Kids’ Treat

March 12, 2018
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Drawing Lots – Illustration by Arianna Vairo

I collect illustrated editions of two books:  Candide and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and I have a particular thing for Pym.  I came across this etching from a children’s, or perhaps young adult, edition of the grisly Poe novel.  I imagine they edited out the “good parts.”  I couldn’t quite recall whether the drawing of lots to determine who would be sacrificed to feed the other surviving crew members was followed by an actual meal, and if the hero partook, so I checked the text.

I recovered from my swoon in time to behold the consummation of the tragedy in the death of him who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing it about. He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead. I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality. Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet, and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body, piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth of the month.

In searching for the text, and  yet again for illustrated editions of the book, I came upon several webpages dedicated to the “strange” pre-cognizance of Poe’s tale:  it seems that forty or fifty years hence, there was a famous shipwreck that led to some castaways in a lifeboat drawing lots and eating the loser.  The name of the victim was, as in Poe’s story, Richard Parker.  He was a mere cabin boy, and probably didn’t know about Poe’s book, or he would probably have shipped under a different name, just in case, that is.  And, of course, Richard Parker was also the name of the tiger (real or imagined) in Yan Martel’s The Life of Pi.

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Pinhole and Not

November 1, 2017

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It was a dull, cloudy day out, so even with some lights turned on, this interior shot was exposed for about 9,000 seconds; that’s two and one-half hours.  🙂  The aperture is 0.2mm and the focal length is 0.9″ for an f-stop of about 114.  My collection of first editions of illustrated copies of Voltaire’s Candide and E. A. Poe’s The Adventure of Arthur Gordon Pym are hardly legible.  😦

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This is the image I should have taken with my pinhole camera yesterday at The Cloisters!  But it was made with my iPad.


Pym and Me

March 5, 2015

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See Not to be Reproduced or Pym.


Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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Bibliomania!

April 22, 2014

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I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morganbut in fact, it’s all on me:  I’ve loved books with woodcuts since I was a boy, and I recently went on a bit of a spree getting illustrated and limited editions of a few of my literary favorites.  None of them are particularly valuable, but all are, as they say, “collectible“.

Above, is an edition of Poe’s tales that was issued in the 1940s, although I recall these images from a library book, perhaps a reprint, when I was in school.  The book is in great condition, and I re-papered the tattered slipcase, one of my new hobbies.  I love that Fortunato and Montresor!

This collection of Poe stories (remember the old song from Mad Magazine?) is part of a series of woodcut-illustrated classics published in paperback by Penguin Books, and featured in the Morgan exhibition.  Found it online, but it has not arrived in the mail yet.

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Of course, when it comes to Poe, my favorite, after Amontillado, and distiguished by being his only novel, is the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym.  I bought a few editions in French, all translated by Charles Baudelaire, who introduced Poe to France in the 1850s.  This is a nicely illustrated copy from the 1970s.

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And here is a first edition of Pym’s Adventures, first edition in French, that is, published in 1858.  Why is it that the French were so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to paperbacks?  The book on the mantle of this well-known painting by Magritte is Arthur Gordon Pym, although I can’t make out the date.

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Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.

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Done with Poe!  Candide is one of my all-time favorite books, so I have many copies of it, including a variety of cheap paperpacks, but I decided to upgrade my collection.  This French edition is illustrated by the Italian Umberto Brunelleschi using stencils, or pochoirs.  It was published in the 1930s – quite a racy little paperback.

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Back to woodcuts with this 1920s edition, also heavy on the erotic aspect, as is par for the course with Candide, and why not!

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Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté

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And a tiny little softcover edition from the 1920s, complete with woodcut illustrations and vignettes.  Did I mention that one of my Internet passwords is Pangloss?

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I have a few editions of Candide with illustrations by Rockwell Kent – it was such a popular production that it was issued several times in different formats, but I had never even seen a copy of the Kent Moby Dick.  (I read that it was a big deal that Melville’s name wasn’t on the cover, as if you needed it!)  This Random House edition from 1930 is the first reissue of the Kent illustrated version, originally published in a very limited three-volume set.  (There is also a fancy gold and blue covered version of this book from 1933.)  Kent’s pictures are fantastic, but they are ink drawings, not woodcut prints, although they are almost always referred to as such.

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I like Barry Moser’s art work a lot, and I have a few trade editions of his books – Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein – so I figured I should get a copy of his Moby Dick.  It’s often cited as a superlative example of book design and production, and the original letterpress edition goes for many thousands of dollars:  I settled for the hardcover University of California reprint.  I like it, but it just doesn’t excite me the way Rockwell Kent’s does.

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And while I was on this Herman Melville theme, I read this book about the slave trade, by a local historian.  The facts of the trade are unspeakably appalling, a veritable holocaust that played out over centuries.  Even the language of the traders is similar to what we know of Nazi organizers of the death camps:  the main difference was that slaves were expected to reproduce, rather than simply work themselves to death.  One of the benefits of a pre-industrial age.

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It’s a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade, using Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, as unifying narrative device for the history.  Until I read this book, I had thought that Melville based his story on facts from the Amistad case, but actually, there really was a Captain Delano!  He was an ancestor of FDR, and quite a few other people as well, and he was involved in the slave trade himself, fine old New Englander that he was.  The story is based on his memoir which recounts in detail his encounter with the historical Don Benito.  I purchased this limited edition illustrated edition of Benito Cereno with woodcuts by Derrick Palmer, published by the Imprint Society.

The pictures below show Delano being rowed to the captive slave ship, and Babu’s head on a pike, after the truth has been revealed.

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Melancholy Project

March 20, 2014

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The NYRB edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is great, but let’s face it – it’s a pain to lug around!  It is certainly the best to read, because it retains the endless series of Latin quotations in the text while providing their translations right after each one, in brackets.  No need to constantly thumb to the notes to see what they mean, and with the English right there, sometimes they are fun to read.

It turns out that the text first appeared in the Everyman’s Library, revived recently, in a larger format.  So, I searched and found a copy of Burton’s work in the original three-volume edition from the 1930’s.  Ah!..much easier to handle.

The slipcase was made by me to hold them together – they are a bit delicate, and I will probably cover them in paper before I toss them into a backpack.  I have taken up the craft of making cases for my little treasures, such as my recently acquired Poe-Pym-Baudelaire illustrated edition.  It is not nearly as hard as I had feared to get a pretty decent result.


Tekeli li

January 3, 2008

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Reproduction of this image is prohibited, or at least that is the title of the painting by Magritte shown here. I guess I have involved myself in the sort of vicious logical cycle that he loved so much, and that he painted, by simply showing it here. Or buying it in a book, or on a postcard. Another one along the lines of “This is not a pipe.” A college friend of mine remarked of this painting, “What a nightmare – looking into a mirror and not being able to see your face!” Another interdiction.

The book on the mantle, by the way, is Poe’s “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”. That story dealt with unmentionables and things unseen and never seen – the ghastly horrors of the antarctic regions. Pym ends up there on a doomed sailing ship by way of shipwreck, psychopaths, and cannibalism. On expedition into the inland regions of the south, he meets his end, we think, at the hands of vicious natives. All chant, shout, and speak with horror the syllables, “Tekeli li!” What does it mean?

H. P. Lovecraft knew what it meant, or so he claimed. I’d always thought that he wrote junk-fantasy, and so avoided him. Recently, I corrected that error and found him to be a worthy follower, and a worshipper, of E. A. Poe. His story, “The Mountains of Madness” is an over-the-top recounting of an expedition to the south gone awry that connects with the fantastical notions of Arthur Pym – the sounds of “tekeli li” hover ominously throughout this story of the discovery of a vast polar civilization that pre-dates the rise of advanced lifeforms on the other continents. (They appear to have been of the shape of huge cucumbers, tremendously intelligent, and, as in other Lovecraft stories of aliens and ancient civilizations, have “blood” that is sticky, green, and foul smelling.)

The mere sight of the remains of the the huge urban settlements built by these creatures, with the realization that they are millions of years older than the oldest human city, and the eventual discovery that some of the inhabitants yet live, drives some of the explorers positively mad.   Lovecraft repeatedly mentions paintings by Nicholas Roerich (an early 20th century mystic and pacifist) to describe the appearance of the urban remains.

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