general were mysteries to him, this one, which he had no ties to, most of all. What did he expect to find there? What did he have to offer?

The trolleys and bus station were run down, the domain of mumbling alcoholic ghosts. The museum was closed for restoration. The sidewalks downtown were torn up, vacant lots boarded over, stores shut behind steel curtains, out of business, waiting for a renewal that showed no sign of coming. Only the streets, arteries jammed with cabs and utility vans, seemed to function.

The river made a hairpin turn through the center of town, crossed by aging iron spans. Barges lay moored along the shore but never seemed to move. Deserted warehouses, their siding shredded, their rooves broken, sagged amid eddies of dust and trash.

A park opened out along one shore on the outskirts leading north, and under the great oaks and balding sycamores leaves blew about, their colors fading to rust. Radios blared from picnickers far off, and a soccer game was in progress. The sun at least was warm and strong. He skirted the edge of the field, watching strangers.

The further out of town he went the more the city seemed to come alive, though not in order to beckon to him. Little shops with Coca-Cola signs stood open among rowhouses; groups of men clustered outside eyed him critically, their conversations breaking off as he approached. He decided he had come too far, cut back across the park, heading south again towards whatever was going to pass for now for home.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The 23rd of September



There aren't so many reasons to note this day (or opportunities to play this song) that one can afford to let the convergence go unobserved. The band is the Vulgar Boatmen and the singer is Professor Robert Ray.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Peter Case: A Kickstarter Campaign



Musician and songwriter Peter Case has an ambitious two-record project in the works, and is looking for financial support to put him over the top in his Kickstarter campaign. He'll be recording an album of original songs, entitled Doctor Moan, as well as a second devoted to acoustics blues covers, The Midnight Broadcast. The rewards for sponsors range from signed CDs and LPs to house concerts, but time is of the essence; I encourage you to check it out. More info is available at Kickstarter and Peter's website.

Update: The project was successfully funded. Look for the records around June 2020.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Family reunion



Four years ago I posted the above image, dated 1887, of a young French woman named Alexandra Marie Fulton de Lipowski. Thanks to a message from a Lipowski descendant I can now post the following photo, which shows her older sister Marie.


The photographs were taken at the same studio, Photographie Prost in Meaux, and in all likelihood they were taken on the same day, as the clothing and pose are nearly identical except for the sisters' pins. Marie's photograph has remained with the family, but Alexandra's somehow wandered across the Atlantic, where I found it in an antique shop. The reverse of the photo is shown below.


Both of the sisters lived long lives. Alexandra, who was married at least twice, died in 1971 at the age of 97. Her sister Marie had died the previous year at 98.

Thanks JH for the information. Alexandra's photograph has now rejoined the family in France.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Ode



The larger the scale, the more predictable the world is. The planets and stars move on determined courses, the earth revolves, day becomes night, the seasons change, all obeying established patterns. The closer you focus, the murkier it becomes. Will it rain tomorrow? Will it be a harsh winter? Will the breeze blow down the last leaf this morning, or the next?


And then there are phenomena — things appearing to view. We can predict comets — some of them, at least — but not every flash of a meteor shower. We can't be sure of the consequences of all of our own actions, though with some the baneful results are easy enough to foresee. And why does a bird appear one evening, and not the next? They obey their own unknowable laws, and cross through our vision only by accident.


And yet that's too facile. We ourselves are on unpredictable courses, and our fellow beings are inextricably mixed up in ours, for better or worse. The bird at top is no wild thing but someone's racing pigeon, and bears a band of human possession. I saw it two days in a row at the same location on the summit of a nearby dam. It showed no fear of me, and perhaps was lost, or maybe it was just resting before heading home. On the third day it was gone.


As for the last creature, I found it on its back, not far from the dove, and set it aright, for someone else to ponder.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Gulley Jimson & Co.



Because summer means going to the beach, and going to the beach means gulls.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Collection internationale



Until relatively recently, the availability of foreign-language reading material in the US was a bit hit-or-miss, unless you happened to live in a major city. What student editions existed of texts in French and other languages tended to be heavily (and often annoyingly) annotated, and they were often abridged or censored to remove passages that might corrupt the youth of America. This series from the early 1960s was an interesting attempt to remedy the situation, at least for French, which was the prestige language of the day. They were published by Doubleday under the direction of an academic named Bert Leefmans, and the publisher promised that "no English, except the Doubleday copyright line, will appear in any of the books." Below is a two-page advertisement that ran in the French Review in 1961.


The books were comparable in price to Doubleday's Anchor series, and bore a simple cover design created by the noted artist and graphic designer Leonard Baskin. The selection of titles wasn't particularly edgy, but at least the edition of Candide was presumably better than the one I used, which had all the naughty bits removed. The line doesn't seem to have lasted very long, and I've only come across used copies once or twice.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

A Certain Necessary Something (Charles Simmons)


The writer Charles Simmons, who died two years ago, wrote a half-dozen novels, of which I've read only two. As far as I know he never published a volume of poetry, but this strangely affecting bit of verse is embedded in his 1998 novel Salt Water (a kind of retelling of Turgenev's First Love, set on the coast of New England). It's purportedly written by one of the characters, a teenage girl, and presented to a boy she's smitten with a bit more than he is with her.
Thoughts for a Beach Party

We're all alone—at least the others are
asleep. We touch and smile. No words, just thoughts,
of which a chance one sparkles, and we laugh.
There'll come a day, I fear, when you are out
of reach and memory is all of you
I have; and then another day when that
is gone. That morning I'll awake and rise
and eat an ordinary breakfast, dress
and go to leave—to find that I forgot
a certain necessary something, just
my comb, my keys, a paper, or a book—
a light makes darkness clearly black: a part
of me is lost. And then I'll wonder what
you were and where you were and try to reason
out an emptiness and hunt for non-
existent strings to pull you back in view.
What then? These words I've understood and truths
I've known because of you, these lonely fires
that add a little light and comfort on
the mind's black stretching beach of night,
the shifting tide forgetfulness will rise
and snuff them out, when it has carried you,
who lit them off to sea. What fumbling hand
and wet will kindle up the blazes then?
It must be difficult to write a poem in character, especially in the character of someone who's supposed to be young and awkward. Even if you have the technical chops to write passable verse, you can't make it sound too accomplished. But I like the straightforwardness of the piece, which is polished but has only a few gaudy passages ("the mind's black stretching beach of night") that sound like the work of a self-conscious poet. Does the elegiac tone make her sound a bit too wise beyond her years? Perhaps, but it also gives her a bit of depth that, as a relatively minor character in a quite short book, she might not otherwise have had.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Folks Back Home



It's very difficult, at least for me, to make out the long inscription on this Real Photo postcard, but the language is apparently German, and it may be from Switzerland. It shows three women, two men, a boy holding a gun, and a dog, posing in a group in front of a vine-covered cottage. There's a flourishing garden in the foreground, possibly including poppies, and a whole social history in the hats the figures wear, no two of which are alike.


The very few bits I can make out in the inscription on the reverse of the card include the names Meinhof and Dietrich and a reference to an address of (I think) Kapellenstr[asse] 31, which might be in Bern or Basel. The most intriguing is a reference to America, including the name of the state of Kansas in parentheses. Perhaps some of the family members were now living in the New World.


Just a few scratch-marks in ink now, but they were presumably perfectly legible to the recipients, whoever they may have been.

Postscript: When I came up with a title for this post perhaps I had in mind these lyrics by Peter Blegvad:
I sent a card to the folks back home
a picture of a burning aerodrome
it came back stamped: address unknown
I was alone
in the meantime

Monday, July 29, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (26)



Sally Mann:
At its most accomplished, photographic portraiture approaches the eloquence of oil painting in portraying human character, but when we allow snapshots or mediocre photographic portraits to represent us, we find they not only corrupt memory, they also have a troubling power to distort character and mislead posterity. Catch a person in an awkward moment, in a pose or expression that none of his friends would recognize, and this one mendacious photograph may well outlive all corrective testimony; people will study it for clues to the subject's character long after the death of the last person who could have told them how untrue it is...

It would be an interesting exercise to determine if there's some threshold number of photographs that would guarantee, when studied together so that the signature expressions were revealed and uncharacteristic gestures isolated, a reasonably accurate sense of how a person appeared to those who knew him.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Upon the Retina

A Mr. Warner, photographer, on reading an account of Emma Jackson in St. Giles's, addressed a letter to Detective Officer James F. Thompson, informing him that "if the eyes of a murdered person be photographed within a certain time after death, upon the retina will be found depicted the last thing that appeared before them, and that in the present case the features of the murderer would most probably be found thereon." The writer exemplified his statement by the fact of his having, four years ago, taken a negative of the eye of a calf a few hours after death, and, upon a microscopic examination of the same, found depicted thereon the lines of the pavement on the slaughterhouse floor. This negative is unfortunately broken, and the pieces lost.

The Cincinnati Lancet & Observer (1863)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Notes Against a Manifesto


What is to be done? Is there anything more exasperating than the cycle of analysis regarding our political situation? How did we get here? Whose fault is it? The implicit argument too often seems to be that there is no dilemma, no reason to trade off one thing for another and not have it both ways, as long as you listen to me. I'm neither a prophet nor a political scientist — and no one listens to me (nor would I expect them to) — but at a fundamental level all of this profound wisdom seems to me to miss the point.

The manipulation, the lies, the social and economic and cultural anxieties, to which we all have been subjected are amply documented, and all of it takes its toll, warps our understanding and our better natures, makes us putty in the hands of demagogues. Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, wrote Tolstoi, and that is true for the novelist but not satisfactory to the moral philosopher. If we're nothing more than the sum of our influences — and perhaps we're not, we can't prove the contrary — then we're not moral agents at all.

The social sciences are concerned with the study of causes; literature (of the best kind, something I insist on the existence of, Literature-with-a-capital L) is about freedom. Not freedom as the absence of chains or bars (not all of us have that luxury), but freedom as the consciousness of the ability to be a moral agent, in whatever sphere, even in the most constrained of circumstances.

Stalin supposedly commanded writers to be "engineers of human souls," but no writer worthy of the name is capable of doing any such thing. (Milan Kundera, among others, has said all of this better in his writings on the novel.) Engineers of the soul are, in any case, a dime a dozen. Nevertheless, writers can, and do, interrogate the world, and no sphere can be barred to them, politics least of all. Writers have (or don't have) responsibility because we all do (or don't).

The symbol of moral freedom is not, in my view, the broken chain but the absence of a net, the high-wire act with nothing to fall back on. A single false step will be relentlessly exposed. Anything else, all the deadly sins, can, in time, perhaps be forgiven, but not bad faith.

For the pious of various stripes there is rarely any dilemma; their convictions will always protect them from the pitfalls of freedom. But such security is itself highly contingent, for if the net that protects them is whisked away where are they then? (The argument that the net must necessarily exist because we need it is pure sleight-of-hand.) Some, it is true, manage to maintain something that amounts to faith without believing there is a net beneath them, and with them I have no quarrel. I'm not really interested in how people get to virtuous action, or what flags they wrap themselves in to justify its opposite. But at some point you need to be able to look in the mirror and recognize what you see.

In the end the overriding issue at the moment is comfortingly binary: Fascism, yes or no?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Ouch (2)


Jeopardy clue: "Inscribed on Woody Guthrie's guitar: 'This machine kills' these." Contestant's response: "What is 'trees'?"

(Correct question: "What is 'fascists'?" Kudos to Jeopardy for remembering, especially now.)

Sunday, July 07, 2019

In Kakania


Robert Musil:
The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner, with a cautious clipping of all sharp points, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. But who would want unqualified persons putting their oar in, anyway? And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.
The Man without Qualities (Wilkins-Kaiser translation). "Kakania" was Musil's coinage for the kaiserlich und königlich Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Lucas, His Long Marches



Julio Cortázar:
Everybody knows that the Earth is separated from other heavenly bodies by a variable number of light-years. What few know (in reality, only I) is that Margarita is separated from me by a considerable number of snail years.

At first I thought it was a matter of tortoise years, but I've had to abandon that unit of measurement as too flattering. Little as a tortoise may travel, I would have ended up reaching Margarita, but, on the other hand, Osvaldo, my favorite snail, doesn't leave me the slightest hope. Who knows when he started the march that was imperceptibly taking him farther away from my left shoe, even though I had oriented him with extreme precision in the direction that would lead him to Margarita. Full of fresh lettuce, care, and lovingly attended, his first advance was promising, and I said to myself hopefully that before the patio pine passed beyond the height of the roof, Osvaldo's silver-plated horns would enter Margarita's field of vision to bring her my friendly message; in the meantime, from here I could be happy imagining her joy on seeing him arrive, the waving of her braids and arms.

All light years may be equal, but not so snail years, and Osvaldo has ceased to merit my trust. It isn't that he's stopped, since it's possible for me to verify by his silvery trail that he's continuing his march and that he's maintaining the right direction, although this presupposes his going up and down countless walls or passing completely through a noodle factory. But it's been more difficult for me to check that meritorious exactness, and twice I've been stopped by furious watchmen to whom I've had to tell the worst lies since the truth would have brought me a rain of whacks. The sad part is that Margarita, sitting in a pink velvet easy chair, is waiting for me on the other side of the city. If instead of Osvaldo I had made use of light years, we probably would already have had grandchildren; but when one loves long and softly, when one wants to come to the end of a drawn-out wait, it's logical that snail years should be chosen. It's so hard, after all, to decide on what the advantages and the disadvantages of these options are.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Lucas, the narrator, is a kind of alter ego of the author. The above piece is the final chapter of the book (which has been out of print for many years).

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Age of Ubu



"A painting by Jean-Martin Bontoux of King Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, late twentieth century," via The New York Review of Books. The image accompanied an article by Charles Simic, who wrote in part:
One only had to watch the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet to fully grasp the sort of men and women who are now in charge in all spheres of life in this country. Lacking any feeling of empathy for their fellow Americans and their problems, convinced in their minds of their superiority because of their immense wealth, eager to pillage this country even more, they are bound to do evil because that's the kind of people they are. In the meantime, the crimes and injustices that are bound to multiply in the months and years ahead is what we have to look forward to. Ubu Roi may not be a great play, but we don't deserve Shakespeare.
"Year One: Our President Ubu"

Two years on, the situation has only grown more grotesque.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Notes from a Commonplace Book (25)


Quoted entirely out of context:
Being in a strange land and among strange men and things, meeting with customs and surrounded by circumstances widely different from all their previous experience, ignorant of the precise state of affairs here, and wanting education and flexibility by which they could adapt themselves to their new and unwonted position, they necessarily form many impracticable purposes, and endeavor to accomplish them by unfitting means. Of course disappointment frequently follows their plans. Their lives are filled with doubt, and harrowing anxiety troubles them, and they are involved in frequent mental, and probably physical, suffering.
Report on Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts, by the Commission on Lunacy, Under Resolve of the Legislature of 1854.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Curiosity Cabinet



This entertaining popular account of the Victorian mania for natural history was published by Jonathan Cape and Doubleday in 1980, and has apparently been out of print for decades, perhaps because its color plates would have made it too expensive to reprint. That's unfortunate, because Lynn Barber (on whom more below) did a first-rate job of researching, organizing, and writing the book, and has many interesting things to say both about natural history as a popular Victorian pastime and about weighty scientific figures like Owen, Agassiz, Philip Gosse, and Darwin, not to mention the likes of Frank Buckland, who seemingly ate everything he studied. I read it not too long after it appeared and have occasionally revisited it. Many fine books on the history of 19th-century natural science have appeared before and since but I suspect that few are as entertaining. Barber has a solid command of the major scientific advances and controversies, but she also has a sharp wit and a knack for a good anecdote.
The diary of Caroline Owen, wife of the zoologist Richard Owen, records an odd incident when she was visited by a lady who produced out of her reticule 'a thing which she had been told was an unborn kangaroo.' She (the lady visitor) had brought it to show Richard Owen, but 'she was hesitating about bringing such an "indelicate" subject to a gentleman.' Caroline set her fears at rest by assuring her that the kangaroo had not only been born but had lived for some time, and they then settled down to tea and chat, since Richard was not at home anyway, but it is surely strange that a woman who had no qualms about carrying a dead kangaroo around with her would then start blushing and trembling at the thought of showing it to a gentleman. It reminds us, if we need any reminder, that Victorian delicacy had very little to do with natural modesty and a great deal to do with cultivated prurience.
Of Buckland's gustatorial experiments there is much to report, including:
While at Oxford, he feasted on panther, sent down from the Surrey Zoological Gardens. 'It had, however, been buried a couple of days,' he noted, 'but I got them to dig it up and send me some. It was not very good.'
And here is Barber on science versus religion in the days before Darwin upset the apple cart:
When we talk about the 'clash' between religion and science in the Victorian era, we are talking about the 'clash' between an articulated lorry and a grain of sand. Science counted for absolutely nothing compared to religion. It stood, at best, in the relation of a handmaid to religion but, like a handmaid, it could be sacked if it ever showed signs of being uppity.
The jacket flap of the book identifies Lynn Barber as "a British journalist educated at Oxford," and notes that "she is currently working on a new book focusing on another aspect of Victorian popular culture." (Unmentioned in the author bio is the fact that her journalism had included seven years at Penthouse.) As far as I can tell, she never published the "new book" alluded to, but she didn't disappear into obscurity either. She has had a long career as a writer and interviewer for various publications (she has been called "the rottweiler of Fleet Street"), and has published a memoir recounting her affair, while in her teens, with a dashingly charming older man who turned out to be not only involved in various criminal activities but married to boot. That account, An Education was made into a likeable 2009 film starring Carey Mulligan, which I saw several times before I realized that she and the author of The Heyday of Natural History were one and the same. As to her curious career path and Heyday's place in it, Barber has this to say:
There are whole subjects I used to know that I have since forgotten. I have a certificate that says I can do shorthand at 100 wpm – how did I acquire that? Did I bribe the examiner? I got top marks in A-level Latin – eheu fugaces, I can't translate a line of Horace now. In my brief, improbable career as a sex expert, I wrote a manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed that was accepted at the time as an authoritative guide. How did I have the chutzpah to do it? I also spent five years researching and writing a book, The Heyday of Natural History, which involved reading all the popular natural history books of the Victorian era. Gone, all gone. I seem to have an auto-erase button in my brain that says that once I have 'done' a subject, I no longer need retain it.
Luckily, talent is the one thing she has apparently never been short on.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Stephen O. Saxe (1930-2019)



The printing historian Stephen O. Saxe died on April 27th of this year, according to a memorial notice in the New York Times today (June 16th) and a brief note from the American Printing History Association, of which he was a founder. Saxe followed an interesting career path that led him from Yale Drama School to television set design to book design at Harcourt, Brace, but it was for his activities as an amateur (in the best etymological sense of the word) that he is best known, at least among printing scholars and enthusiasts. Among his publications was the book pictured above, the definitive study of the 19th-century iron presses that were the first major revolution in printing technology after Gutenberg. (Appropriately, the book was first published in a letterpress edition by Yellow Barn Press, though a trade edition followed.)

I met Stephen Saxe once. I had written to him with a couple of questions about some research I was doing and he generously invited me — a stranger and total novice to the field — and a printmaking friend to his home in White Plains, where he spent a couple of hours showing us his printing equipment and some treasures from his library, including an extraordinary 19th-century French specimen book filled with elaborate typographical decorations. (The APHA announcement has a nice photo of Saxe at his home.) There aren't many of his kind still around.

Update: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel has written a longer appreciation for the APHA website: "Stephen O. Saxe, A Partner in Printing History, (1930–2019)."

Monday, June 10, 2019

Mistaken Identity



An incident that Julio Cortázar (a noted admirer of Verne) would no doubt have appreciated, as related by Alejandro Zambla:
I remember how at sixteen, I convinced my dad to give me the six thousand pesos that Hopscotch cost, explaining that the book was "several books, but two in particular,"* so that buying it was like buying two novels for three thousand pesos each, or even four books for fifteen hundred pesos each. I also remember the employee at the Ateneo bookshop who, when I was looking for Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, explained to me patiently, over and over, that the book was called Around the World in Eighty Days and that the author was Jules Verne, not Julio Cortázar.
"Bring Back Cortázar," from The Paris Review (online) October 17, 2018.

I can sympathize, though, with the poor bookseller, who was no doubt used to dealing with cronopios like this fellow (played by Marty Feldman):


* The phrase is borrowed from the "Table of Instructions" of Hopscotch.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Monday, May 13, 2019

"Mala Cosa" (Cabeza de Vaca)


The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca recounts an incident that was related to him by Native Americans he encountered during his long sojourn across the southern US and northern Mexico:


Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Cabeza de Vaca was one of a handful of survivors of a 16th-century expedition to Florida that went catastrophically wrong. The accuracy of his account of his travels on many points has been questioned, but few things in it are as difficult to believe as the one thing that is unquestionably true, which is that he and three other men did survive eight years wandering among various Native American peoples before finally meeting up with a group of his countrymen near Culiacán in Sinaloa. Along the way he found himself cast in the role of faith healer, and claimed to have performed countless miracles on ailing (and very grateful) Indians.

The passage above has been much pondered. It appears to record some kind of shamanic performance reminiscent in some ways of modern "psychic surgery" cons and fortune-telling bujo scams. How the Indians understood what they told Cabeza de Vaca, and how it differed from what he recorded, is impossible to say. It's the oddest passage in the book.

Ouch


Jeopardy clue: "John & Priscilla Alden lie in the U.S.A.'s oldest maintained cemetery, which like a poem about the couple, is named for this person." Contestants' proposed questions: "Who is Poe?," "Who is Arlington?," and "Who is Mary?"

(The correct question: "Who is Myles Standish?")

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Ants (Thomas Bewick)


"The history and œconomy of these vary curious Insects are (I think) not well known — they appear to manage all their Affairs, with as much forethought & greater industry than Mankind — but to what degree their reasoning & instructive powers extend is yet a mystery — After they have spent a certain time toiling on earth, they then change this abode, get Wings, & soar aloft into the atmosphere — It is not well known what state they undergo, before they assume this new character, nor what becomes of them after."

(Memoirs)

On Being Alone


"As the lodges afforded so little shelter, people began to die, and five Christians quartered on the coast were driven to such extremity that they ate each other until but one remained, who, being left alone, had nobody to eat him." — Cabeza de Vaca

Adapted from the Lakeside Press edition of Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Friday, May 03, 2019

An Existential Necessity (Luc Sante)



The Paris Review has inaugurated a new blog, Pinakothek. Written by Luc Sante, it's devoted to "miscellaneous visual strata of the past." Here's an excerpt from the second post, "Arcade":
Getting yourself photographed was a pastime and an existential necessity. It reminded you that you existed outside your own head. It showed you your face as others would see it. It gave you an opportunity to compose yourself, although few had the skill to do so successfully, and often the photographer’s haste and hard sell would mitigate against it. Most people come off in arcade pictures as if they had suddenly been shoved onstage to face an audience of thousands.
"Pinakothek" (from a Greek and Latin word for a picture gallery) was also the title of a short-lived feature that Sante maintained on his website a number of years ago.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Hera


Her sons are out of college and living lives of their own by the time her husband leaves. She could stay on in the house but every room has bad memories, so she winds things up and moves back to the river town where she was born. It's the same river but the people have moved on. Old acquaintances, when she happens to bump into someone she recognizes, are pleasant enough but their faces are burdened with histories she no longer shares. Downtown there are newcomers, refugees from a faraway war that has disappeared from the headlines. She rather likes the women, who are friendly, direct, and tough, but finds the men a harder read. She volunteers a bit and joins a gym, and keeps the few grey-haired men who seem to sense an opportunity at arm's length.

On overcast days she likes to walk through town and over the bridge and watch fishermen drop their lines into the dark water. Sometimes the drawbridge rises and a barge goes by, its wake slowly rippling until it breaks on the shore. She wonders what the barges carry and where they are bound, upriver empty and downriver full. Semis cross the bridge and sometimes sound their horns at her; she thinks they wouldn't bother if they could see the lines in her face.

The mail brings letters, catalogs, bills. She keeps her rooms tidy, cooks casseroles that last for days, reads into the night, rises with the dawn. Sometimes she sees great flocks high above and hears the faint cries of birds returning to Canada for the summer. She resolves to make the same trip some spring, when the moment is ripe and the last ice floes have broken up.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (24): Temporary Separateness


Alice Munro:
This lucky woman, Joan, with her job and her lover and her striking looks—more remarked upon now than ever before in her life (she is as thin as she was at fourteen and has a wing, a foxtail of silver white in her very short hair)—is aware of a new danger, a threat she could not have imagined when she was younger. She couldn't have imagined it even if somebody had described it to her. And it's hard to describe. The threat is of change, but it's not the sort of change one has been warned about. It's just this—that suddenly, without warning, Joan is apt to think: Rubble. Rubble. You can look down a street, and you can see the shadows, the light, the brick walls, the truck parked under a tree, the dog lying on the sidewalk, the dark summer awning, or the grayed snowdrift—you can see all these things in their temporary separateness, all connected underneath in such a troubling, satisfying, necessary, indescribable way. Or you can see rubble. Passing states, a useless variety of passing states. Rubble.
"Oh, What Avails," from Friend of My Youth

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Music Notes: "Idumea"



Charles Wesley, one of the founding fathers of Methodism, is said to have penned some 6,500 hymns, among them "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." I can't say for sure — not having heard them all — but I suspect he never wrote another as weirdly beautiful as "Idumea":
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down
And as my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade
Unpierced by human thought
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot

Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my fortune be

Waked by the trumpet's sound
I from my grave shall rise
And see the judge with glory crowned
And see the flaming skies
The peculiarities begin with the title itself, which seems to have come not from Wesley but from a later arranger. Why "Idumea"? According to reference works, Idumea (or Edom) was an ancient kingdom south of the Dead Sea. It is mentioned in the Bible, though not, as far as I can tell (and I'd welcome an exegesis) in any context that would explain the lyrics above. The noted folklorist A. L. Lloyd, in his liner notes to the version of the song performed by the English folk group the Watersons, thought it unnecessary (or was it impossible?) to explain the allusion.

Then there's the way the song begins: in mid-sentence, in mid-thought. Hymns tend to speak in a collective voice; this one is first-person singular and sounds almost like a monologue spoken in character, along the lines of Spoon River Anthology. Even the hymn's theology seems a tad unorthodox. Christianity, as a religion that offers, in effect, a choice of afterlives, has long alternated in its vernacular forms between a kind of "Joy to the World / God is Love" cheeriness and a darker strain, whether expressed in threats of hellfire and brimstone or in the death-obsessed pessimism of the danse macabre and Blind Willie Johnson's "You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." But Wesley's description of
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot
sounds more like the pagan, antinomian conception of the underworld (peopled by Homer's "exhausted dead") than it does the Christian vision of a place where sinners are sent to be paid back for their misdeeds. Is this because the speaker's voice is supposed to be an ancient, Idumean one? Is it because Wesley, though an evangelist and missionary, was also a classically educated scholar for whom the tropes of Greek and Roman literature would have been part of his intellectual training? Or was Wesley, good Methodist, really a secret Modernist avant la lettre (Pound's Cantos, after all, also begins with "And …")? All the elements are there: cryptic reference to antiquity, fragmented monologue …

According to Lloyd, the hymn fell out of favor in England, but remained popular among parishioners in what he calls "remoter settlements of the Upland Southern states of America." One can only wonder what they made of it.

The above note was originally published in A Common Reader's blog Book Case in 2003. I have dusted it off and revised a few points.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Customer Service Wolf



Three installments from Anne Barnetson's droll comic about the adventures of a lupine bookshop clerk. Having served in that role for many years in an earlier phase of my life I can vouch for its essential accuracy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Berlin (Jason Lutes)


Two brilliant pages from Jason Lutes's mammoth graphic novel set in the waning years of the Weimar Republic.


Berlin is published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Fear


Ruth Otis Sawtell & Ida Treat:
Our greatest adventure we found at Mérigon. Mérigon, with its face to the sunny roadside and its back to the dark gorge where the Volp rushes past the Plantaurel, has been the haunt of something wild and sinister. The peasants called it la Peur, the Fear. All one summer it blasted the valley. Crops drooped, cattle died. There were cries in the night, whirring of wings where no birds flew. At last the men of Mérigon set out to hunt la Peur. Guns in hand they scoured the fields, the river, the rocks, until some one—with a silver bullet—shot it down. He brought back no trophy, only the vague word of having killed "something like a bird," but from that moment the blight was lifted from the countryside. To-day you can not find a man in Mérigon who will admit participating in that hunt. But there is something in the atmosphere of the valley suggesting that if la Peur should rise again, there would still be men to hear the flutter of its wings.

Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Compliments of the Dead



This appealing book is the product of two American women, Ruth Otis Sawtell (1895-1978), a noted anthropologist and academic (and, later, author of mystery novels), and Ida Treat (1899-1978), who was, among other things, a journalist, academic, and New Yorker contributor in the Shawn era. There couldn't have been many American women engaged in the serious study of the European Paleolithic during the Roaring Twenties, but there certainly were two, and their account of their caving adventures and fieldwork, though obscure now, is more substantial than the typical Americans-abroad fare of the day. It was handsomely produced by D. Appleton & Co. with lots of drawings* and photos of artifacts and cave art and a gold-stamped front cover (at least in my copy — there seems to be a variant with a plain red binding). It's out of date now (even the famous paintings of Lascaux were unknown when they wrote it), but still enjoyable.

My copy, which I bought at one book sale or another years ago, came with the business card shown below paper-clipped to the title page. Francis G. Wickware was an editor at Appleton, and may well have been the editor of the book (he had a background in geology and was probably of a scientific bent). If the book was a gift from him the circumstances are somewhat puzzling, as "the late" has been scrawled above his name. Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees was published in 1927, thirteen years before Wickware's death; perhaps just before he died he set a copy aside for someone he knew would be interested.


* The drawings were executed by Paul Vaillant-Couturier, one of the founders of the French Communist Party. He was married to Ida Treat at the time (they later divorced) and participated in the fieldwork.

Update: Below is the cover art for one of Ruth Sawtell Wallis's mystery novels. I suspect that this is not how she actually dressed during her excavations.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Memory Man



These three slender books by the Guatemalan Jewish writer Eduardo Halfon are published by Libros del Asteroide, a Barcelona-based company that publishes a wide range of modern literature, all in the same attractive format. Two of the three, or more accurately two and a half of the three, have been published in English translations by Bellevue Literary Press, along with another Halfon book (which I haven't read) entitled The Polish Boxer.


Each book succeeds as an individual work, but they're also part of a larger whole in which characters and events may be alluded to in one but more fully developed in another. Halfon, who spent part of his childhood in the US and is bilingual (though he doesn't do his own translations), has underlined the fluidity of his project by lifting sections of Signor Hoffman and combining them with the contents of Duelo for the US translation.


All three are narrated by someone named Eduard Halfon who is a Jewish-Guatemalan writer exploring the details and consequences of his personal and family history (but who should nevertheless not be confused with the author). Imagined events aren't necessarily deprecated in favor of real ones; thus Duelo (a title that can mean both "mourning" and "duel") centers around a half-remembered story about an uncle who drowned as a child in Lake Amatitlán. The fact that the drowning never happened both is and isn't less important than the ways it is (mis)remembered. The narrative begins in Guatemala but eventually travels to Florida and Germany (and to Italy in Poland in the English version).

The books have an understated force that becomes cumulative when they are read together (in whatever arrangement or order). Halfon doesn't bludgeon the reader, even when he deals with weighty matters (the Holocaust is a shadow over the entire enterprise), but instead prefers to work by indirection. His books echo each other but they also reverberate across entire fields of history.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roma: Words Unspoken



I had been looking forward to seeing Alfonso Cuarón's Roma as soon as it made it to a local theatre, and it didn't disappoint. I'm not a movie critic and won't attempt a synopsis or analysis of the film*, but in a very quick summation it's about a few months in the lives of a well-to-do (but perhaps downwardly-mobile) Mexico City household around 1971. (Cuarón drew on his own family memories, and he has meticulously — even obsessively — recreated the texture of the world he grew up in.) At one crucial point the family's story intersects dramatically with the tumultuous course of the broader history of twentieth-century Mexico. The film is beautifully designed, acted, and shot (in black and white), and has the sweep and richness of a great novel. I'll be watching it again.

Pictured above is Cleodegaria (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family's Oaxacan servants and the film's emotional center. One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that we don't really get to learn much about what she thinks and feels, but I think that apparent silence is itself the point. (As it happens, I think we can get a fair idea of what she thinks and feels, but to do so requires attention to more than words.) Roma isn't your typical Hollywood have-it-both-ways movie in which all conflicts are resolved and all the characters overcome the limits of their personal histories, their class or racial backgrounds, and are at last fully revealed as equal agents. Being constrained and unheard is part of the social reality of Cleo's life (as it is, in different ways and degrees, of the lives of the family she serves); for a director to pretend otherwise would be a betrayal.

* For a full and thoughtful review, Alma Guillermoprieto's NYRB review, "The Twisting Nature of Love" is a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Owl



Winter can be a frustrating time for the saunterer, but now and then you get a lucky break. On a mild Sunday afternoon in January I put the dog in the car and drove a few miles to a park where there are four thousand or so acres of woodlands and fields. The park road up the hill I wanted to visit was closed, so I left the car at the bottom and took a trail that hooked around to the top. The trail was deserted and the woods silent except for the occasional sound of a jet passing overhead. At the summit, stone camping shelters stood empty and alone among unmown fields and scattered oaks, their fires cold, but solitary electric lights burned, even in daylight, to mark the entrances to the rest rooms. On our way back down I heard an owl hoot several times in quick succession not far off in a stand of pines, but I never spotted it. As we drove out a hawk crossed in front of us and alit in a tree. I pulled over but I knew it would fly off if I opened the car door and so made no attempt to get a better look.

On the way home I decided to turn onto a back road I don't usually take. I saw a jogger up ahead of me on the left, and as I slowed I noticed something in the neglected field on my right: a barred owl, perched on a dead tree. I pulled over, turned on the four-way flashers, reached for my camera, and rolled down the window.


I see owls with some regularity, sometimes by accident and sometimes by intention, but most often by having the intention of seeing them by accident. Contrary to the assumptions many people have, they're not necessarily exclusively nocturnal, and barred owls, which are frequently active by day, aren't particularly skittish. Still, I've never had one pose so cooperatively, at eye level just a few yards off and in decent light.


Fortunately, the dog, who barks or howls at anything from squirrels to Canada geese, either didn't see it or didn't register it as potential prey. He no doubt wondered why we had stopped. I took pictures for several minutes, while the owl kept an eye on the field and now and then swiveled its head to regard me with apparent neutrality. I kept expecting it to fly off but it never did. Eventually it was I who drove away instead.