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October 22, 2014 | by

Lessons from Rare Book School.

Edward Collier, Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, 1699.

Four stories underneath the stately Georgian campus of the University of Virginia, I was with a group of rare-book experts scrutinizing a five-hundred-year-old Italian woodcut of two chubby infants. They framed a capital letter L. One, with a look of insouciant concentration, was thrusting his butt over the downslope of the L to defecate on it.

“The woodcut accompanies Andreas Vesalius’s discourse on the muscles of excretion,” Roger Gaskell, a rare-book dealer based in Cambridgeshire, told the group. It turns out that Vesalius, the Renaissance physician remembered today as the father of modern anatomy, had an intensely strained relationship with his publishers. “This initial letter differs from the others in the book—despite the fact that the printing house had a perfectly good L already cut,” Gaskell said. “So I rather suspect this shitting putti was a message to his publisher.”

Over a coffee break, the members of Gaskell’s seminar mingled with three others led by such luminaries as Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare-book division at the Library of Congress. They were gathered in a warren of windowless basement rooms for an annual rite of passage in the world of antiquarian texts: Rare Book School. Read More »

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Wanna Be Like Everyone

October 14, 2014 | by

Italy in the Years of Lead.

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Photo: southtyrolean, via Flickr

In the Italy I first knew, the Italy of the midseventies, political debate seemed to constitute the molten core of every dramatic conversation. My Italian was good and improving, but it never really got good enough to penetrate the mist of political verbiage. “Compagni, cioè, nella misura in cui” was the standard Italian catchphrase, mocking the loopy revolutionary discourse of the time: “Comrades, I mean, to the extent to which…” If the militant jargon was eye-glazing, the newspapers printed a language that can only be compared to the incense-clouded Latin of the Catholic Mass, a series of hieratic shibboleths that resembled Abstract Expressionist dance, the high holies and sacred mysteries of a Kabuki facade behind which deals were being cut.

But one aspect of the political debate became dazzlingly clear to me on a July afternoon in 1977 when my flatmate Angela burst into the small apartment we shared; she had the day’s newspaper and sat down to read it at the kitchen table. Angela was tall, with a crazed serpent’s nest of curly, hennaed red hair, intensely exorbital brown eyes, stunningly uneven buckteeth, and a dangerous temper. She dressed in the uniform of leftist Italian students: vest over peasant blouse, long embroidered skirt, Dr. Scholl’s clogs, oversize velvet purse riding at hip height.

As she read one article, something broke in her usually impetuous demeanor. “Oh, mamma mia, quanto mi dispiace,” she keened softly, expressing her sorrow. A NAP militant—Antonio Lo Muscio—had been shot and killed by police on a piazza in Rome, and two female comrades were shot and wounded. Angela was openly mourning the death of people who had killed policemen and hoped to overthrow the state. I was already afraid of her temper and her glare, but I was now aware that her political beliefs went to a place much more glamorous and romantic, and far scarier, than I had guessed. Read More »

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In Search of the Lost Trail

September 26, 2014 | by

Remembering Le Grand Meaulnes on the centenary of its author’s death.

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Detail from Edward Gorey’s cover of the Anchor 1950s edition of Le Grand Meaulnes, dubbed The Wanderer.

“There is no doubting the classic status of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes,” the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian in 2012, having revisited the novel in his sixties to see if it retained its “youthful enchantment.” “A poll of French readers,” he noted, “placed it sixth of all twentieth-century books, just behind Proust and Camus.”

Those two are widely known to English-speaking audiences, and yet Le Grand Meaulnes and its mysterious-sounding author are not. I asked twenty self-admitting Francophile friends if they had ever heard of Fournier; most of them hadn’t. It doesn’t help that the novel—the only book Fournier published in his lifetime—has had at least seven different titles in English: The Wanderer (sometimes with the subtitle Or, The End of Youth), The Lost Domain, The Land of Lost Contentment, The Big Meaulnes, The Magnificent Meaulnes. The most recent translation, from 2007, is called The Lost Estate, with Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses.

Originally published in 1913, the novel only barely predated Fournier’s death on the front lines in the first months of World War I, on September 22, 1914—a hundred years ago this week. Fournier was, at twenty-seven, one of the war’s first literary casualties. “His unit strayed accidentally behind the loose German lines in a forest of the Hauts-de-Meuse,” the novelist John Fowles wrote in an afterword to the book in the early seventies. “They found themselves trapped at the edge of a beechwood. The Frenchmen charged. Lieutenant Fournier was last seen running toward the Germans, firing his revolver. His grave is unknown. He was presumably buried by the enemy.”

Having recently become a parent, I’ve started to cobble together a young-adult reading list to give to my son one day—which is what led me to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its affecting treatment of lost innocence and its finely tuned, fairy tale–like depiction of the “twilight world between boyhood and manhood.” Read More »

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The Great Unread

August 26, 2014 | by

Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?

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An illustration by Attilio Mussino from a 1911 edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Even in our era of blurb inflation, it’s hard to top Giuseppe Verdi’s claim that Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) was “a gift to humanity.” Verdi was hardly alone in praising the author, who ranks second only to Dante in Italian literary history. Manzoni’s contemporaries Goethe and Stendhal celebrated his genius, while the critic Georg Lukács said that The Betrothed was a universal portrait of Italy so complete that it exhausted the genre of the historical novel. In Italy, such is the ubiquity of Manzoni’s novel that Umberto Eco claimed “almost all Italians hate it because they were forced to read it in school.” Manzoni was named senator in 1860 by the Italian government; in his greatest honor, Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

So why do few outside of Italy care about Manzoni—or, even more tellingly, why do they care much more about other books, written around the same time as The Betrothed and devoted to themes similar to its own? By comparison, one of the best-selling Italian books of all time is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), the story of a mischievous puppet who dreams of becoming a boy. The scholar Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg has shown that Pinocchio, in his struggle to assert his individuality against the controlling wishes of the outside world, represented the archetypal Italian child in the newly formed nation: the book first appeared twenty years after unification. Similarly, Manzoni’s Betrothed gives us two typical Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who struggle to marry and build a life together amid class inequality, foreign occupation, and church domination.

But here the similarities end: Manzoni’s novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God’s providential wisdom. Collodi’s story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni’s legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi’s star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni’s thoroughly Christian universe a second thought. Read More »

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I’ve Got a Secret

August 12, 2014 | by

Keeping mum in the age of spoilers.

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From one cover of Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru...

For about four months I have kept a secret. Because few people knew that I had it, the difficulty wasn’t in resisting others’ demand to know but in quashing my own desire to tell. Still, the challenge was significant. The value of a secret seems to increase for the holder in proportion to the level of interest it will attract from its potential audience, and in this regard my secret seemed quite valuable.

In April, after several years writing reading-and-teaching guides for various publishers, I was hired to work on Knopf’s guide to the forthcoming English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A few weeks later, I found the galley at my doorstep. The only information I received about the book, other than its title, came in the form of a brief note of encouragement: The novel would be much shorter than 1Q84, the nine-hundred-something-page tome that preceded it. One other fact, recovered by way of a quick Google search: Colorless Tsukuru sold more than a million copies during its first week on sale abroad.

We often come to a book already knowing something about it—we’ve seen it mentioned online. My experience with the Murakami novel was entirely different. It was chosen for me; I knew nothing about it. No one I knew had read it or recommended it or tweeted about it. Because I was working from an early galley, there was neither cover art nor jacket copy to inspire any preconceptions or early opinions. Though it had been published internationally, there was, quite remarkably, little information to be found online. My copy of the novel was—fittingly, given its title—without color. There were only the black words on the white page and my thoughts about them. And so I read what will undoubtedly become a popular work as if it were obscure. Read More »

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I Remember Georges Perec

July 30, 2014 | by

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“I remember that Stendhal liked spinach.” Stendhal, Olof Johan Södermark, 1839, oil on canvas.

I remember reading Joe Brainard’s accumulated aphoristic memories for the first time. I remember the way each entry built on the one that preceded it, even when they had little to do with each another, and I remember the texture of the entire enterprise: a pointillist portrait of a man by way of his internal dialogue; his observations, at one time absorbed as impressions, sent back out into the world, now shaped by a unique river of associations.

I can only imagine the extent to which Brainard’s I Remember has influenced writers since he penned his flowing juxtapositions forty-four years ago. I had long thought Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait the most obvious example—a seemingly endless sequence of declarative sentences that coolly relate both trivialities and intimacies. But I’ve now discovered that Georges Perec got there first.

In 1970, Perec met Harry Mathews; Mathews introduced Perec to ideas then circulating in the New York art scene, including Brainard’s “serial autobiography,” which was then on the cusp of publication. The French writer likely never saw Brainard’s book, but tale of its concept—each sentence beginning with the phrase “I remember”—was enough to inspire him. Next month, the fruits of Perecs efforts, also titled I Remember, will be published in English for the first time, by David R. Godine.
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