November 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.
As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:
Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.
As for the novel itself:
Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.
There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying. Read More »
October 22, 2014 | by Benjamin Breen
Lessons from Rare Book School.
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 »
October 14, 2014 | by Antony Shugaar
Italy in the Years of Lead.
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 »
September 26, 2014 | by J. C. Gabel
Remembering Le Grand Meaulnes on the centenary of its author’s death.
“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 »
August 26, 2014 | by Joseph Luzzi
Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?
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 »
August 12, 2014 | by Je Banach
Keeping mum in the age of spoilers.
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 »