Monday, January 31, 2011

Margaret and Alexander Potter

This Puffin picture book, which was published in the mid-1940s, is by the husband-and-wife team of Margaret and Alexander Potter. The human figures are almost unbearably crudely done (the cover is by no means the worst example), which is a shame because some of the colored spreads inside are quite appealing.

I don't know how the Potters divided their duties, but they were capable of sophisticated work, at least in terms of architectural draftsmanship (Alexander was an architect by profession). The following three images are from Houses (1948) and are reproduced from the page devoted to the Potters from Chris Mullen's web project called The Visual Telling of Stories.

Chris Mullen incidentally also has some scans from A History of the Countryside, but his images are evidently from a different, perhaps later printing, as they lack the background colors seen in the two-page spread below.

I rather like this layout, which is accompanied by a simple but intelligent discussion of urban planning. Here are close-up scans.

The Independent has an obituary of Margaret Potter, who died in 1984.

Chris Mullen reports that many of the early Picture Puffins, of which he reproduces a number of examples, were lithographed by the printing firm of W. S. Cowell of Ipswich. According to an interview he conducted with a former CEO of the firm, much of the Cowell archive was eventually discarded and burned.

Swedish Summer

While trying to scan some photographs from an old paperback I was having issues with pixelation. Rather than try to fix the problem (and not being especially adept at these things), I decided to roll with it instead. Using the Black & White setting, these images emerged.

The above, by the way, is the Gondolen restaurant in Stockholm, which is still in operation.

With apologies to Bertil Hultén.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Coup

Just ahead of dawn the young sentry in the lobby of the interior ministry, bored and sleepy after yet another overnight shift alone, heard tapping on the plate glass door as he made his rounds of the long empty corridors. Startled, he adjusted the strap of the rifle that was slung over his shoulder, straightened his cap, and made sure his shirt was tucked in all the way around. Visitors were rare on his watch; most likely it was an inspector, and it wouldn't pay to be looking unkempt. He strode quickly to the main entrance and peered out through the glass at the plaza that surrounded the ministry, lit up by the spotlights along the building's exterior.

When he reached the door and saw who was there he stood panicked and puzzled for a moment. It wasn't an inspector at all but three girls, identically dressed in the uniform of the national university that occupied a bluff a half-mile away along the river. As soon as they saw him they began calling to him urgently. One, the tallest of the three, held aloft a large manilla envelope that appeared to have some kind of official stamp on it; the flap was open and several sheets of paper were protruding a bit, though he couldn't tell what kind of documents they might be. The other two girls, after a brief pause when they first caught sight of the sentry, began banging on the glass again, pleading with him to unlock the door.

He stared at them, then shook his head. Obviously it was against regulations to open the door until the ministry officials began to arrive for their morning office hours and he was relieved by the day shift. He nervously felt for his radio, but decided it wouldn't be wise to disturb the chief of the security detail, no doubt still asleep in bed with his mistress, for a trivial matter he could handle himself. Hadn't he once received a dressing down for calling an alarm, in the middle of the night, because he had heard what turned out to be windblown acorns bouncing against the side of the ministry? He shook his head at the girls again, emphatically this time, and gave them a dismissive wave of the hand to make them go away.

But they didn't go away. Instead, the one holding the manilla envelope, who seemed to be their leader, drew out some papers and held them up. She seemed very indignant. Perhaps she was the daughter of some official, dispatched to deliver urgent correspondence to the ministry, though the more he thought it over the more unlikely that possibility seemed. He shook his head one more time, looking as severe as he could, hoping the girls would understand that the matter was now settled and that further entreaties would be a waste of time, but he didn't resume his rounds.

The girls turned away from him, conferring by themselves, then the tall one pulled out a cell phone and punched a number. She gestured at the door and shook her head while she spoke into the phone; she leafed through the papers, then slapped them against her thigh in evident exasperation. In the meanwhile the other two girls had returned their attention to the door. They banged on the glass and beckoned to him; he couldn't make out what they were saying but he distinctly heard the word “idiot.”

The sentry tried to pretend he was ignoring them, but as this clearly wasn't having the desired effect he thought it over, reached for his radio again, then changed his mind. Instead he strode firmly to the door and demanded their business in a firm voice. The girl on the cell phone broke off the call, and all three began chattering at him at once, more frantically than before. They held up a sheet of paper; it looked official, but he couldn't catch its import from where he stood. Finally he reached to his belt for the key and inserted it in the door.

The girls rushed in all at once. One of them immediately darted to the bottom of the stairs. He yelled after her, started to follow, until he noticed that somehow, from out of nowhere, another cluster of students had appeared and were shoving their way through the half-open door. This group included some male students, as well as a couple of burlier, older men. Before he could react one of them had seized the rifle that still lay slung on his shoulder. He resisted but they pulled it away and subdued him, then pushed him aside.

Another cell phone snapped open, and within seconds a crowd was forming, a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty people, students mostly but not all, running individually or in twos and threes across the plaza between the oak trees, scattering or crushing the newly fallen acorns as they came. Swiftly, largely in silence, they made their way inside and swept up the stairs to the offices above.

Upstairs the corridors were mostly deserted, but the crowd barged into an office where a dozen startled men and women sat at desks, headphones on, cigarettes between their fingers. One of them drew a revolver and waved it around; the intruders swarmed past him and out of the room, hurrying down the hall towards the private elevator that led to the minister's office. The man with the pistol put it away and reached for the telephone. Then he noticed that his fellow-workers had all abandoned their posts and disappeared.

The door to the minster's office was locked. While the crowd debated how to proceed a guard rushed in and fired a pistol shot into the ceiling. At the sound the throng drew back, at first, but the force of new arrivals propelled them forward again, trapping the guard against the door for an uncomfortable moment, until word was passed back and the shoving stopped. A harried-looking functionary, bloodshot and tieless in a glum disheveled suit, foced his way through, unopposed. After a moment's parley he dismissed the guard and produced a key, then stood aside as the crowd burst into the inner sanctum of the ministry.

At the headquarters of the national broadcasting service, a little after dawn, the staff suddenly rose, seemingly as one, and stormed into the studio just as the morning newscast was beginning. The perplexed announcer froze, looked up at the crowd gathered around him, then took off his earpiece and yielded the microphone to one of his subordinates. The camera crew continued filming without a pause. A producer darted in from the control room, infuriated, yelling and threatening, but was soon subdued by an offer of immediate defenestration.

As the city woke up and the news began to spread the downtown districts filled with pedestrians, most of them hustling towards the presidential palace and the ministries that surrounded it. Traffic began to back up, as a tide of cars and trucks, all heading in the same direction, inundated the main avenues, tying up streets for hundreds of square blocks. By the time the army arrived the entire area was gridlocked. The lead tank tried to ram its way through, pushing three or four cars aside and riding over the top of another, but the situation was quickly understood to be hopeless, especially after the military vehicles became trapped, in their turn, by another wave of incoming traffic behind them. The soldiers abandoned their stalled vehicles and stood around in groups, shouting into radios and cell phones, until the crowds began to swell around them and they broke up, retreating on foot to their barracks or just heading home.

The president had slept in, as usual, and was shaving when he heard the commotion outside. He set his razor down, hastily grabbed a towel, and strode to the window in his sleeveless undershirt and shorts. The sight of the crowed stunned him; just then the phone rang. It was the minister of defense, calling from his home in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Had he heard the news? What were his orders? The president said he would call right back, then pulled on a pair of pants and rushed into the hallway, looking for his chief of staff. The offices around him were bustling like a hive; papers were being shredded, desks emptied out. His secretary breezed by him, securing her purse on her shoulder as she hurried off, giving him just a quick glance and a weak smile before she darted towards the elevator.

He went over to a window, hid himself behind a curtain, and peeked outside. The plaza was jammed with thousands of people; they seemed to be in the mood for celebration. He looked in vain for any sign of the police, or his personal bodyguard, but except for one police cruiser parked on the far edge of the crowd, its lights flashing, they were nowhere to be seen. He retreated into his private chambers, pulled down a briefcase and a plastic shopping bag, and began to gather his personal effects. When he left, walking in a daze down the hall towards the elevator as the transitional committee assembled in his office, no one even noticed him.

The above was first written in 2007. I am reposting it and dedicating it to all those in Egypt, Belarus, and elsewhere for whom it must, for now, remain only a fantasy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jules Shear: Between Us

Jules Shear has been around the music business for more than two decades, having composed several songs that became at least minor hits for other people, but were it not for this CD, which grew out of a series of concerts by songwriters that he hosted in the '90s at the now defunct Bottom Line in Manhattan, I most likely either wouldn't recognize his name or would confuse him with Jule Styne.

There seems to be general agreement that the biggest rap against Shear has always been his voice. (Typical: Jon Pareles, in The New York Times: "An exceptional songwriter will always have friends among musicians; a limited singer may need them. Jules Shear is both …") He's no Aaron Neville to be sure, though once you get used to it his singing has a kind of agreeable smokiness to it that I've come to be quite comfortable with. If you prefer your music with no seams showing you're not going to like Between Us, but I'm quite fond of it. Every now and then I dig it out and remind myself of how good a record it is.

Shear has recorded solo and as part of several fairly obscure bands (including one called Jules & the Polar Bears which if nothing else deserves some recognition for having a really cute name). On Between Us he shares vocals in a series of duets with some very good female singers (Paula Cole, Suzzy Roche, Amy Rigby, and others) as well as some male singers (Ron Sexsmith, Freedy Johnston, Curtis Stigers) whose chops are not necessarily out of line with Shear's own. There is one instrumental track, "Entre nous," a duet with bassist Rob Wasserman. Collectively the songs -- at least the ones that have lyrics -- anatomize a relationship that is evidently on the rocks, regarding it with varying proportions of whimsy, melancholy, and resignation. As with lovers since at least the troubadours, the truest evidence of his faith is in the depth of its disappointment.

The lyrics have an improvised, back-of-the-envelope feel to them, which is not at all to suggest that they aren't actually carefully crafted. The same can be said of the arrangements, which are mostly built around Shear's acoustic guitar (he is said to play it idiosyncratically upside-down) with some well-chosen guests on everything from mandolin and banjo to trumpet and sax. The style is eclectic, borrowing as much from torch song and chanson as from folk and country, with a good handful of theatricality thrown in. Shear writes breathtaking bridges, and almost every song here has a great one. It's hard to say how well any of these songs would hold up removed from their context, but taken together they work superbly well.

Almost every cut here has its little delights, in the melody and in the lyrics. One of my favorites is in the final verse of the last song, "You Might As Well Pray," which seems to hold out (if only then to whisk away) a vision of reconciliation:
it's no use backtracking
& wondering where we went
it's like watching where the dog
ran through the wet cement
there's no way in this world
we'll ever be content
so try to make it like the dream we had
the peaceable kingdom
where no one's betrayed
you might as well pray

you might as well pray
you might as well pray
(From 2008; reposted because I'm listening to it and because that's the kind of day it is.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Manhattan Mission

The Cremorne McAuley Mission, at 104 West 32nd Street near Sixth Avenue, New York. The engraving, which probably dates from around 1883-84, is from Jerry McAuley: His Life and Work (Second Edition), edited by Rev. R. M. Offord. The artist is not credited.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Judge on Trial

I first read this novel in 1993, the year it was published in the US by Knopf, but the copyright date of the Czech edition, Soudce z milosti, was 1986, and even that was for a reworked version. According to a review by the late Malcolm Bradbury, the book was originally written and circulated as samizdat in 1978. The events of the novel itself take place around 1972; that is, four years after the premature end of the Prague Spring in which Ivan Klíma, as the editor of Literární noviny, was an active participant. There are also several long digressions dating back to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II. The book remained unpublishable in Klíma's own country until the collapse in 1989 of the Czech Communist regime, which to the end of its days was one of the Soviet Bloc's most hardline members.

The protagonist of Judge on Trial is Adam Kindl, is a jurist assigned to hear the case of a man accused of the murder, by gas asphyxiation, of his landlady and her adolescent granddaughter. The incident wasn't political in nature but its consequences may be. The defendant faces a possible sentence of death; Kindl, though no dissident, had once incurred the displeasure of the Communist Party, years before, by writing an article calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The judge suspects that he has been assigned the case as a test of his loyalty. If he refuses to impose a death sentence he will lose his job and his decision will likely be overruled upon appeal anyway.

Except for the fact that its author is by profession a writer and not a lawyer, much of the book appears to be loosely autobiographical. Like Kindl, Klíma was born into a thoroughly assimilated family of Jewish descent and spent much of his childhood in a concentration camp. The details of the judge's family members, his affiliation and eventual disenchantment with the Communist Party after the war, and even his marital infidelities seem to echo the author's own background. The chapters dealing with the concentration camp coincide with many of the details of the story "Miriam," included in Klíma's My First Loves. (It will be interesting to see to what degree they will also correspond to Klíma's as yet untranslated memoirs.)

In contrast to much of the literature of the same period, whether from Eastern Europe or elsewhere, Judge on Trial is neither ironic nor phantasmagorical. Its manner is realist, its tone earnest. It presents no difficulties, in terms of following the action or interpreting the motives of the characters, but on the other hand it makes no attempt to amuse or divert the reader either. It's not particularly grim -- the deaths of the old woman and her granddaughter are left on the periphery, and the horrors of war and Stalinism are implied rather than described -- and Klíma is fundamentally a writer of moderation, of the prosaic and ordinary rather than the romantic and heroic, but there is no mistaking the fact that this is, in the best sense of the word, a serious novel.

As is the case with much of the literature of Eastern Europe produced between 1945 and 1989, the inescapable question is whether, now that the political situation has changed and an entire generation has come of age with no memory of life under Communism, the book still bears the same urgency. The specific conditions under which Kindl lives no longer exist, at least in what is now the Czech Republic, but I think the book is more than a historical document. Its underlying theme is the inescapability of moral choice, whether in a legal decision that is literally a matter or life or death or in choosing between one's wife and one's mistress. (Kindl's lover is the seductive but cruelly manipulative wife of a senior colleague.) Tyranny complicates the predicament because the regime recognizes only its own moral authority, and will relentlessly punish anyone who refuses to do the same. Kindl is therefore simultaneously compelled to make moral choices and constrained from doing so in a disinterested manner. Our own situation is very different, and it would be a mistake to romanticize it by likening it to life behind the Iron Curtain, but it seems to me that a little of Klíma's earnestness is something we could use.

The translation of Judge on Trial is credited to A. G. Brain, a pseudonym for Gerald Turner. I speak no Czech but his rendition seems fairly adept compared to other Klíma translations I've read. There are a few slang terms and Britishisms that may stick in American ears, but nothing that will interrupt the flow of reading. One curiosity: Kindl's mistress describes a book she has been reading by a Latin American writer, in which a group of characters revere an author they have never met, then wind up meeting him by chance after he is accidentally struck by a car. Though the book isn't named, it's clearly Cortázar's Hopscotch, a different section of which is also discussed by two characters in Klíma's My Golden Trades. It's hard to think of two authors less superficially alike, but perhaps at bottom there's a kinship after all.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


Like Ivan Klíma himself, the narrator of the "The Tightrope Walkers," the fourth and final story in this 1985 collection, has spent part of his childhood in a wartime concentration camp. Though he survives physically, he isn't unscathed:
Perhaps it was a result of my wartime experiences or of a self-pity typical of my age, but I had never quite been able to surrender to pleasure or joy, or to relax. As if I never ceased to be aware of the connection between happiness and despair, freedom and anxiety, life and ruin. My feelings were probably those of a tightrope walker on his high wire. No matter how fixedly I was looking upwards I was still conscious of the drop below me.
As the story begins, the young man is en route to visit a classmate, Ota, who has a cabin in the country. Along the way he recalls an experience, a year or so after the end of the war, of seeing a traveling troupe of acrobats. While he had been waiting for their performance to begin, a young woman had approached him selling tickets, and though he never spoke to her he had been quite smitten by her. Later he had watched the same girl, now wearing a different costume, ascend one of the masts to take part in the show.

With Ota at the cabin is his girlfriend Dana, whom the narrator has never met. She too has painful memories: both of her parents were executed in the war, her grandmother has recently died, and she herself is still recovering from a serious illness. She and the narrator become friends, and later they exchange visits, books, poems, and eventually kisses. Finally, still loyal to Ota, she implores the narrator not to see her any more, then collapses and has to be brought to a hospital. Three days later, recovering at home, she sends him a letter, ardently declaring her love and informing him that she has broken it off with Ota. He hurries out to go to her, but on the way he is racked by second thoughts:
If only her letter hadn't been so totally urgent or her offer so unconditional. Did I even have the right to reject her after what I'd caused? But what feelings did I have for her? Did I have any feelings of the kind she wrote about?
Suddenly, on the way to Dana's apartment, he comes upon the acrobats again:
As I stood there in the crowd, gazing up at the celestial acrobat who, high above our heads, above the dark void, was invoking that vaster void with the starry face, it seemed to me that I was beginning to understand something of the secret of life, that I would be able to see clearly what until then I had been helplessly groping for. I felt that life was a perpetual temptation of death, one continual performance above the abyss, that in it man must aim for the opposite mast even though, from sheer vertigo, he might not even see it, that he must go forward, not look behind, not look down, not allow himself to be tempted by those who were standing comfortably on firm ground, who were mere spectators. I also felt that I had to walk my own tightrope, that I must myself sling it between two masts as those tumblers had done, and venture out on it, not wait for someone to invite me up and offer to carry me across on his back. I must begin my performance, my grand unrepeatable performance.
His resolution soon fades, however, and the story ends ambiguously, as he stands staring up at her window, still uncertain, suspended on the high wire.

(Translations by Ewald Osers, very slightly emended.)