December 31, 2014

"Was there another Troy for her to burn?"

Beguiled by the testament of a Yeats-loving lover

cover of The Gonne-Yeats LettersMy Book Find of 2014 has to be this collection of the letters of William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne, the Irish nationalist revolutionary who was Yeats's great infatuation, we could even say obsession, and the inspiration for many of his finest poems. And when I say "this", I mean this very one shown here, a book which was anonymously donated to the library for the annual used book sale, where I spied it and made it mine.

It's not because it was a particularly good read. Yeats is one of my gods -- I even plowed through some of his astrological lunacy, albeit at a tender and uncritical age -- but only a handful of the letters in the book are his. In what might be seen as symptomatic of his relationship with Gonne, he seems to have saved all of her letters, whereas she did not find his worth such effort. Even the two letters he received from her just before her marriage (to another! to his immense dismay) were "very crumpled, as if carried around in his pocket and reread many times, then smoothed out to put away with the others", the Editor's Note tells us -- though I am surely not the only one to think it more likely that he had balled them up and thrown them across the room, only to pick them up the next morning and smooth them for keeping. In contrast, Maud Gonne had only kept two of his letters "particularly safe", one being his last letter to her.

No, it's something else which made this book my find of the year. Yeats is the great poet of romantic yearning, and I've noticed on many occasions how the bond that Yeats lovers form with him is very romantic and viscerally personal. In his "bibliomemoir" Outside of a Dog, Rick Gekoski recounts his shock at discovering that his girlfriend had betrayed him with her English professor, with whom she was studying Yeats, using his copy of Yeats which he had lent her. He felt that was "unaccountably wicked". Later, with the book back in his hands, he examines her annotations.

"Her note to 'Leda and the Swan', that tale of the overcoming of innocence by male lust, seemed in retrospect positively prescient: 'Zeus -- passionate. Leda -- helpless and terrified'. So my loved one was overcome by a God-like teacher (the animal!), but it wasn't her fault. That was some consolation, though her notes stressing the purification that comes from the flames of passion in the margin to 'Byzantium' seemed to indicate that much good could, and had, come out of it for them both if not for me."

And long after a zealous janitor had removed it, the Dean of Colby College (and Yeats scholar) still remembered with regret the "Yeats lives!"graffiti which had reigned for many years on the basement wall of the library. Annie Proulx attended Colby College, but somehow I don't think it was her work.

And The Gonne-Yeats letters, or rather the copy of it I am celebrating here, captured my heart the minute I saw this inscription scrawled on the title page:

25 August 2008

In comparison, we only have five more years to go, and, of course, I haven't asked your daughter to marry me...

The love story between William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne lasted 49 years, from the day he met her and was immediately enthralled by her great beauty and fiery spirit, to the day he died. He asked her to marry him a number of times, both before and after she had a child, a son, with a Frenchman who shared her revolutionary politics. She only told Yeats about the child after it had died, perhaps needing to explain her mourning attire, but claimed it was an adopted child. She then conceived another child with this man (the act taking place upon the dead child's mausoleum), a daughter this time, named Iseult. Yeats proposed to Iseult when she was 23, after yet another refusal on Gonne's part (she wanted to devote herself to freeing Ireland, she told him they would be united by love in another life, and anyway she didn't like sex, and she had already suggested he marry Iseult back when she turned 15), with no better luck. Iseult too turned him down.

If my calculations are right, someone was gifting this book to a lover of over 40 years, with "five more years to go", to match Yeats's record. Five years from 2008 would take us to 2013 -- the year the book was donated to the library. To be sold for a dollar! And still uncreased! What happened?

In his great poems inspired by Maud Gonne, Yeats charted the waning, as well as the waxing, of the love story which he once called the troubling of his life. Did the fate of these modern-day lovers reflect one of these?

Had they wearied?

I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

-- Adam's Curse

Had love fled?

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

--When You Are Old

Did this wonderful man not make it?

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

-- Mongan Thinks of his Past Greatness

Or was his beloved, like Maud Gonne, a beautiful troublemaker who would never be his, through no fault of hers, when all was said and done? I love all these Maud Gonne-inspired poems, but this one the most:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

-- No Second Troy

December 15, 2014

Occupy your coffee table with a new book these holidays

Let's hear it for the coffee-table book, the entertainment which asks nothing of you while offering so much! For example...

The perfect time-filler:
The coffee-table book can be enjoyed alone or in company, on a sunny day or a rainy one, you can open it anywhere without having to remember where you'd gotten to, using it does not require a show of wit or talent, and it's always charged up.

cover of book published for Francis Bacon retrospective
The centenary retrospective 
A great conversation starter:
"Mmm... Francis Bacon. Cruelty and splendour..." That's Kate Winslet's character in the wickedly funny movie Carnage (from Yasmina Reza's play), a sort of modern day Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf set in trendy Brooklyn rather than in tweedy academia, coolly appraising the coffee-table books of her hostess. Who faux-casually responds that yes, she picked it up at the MoMA retrospective where she...

A status symbol:
At this year's Association of Book Crafts conference I heard someone moot that perhaps the era of the book as a status symbol is drawing to a close. Are we serious? No more books on coffee tables as a statement of who we are? Only decorative bowls and designer lamps? Or for most of us, phones, iPods, remote controls, DVD cases, and offers from your internet provider you haven't decided what to do about?

Clearly, what's needed here is an Occupy Coffee table movement. Battle cry: No coffee table to be without a coffee-table book!

cover of Michelangelo from Taschen BooksWhat's that? You say you're tired of lugging around books which don't fit nicely into wine boxes with your other books, whenever you move house? Or finding they're too tall for your bookshelves when you want to put them away? And are you really going to get in enough views to make it worth the price tag? And what about when you splurged on a complete Michelangelo and then they went and cleaned the Sistine Chapel?

People, the answer is simple. Get your coffee-table books from the library! Enjoy them for a month or two, and exchange them for others. They won't cost you a cent, your selection will always be new and interesting, and you'll amaze visitors with your eclectic taste, not to mention sophistication.

Here are ten awe-inspiring, eye-catching coffee-table books which will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches you can find nowadays in the library.

1  Wa: the essence of Japanese design by Rossella Menegazzo
syndetics-lcIf, like me, you find Japanese design amazing, you'll love this book from Phaidon Press, one of the most important "high-end" publishers on the visual arts. We feast on 250 objects, from wooden stools to paper chairs, from "skin" juice boxes to kimonos, in an exploration of Wa. What is Wa? Phaidon Press explains: "Wa – the Japanese character that refers not only to the concept of harmony and peace but to Japan and Japanese culture itself – has evolved into a term to describe that peculiar ‘Japaneseness’ which Western culture finds at the heart of Japanese beauty."

You can see a gallery of pictures from the book on the Phaidon Press website.

2. Egyptian Art by Émile Prisse d'Avennes
syndetics-lcThe first complete collection of the nineteenth-century French Orientalist (40 years passed in the Middle East, or Orient as it was then known), author and artist Émile Prisse d'Avennes's splendid illustrations of Egyptian architecture, sculpture, painting and industrial arts, in facsimile  -- over 400 very large (44 cm) heavy matte pages. Echoing the hyperbolic format, the title page announces in three languages that the book was "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen" ie the head of Taschen, a world-renowned publishing house in the area of art and design, described by the impeccable Mr Porter website thusly: "Its carefully bound books, on topics as diverse as vintage advertising and the work of Mr Helmut Newton, are invaluable additions to the stylish coffee table or library". FTW, Karen!

syndetics-lc3. William Blake: The drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
If ancient art doesn't appeal to you, here's another chance to get the Taschen experience. Again a very large book (41 cm), this one with 14 fold-out spreads "to allow the most delicate of details to dazzle", as Taschen puts it, correctly -- I can vouch as I have the book at home right now. The book collects the 102 illustrations which Romantic poet and artist William Blake produced for Dante's masterwork in the last years of his life. The Taschen blurb concludes, again indisputably, "This is a breathtaking encounter with two of the finest artistic talents in history".

You can see Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy file past to the sound of Ed Alleyne-Johnson's version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (it works!) in a short video created by Jane Burden Morris, the famous muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelites (that's she up in the corner), or perhaps a namesake of hers.

4. Proud too be weirrd by Ralph Steadman syndetics-lc
A first person monograph by the British artist fired from The Times in the sixties because his work was "too seditious", best known to most for his close collaboration and friendship with Hunter S. Thompson (eg the crazed, splattered-ink illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
You can see some of the illustrations collected in Proud too be weirrd on the AMMO (American Modern) Books website, including the wonderful two-page spread which opens the book (I have this book at home too), which reads "The Annual All of Us Are Animals, But Some of Us Wear Glasses and There is Always One Who Doesn't Fit In Festival of Culture" (below).

Ralph Steadman: Proud Too Be Weirrd: Spread #3

Other highlights for me are Alice in Wonderland and the wasp, and Steadman's thoughts on chickens, in particular how hard it is to draw unfunny pictures of them.

5. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings
Whereas most coffee-table books tend to be somewhat triumphant, presenting with a flourish of trumpets, this one is suggestive, unworldly and emotionally charged. It consists of facsimile reproductions of 52 "envelope-poems" by Emily Dickinson -- sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems scribbled on pieces of envelopes -- discovered after her death.
The book closes with a long, intelligent essay by Marta Werner, who describes attempts to discover whether certain kinds of birds possess homing instincts which consist of throwing the birds up into the air and watching whether they drift or find their way. She compares these fragments of poems to distant migrants, saying "Ideally the reader of these writings will assume the role of 'liberator', releasing them high up into the ether, following them until they are out of sight, noting their vanishing points, and, whenever possible, replying to them, counting each brief connection with them as an instant of grace".

6. Building Stories by Chris Ware
Putting my money where my mouth is, arguing that "coffee-table book" does not have to be a disparaging term, implying a book which is all appearance and no substance, I'm declaring this wonderful creation by cartoonist Chris Ware, which has been compared to Ulysses and Joseph Cornell's boxes, a coffee-table book. A coffee-table comics book. Yes, it's technically (and famously, in the world of comics) a box containing (I quote from the Auckland Libraries catalogue record) 1 hardcover vol., 32 cm.; 1 hardcover vol., 24 cm.; 1 newspaper, 56 cm.; 1 booklet, 31 cm.; 2 booklets, 28 cm.; 1 booklet, 20 cm.; 1 booklet, 8 x 25 cm.; 5 printed sheets, ranging in size from 71 x 9 cm. to 56 x 81 cm., all folded; and 1 folded board, 41 x 107 cm., folded to 41 x 27 cm." but it is definitely a book, and one which has been residing on my coffee table this month, and in which, just as with coffee-table books, I've been finding something new and intriguing every time I turn my attention to it. "All components are unpaged and are chiefly col. illustrations. None have titles." we are told. There is no order to the experience, in other words; the stories are there for you to build, in three dimensions as in the imagination, jumbled together, like remembered dreams.

7. The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz

8. Concrete edited by William Hall
syndetics-lcI knew no list of coffee-table books could be complete without a book involving buildings, but wanted something a little bit different. Eureka! It's Concrete! "Presents a visual exploration of the aesthetics of concrete architecture through 180 structures from ancient Rome to the present day. Includes innovative and inspirational projects from monuments and churches to stations and cultural spaces, by some of the best architects of the last 100 years. Concrete is a beautiful and informative visual exploration of a material often considered dull and cold but actually full of spectacular potential" says the blurb.

You can "Look inside" on the Phaidon website.

9. Don Martin: Three decades of his greatest works
syndetics-lcA shining light of my childhood. As soon as my sisters and I would get our allowances, we would head down to our neighborhood store to buy candy (Necco Wafers or Rolos) and the latest issue of Mad magazine. That's how I remember it anyway, although I realise that since our allowances were paid weekly, and Mad was a monthly, we couldn't have bought it every time. But that was the idea, and when Mad wasn't in, we went home with just candy. There wasn't a second choice for magazine. I'm glad to see that the series this book appears in is called "Mad's Greatest Artists", because Don Martin certainly was in this category. He was also "Mad's Maddest Artist", a title he alone held. "Inside are over 200 of Martin's funniest and zaniest works from his lengthy career, along with every 'GOOSH,' ' SPROING' and 'POIT' that made his cartoons great", promises the publisher.

syndetics-lc10. The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren
Do you know what PostSecret is? In the words of its creator, Frank Warren, "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard". Warren posts the cards, often adorned with expressive artwork as an adjunct to the secret, on the PostSecret website, as well as reproducing them in a series of books, of which this is the latest, so new that as of today, it hasn't even arrived in the library yet, though you can already put yourself on the wait list for it. Reading the postcards was not at all like what I expected. There is no mythologising, no banality, no voyeurism. The flow of secrets has something profound and historical about it, almost holy, as if it were some sort of Book of Hours, whose illuminations are the inventive artwork, as in the original, but also flashes of insight into the human spirit.

Some people tweet their secrets at @postsecret. Here's a secret tweeted today:

December 04, 2014

I Had a Dog AND A CAT: Throwback Thursday

Ah, the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System!

I Had a Dog AND A CAT, by the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Čapek, written as Europe cowered under the shadow, if not yet the jackboot, of Nazi Germany, and containing, as well as humourous stories about his beloved pets, pointed asides on such topics as dog Eugenics and the need to prepare for the birth of a Super-dog; the current vogue for Dobermans and Alsatians; the lack of a Czech national dog (but if this race existed, Čapek opines, its exemplars would undoubtedly be fattish, small and lie behind the stove and bark a lot); this book, I was saying, shares a shelf in the Central City Library's basement with Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene, three memoirs by the good-humoured animal collector Gerald Durrell, and An illustrated guide to common soil animals by H. Pauline McColl, all classified as 591.5, "Behaviour".

For his anti-fascist stance which he shared with his friend Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovak president, the Gestapo declared Karel Čapek "Public Enemy Number 2" in Czechoslovakia, as if to say "Just wait til we get our hands on you". They never did, however, because Čapek died on Christmas Day 1938, a few months after France and England signed the Munich agreement which handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, but before the actual invasion. Čapek was an Anglophile who visited England often and was friends with George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton, and he seemed to have lost the will to live after Munich. His friends urged him to leave the country, without success. They had no better success at urging him to eat more. When he died, one of them said that the cause of death was "a stab in the heart from Neville Chamberlain's umbrella".

When the Nazis marched in, they didn't actually know Čapek had died, and did indeed go looking for him, and for his brother Josef, a noted writer, poet and artist, who contributed drawings in his trademark playful, primitive style of dogs, cats, and an occasional human, or human legs, to I Had a Dog AND A CAT. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and died in Bergen Belsen in 1945.


Before coming across I Had a Dog AND A CAT, I only knew Karel Čapek as the man who brought into the world one of the best purpose-made words ever, "Robot" (he always capitalised it), from the Czech word robota, heavy labour, in his famous anti-utopian comedy R.U.R.; I knew he was considered a sort of non-hardcore Science-Fictiony type, along the lines of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. But then I found another book in the library, published in 1990 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, with a foreword by a big fan of his, Arthur Miller.

Called Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, it includes such gems as an act from the play "Lives of the Insects", with Mr and Mrs Dung Beetle waxing ecstatic -- "Our little capital! Our golden treasure!"-- over their dung ball (the stage direction is something like "Enter an enormous ball of manure pushed by two dung beetles"); a piece on gardening called "Legs and the Gardener"; one on, well, clumsy people, called "In Praise of Clumsy People"; and the irresistible "In Praise of Idleness". True idleness: not rest, and not repose. Rest is related to work, either recovering from or preparing for, and idleness must bear no relation to work. And repose implies activity, and pleasure. Idleness calls for neither. In fact, "It calls for nothing at all".

"And when a person is through idling", Čapek concludes, "he arises and returns as if from another world. Everything is a little alien and distant, distasteful somehow, and strained; and it is so.. so strange, that... a person has to take a little rest after being idle; and then after resting, lounge around for a while; and then relax a little more, then devote himself to a certain amount of inactivity, and only afterwards is he able to recover his strength and begin to do something completely useless."

You can read all of  "In Praise of Idleness", indeed all of Intimate things, the book where it first appeared in 1936, in the Universal Library of the Internet Archive.

December 01, 2014

"6. The right to mistake a book for real life"

Daniel Pennac turns 70 today, a good excuse to pull out, for your enjoyment or re-enjoyment, his wonderful "Rights of the reader", from his somewhat redundantly titled -- but only in English translation -- The Rights of the Reader. In the original French the book was called Comme un roman, ("Like a novel") and as much as I love Quentin Blake, the Gallimard (the French publisher) cover is my favourite, so I'm going to put it first.

The rights of the reader: 

  1. The right not to read 

  2. The right to skip 

  3. The right not to finish a book 

  4. The right to read it again

  5. The right to read anything

6. The right to mistake a book for real life

7. The right to read anywhere

8. The right to dip in

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to be quiet

Everyone will have a personal favourite, I'm sure. Mine is "The right to mistake a book for real life", something I have exploited to its fullest. Come to think of it, I might be even better matched to a 6b, "The right to mistake real life for a book". 

syndetics-lcI only knew Daniel Pennac the crime writer -- his crime novels set in the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville, where Édith Piaf was born under a lamppost, having been recommended to me by Bill Ott (not me personally, it was his review for Booklist, but it certainly spoke to me personally) thusly: "Pennac's novels will appeal to those who find a certain inexplicable joy in spontaneous outbursts of oddity" -- until I came across a book called Au bonheur de lire,"The Happiness of Reading".

It was one of those books publishers put out like record labels do a "Triple Value Soul" -- a line-up of their stars. In this case the stars included Daniel Pennac, and the triple value included a cover with one of the most lascivious images of reading I've ever seen, with ripe jujubes (at least I think that's what they are) peeping from among the pages of a book. That cerebral image on Comme un roman is so last-century in comparison. 

Pennac's piece is about ownership of books. Few objects, he says, so inspire a sense of ownership as books. I loved his reasoning on how easy it is when you've really enjoyed a book, to consider it "yours", even when technically it isn't. So hard to give back to the person who lent it to you! (Libraries are different, of course. Of course.) 

Two great anecdotes: 

1. During World War II, the Italian novelists and anti-fascists Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante had to hide out for several months in a shepherd's hut. They had only been able to grab two books when they had made their getaway: the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov. "From which derived," says Pennac, "a terrible dilemma: which of these two monuments should they use for toilet paper?" He doesn't tell us which they chose. But he assures us they did.

2. The grandfather of novelist Tonino Benacquista went so far as to smoke his Plato. Prisoner of war in Albania (World War II again), he found deep in his pocket a page of Cratylus, and a match... "A new form of Socratic dialogue, via smoke signals."

The cleverest homage to Daniel Pennac, arrived at his eighth decade, came from Feltrinelli Zoom (@FeltrinelliZoom), the digital arm of Italian publishers Feltrinelli, who posted this wonderful taste of Pennac on Twitter:  

"Everyone's good at being born! Even I was born!
But then you have to become! become!
grow, increase, develop,
get bigger (without inflating)
accept changes (but not mutations)
mature (without shrivelling)
evolve (and assess)
progress (without getting senile)
endure (without vegetating)
get old (without a second childhood)
and die without protest, at the end...
an enormous programme, a continual vigilance...
because age, at any age..."

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