Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Landmark In The History of Style

by Stephen J. Gertz

"The task which you propose to me of adapting words to these airs is by no means simple. The poet, who would follow the various sentiments which they express, must feel and understand that rapid fluctuation of spirits, that unaccountable mixture of gloom and levity, which composes the character of my countrymen, and has deeply tinged their music…" (Tom Moore, 1807, to John Stevenson).

In 1846 an extraordinary book was published in England. It was the first illustrated edition of Thomas Moore's "best-known production, the Irish Melodies, based on the airs recorded by Edward Bunting…first issued in two volumes in 1808 and [running] to an additional eight volumes up to 1834" (Oxford Companion to Irish Literature).

What made the book so special? Its visual design and illustrations by Daniel Maclise.

"Maclise laboured hard to make this book a worthy tribute to Tom Moore [1779-1852], whom he loved and revered, inventing decorative borders for every page in addition to his abundant illustrations, and even doing some of the preliminary etching himself...The gratified poet wrote of the volume's 'national character,' an 'Irish pencil' having 'lent its aid to an Irish pen.' Yet the book is totally unpolitical. It is a landmark, instead, in the history of style.
"By his treatment of illustration and text into a unit and by his infinite elaboration of detail, Maclise not only introduced to England the effects achieved by the German illustrators of the 1830s and early 1840s, but also anticipated the French Art Nouveau volumes that began with Grasset's Quatre Fils Aymon of 1883" (Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England 1790-1914).

Eugène Grasset (designer and illustrator).
Histoire des Quatre Fils Aymon (1883).

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870, born in Cork City, Ireland, was an Irish history, literary and portrait painter, and illustrator, who lived and worked in London during most of his life. Maclise exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1829. He slowly began to devote himself to subject and historical pictures, with occasional portraits, i.e. of Lord Campbell, novelist Letitia Landon, Charles Dickens, and other of his literary friends.

He also designed illustrations for several of Dickens' Christmas books and other works. Between 1830 and 1836 he contributed to Fraser's Magazine. His work at Fraser's, under the pseudonym Alfred Croquis, resulted in a memorable series of caricatures of the literary and other celebrated figures of his era, which were afterwards published as the Maclise Portrait Gallery (1871).


Maclise's design for Moore's Irish Melodies featured steel-engraving throughout the entire book,  the text employing Francis Paul Becker's omnigraph patent process of engraving letters. It was printed by Peter McQueen.

Of Tom Moore, we have this biographical reminisce:

"Oh yes, dear Moore, and you were one of the lively and intellectual circle, of the pleasant and the profound, of the social and the learned, of the sound-sensed, practical, and the genius-fraught imaginative who filled this crowded, stirring scene. What a list I could furnish, what reminiscences I could bring up; but there can only be glimpses of some few of the figures, and snatches at some few of the circumstances, as they vanish into the past.

"The reader need not be told that Moore was a delightful companion; among men, ever full of anecdote and entertainment, and, when the dining-room surrendered its inmates to the better society of the drawing-room, a perfect Orpheus to enchant the only portion of creation it is worth a wish to charm. Seated at the piano, and chanting his own Irish melodies, with all the sentiment and expression of the poet, though almost like recitative and without strong powers of voice, he was then in his glory, his small figure magnified into an Apollo, and his round countenance beaming, or perhaps the more accurately descriptive word would be sparkling with intelligence and pleasure, whilst Beauty crowded enamoured around him and hung with infectious enthusiasm upon his every tone. It is only by reference to the furore sometimes witnessed at a chef d’oeuvre in opera executed by a perfect artist, that an idea can be formed of the effect of Moore’s singing to a refined circle, whose silence of admiration was but casually and briefly broken by murmurs of delight. I have seen instances of extraordinary excitement produced by his musical fascinations" (Autobiography of William Jerdan [1852], Ch. 6, The Periodical Press, p. 91).

A gorgeous copy of Moore's Irish Melodies recently passed through my hands, bound c. 1884-1894 by Joseph Shepherd of the F. Bedford bindery (stamp-signed to front cover) in full forest green morocco with a central medallion to both sides comprised of concentric shamrock rolls and dots in gilt, an onlaid red morocco  ring with gilt coils, and a center element of onlaid tan morocco (the tan, alas, not registering here) with gilt strapwork, the whole within a black and green morocco frame of gilt shamrocks and trailing vines with tri-shamrock corner pieces. The spine compartments reiterate the cover design, and gilt shamrock dentelles highlight the inner covers. All edges are gilt. The whole is wrapped within a green cloth chemise and housed inside a cloth slipcase.

Binder "Francis Bedford was born in 1799, died in 1883 and is one of the few English bookbinders included in the Dictionary of National Biography. After five years of running Charles Lewis's firm for that binder's widow and nine years in partnership with John Clarkes, he established himself on his own in 1851 and was soon the acknowledged leader of the West-end trade in London. After his death the firm was carried on under his name for a few months by his nieces and then for nearly ten years by Joseph Shepherd, who purchased it in 1884 when he was only twenty-six years old" (Nixon, Five Centuries of English Bookbinding).

During his lifetime, Bedford, according to Nixon, did no original design work, his bindings fabulous recreations of 16th and 17th century styles. "It would therefore seem likely that any signed Bedford bindings which show any originality of design date from the Shepherd period..." (ibid). Shepherd "had learned his trade with the successors of the old bookbinding firm of Edmonds & Remnant. It was no slight undertaking for a workman of his age to attempt the production and finish of artistic bindings which had become celebrated in private libraries throughout Europe and the United States and British provinces. Like old wine, or superb Italian paintings of a former era, the Bedford bindings improve with age..." (American Printer & Lithographer, volume 15, 1892).

The firm's pride in its bindings is demonstrated by its most unusual positioning of the signature "Bound by F. Bedford" gilt-stamped to the outer front cover (rather than inside), here at the bottom edge of the frame.

Below, Irish tenor John McCormack sings The Minstrel Boy, that classic Irish patriotic song with lyrics by Tom Moore, purportedly in memorial to his friends who were killed during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, set to the classic Irish air, The Moreen, and, since the American Civil War, the anthem of Irish-Americans:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman's chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!"


[BEDFORD, Francis, bindery]. MOORE, Thomas. Moore's Irish Melodies. Illustrated by D. Maclise. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846.

First illustrated edition. Quarto (10 5/16 x 7 1/8 in; 263 x 180 mm). iv, 280 pp. Extra-engraved title-page and frontispiece. Engraved text and illustrations within engraved decorative borders designed by Maclise, by the omnigraphic process.

Ray 29.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with out thanks.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bukowski: Lost Original Drawings Of A Dirty Old Man Are Found

by Stephen J. Gertz

Nineteen long-lost original drawings by Charles Bukowski, America's poet laureate of the depths, surfaced at the 46th California International Antiquarian Book Fair February 15-17, 2013, offered by ReadInk of Los Angeles. Sixteen of them appeared as accompaniment to Bukowski's classic column in the Los Angeles Free Press (The Freep), Notes of a Dirty Old Man. The remaining three originally appeared in Sunset Palms Hotel, Issue #4 (1974).

The drawings come from the personal collection of L.A. poet-publisher Michael C. Ford, who found them while cleaning out his desk at the end of his own tenure as a Freep staffer in late 1974. When he offered them to Bukowski, he was told “ah, you hang onto ‘em, kid, they might be worth something someday.” Ford took the advice and tucked them away in his personal files, from which they have emerged just once before now, for a short-run display a few years ago at a small and now defunct gallery in Long Beach, California.

Until its termination in 1976, Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man feature in the Los Angeles Free Press was probably the single biggest contributing factor to both the spread of his literary fame and his local notoriety as a hard-living, hard- drinking L.A. character.  

Begun in John Bryan’s famous Open City underground newspaper, published in L.A. from 1967 to 1969, “Notes” continued in the Freep after Bryan’s paper folded, and was also picked up by underground and counterculture publications in other parts of the country (e.g. NOLA Express in New Orleans). Bukowski’s contributions, which alternated irregularly between prose and poetry, were often illustrated with his crude but evocative and humorous doodles; occasionally he dove into comic-stripland, as with his “Clarence Hiram Sweetmeat” episodes, which made a handful of appearances in late 1975. 

Deadpan and hilariously direct, these Free Press drawings represent an important “lost” element of one of Bukowski’s signature achievements. Both published collections of “Notes” columns - Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969, which of course predates these particular drawings) and More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns (2011) - reprint only the text portions of the originals, omitting the illustrations. 

Yet it’s so much more satisfying to read Buk’s piece on his day at the racetrack (The Freep, November 2, 1974), when it’s accompanied by his slapdash rendering of a race in progress, its essence brilliantly encapsulated in his simple caption: “Right or Wrong in 18 Seconds.”

Until these originals came to light the only way to appreciate the “Notes” columns in their illustrated fullness was to either scrounge up old copies of the Freep (neither easy nor cheap, these days), or  park yourself in front of a microfilm reader at a major library and feel your eyes dissolve from the strain.

All the drawings are ink on paper, 81⁄2”x11" with a single exception, 6 1/2" x 4". Information regarding original publication date(s) is available upon request from ReadInk.

All images courtesy of ReadInk, with our thanks.

Of Related Interest:

Charles Bukowski's Last, Unpublished Poem, and the Bestial Wail.

Charles Bukowski, Artist.

Charles Bukowski Bonanza At Auction.

Dirty Old Man Exposed At Huntington Library.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

JFK, The Stripper, The Cuban Missile Crisis And Lincoln Bedroom

by Stephen J. Gertz

Two signed autograph letters from burlesque queen Blaze Starr (born 1932 as Fannie Belle Fleming) to an unknown correspondent are being auctioned by Nate D. Sanders Auctions this Thursday, February 28, 2013. Within, Blaze makes a clean breast of events and bares all, providing an intimate view of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and a once upon a mattress reminisce about paranormal activity in the Lincoln bedroom .

The first letter reads in full:

''...Just a line to answer your letter. Oh yes there was a lot of things I didn't tell in my book or the movie 'Blaze.' After Governor Earl K. Long passed away I renewed my friendship with then president J.F.K. C.B.S. newsman Paul Niven was a friend of J.F.K. he would pick me up at my home, about twenty minutes from D.C., and we would meet at Paul's home in Georgetown. As we entered Paul's home the phone rang. It was J.F.K. Plans had changed and he told Paul to bring me to a certain office in the Capitol. I wore a head scarf, sunglasses, and carried Paul's briefcase. As we walked by the Oval Office the door was open. There was loads of people all around. Robert Kennedy stood in the open door. Vice President L.B.J. stood in the hall with his arms folded. We entered an office and J.F.K. was right behind us. As Paul left we closed the door. After a short time, (very short), J.F.K. jumped up and said he was very, very, sorry but he had to leave. While he was dressing he said Boy, if Fidel Castro had something like you, he would think more about making Love, and less about making war. I said, why did you say that? J.F.K. said oh, I was just thinking out loud. Me and Paul left I didn't realize until I saw the evening news on T.V. that the President had left the Cuban Missile Crisis meeting to spend a short time with me. I felt very proud of myself I did my part for my country that day..."

You read correctly: Blaze Starr served her country with a patriot act decades before the Patriot Act was signed into law and Sybil Liberties, the Bill of Right's ecdysiast mascot with the mostess, got screwed. Left unspoken is what fascinating turn history might have taken had JFK sent Blaze into the Bay of Pigs and arms of Fidel Castro with a bump-bump here, a bump-bump there, and a shimmy and a shake instead of Cuban exiles ashore.

In the second letter - it, too, written on Blaze's bodacious letterhead - she recounts a mysterious rendezvous with JFK in the Lincoln bedroom,  the ghost of the Great Emancipator in attendance as a voyeur from the great beyond:

''Just a line to answer your letter. Oh yes there was a lot of things I didn't tell in my book or the movie 'Blaze.' Jackie Kennedy was my idol. After Governor Earl Long passed away I renewed my friendship with then President J.F.K. I had known him since 1952. He was a regular on weekends, at a club I worked in D.C. C.B.S. newsman Paul Niven was a good friend of J.F.K. He would pick me up at my house in Maryland, about twenty minutes from D.C., and we would meet at Paul's house in Georgetown. I told J.F.K. about my fantasy with the Lincoln bedroom. He said lets go. Jackie was away on a cruise. After about an hour, J.F.K. had to leave for a meeting. Paul was to come for me. I got dressed and was redoing my makeup, when I noticed a life size statue, (I thought) of Lincoln in a corner. He was wearing a tall black hat, a dark suit and a white shirt. Paul arrived and as I was leaving, I turned and jokingly said, thank you President Lincoln for use of your bedroom. There was nothing there. I froze in my tracks. Paul said lots of people have seen him there. Queen Nora [?] once ran from that room in her panties, bra, and a towel. That was his ghost as sure as I live. Queen Nora never returned to that room again and neither did I. Maybe Old 'Abe' liked to watch...''

Oh, yes there were a lot of things she didn't tell in her book or the movie 'Blaze'; you need her letters, each, apparently, beginning with the same hush-hush entre-nous opening, to get the secret history. Her sapphic ménage à trois, for instance, with Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt; the ménage à oy with Earl Long and Martin Short; with young Mick Jagger and old Herbert Hoover; with George M. Cohan and a grand old flagpole. The list goes on but discretion and Blaze's fecund imagination preclude further disclosure of apocryphal events.

Each letter is signed ''Blaze Starr'' with hearts and a star around her name. Her lip-prints appear genuine and not rubber stamped. The letters measure 8.5'' x 11'' and are in near fine condition. The minimum bid for each is $500.

Letter images courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions, with our thanks.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mark Twain, Hapless Collector, For $75,000

by Stephen J. Gertz

Mark Twain's autograph manuscript of  Chapter XX of A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, has come to market. It is being offered for £50,000 ($75,825) by Peter Harrington Rare Books of London.

The chapter provides an amusing account of Twain at the mercy of his passion for collecting ceramics. As collectors we are slaves to an object or book that inflames our imagination and are weaklings against a good story which we hope the dealer is accurately telling as he stokes the fire in our brain. Twain was no exception.

He wryly confesses: "Among [my collection] was my Etruscan tear-jug. I have made a little sketch of it here [his drawing on page 647 of the manuscript is reproduced in a more refined form on page 185 of the book] that thing creeping up the side is not a bug, it is a hole. I bought this tear-jug of a dealer in antiquities for four hundred and fifty dollars. It is very rare. The man said the Etruscans used to keep tears or something in these things, and that it was very hard to get hold of a broken one, now."

Twain goes on to discuss another of his favorite pieces, a Henri II plate which he has also sketched. "This is very fine and rare; the shape is exceedingly beautiful and unusual. It has wonderful decorations on it…It cost more than the tear-jug, as the dealer said there was not another plate just like it in the world. He said there was much false Henri II ware around, but that the genuineness of this piece was unquestionable. He showed me its pedigree, or its history if you please….which traced that plate's movements all the way down to its birth…whereby I saw that it had gone steadily up from thirty-five cents to seven hundred dollars. He said that the whole ceramics world would be informed that it was now in my possession and would make a note of it, with the price paid."

He then discusses "my exquisite specimen of Old Blue China.  This is considered to be the finest example of Chinese art now in existence. I do not refer to that bastard Chinese art of modern times but that noble and pure and genuine art which flourished under the fostering and appreciative care of the Emperors of the Chung-a-Lung-Fung dynasty…The little sketch which I have made of this gem cannot and does not do it justice…But I've got the expression though."

It's the mien of a cat with mouse on its mind, his Cheshire smile nailing Twain, "You're mine."

Tacit is Twain's reply, Nos morituri te salutamus, the hard-core collector's lament. We who are about to die salute you.

Twain goes on to describe his general feelings about the hobby, which apply to any collectible:

"It is the failing of the true keramiker, or the true devotee in any department of bric-a-brackery, that once he gets his tongue or his pen started on his darling theme, he cannot well stop until he drops from exhaustion…[as if] talking of his sweetheart. The very 'marks' on the bottom of a piece of rare crockery are able to throw me into a gibbering ecstasy; and I could forsake a drowning relative to help dispute about about whether the stopple of a departed Buon Retiro scent-bottle was genuine or spurious…

"…Many people…make fun of him for chasing around after what they choose to call 'his despicable trifles;' and for 'gushing' over these trifles; and for exhibiting his 'deep infantile delight' in what they call his 'tuppenny collection of beggarly trivialities;'…

"It is easy to say these things...

"For my part I am content to be a bric-a-bracker and a keramiker – more, I am proud to be so named. I am proud to know that I lose my reason immediately in the presence of a rare jug with an illustrious mark on the bottom of it, as if I had just emptied that jug."

It's seduction of the innocent collector by silver-tongued dealers, who, during the nineteenth century, were an often notorious lot who were matchmakers for a price, sold romance at a premium, and were pitiless when reeling in a big fish with sappy smile and deep pockets. And if the unfortunate creature wore a white suit, had a shock of white hair, smoked a black cigar, and told funny stories it was a great white whale primed for the harpoon and happy about it.

This is a wonderful manuscript chapter from one of Twain's most popular travel narratives, and such a deal: a copy of the first published edition of A Tramp Abroad is thrown in as a bonus.

TWAIN, Mark [Samuel L. Clemens]. Autograph manuscript to Chapter XX of A Tramp Abroad. Octavo (200 × 135 mm), 43-leaf autograph manuscript in purple and black ink and pencil, generally rectos only, with numerous corrections, each leaf on a paper-guard. Bound with a portrait frontispiece, custom letterpress title-page, and the corresponding leaves from a copy of the first edition. Early twentieth-century red straight-grain morocco, titles and single-line rule to upper board gilt, marbled endpapers, top edge gilt. Housed in a red cloth slipcase and chemise. Portrait frontispiece. Contents slightly toned and occasionally marked, closed tear to final leaf professionally repaired. Excellent condition.

Manuscript images courtesy of Peter Harrington Rare Books, with our thanks.

Book images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Decadent Night in Paris With Georges Barbier - A Booktryst Golden Oldie

by Stephen J. Gertz

BARBIER, Georges. Le Grand Décolletage.
Le Bonheur du Jour, ou les grâces à la mode.
Paris: Chez Meynial, 1924

This past Saturday, alone and at loose ends, I called Lisette. She was, as ever, loose, so we made plans for the evening, a night on the town in Paris and pleasure.

I stopped by to pick her up. An hour later, she was still involved with her Grand Turning, transforming herself into a siren and I was duly alarmed. I just stood there, in awe. All I could think was, Aw, if there is a God, I’m under that dress by midnight..

BARBIER, Georges. La gourmandise.
Falbalas et Fanfreluches
Paris: Chez Meynial,1925

We stopped to sup. We had the soup. There was a fly in it. Performing a languid tarantella, as our waiter informed us when we asked what it was doing there, the fly, apparently, in the midst of an inter-insect identity crisis. Afterward, Jocelyn, Lisette’s special friend, stopped at our table to say hello and comment upon Lisette’s gown, which she had, at the last minute before leaving home, put on instead of the wearable, floral patterned yurt I’d planned on being inside of under cover of darkness and Lisette.

She asked about our meal. “It was fly,” we said, “super-fly.”

“And so are you, Lisette,” Jocelyn said. I looked into Lisette’s  eyes and saw what Jocelyn was talking about, a thousand tiny lenses looking back at me as if I was a granule of refined sugar. Sweet night ahead!

We asked Jocelyn to join us; we desperately wanted to stick together. But Jocelyn insisted that we remain single so that the three of us could continue into the evening without her feeling like a third wheel.

BARBIER, Georges. La Danse.
Modes et manièrs d'aujourd'hui
Paris: Maquet, 1914.

We wheeled over to Danse Macabre, the popular night-spot. A troglodyte manned the velvet rope. He refused us entry but I slipped him a mickey and he let us in before losing consciousness. “Always tip the bouncer,” I told the ladies as his head bounced on the sidewalk. We breezed in.

Lisette excused herself, and when she returned she was wearing yet another gown. I, during the interim, grew a mustache and put some eye shadow on. While Lisette and I  danced, Jocelyn drank the joy-juice flowing from the Chinese God’s phallic fountain into her champagne coupe full of cherries. Jubilee, my friend, a real jubilee it was.

You know me, Al. We danced until the cows came home. When they arrived it became too crowded  so we ditched the bovine for divine and further delights.

BARBIER, Georges. Le goût des laques (Taste of Lacquers).
Le Bonheur du Jour, ou les grâces à la mode.
Paris: Chez Maynal, 1924

Don’t ask me why but Lisette and Jocelyn had a  yen for a taste of lacquers so we stopped at a lacquer store, picked up a bottle and settled in a Japanese park comprised of a few vivid screen panels, just off the Champs-Élysée. They - once again! - changed their clothes, and the two of them huffed lacquer fumes while I stood aside and watched them get giddily shellacked. Jocelyn wandered off, we knew not where, led by the hallucinations she was now following in a trance.

BARBIER, Georges. Le Soir.
Falbalas et Fanfreluches
Paris: Chez Meynial,1926

“If you promise not to change your gown again I’ll take you to a palace of infernal pleasures,” I begged Lisette, now garbed as a goddess.

BARBIER, Georges. Oui!
Falbalas et Fanfreluches
Paris: Chez Meynial, 1921

“Oui!” she replied, but not before changing her outfit once more. I swear, she had a walk-in closet in her purse. She wasn’t a clothes horse; she was a clothes whale and craved fresh clothing, a lot of it, as if it were krill. A moment later, two birds shat on my spats. Auspicious omen! Time to evacuate and get this party started. So we both used the bathroom and then went on our way. Pops Marchande was waiting for us.

BARBIER, Georges. La Paresse (Laziness)
Falbalas et Fanfreluches.
Paris: Chez Meynial,1925

You know me, Al, most parties I wind up checking out the books in the library. So, I go into the library and, yikes!, there’s Lisette draped over pillows on the floor, to all appearances in a state of post-coital bliss,  lazily smoking a cigarette as if she had been doing it all her life instead of starting just fifteen minutes before when she donned a smoking pantsuit and was inspired by it to begin, despite the Surgeon-General's warning medallion on the front of the garment. Jocelyn, who had, apparently, followed her favorite hallucination, was at her side, spent, and lost in ecstatic reverie. 

That being the reason we attended Pops Marchande’s party in the first place, the three of us glided into the den.

BARBIER, Georges. Chez la Marchande de Pavols (House of the Poppy Merchant).
Le Bonheur du Jour, ou les grâces à la mode.
Paris: Chez Meynial, 1924

There was Pops Marchande, holding an opium tray and pipe, awaiting us. And sprawled on the floor and across pillows were five women in dishabille, each a dish and highly dishable. You know me, Al. When I bang the gong, I’m gone. What happened next, I have no idea. But I have a vague recollection of a bunch of women in the throes of opium-soaked rut, running their tongues all over me and each other, kisses from all directions on all parts, caresses that began and never stopped, and the sense that we were all drifting upon a cloud of silk that soothed as we floated upon a zephyr.

It was nice to see Lisette without any clothes on for a change. While it lasted.
BARBIER, Georges. Au Revoir.
Le Bonheur du Jour, ou les grâces à la mode.
Paris: Chez Meynial, 1924

Dawn broke and it was time for us to get dressed and leave.  Lisette, Jocelyn, and I said our goodbyes, and Ho Chi Minh, an Indo-Chinese dishwasher in Paris and part-time chauffeur working for Pops Marchande, drove the two of us back home.

BARBIER, Georges. Voici des ailes! (Here are my wings!).
Falbalas et Fanfreluches
Paris: Chez Meynial, 1925

We were both still rather dreamy from opium. It was a nightmare for me, however, when gum-on-my-shoe Jocelyn appeared out of nowhere; there was no scraping this woman off. "Here are my wings," the flapper said to Lisette, who had not only changed into yet another gown but had dyed her hair blonde before bedtime.

You know me, Al. I'll fight any joe who tries to horn in on my jane. But this Jocelyn! Geesh! She had bewitched Lisette and there was nothing I could do about it. They flew into the bedroom, the winged-spider carrying her prey aloft. The fly in the soup at supper tried to warn me but I wasn't listening...

I slept on the couch.

Gay Paree. Don't ask, don't tell. You didn't, I did. Sorry.

I'm joining the Foreign Legion.

Apologies to Georges Barbier and Ring Lardner.

Booktryst  revisits Georges Barbier and his exquisite illustrations in pochoir in In Paris with Scott, Zelda, Kiki, Ernest, Gertrude, Etc., and Georges Barbier.

Originally appeared November 15, 2010.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Four Days of the Codex Book Fair 2013

by Alastair Johnston

"There is not a prophet in the Old Testament who would not be excommunicated from the modern Church for the vehemence of his opinions" -- John J. Collins

The 2013 CODEX book fair brought together makers of expensive books from all over the world to show their wares. CODEX is timed to coincide with the biennial visit of the California International Antiquarian Book Fair to San Francisco and for that reason (among others) I have never attended, being more interested in the old book I've never seen than the new book I cannot afford, but this time it had been moved to the week preceding the ABAA/ILAB event. It was also moved physically from Pauley Ballroom on the U C Berkeley campus to a former Ford plant in the wilderness of Richmond, California, where I agreed to help staff a friend's table.

The CODEX book fair is the baby of Peter Koch, who models himself after Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press, a grand bookman in the tradition of the Grabhorn Press, producing trouser-press editions of chestnut texts with an emphasis on the materiality of the book, rather than the originality of the work. In fact the typography and imagery generally reflect a style that was popular in the 1930s and is based on pattern-recognition, so people will look at it and think "Ah, a fine press book," rather than question the originality of the concept, production methods (increasingly faux letterpress from computer-generated plastic plates) or structure. Even the Codex fair "look" is based on Cassandre's eccentric Bifur typeface designed in 1929.

Perhaps the success of the fair is due to the "Kindle Effect" (like the "Connecticut Effect" which the NRA hopes will soon wear off). While there is a genuine nostalgia for "real" books after the sudden surge in the e-Book market, it is surprising to see these fancy books still hanging on to an audience, but at $800 for a table there were not going to be too many purveyors of medium-priced well-made books or "democratic multiples." But the fair has grown and consequently a second aspect of it, a morning-long symposium for some of the participants to discuss their work in detail, was sold out.

To accommodate those who missed out on the symposium, it was webcast live, which seemed like a good idea. However, the camera was at the back of the auditorium and the sound was picked up there, rather than fed from the podium, so you mainly heard coughing; the speakers were but a distant speck beneath the large blurry & skewed video screen on which they showed their work. One speaker I heard sounded very silly saying "balance of type image concept brought back into balance." Maybe I heard him wrong. And while it seemed a majority of the exhibitors were women, there was only one woman speaker in the symposium.

San Francisco skyline from Point Richmond

Point Richmond is a long drive from sillivization and not easily accessible by public transport unless you want to brave the environs of one of the scariest BART stations in the system. Exhibitors could buy a bus ticket (for an additional $50!) to get them there and back before and after the 4 long days of showing their work. It is a lovely setting though, in an old Ford tank factory right on the San Francisco Bay, next to the Rosie the Riveter museum. But once there, attendees are stuck. When it was held at Pauley Ballroom (currently being renovated) it was a short walk to the hotels, restaurants and bookstores of Telegraph Avenue. One woman's suggestion: since Peter is such a macho cowboy, he should hold the next one at the Cow Palace.

Peter is famous for his drinking stories, according to one Midwestern exhibitor. In December, I went to a talk at Moe's Books, advertised as a "preview of CODEX," as I was eager to learn about the fair and its attendance -- not just who is showing work, but what kind of numbers show up, if sales are made, or is it all window-shopping (Since the cost to exhibit is so steep it's not a light investment for most presses, never mind airfare and hotel). Instead I had to sit through a provincial account of "My big trip to Venice," telling how much of Peter's wife's money they spent. As you no doubt know, Prosecco flows like water in Venezia, and only rubes pay $15 for a glass of Prosecco, but that seemed to be the apogee of Peter's visit. That and the fact they spent $15,000 or was it 50,000? in pre-production costs for the reprint of the Joseph Brodsky book they produced there, Watermark, that retails for $6000. Unfortunately the fair suffers from being closely associated with Peter Koch though you cannot imagine all the exhibitors are so pretentious.

There was a lot to look at: too much in fact, and by the time people came around the nearly 200 tables, like yachts with luffing sails being pulled sideways into the Richmond dock, they had that glazed "museum-goer" look. I saw lots of "gratuitous structure": books that were in flag or accordion-spine formats for no reason other than it was a cool idea at the time (with of course no recognition for Hedi Kyle who originated those structures). But, warned Peggy Gotthold, as she showed me her elaborately constructed anthology "For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn," there are no new structures, only rediscovered ones.

I remarked on the one aspect of such fairs which always bothers me: the artists themselves are sitting behind their work, some looking more confident than others, but every person who walks by is seen to judge the work, with either an instant curiosity (sometimes simply "how did you name your press?") or instant indifference: "hmmm, whatever it is I don't wanna know!" One attendee said she felt guilty looking at the books because although she was fascinated, she couldn't afford them and maybe was preventing some librarian from getting in close to make a purchase.

Peter Koch printing the cruciform poster for CODEX 2013

In the valedictorian speech (on line) Koch said he welcomed criticism, as long as it was couched in flattering terms, so kudos to Peter and his son Max for pulling this off four times. While the real audience is rich collectors and librarians, the value of Codex is it enlarges the tiny pond of the Bay Area book arts scene. It's a chance for local enthusiasts to learn something, to get ideas or to meet artists and printers. But it is marred by the cowboy aesthetic. Many women exhibitors complained about the Wild West theme (which is inherent in Peter's typography -- he likes beat-up wood type and the bullets/lead analogy). The poster for the fair is a large Xtian cross with CODEX vertically and 2013 being the horizontal arms; then it has "Drawing a bead on the book" as a subtitle. Targets abound. We are not all hicks in shitkickers, these ladies complain, please leave the target practice out. 

Artist Cathy DeForest listening to dealer Donna Seager

The Bay Area and the bustling Santa Cruz book arts scene were well represented, and it spirals out from there to Ninja Press and Pie in the Sky in Southern California, to Inge Bruggeman (Ink-A! Press), Cathy DeForest, and Diane Jacobs (Scantronic) who work in Oregon. One reason to exhibit was to let people know you are still around. Though nonagenarian Jack Stauffacher was not present, his Greenwood Press was represented by one of his authors, photographer Dennis Ledbetter, holding down the fort. Walter Hamady's daughter, Samantha, showed his superlative Perishable Press work and reassured passersby that Walter is not dead -- in fact he is a sprightly 72, though he gave up printing two years ago to concentrate on sculpture and collage. His last book, A Timeline of Sorts, as well as copies of many of his other fine works, were on display at Codex for the first time.

Walter Hamady's parting gesture

M K Publishers from St Petersburg (Russia) were there and Vladimir Zimakov: I didn't know his name but did recognize his work. Mexico, alongside California, was well represented, but there was simply too much to take in. On Facebook people have posted amazing snapshots of things I missed. Nevertheless here is my hopefully constructive criticism: four days is too long (the first day could be a one-day symposium followed by a 3-day bookfair). The fair should end at dusk: since there are no lights in the Craneway Pavilion it was too dark to see the books for the last hour. One final idea: invite a taco truck to park outside.
Browsing in the gloaming

The best looking book I saw was one with five pochoir plates from Shanty Bay Press of Canada, but it is not even for sale, being out of print.

There were many international book artists, like <usus>(Stoltz & Schneider), the lexikon gang "Zweite Enzyklopädie von Tlön", and Veronika Schäpers from Germany, the latter now working in Japan. Italians, French and Brits were there too, from Whittington Press who do traditional Monotype work and publish Matrix magazine, to Susan Allix who presents her fine art in quirky formats, but always impeccably presented.

And surprisingly there was one genuine literary publisher of affordable books there: The Brother in Elysium from Brooklyn, New York, who had a new folder of Ed Sanders' Glyphs and a witty packaging of a Ted Berrigan work in a library binding with a big "WITHDRAWN" stamp and library pocket stuck in. He may have broken even, but only because he was visited by librarians from The Bancroft, Simon Fraser, Florida State University and Stanford. Many of the exhibitors were breathlessly awaiting the arrival of Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress, hoping he would bestow a purchase order on them. Meanwhile there was plenty of schmoozing to go around.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

First Dibs On That Book: A Poetic Meditation On The Landscape of Memory

by Alastair Johnston

Mohammed Dib, Tlemcen or Places of Writing, translated from the French by Guy Bennett, Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2012, 115 pp., paperback, perfectbound, $12.95

The kindness of strangers is legendary, but when you are used to getting books, manuscripts and CDs in the mail you are not always grateful, or aware of their significance. Last April I got a copy of The Poems of Luxorius translated by my friend Art Beck, sent to me from Otis Books, which are published by the Graduate Writing Program of Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. They decided to add a bonus to the package, the book discovered here.

(To make a long story even longer: Last week I had a dentist appointment and had to take public transport there and back, a journey of an hour each way, an experience always improved by a good book. My Hazlitt volume was too big to fit in a pocket so I grabbed the small slim volume of Dib off the shelf where it had been sitting patiently waiting to be sorted into sell, give away or read later).

The cover is black, a matte black that is eventually going to be covered in scuffs and fingerprints, and the book contains some murky square photos, also very black. A good book needs no photos to sell it, I thought, especially badly reproduced ones. But then I got it: these are Dib's photos, amateurish mementos of his past. He took them in his hometown of Tlemcin, Algeria, in 1946. In 1957 he was exiled and spent the rest of his life away from his homeland, writing about it. Like James Joyce, like H. C. Earwicker -- like everybody! So this work is a poetic meditation on the landscape of memory and the unknowable trajectory of life. 

"Why worry about order and coherence if we don't have to? Memory knows no such concerns and we are strolling through a memory."
By the time I got home from the dentist I had finished the book and decided to read it again. I was ignorant of Mohammed Dib (1920–2003) until I read this slim poetic work. The web tells us, "Dib, who was at various times a teacher, accountant, rug maker, journalist, and drama critic, wrote of the poor Algerian worker and peasant in his early realistic novels." Coming across those old photos had started him thinking about where he had come from. Some of the people in his photos look pretty downtrodden, and I thought Algeria was a hot country. They look bundled up against the cold. His own family look a bit more comfortable, or maybe these shots were taken on special occasions, weddings and birthdays. And the black and white murky photos come to life as he paints them in for us:
"A few colors. Less for brightening up the photograph than to get us dreaming. The floor is a mosaic of olive-green tiles (so typically Arabo-Andalusian) on the one hand, and tiles the white of Chinese porcelain on the other…. The checkerboard they form is contained in a wide, dark red frame. The walls are paneled with azulejos in the grand tradition: blue motif on white background, repeated from tile to tile. You feel it has the moist transparency of a child's eye.
   "And green is the grape vine whose trunk stretches ever upward, plunging the patio into green shade."

He asks what the role of the writer is. It must be more than just a function to produce text. He has a set of references which he hopes coincides with those of the reader. Coming to the text, both writer and reader are looking for a space of freedom, he says. It's up to both to discover common ground, because once the work of writing is finished it disowns the author and leads a life of its own. Whimsically he suggests that critics and "people with master's degrees" need to open up these spaces of freedom once more, by which I think he means interpret the codes of a writer's work so they speak to all readers. Everyman as Augustine or Jerome?

From children's games (which are universal) to taking bread to be baked at the communal oven, Dib paints a portrait of a bygone time and a bygone lad he no longer recognizes: the 8-year-old whippersnapper in a bowtie and kalpak (one of those wooly cylindrical hats). "Such is the oddball that faces or rather confronts me. I can't get over it, the bow tie in particular delights me. And scandalizes me."

Other kids roamed the streets; some were already working. He went to school, which was run by the French colonial government. "And today French is a language that Algerians are not averse to speaking. I myself began as a school teacher in this language, which far from making me French made me more Algerian."

He takes us back to the market, "La Médresse," destroyed by the French because it might harbor terrorists. Nothing could be more unlikely: it was just a collection of gaily painted stands selling fruits and vegetables brought from the countryside, "paintings the Fauves would have been proud of." He recounts the trips with his grandmother to this market, the intoxicating odors, how she would haggle so much over an apricot it would drive the stall-holders to distraction. "That's it, old woman, shop's closed! I'm going straight home to bed!" Another destroyed neighborhood, Bab Sidi Boumédiène, was home to story-tellers. Though illiterate, these men told tales from memory that the author later discovered were from the Thousand and One Nights. "Story-telling is still forbidden: these people of the word may once have delivered subversive messages, and could still be doing so today."
"Just opposite there was a flourishing flea market where you would also happen upon the greatest concentration of fortune tellers. But it seemed they were only there for the infantrymen of the Gourmalah barracks, who could be identified by the pronounced fondness they had for the girls -- they monopolized every one. When you saw the proud soldiers hold them close, you had to wonder if they were having their palms read or whispering sweet nothings into their ears. Allah alone knows and, as for me, I was too young to approach these big women, girls from the South they said, in order to find out. Incredibly, they wore no veils and their faces were amazingly covered with tattoos, their burning eyes ringed with kohl."

But the whole neighborhood was torched by the French, along with Le Médresse: 

"Not only did this result in the physical disappearance of a place, but also of trades and professional practices, whose bell tolled at the same time. Neither would survive. As the cluster of shacks went up in smoke, the local customs were also immolated, and the traditions and spirit that gave rise to them vanished, too."

Dib's writing makes me want to go there, tempt the fates again that found me lost in the Nubian desert. (I pause to put on Musique Tagnawite by Mahmoud Guinia.) There are no bugs in the desert, no insects, nothing lives there. You can lay down in the sand and look at the stars until you fall asleep. But it's better to travel at night and look for shade during the day. Then I remember that as the world is more and more divided into haves and have-nots, it is increasingly impossible for us first worlders to wander unremarked into the Sahara, the world's largest desert. It's not only on Algeria's doorstep "but also within us, in the dark refuge."

 "The three revealed religions were born in the desert. Three religions that conceal others, many others, that were also revealed there. Let us keep that in mind so as not to forget that the desert is the blank page on which anything can be written, or anything erased.
   "Only it happens that not one religion was born in the Sahara. Our desert is a true blank page. Is it meant to remain a blank page? Based on what we know, we can say that this page is spreading further and further in all directions.
   "The blank page is not only something we can write on. It is also something your destiny can appear to you on, write itself on.
   "All Algerians know geomancy, the art of divination. The geomancer draws signs in the sand and you wait for the omen."

Because of my love for North African music I am drawn to his description of a festival: "Then come the Gnawa (the Blacks). In a thunder of enormous drums, their iron krakebs clack like the beaks of a thousand robotic storks." I can hear it! And now I can see it too. Blurry family snaps, girls in their finery (recalling Lehnert & Landrock's Rêves d'Orient), arty architectural shots, suddenly it all starts to come into focus. We cannot go there, except on the flying carpet of Dib's words. But he falters:
"You haven't said everything you thought you did, and what you did you didn't say well.
   "… Again to try your luck. From that time on you cannot escape the call of the work to be rewritten. Which will be perfect this time."
Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email