Saturday, December 26, 2009


As the year waned she spent most of her weekend morning hours in bed, asleep if she could stay asleep or just thinking with her eyes closed if she couldn't. She always kept the room a little cold around her; she liked it that way, didn't like having to throw off a layer of the covers in which she lay enveloped if she got too hot. In her third floor flat, with the storm windows shut tight against the occasional passing car and the shouts of the downstairs neighbor's children, she would be undisturbed as long as she liked; her friends knew not to call. By mid-morning light would fill the room but she didn't mind; it fell obliquely, filtered by the shades, and by the time she was finally ready to rise it would have taken the edge off the morning chill.

She would cast a glance at the cover of the paper, dropped on her doorstep before dawn, but then set it aside until evening, make herself some oatmeal or a couple of eggs and a cup of tea, and only then change out of her nightgown and robe into a pair of jeans, a layer or two of sweatshirts, an old and ample soft gray sweater, and take her winter coat down from the wooden hanger in the little hall closet where it hung alone. She would collect her sketchbook and a few pencils from the easel she kept by her rarely used fireplace, gather her gloves and hat, and go out. It was too cold along the harbor, this time of year, so she would head inland instead, climbing to the outskirts of town, to the first ploughed-over cornfield, then walk another mile or so along the road until she came to the edge of the woods. There she would sweep the tail of her coat beneath her and sit on a stone wall crusted with patches of lichen, yellow and blue and grey-green, and with her back to the road she would sketch the oak trees, the frayed remains of an orchard that had been abandoned years before, and the crows that gathered to glean the fields.

She couldn't pick out the individual crows by sight, but she was pretty sure they were the same ones, from week to week; in any case, there always seemed to be the same number, a dozen or so across the acre's ground she had a view of. By now they must have been accustomed to the sight of her, but if so they acted no differently, never approached or gave a sign of recognition. She imagined they had their own concerns that she was not part of, or perhaps they noticed her but were too polite to intrude upon her solitude. But now and then it would seem to her that one, having drawn near, would considerately pose for her for a few moments, just long enough for her to deftly trace its form with her pencil. If so, she didn't signal her appreciation but registered in inwardly; it was her treaty with the crows, that she would never cross the line that separated them.

When the outlines of the furthermost trees began to soften and the wind picked up and bit at her cheeks she would close her book and climb down from the wall, ready for a warm meal, the newspaper, and phone calls. At night she would dream of the crows and in her dream she would hear their histories and they would tell her everything that had happened and everything they had seen from the deepest beginning of time.

(Slightly reworked; originally from December 2008)

Monday, December 21, 2009


Sometime in the 19th century (an Emperor is on the throne of France), a Parisian woman named Anne relocates to a tiny village in the countryside. Though she misses some of the creature comforts of the metropolis, she has as compensation "the unsullied joys of country life" in "this heaven on earth." She writes a series of letters to her old friend Solange (who apparently never answers them). In her second letter she alludes in passing to a curious provincial custom: during the winter months the locals quite literally hibernate, tucking themselves into goatskin bags and suspending themselves from the rafters until spring. "How strange these people are, who do not hesitate to subtract the entire winter from their span of life!" she declares. As the correspondence continues, Anne becomes increasingly alarmed, and at last horrified, when she realizes that not only the peasants, but the servants and even the local gentry will all take part in the practice, leaving her entirely to her own devices. As a last departing hussar waits impatiently to ride off, she pens one final desperate missive to her erstwhile friend:
There are only two minutes left. Understand me well, Solange. I cannot prepare my food, I cannot do anything, there is nothing in the house, I am frightened of the horses, I could not ride them to safety -- even if they too are not asleep. I shall die here if you do not save me, Solange .... Solange, my soul, what can I say to you? Save your wretched

Years ago, when I first read the story summarized above, Tomasso Landolfi's brief "Pastoral" (which can be found in the New Directions collection Gogol's Wife and Other Stories) I took it for a bit of Gothic whimsy, a fantastic tale of quasi-vampirism in the provinces. But according to a New York Times op ed piece by the biographer and cultural historian Graham Robb, in the days before electrification many French countryfolk did in fact engage in something approaching hibernation, though not, to be sure, by hanging from the rafters.
Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. "Seven months of winter, five months of hell," they said in the Alps. When the "hell" of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.
Robb provides more details in his book The Discovery of France:
An official report on the Nièvre in 1944 described the strange mutation of the Burgundian day-labourer once the harvest was in and the vine stocks had been burned:
After making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.
Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity. Lowering the metabolic rate prevented hunger from exhausting supplies. In Normandy, according to the diary of Jules Renard, "the peasant at home moves little more than the sloth" (1889); "in winter, they pass their lives asleep, corked up like snails" (1908).
Some of these reports should, no doubt, be taken with a grain of salt, nor are they unique to France. (Some reasonable skepticism on the whole topic of "human hibernation" can be found on the blog Not of General Interest.) But even the fact that such reports were believed at the time lends a whole new slant to Landolfi's story. His hapless heroine is now revealed as an obtuse and pampered outsider, who is not only utterly spoiled and unable to fend for herself without the assistance of servants, but who also in her sophistication is unable to see the simple practical value of a good long spell of winter dormancy.

In any case, just something to mull over on the shortest day of the year. By the way, according to New Directions, the photograph on the front of the dust jacket, in which the author's face is almost completely obscured, was the only one Landolfi approved for publication, at least as of 1963 when Gogol's Wife was released. The jacket was designed by David Ford.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Old stuff

NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is currently featuring a new exhibit entitled "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000 - 3500 BC." The objects on display, most or all of which were excavated in Bulgaria and Romania, belong to Neolithic cultures that are still relatively little known here, in part because of their extreme antiquity (they predate the invention of writing), and also no doubt because of the limited interchange of scholarship between East and West before 1989. Manhattan's Upper East Side may be as far removed from the world of the makers of these artifacts as it would be possible to travel, but nevertheless, here they are, until April 25, 2010. Admission is free, and this may be your one chance to see them. If you can't make it there is a companion catalog, which I haven't yet seen.

The term "Old Europe" was coined by the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who believed that large parts of Neolithic Europe were characterized by common traditions of matriarchy and the worship of a "Mother Goddess," traditions that were supplanted or subsumed when new, patriarchal, cultures from further east penetrated the Balkans. Gimbutas's work has come under heavy criticism in recent years, and David Anthony, one of the co-authors of the exhibition catalog, is among the critics, but the "Old Europe" description itself has evidently stuck. The current exhibit seeks a nuanced view, pointing out that the archaeological evidence for matriarchy is now considered to be more ambiguous that it was a generation or so ago.

None of which should interfere with the enjoyment of what is on display, including, for instance, this remarkable pair of fired clay figurines from Hamangia in Romania.

The male figure on the left has been dubbed, inevitably, "the Thinker," although the exhibit notes that his posture may in fact indicate mourning. Whatever the truth is, there is nothing "primitive" about the artistry of these pieces, created at least 6,600 years ago.

Here's a clay vessel, 4200-4050 BC:

My daughter and I both concluded that this was a doll's house:

We weren't "serious," of course, but it raises an interesting question: when does a religious figurine become a "toy," or vice versa. Is a crèche, whatever else it is, not a toy set, and if not, why? Are figurines no longer "toys" when adults "play" with them? Is there really an absolute gap between the "serious" religious or magical practices of adults and the imaginative play of children? I suspect the distinction would have had no meaning when these pieces were created.

The above are not museum groupings of similar objects but actual assemblages as found in place; the lower one has been called, somewhat speculatively, "the Council of the Goddess."

From an essay by Douglass W. Bailey, included in the exhibition catalog but also available online (PDF):
Contemporary psychological studies have shown that something very odd happens to the human mind when one handles or plays with miniature objects. Most simply put, when we focus our attention on miniature objects, we enter another world, one in which our perception of time is altered and in which our abilities of concentration are affected. In a well-known set of experiments, the psychologist Alton Delong showed that when human subjects were asked to imagine themselves in a world where everything was on a much smaller scale than everyday reality, or when they engaged in activities in smaller than normal environments, they thought that time had passed more quickly than in fact it had and they performed better in tasks requiring mental agility. Importantly, the subjects of these studies were not conscious of their altered experience of time or concentration.
This one was interesting:

Called a pintadera (there were several other examples in the exhibit), it is, in effect, an early printmaking tool, used to stamp patterns on skin, cloth, or even bread.

The above images are from a slide show on the website of The New York Times; there is an accompanying article by John Noble Wilford. The Institute, which is located at 15 East 84th Street, provoked controversy when it was founded in 2006, because its principal benefactors, Leon Levy and Shelby White, had in the past been accused of purchasing looted antiquities for their own private collections. As far as I know the objects in the current exhibit have been legitimately loaned by museums in the countries where they were first located and their presence in the exhibit hasn't been challenged.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

By the shore

It's warmer tonight and a fog lies across the lake. The ice is still sound -- it won't thaw yet for weeks -- but as soon as evening falls, even on a moonlit night, nobody ventures out on it. It's not that we're afraid of them, exactly -- they must be far more afraid of us, I suppose, though who knows what they think? -- but all the same we keep our wary distance as they keep theirs. In the morning, perhaps, as we hack through and clean out the holes in the ice and set our lines, we'll come across their traces, their scratchings and their footprints, the bloody scraps of a desperate meal they wrested from the black water below.

Many of us have never seen them, or aren't sure. Sometimes, staring out at the lake, the fog swirls apart and for an instant something seems to dart across, far from shore, or stands, just for a moment, and stares back. They never come ashore, never pick around the edges of the camp in search of old bones or flakes of desiccated fish, not that there'd be much to find. Where they go after sunrise or once the ice breaks up for good and spring comes we don't know and don't ask. To the far shore, we suppose, or deep into the woods beyond, where we ourselves don't venture.

The worst is when they fight among themselves. It doesn't happen very often; only now and then, in the bitterest part of the winter, when we ourselves are nearly starving, without notice their hideous screaming cuts through the night and we cover our ears -- though who could block out that sound or forget it once it is heard? Then after a while it's suddenly quiet, and we know perfectly well what that quiet means. No one has ever found a body, the next morning, on the ice.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

An anecdote

à Amittai Aviram

As an autumn afternoon advanced, Arthur Asbury, an accomplished Assyriologist, ambled along an avenue, arriving at an Asturian auberge. After an appetizer (artichokes and anchovies, attractively arrayed) and an appropriate apéritif, Asbury approached an antiquary's. Admiring an authentic Athenian astrolabe, Arthur acquired an Abish, an Auster, and an anonymous antiphonary, and asked (as an aside) after an Argentinian acquaintance, Arabella Aragón. Ages ago, Arabella assassinated an aging archbishop -- as an anarchist, Arabella abominated Anglicans -- arcing an adeptly aimed arrow at an atherosclerotic aorta. As an Austrian ambulance absorbed an Alpine avalanche, Arabella absconded, avoiding arrest. After apprehension, adjudication, and an appeal, an attorney achieved an acquittal. An absolute antinomian, Arabella abjured absolution.

Assuming an aristocratic accent and adopting an Armenian alias, Arabella apprenticed as an archaeologist's assistant. Ambitious and amoral, Arabella ascended academically and acquired avid acolytes and admirers. At an anthropological association affair, awaiting an antipasto, an awestruck Arthur Asbury attempted an awkward advance, anticipating an amour. Astonished at Arabella's ambivalent answer, Arthur affected affliction and advanced again; after an acrimonious argument Arabella accepted an absinthe and an afterhours assignation. Arriving as arranged, alcohol-addled, Arthur assaulted Arabella amateurishly. Alert and athletic, Arabella artfully applied an ashtray as an anesthetic.

Asbury awoke, alone, aching, and abashed, an aubergine abscess appearing above an ankle. Ashen and aggrieved at Arabella's absence, Asbury ate at an automat and addressed an abject apology. Arabella's apparently affectionate acceptance allowed an ambiguous amity, and -- after an anxious April -- an ardent affair. As autumn arrived, Asbury's aspirations approached apogee.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


A train accident, possibly in Dutchess County, New York or thereabouts. The front bears the handwritten date "1920" in the bottom lefthand corner. The cardstock is Velox, a photographic paper invented by Leo Baekeland and manufactured by Kodak from 1902 onwards. The particular design around the space intended for the postage stamp indicates a date of manufacture from 1907-1914, so unless the handwritten date is wrong the card was printed on stock that had been sitting around for at least six years. It was never mailed.

As far as I can tell this isn't a commercially printed postcard but an actual photographic print on postcard stock. Vast numbers of these so-called "Real Photo postcards," which were produced with a specially sized film, were created beginning around 1902, as advances in photographic technology made it possible for amateurs and professionals alike, even in small towns, to document both ordinary life and newsworthy events and distribute the resulting images to friends and family around the country.

There are several excellent books that collect Real Photo images, including Rosamond B. Vaule's As We Were: American Photographic Postcards, 1905-1930, and, most recently, Luc Sante's Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930, which has just been published by YETI Books. Some images from the latter can be seen on the Artforum website.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Frost and Fire

With a few notable exceptions so-called "holiday music" tends to make me cringe. If I'm trapped in a department store in December -- something I naturally try to avoid at all costs -- the sound of "The Little Drummer Boy" or Andy Williams crooning "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is generally enough to send me running for the exits even faster than I normally would. But Frost and Fire, by the superb English vocal quartet known as the Watersons, is no ordinary "holiday" record. In fact it's not entirely a Christmas record at all; befitting its subtitle -- A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs -- it includes Easter and harvest songs as well as Christmas hymns and wassails, few of them familiar to American ears. It's a very English record, and there are no dancing snowmen here (not that I have anything against Frosty, mind you), but Lord Nelson and Napoleon make appearances, along with Herod, a rather malicious boy Jesus (who gets soundly spanked for his misbehavior), and a very large and well-endowed ram. Though most of the songs are at least ostensibly Christian, the record includes such cryptopagan curiosities as "John Barleycorn" (later famously covered by Traffic with vocals by Steve Winwood). It also includes the eerily beautiful "Idumea," written by John Wesley's brother Charles, which has to be the strangest Christian hymn I've ever heard.

In their original configuration, the Watersons were two sisters from Yorkshire, Norma and Lal Waterson, their brother Mike, and their cousin Mike Harrison. After Harrison moved on he was replaced by Norma's husband, the guitarist and folk singer Martin Carthy, who is perhaps best known in the states for having involuntarily loaned his arrangement of "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon. Lal Waterson died ten years ago, but a successor group still tours as Waterson: Carthy. Though they are sometimes described as "harmony singers," the term is apparently not apt; according to Paul Adams
They ... rarely achieve four-part harmony. At times only one person is singing a harmony line and the others are in unison. Sometimes they are all in unison but drift into two or three parts at the end of a line. In their case it is the blend of voices which makes it sound like harmony.
Whatever the musicological truth may be, the group's rousing, earthy sound is like nothing else I've ever heard. I don't listen to this record that often, but when the chill weather starts in I invariably reach for it.

The original Frost and Fire LP, which came out in 1965, featured the first quartet and was entirely a cappella, except for a drum beat here and there. The Topic re-issue I own includes six songs from a second LP, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, which was originally released in 1977 by the version of the group including Martin Carthy and which features a brass quartet on one cut. Unfortunately this combined release appears to have been discontinued, so the CD currently available only includes the original Frost and Fire.

There's a fine documentary about the Watersons called "Travelling for a Living"; it's included in the group's 2004 retrospective boxed set, Mighty River of Song. Below is an excerpt. It's actually a May Day song, but I couldn't turn up any clips of their Christmas material. No one seems to be sure what if anything the words "Hal-An-Tow" mean.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Spencer Holst: On Demons

In the olden days of the Arabian Nights a fisherman threw his raggle-taggle net into the Mediterranean. He pulled, and pulled, and pulled the net onto the shore, and he discovered nothing in it except an old ivory jar. He lifted a piece of seaweed off the jar, and saw that it was ancient and intricately carved with a procession of people and beasts winding spirally around it, so that whichever way he turned it three lines of people appeared. At the top was a stopper. It was made of lead. On it was impressed the Seal of Solomon.

The fisherman opened the jar and smoke began to come out of it, began to pour out of it, making a rushing sound, and the smoke gathered into a large cloud, and the cloud became the body of a demon, or jinn, or genie, or genius ... or call it whatever you want.

The demon put the fisherman in the palm of his hand, and gave him a choice of a number of hideous deaths.

"But I was the one who freed you!," protested the fisherman.

"Listen," said the demon, "I've been in that jar for 50,000 years. For the first five thousand I joyfully planned how I would reward the man who freed me ... I would turn him into an emperor! Give him palaces, the whole world for his dominion .... But ten thousand years passed, and I began to be a little depressed, and I lost some of my enthusiasm, yet I said to myself: whoever frees me, I'll give him a comfortable princedom, a good castle, servants, so he'll be set for life .... But more years passed, and after 15,000 years I became so disgusted, so disgruntled, that I decided I wouldn't give any reward to the fool who chanced to free me .... But as more time passed I began to hate humanity, they who ignored me ... And I began to devise methods of murder, of torture .... Oh! The things I've thought these 35,000 years .... I have daydreamed of this day, and of the way I should kill you. I have thought up thirteen horrendous ways for you to die. These are the ways: listen carefully, for I shall give you your choice."

"You can obviously do whatever you want with me," said the fisherman. "You can kill me on the spot. But nevertheless, the truth is the truth, and you're a liar."

"What?!" said the demon.

"You couldn't have been in this ivory jar. Look how small this jar is, and look at yourself, you're as big as a mountain. Any child could see that you aren't telling the truth. You're a liar. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe your fairytales, don't make me laugh. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe that you spent centuries in this little jar. Don't be ridiculous. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe such an obvious fable."

"What?!" said the demon. "I'll show you!"

Whereupon his body began to dissolve into a huge cloud of smoke, which began to twirl like a tornado, and the smoke condensed and entered the ivory jar, and the fisherman quickly replaced the stopper, and it has remained there until this very day.

(Drawings by Beate Wheeler. On Demons was published in 1970 by Doctor Generosity Press. Further information on the author can be found at the Spencer Holst Papers page at the University of Texas at El Paso.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The stone

The field had been abandoned two years before. Someone had come and hauled off the cattle for the winter and in the spring they didn't come back. It had never been much of a pasture anyway, soggy in spots and overgrown with brambles and scrub in others. Left to their own devices the handful of cows must have gone half-wild, their hides a tangle of burrs and beggar's ticks by the time they were rounded up. After that nobody had scythed the grass and without the cows' patient grazing the vegetation had grown up, little sumacs and maples had sprouted and taken hold, creating a new green canopy just a couple of feet off the ground.

The boy hiked down from the road above, the cuffs of his jeans swishing through the high grass, until he came to the little stream that lay just behind a perfect colonnade of cattails. No more than two yards across and half that deep, its waters barely seemed to move, though if the boy dropped a leaf on its surface it would drift slowly off until it disappeared from sight. The stream bed was smooth and yellow-brown; if there were stones buried in the ground beneath they had long since been covered by centuries of silt and fallen leaves. There were tussocks at the water's edge that made for unsteady footing, but a few strides further off a great flat slab formed a bridge across the water, whether set there by a glacier or by some farmer's hand the boy didn't know. He could kneel on the stone and peer into the darkness beneath. In one corner, in perpetual shadow, a spider sprawled in readiness at the edge of an unbroken web.

It was only when he clambered to his feet again and stood blinking in the sunlight that he noticed the pickerel. It lay still and solitary in the water a few feet upstream, its narrow crocodilian snout aimed towards him, its lateral fins pulsing steadily, holding it against the current. The boy figured it couldn't have been more than eight or ten inches long. Its sides were covered in reticulations of green and white, and he thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kiuchi in monochrome

A solitary figure stands silhouetted at the bottom of an expanse of gray, its back turned. Directly beyond, seemingly floating in space but presumably drifting through the waters of an aquarium, is an immense, languid whale shark, also solitary, whose shadow glides beneath. The architecture of the enclosing tank -- if a tank there is -- is barely suggested. There are no rocks or reefs looming behind the shark, and no clusters of fish circling past. Here and there patches of white stippling appear, and there is a suggestion of a diagonal band of white, a reflection on the glass, perhaps, or just a stream of light falling through the waters, but that's all. Nothing distracts from the stillness of the scene and from the lone figure's silent contemplation, or perhaps, from the mutual contemplation of man and beast.

The artist and graphic designer Tatsuro Kiuchi has issued a paperback volume, entitled Pen Still Writes, that is entirely composed of monochrome illustrations originally created to accompany serialized works, by several writers, that appeared in various Japanese magazines and newspapers. The book has no text, other than a brief description and biography (in English and Japanese) on the jacket flaps, as well as captions on the facing page (Japanese only) indicating where the illustrations first appeared. According to the flap copy all of the artwork was done in Photoshop.

Kiuchi is a versatile artist who has worked on a wide variety of commercial projects, ranging from children's books to postage stamps to ads for Starbucks, and he is perfectly capable of being warm and accessible when the occasion demands. But these serialized illustrations, especially when removed from their original contexts and viewed as a body, have an appealing mysteriousness. The human figures we see in them tend to be remote, their faces turned away or their features left blank; likewise the stippling effect adds a layer of distance between subject and viewer. Many of the pictures have a distinct retro feel, recalling vintage artwork from, perhaps, the old Highlights magazine of a few decades back, though they are far more subtle and ambiguous. I wonder just who is being caged in -- or out -- in the picture below?

Pen Still Writes is only available direct from the artist, who can be contacted through his website. I have written earlier about Kiuchi's fascinating (color) artwork for Hikaru Okuizumi's The New Journey to the Center of the Earth, which can be seen in a Flicker slideshow. More examples of his monochrome work, including several images not reproduced in the book, can be found at illoz.

Monday, November 09, 2009


The old man was only her uncle, not her father, but he had raised her -- he and his wife, while she lived -- and she was the next of kin. She would have happily taken him in, would have visited more often, but he had stubbornly insisted that he was fine by himself. After the funeral -- a smattering of cousins, some shuffling old women from the neighborhood -- she went to the boarding house to see to his things. The landlady unlocked the door to his room, then withdrew without a word and let her be.

She set down her purse, slipped off her gloves and folded them over it, then began her inventory. It didn't take long. In the closet she found some old suits and trousers that still had some wear in them, and there was a good pair of leather slippers next to the bed; she would tell the landlady to donate those to charity. There were three or four books on a shelf she didn't think anyone would want. She flipped through them to see if anything would fall out, but there was nothing.

In a drawer of the nightstand she found the old enamel candy box and lifted the lid. There was a little folding money on the top -- not much, but she doubted the landlady had helped herself -- a mass card with her grandmother's name on it, his naturalization papers, a few photographs, sepia-toned and curling, a union ring with a chipped red stone, and a thin packet of letters, carefully tied with string.

She undid the knot with her fingernails and lifted the bundle into the dusty sunlight. The paper was brittle, burned by the slow fires of time, but the ink was a vivid dark blue. She unfolded the first one carefully but it was written in the old tongue, the one he wouldn't teach her, that she didn't want to learn, and she could only make out a word or two here and there. The letters were all in the same hand and she didn't recognize the name of the sender.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Pleasures of Drabness

As a rule I'm a sucker for loud, garish colors, the more the merrier, but the images below celebrate the lost, enforced virtues of tight publishing budgets, matte stock, and limited color palettes. (And also of age, dirty fingerprints, and exposure to sunlight.)

The best American literary magazine of the 1920s, the Dial was home to Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Amy Lowell, E. E. Cummings, D. H. Lawrence and just about every other major American and English modernist. The design is a bit formal, in keeping with its highbrow tone.

Twice a Year, a hefty hardbound journal, had a run of several years in the 1940s.

A postwar Schocken edition of Kafka. Beneath the jacket the book itself was green, with a nice title stamp on the spine. I think Schocken's other Kafka titles from the same period probably shared the same design.

The Pantheon edition of one of Flann O'Brien's best books, erroneously dated 1940 but actually published several years later. I'm not sure whether the typographic arrangement on the front cover was supposed to suggest bird's feet.

A slender Irish periodical, with a nice woodcut. Here's the advertising on the back:

Below is another Irish pamphlet, front and back. The Dolmen Press was a highly regarded printer active for more than thirty-five years.

Finally, I imagine the name of this periodical, which had a brief run in the 1970s, was meant to allude to the better-known Poetry. The editor or editors responsible for its creation are uncredited within.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Antaeus, 1970-1994

In later years it would become just another literary magazine, albeit a very good one, but in its first decade there really was something special about Antaeus, which was founded in 1970 in Tangier, Morocco by Daniel Halpern at the instigation of and with the assistance of the novelist and composer Paul Bowles. It was refreshingly if selectively international, a little bit like a North African version of Paris Review, (it even imitated the latter in presenting interviews with literary figures, at least at the beginning) and it featured a number of excellent writers who were then undiscovered or forgotten in the US. Much of its uniqueness must have been due to the influence of Bowles, its "consulting editor," who as a longtime expatriate had contacts with literary circles on several continents.

I was a bit young for it when it first appeared, but by the mid 1970s I had discovered it and become a subscriber, and I eagerly devoured each new number and looked forward to the arrival of the next, which might be six months off if it was a double issue. At some point I believe it switched from a quarterly to a semiannual publication. I can think of any number of moments of pleasure or illumination I gained from its pages, but here are just a handful of favorites:
  • Laura (Riding) Jackson's over-the-top diatribe, in response to a request for suggestions for a list of "Neglected Books of the 20th Century," in issue #20
  • Bowles's own "Istikhara, Anaya, Medagan and the Medaghanat" from the "Special Essay Issue" #21/22
  • J. G. Ballard's disturbing "Low-Flying Aircraft" from the "Popular Fiction" double issue #25/26
  • The Yannis Ritsos poetry feature, from #28
  • Harry Mathews's droll short story in the form of a recipe, "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" from #29

Eventually Antaeus became quite successful and influential, at least as literary magazines go, and by the mid-1980s it had relocated from Tangier to New York and had became slicker, thicker, and to my mind rather tame, devoting way too much space to the same inbred roster of American poets that every other lit mag was publishing. But maybe I was the one who changed. It spawned a publishing company, the Ecco Press, which for a while did a commendable job of restoring to print writers like Bowles and Cormac McCarthy who were then out of fashion. (Sadly, the Ecco Press is now just another imprint of Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins.)

I love these early covers, which were printed on matte stock, as were all the issues of Antaeus until #54. The curious little grotesques on the ones shown here are by the Moroccan artist Ahmed Yacoubi, a friend of Bowles; the one exception is number 8, which is based on an artifact from Crete.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (conclusion)

In the weeks that followed, Matilda returned to the apartment on Bedford Street every Saturday afternoon. She would have come more often, if Mr. Sullivan had asked her to, but she had a suspicion that one session a week was probably as much as he could afford. On her third or fourth visit he asked her -- it was to be honest a little more than a request, though not quite a demand -- if she would disrobe entirely and pose for him lying on his bed. She hesitated for a moment, not sure that she was quite ready for that, but then she remembered her mother's injunction against half-measures and decided that she would either have to comply or leave immediately and never return. She chose the former. She didn't withdraw from the room to undress, but instead crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed, draping her robe around her body and eyeing the windows. As soon as Mr. Sullivan turned his back for a moment she slipped off her skirt and undergarments, loosened her robe, and lay down. At first she assumed a position that she thought he would find artistic -- it was something she had seen in a French painting in one of her mother's books -- but when he turned to her and saw this he frowned and told her to just lie naturally, which she did, after a few seconds of awkwardness while she considered what to do with her hands.

He sketched her in silence from across the room, then, perhaps sensing that she was not entirely at ease, broke off after only a few minutes and told her she could get dressed. She resumed her position on the chair and sat for him fully clothed for the rest of the session. The following week, when she returned, she again lay on the bed, and this time he sketched her that way for most of an hour.

She found it rather a relief, a few weeks later, when they became lovers. He was quite gentle about it and wouldn't have persisted if she had objected, but she decided that she was ready for it to happen. At first he continued to offer her money for her time, but she felt quite strongly that it wasn't appropriate anymore. In any case he soon enough gave up on the idea of drawing professionally, and Matilda never posed for him again. Instead of accepting his money she insisted on leading him on a shopping expedition and making him buy himself some better clothes, an activity he consented to with only as much grumbling as he thought he was obliged to make about it. They went out to dinner sometimes -- nothing elaborate, for she quickly discovered that he had overextended himself financially by paying her for her sessions -- but often she just accompanied him on long walks around the squares and parks of the vicinity, sticking to the quiet streets so they could linger at their ease, talking quietly, strolling arm in arm. During one of their afternoons alone he finally revealed to her his given name, which from then on she used exclusively.

As spring arrived Matilda began to suspect that she might be with child; a discreetly arranged visit to a physician in the neighborhood confirmed her suspicion. She went home to New Rochelle for the weekend and to her surprise her mother raised rather a scene about it, at least at first, then she calmed down and said that after all Matilda was old enough to look out for herself, which Matilda didn't think was all that helpful, especially when her mother then almost immediately dashed off for the evening with some friends. Her father never alluded to the subject at all. Matilda didn't know when or how he was told of her condition, but she was fairly sure that her mother had pointedly told him to mind his own affairs and not meddle with women's business, an admonition with which he was no doubt more than happy to comply.

When she told Mr. Sullivan, a few days later, he was quite firm about marrying her, though she hadn't intended to insist. She informed her parents of their plans and from then on her mother largely took over the arrangements for the wedding. They were married in early June; Isabel, who was herself by now engaged to Friedrich, served as maid-of-honor. Her brothers were a little stiff about it, but they minded their manners.

The couple were promptly settled into a brownstone just off of Washington Square. It was a wedding gift from her father, as neither Matilda nor her husband seemed likely to be able to support themselves according to her family's station for quite some time, if ever. Her mother came to get along quite well with her son-in-law, though Matilda was afraid that her father never knew quite what to make of him. After the baby was born -- a boy -- her mother often came into the village to make sure that Matilda swaddled him up warmly enough when she took him out in the carriage for her daily circuit of the square.

Serizawa at the Japan Society

I've just returned from the Japan Society's beautifully mounted exhibition, Serizawa: Master of Japanese Textile Design, devoted to the work of Keisuke Serizawa (or Serizawa Keisuke, if you prefer), a master of the use of stencil dyeing techniques for printing fabric and other materials. This was the show's first weekend, and I was lucky enough to share a nearly private guided tour of the rooms.

Serizawa (1895-1984) was already a professional textile designer in the 1920s, when he came under two influences that were to shape his long career. One was Yanagi Sōetsu, the guiding spirit of the mingei or folk art movement in Japan; the other was his introduction to the Okinawan dyeing technique known as bingata.

The pieces on exhibit include kimonos and sashes, folding screens, wall scrolls and noren, as well as calendars and book design.

This one's a bit of trompe l'oeil; there are no cords here, only stencilling:

Here's a mandala designed in honor of President John F. Kennedy:

As he became popular Serizawa was much sought after for book covers and illustrations. This one is from a Japanese edition of Don Quixote.

For those who can't make it to the show there is an excellent full-color catalog published by Yale University Press, but to appreciate the vivid colors and subtle textures you really need to make the trip. Both the tour and admission were free this weekend, although there is normally an admission fee. The Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street, just across the street from Dag Hammarskjold Park.