Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Conrad at Anchor

Joseph Conrad: These handsome uniform editions of Joseph Conrad with introductions by Morton Dauwen Zabel were published by Anchor Books in the early '60s, when that imprint, which under the leadership of Jason Epstein had pioneered the trade paperback format, was a legitimate competitor of Vintage and Penguin as a publisher of serious literature and non-fiction in paperback. The cover designs were by Diana Klemin, the art director for Anchor's parent company, Doubleday. The use of photographs rather than art works in several of these titles was, I think, a little unusual at the time.

In addition to these six there were two listed as being in preparation that apparently were never issued, at least in the same form: Tales of Conflict and Falk, and Other Tales of the Sea; Zabel's death in 1964 may have prompted their cancellation. Anchor published a number of other Conrad titles with different cover treatments as well, some of them featuring art work by Edward Gorey. Doubleday's association with the Polish-born Conrad was already at least a half-century old at the time. At some point in the cascading consolidation of the book industry the connection lapsed, although a number of Conrad titles remain available from Doubleday's sister imprints under the Random House umbrella.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Fourth Floor

The woman in apartment 4A has been roasting a chicken, which is nearly done. She lowers the oven door, pulls the rack out halfway with a potholder, and lifts the glass lid of the casserole by the knob. As one hand tilts the casserole slightly the other spoons the liquid that flows to the opposite side over the golden bird. She pricks the breast with the tines of a fork, noting the color of the juices that run down the sides and sizzle into the pot below. She replaces the lid and slides the rack back in, shuts the oven door, and sets the utensils down on the counter by the sink.

Her husband is in the next room, sitting in a green armchair. He is facing the kitchen doorway but only his legs and feet and the top of his head are visible, as he's reading a newspaper held spread out in both hands. There's a cut glass ashtray on the little table at his side, next to a porcelain lamp, but it's been wiped clean. Beyond him the window is open and the shade, pulled down nearly to the sill, is fitfully rising and falling back again, making a barely perceptible sound.

In apartment 4B an older woman is sitting alone at a formica kitchen table. She is dressed to go out, except for her hat which along with her purse is close at hand on the table before her. She's reading a book, and with one hand is absently fingering the bookmark that she's moved to the back pages while she reads. There's a narrow bookcase in one corner of the room. Most of the books are cookbooks or her own notebooks of recipes that she has cut out or been given by friends. Lying on top of the bookcase are a phone book and a mail order catalog of equal size. Over the doorway hangs an ornately carved and painted wooden clock with a motto in German.

The couple in 4C have been making love. The young man remains in bed, still wearing his undershirt, half in and half out of the disheveled bed covers. He's picked up a magazine he found lying on the nightstand and is flipping through its pages indifferently. There's a dresser along the opposite wall. Above a lamp, a hairbrush, and a tray containing a jar of cold cream and a few perfume bottles is a large mirror in which the man can see only his own head on the pillow and the headboard behind him. The woman has left the room and can't be seen.

The single gentleman in 4D is sitting at the desk where he has been typing all afternoon. He's smoking steadily and keeps a glass of neat whiskey within easy reach. He taps awkwardly but steadily on the keys, rarely pausing to think, pushing back the carriage with a flick of his hand at the end of each line. There's a pile of correspondence and newspapers in one corner of the desk; the letters have been opened, roughly, but the newspapers are still as tightly folded as when they arrived. At his feet is a box of books, carelessly packed; the only one that is visible is a dictionary, thumb-indexed but missing its jacket. Behind him on the floor is a worn brown leather valise, festooned with paper tags and labels from several countries, some of them in the Far East.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bad Guys

Jorge Luis Borges had already made a name for himself, at least in Argentine literary circles, as a poet and essayist years before he turned to the short fiction on which his broader international renown would largely come to be based. When he did so, like many an artist he began by borrowing from the masters, in his case with a volume of retellings and translations of tales gleaned from Mark Twain and the Thousand and One Nights as well as Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York, the Encyclopedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition), and other, less familiar sources. Most of the stories and anecdotes in Historia universal de la infamia deal with some kind of treachery or violence, usually both, and together they make up a little guided tour of a few of the lower precincts of Hell, the ones reserved for those whose crimes can't be easily ascribed to mere misplaced love or folly.

The only declaredly original story, describing the fatal dénouement of a confrontation at knifepoint at a Buenos Aires dance hall, is "Hombre de la esquina rosada," the title of which is here translated, felicitously if not entirely accurately, as "Streetcorner Man." Most of the pieces were originally published, in many cases pseudonymously, in Argentine literary magazines and supplements in the 1930s; one of the headings used for their appearance was "Museo" ("Museum"), which seems particularly appropriate. The arts of collecting and of presentation are here given equal footing with the art of creation. Borges scrupulously provides the source for each piece, and if a few of those attributions turned out, on closer examination, to be fictions, who was to know?

In the preface to the 1954 edition, written with nearly two decades of hindsight, Borges was fairly dismissive about the volume's merits, but, in contrast to his attitude towards several early works that he actively sought to suppress, he evidently managed to come to terms with its shortcomings (which may well strike the reader as no shortcomings at all).
The very title of these pages flaunts their baroque character. To curb them would amount to destroying them; that is why I now prefer to invoke the pronouncement “What I have written I have written (John 19:22) and to reprint them, twenty years later, as they stand. They are the irresponsible game of a shy young man who dared not write stories and so amused himself by falsifying and distorting (without any esthetic justification whatsoever) the tales of others. From these ambiguous exercises, he went on to the laboured composition of a straightforward story – “Streetcorner Man” – which he signed with the name of one of his great grandfathers, Francisco Bustos, and which has enjoyed an unusual and somewhat mystifying success...

The theologians of the Great Vehicle point out that the essence of the universe is emptiness. Insofar as they refer to that particle of the universe which is this book, they are entirely right. Scaffolds and pirates populate it, and the word “infamy” in the title is thunderous, but behind the sound and fury there is nothing. The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that reason, it may prove enjoyable. Its author was a somewhat unhappy man, but he amused himself writing it; may some echo of that pleasure reach the reader.
As Borges had remarked in the preface to the first edition, the stories are not, and do not try to be, psychological.

The di Chiricoesque cover painting of this edition, in which nefarious characters from various eras -- probably intended to represent specific antiheroes from the tales themselves -- lurk among the cracking pillars of a looming colonnade, is by Peter Goodfellow, who created several other Borges covers for Penguin UK in the 1970s. The translations above are by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who had the advantage of working closely with Borges himself. Sadly, his translation is out of print, having been replaced by one commissioned -- largely, it appears, for pecuniary reasons -- by the author's widow.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Hora cero

This wasn't quite the version of this song I went looking for, but having found it I have to admit it's not half bad. Helio, a veteran powerpop band from Seville, covers Peter Case's "Zero Hour," originally recorded by the Plimsouls.