Friday, February 26, 2010


“The illusory emptiness ...” – K

The long, low ferry, illuminated only by a single lantern that rattled on its bow, slowly drew into shore, bumped heavily against the great timber pilings, and came to rest. From the deck a dark figure tossed a heavy rope across to a pair of waiting hands on the pier, and in a few deft motions the craft had been tied off and secured and was rocking gently in its own diminishing wake. The passengers began to disembark, in twos and threes. Among them was a tall man in a heavy overcoat and turned-up collar, who waited his turn, then climbed the rungs of the short ladder to stand on the surface of the pier. He joined the flow heading inland, off the wet planks and onto solid ground, then up a gradual incline into the shadowy beginnings of the water district. Lanterns shone from the salt-encrusted windows of a few low buildings, and figures beckoned from the doorways, but he ignored them and kept pace with the others. They ascended along a narrow street of shuttered and dilapidated warehouses, all of them dark and to all appearances abandoned. Here and there an alley broke off to the left or right, and small furtive creatures scuttled away at the sound of approaching footsteps.

The intermittent drizzle that had accompanied the ferry in its passage across the water was now turning to snow, though the heavy, wet flakes melted as soon as they met the pavement, or dissolved on the coats and faces of the advancing pedestrians. The street opened out into a little square of three-storey stone buildings. In a few, lights appeared in the windows and bits of muffled conversation broke from behind tavern doors, but the throng strode firmly onward, losing only a straggler now and then who turned aside from the flow and stood in place for a moment on the streetcorner, as if debating inwardly, before stepping away towards the flickering halos that emanated through the windowglass of storefronts.

A few blocks further and the narrow street intersected a great, bright boulevard, along which a thin but steady procession of citizens were promenading, wrapped in scarves and muffs and with hats angled down against the snow, which was falling steadily now and swirling into little eddies at their feet. The two perpendicular streams of traffic began to mingle and break apart until they were no longer distinguishable, but still the man kept to his course, passing streetcorner after busy streetcorner, always climbing, his back to the waterline. Eventually he came to a grand square, ringed by statues of heroes and columns of uniform but leafless trees whose branches arched over the crowd. A trio of acrobats were performing on the sidewalk, detaining at least for a moment the attention of a cluster of spellbound onlookers, and near them a man in a tattered leather coat was leafing through the pages of a windblown and half-soaked newspaper. From a bandshell beyond came a steady rhythm of brass and drumbeats that formed a kind of ostinato to the shouts and laughter that echoed around the square; the man slowed his step and cocked an ear to hear the music better, but only for a moment. Leaving the square behind, he continued through a prosperous mercantile district, passing elegant couples, in high spirits and wrapped in furs and astrakhans against the cold, who emerged from limousines parked along the curb and disappeared into the interiors of the nearest night spot at hand. The women eyed him warily but without altering their expressions; the men showed no sign of noticing him at all.

A few blocks beyond he reached the summit of the city. All around him stood immense, gray, unornamented towers, blindingly and coldly illuminated but empty and silent at that hour. The snow was collecting at their bases, an inch deep or more, and beginning to drift against the curbs and retaining walls. He turned for a moment to take a look behind him, down at the prospect of the city and the waterside that lay in the distance below, but they were mostly lost to view, hidden by the snow and the unforgiving columns. Block after block he walked, until the tallest towers began to give way to smaller but equally featureless structures, then all at once he was beyond the center of the city altogether and was descending towards an isolated, windswept knoll, a busy park during the day but utterly dark and abandoned after sundown. He strode along a concrete path, past cast iron benches that overlooked a steep declivity; before him, dotted here and there with tiny lights, lay the mist-shrouded hinterland of the city. He crossed a low, iron bridge to another small hill, then came to the uppermost of a long procession of steps that led down to the valley floor. He passed no one; his footing had become treacherous as the snow slowly mounted, and a bitter wind now rose up, driving the swirling flakes into his eyes. After a few moments, in the shelter of the hill above him, the wind dropped and he continued his descent in the absolute stillness of the falling snow.

At the base of the hill, as far as he could see in all directions, lay a warren of narrow streets lined with low houses and hovels packed tightly one against the other. Most were dark, but here and there a weak, solitary flame appeared through a window. There was no sound except, intermittently, the very distant barking of a dog. A solitary pedestrian, head bowed, emerged from a crossing alleyway and nodded at his approach; he nodded in return but spoke no greeting. The forlorn banlieu sprawled on; his exertions gave him warmth as he walked first one mile, than another. The snow was deep now, unbroken by footprints, and the wind once again picked up and stung his face, blowing drifts across his path as he trudged heavily from one grim corner to the next. There was no longer any illumination in the buildings he passed; either they were untenanted or their occupants had quenched their lamps and sought sleep, huddled in the chill, alone or with their companions as luck might have it. He heard the cracking of a branch from far off, and only then did he notice the cragged outline of the first tree, looming above a house as he passed. Soon the houses thinned out and the woods enveloped him, the street narrowed to a winding but well-trod path. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the city had disappeared behind him; the snow had risen to his knees but all at once it ceased falling and the wind dropped altogether. He felt the blood return to his face as he approached the little cottage, its windows lit up by a strong warm glow, where his love lay drowsing, awaiting him, wrapped in her blanket of dreams.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


German postage stamps, 1923. The highest denomination here: 20,000,000,000 marks. (That one must have been for Special Delivery.) The first two rows are overprints of lower-denominated stamps.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two mountains

I was already finding the repetitive images in these stamps a little disturbing even before I figured out what they were. The topography in the background of the 5 centavo and 10 centavo stamps is symbolic, not real, as it places Mt. Fuji in Japan in juxtaposition with Mt. Mayon on the island of Luzon, roughly 2,000 miles to the south. The stamps were, in fact, issued by the Japanese government for use during the occupation of the Philippines during the Second World War. The original sheets were larger, but as parts of multiple rows have been removed I've cropped the images square for the web.

Like most postage stamps, the ones above were designed to be separated and put to use one or two at a time, but somehow their sinister uniformity when viewed like this speaks volumes about the aspirations of conquerors and empires, in any era.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When the money was gone

Below are some examples of notgeld (emergency money), issued c.1918-1922 by a number of German cities and other public and private entities for use as scrip due to a shortage of metal coinage. Unlike the paper money that was churned out in great quantities during the hyperinflation of a few years later, these serienscheine were issued in small denominations, and many of them are quite appealing. In my opinion all currency should have turnips or cows on it.

I don't know what the three-legged object on the back of the one below might be; it looks like a cross between a jug and a kiwi.

The following notes, issued by an private company, KVG Braunschweig, feature the buses the company operated (and still does).

I don't know what story is being alluded too on the reverse of the note above, but the following one depicts, if I'm not mistaken, the Brocken or Brocksberg in the Harz Mountains, which by legend is the gathering place of witches for their annual Walpurgisnacht convocation. A lot more fun than old George and Abe, though between the satanism and the loose clothing of some of the witches I don't envision anything like this catching on here.

The note below is from Greiffenburg -- now Gryfów Śląski in Polish Silesia -- hence the griffins.

The last one's a ringer: the hyperinflationary notgeld designed by the artists Kahn and Selesnick for their Eisbergfreistadt project.

Iliazd has an extensive online gallery of notegeld.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Some seasonally appropriate images by the printmaker Kawase Hasui (1883 – 1957), via the extensive online galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Survivors

The men picked their way gingerly down the side of the ridge, traversing through the snow in broad snowshoes made of hard white ash, steadying themselves when they could against the trunks of the pines. Though the trail that lay beneath was deeply covered and only a few jagged rocks poked through the surface of the snow to interfere with their descent, the men knew that if they trod where it was too steep the slope could easily give way and bury them. It was only their second day out but already it seemed much longer.

A pale and gauzy sun lingered just above the horizon, casting the last feeble illumination of a dismal but snowless afternoon. There would be no moon that evening and so before long, as soon as they made it to level ground, they would have to camp for the night

Before the onset of winter they had smoked and dried as much game and fish as they could, not as much as in the best years perhaps but more than in the worst. Then the storms came, early and constant, the deer starved or headed for lower ground, and the snow was too deep to follow them. Inexorably their stocks had dwindled, until it was clear that there wouldn't be enough to keep them all alive until spring. They left what remained for the women and children and those too ill or old to make the trip; there might be enough to do for them at least. If the men reached the lowlands they would barter for food with the skins they carried in bundles on their backs, and return when the thaws came.

Seven had started out, but only four remained. Up in their hollow, in the shelter of their cabins and their fires, they had been safe, but once on the trail it was a different story. Though the travelers carried nothing but staves and short knives they knew that their pursuers wouldn't challenge them directly. Instead, they kept their distance, shadowing them from behind the trees, until one of the men struggled in the snow and began to fall behind. Then they would seize their moment and circle in, swiftly and quietly. When the first scream came the other men knew better than to turn around. There was nothing they could do and it would all be over quickly anyway. The ravens would take care of the scraps. After that they would be safe for a while, a few hours perhaps, but they knew that they would be accompanied on their journey until the hunger of their hunters was extinguished. They would have to travel for three more days, maybe four; if they were lucky two or three of the men might make it through.

When they completed their descent they turned and walked along the base of the ridge into a little wood of laurel and pine. Before the last twilight flickered out they settled under a ledge, cleared away as much snow as they could, then removed their gloves and set a small fire, just enough to dry their hands and bring back some feeling to their frostbitten fingers. They melted snow in a small wooden bowl and slaked their thirst, each in his turn. As the fire died away the men huddled together and fell into fitful and frigid sleep; beyond, somewhere in the darkness, the others bided their time.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Assault of the Roly-Rogues

Illustrations by Frederick Richardson from L. Frank Baum's Queen Zixi of Ix (1905). The Roly-Rogues live high in the mountains above the city of Nole (in the land of "Noland"), of whose existence they are ignorant until one of their number accidentally bounces off a cliff. The rest follow, and quickly take the city by storm.

"I must describe the Roly-Rogues to you, for they were unlike any other people in the world. Their bodies were round as a ball -- if you can imagine a ball fully four feet in thickness in the middle. And their muscles were as tough and elastic as india-rubber. They had heads and arms resembling our own, and very short legs; and all these they could withdraw into their ball-like bodies whenever they wished, very much as a turtle withdraws its legs and head into its shell."

Queen Zixi was made into a silent film in 1914, produced by Baum and Louis F. Gottschalk (not the composer, but his grand-nephew). In order to capitalize on the popularity of Baum's most famous creation, it was released under the title of The Magic Cloak of Oz, though the book doesn't take place in Oz at all. A substantial portion of the film has been lost, but what remains can be viewed at the Internet Archive, or below (give it a minute to load). The Roly-Rogues (here spelled with two l's) show up around thirty minutes in, though actually the most entertaining parts of the rather convoluted storyline feature the antics of Nickodemus the donkey, a giant crow, something called a zoop, and several other characters played by actors in animal costumes. The original soundtrack no longer exists.

There's more detailed information on the film at the blog And You Call Yourself a Scientist, and more about the Roly-Rogues at Vovat.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Nobel Prize Pulp

Some souvenirs from the days before paperback publishing became entirely respectable.

The above cover may be the only time the French novelist Roger Martin du Gard, probably best known in the US (if at all) for his long friendship with Gide, was ever compared to Grace Metalious. I don't know what marketing genius back in 1955 thought you could sell minor Martin du Gard in American drugstores, but probably the cover was the real selling point. This edition did go through at least two printings, so maybe they were onto something after all.

I went through an intense Martin du Gard phase in my youth and actually looked all over for The Postman, which at the time was out of print. I finally tracked down a copy in French (the original title is Vieille France) and worked my way through it, dictionary in hand, which if nothing else says something for my attention span back then. I only vaguely remember it now; I suspect it was actually quite tame. I bought the copy shown above much later for old time's sake.

I've never read either of the two Faulkners shown here. I love the quotation at the top of the back cover of Pylon, which makes you think the book is about giant rats or something along those lines. The Signet edition is from 1951. The blonde man on the cover looks a little like Paul Bowles, and the man slouching in the chair has Robert Mitchum eyes. Probably a coincidence.

The 1947 edition of Sanctuary below is relatively dignified -- it is a Penguin after all.

All of the above imprints -- Berkley, Signet, and Penguin -- are now part of the same corporation.