Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón translated by Lucia Graves (Doubleday Canada) 531pp.

In the last pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere, the hero of the story, receives a parcel from Paris enclosing a book entitled The Angel of Mist: he "leafed through the pages, inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books." It was with just such an 'enchanted scent of promise' that I, and undoubtedly millions of other readers, experienced upon opening Zafón's latest novel, The Angel's Game.

We are back in Barcelona, and our hero, David Martín, born in 1900, is recalling his life as a young man making his way in the world of the scribbler's trade. The first two words of the novel, "A writer," provide us with the touchstone for this work, for, told from David's point of view, these 531 pages are his autobiographical revelations.

A single child of poverty, his mother having abandoned him to his illiterate, troubled, and at times abusive father, David manages to improve his life by being good at school, by finding solace in the written word, and by finding refuge in the Sempere and Sons Bookshop where he is allowed to read what he pleases. At one point he is given by old Sempere, a special copy of Great Expectations which becomes a key text to his life--his sympathetic imagination identifying with Pip.

His father was the night watchman at the newspaper The Voice of Industry, and David would accompany him to work and squirrel himself away there to read. But after his father was brutally murdered before his eyes, David, in shock, hides in the Newspaper printing department only to be found incoherent and lost. The wealthy and influential Pedro Vidal, a writer of true crime stories for the paper, becomes his benefactor by insisting David be given a job as a runner and allowed to sleep in the basement of the building. Weaned on lurid newspaper stories, he graduates from carrying cigarettes and coffee around the offices to being Vidal's assistant after showing promise of being a writer himself.

Like Dickens' Great Expectations, the story begins at Christmas as David recalls his being given the chance to write a story for the back page of the Sunday paper. It leads to more fiction being accepted and he creates a serial called The Mysteries of Barcelona, stories of Barcelona low-life told with exuberant Gothic excess, stories which ultimately establish his fertile career as a writer. His main character, a femme fatale called Chloé Permanyer, is much like Rodolphe, the character in The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, a character who prowls the dark dangerous streets, meting out justice to evil doers and helping the virtuous. One of many precursors to a character-type that continues to show up in various forms over the ages, perhaps most popularly in Batman and in graphic novels--"V" for instance in V is for Vendetta.

The supernatural thread, a spiral of Luciferian artifice, begins early on when his stories bring him to the attention of an obscure Parisian publisher by the name of Andreas Corelli. Corelli eventually offers David a commission to write a new religion for him, a fable for the times. (This Faustian pact reminded me of Balzac's Lost Illusions where the young writer, Lucien de Rubempré is saved from death by Vautrin, a Mephistophelian character who promises Lucien wealth, power, and fame if he follows his directions. It is a book that also deals with writers, journalism and publishing. Vautrin but another precursor to Corelli.) Though David is already busy churning out penny dreadful Gothic monthlies infused with Grand Guignol, The City of the Damned, using the pseudonym Ignatius B. Samson, for a publisher whose practices reveal a shady side to the business to say the least, he accepts this Faustian pact, and we follow David down this spiral into the dark wet shadows of Barcelona, a spiral that leads him, in the end, to discover he has not been alone in his endeavour.

Our initial sympathy with David is challenged by the decisions he makes and we witness his life crumbling before him while others prosper. The thread of romance is a major one and his first love, Christina has abandoned him for his mentor, Pedro Vidal. Alongside the literary, the supernatural and the romance, a new narrative thread develops as David begins to investigate the history of his newly acquired Tower House, a crumbling pile with a past and a previous owner with his own initials. We follow David into a realm of violence and death, the book taking on a semblance of a noir detective novel as a body count rises and a possibly corrupt police investigator and his two thuggish assistants shadow his every move.

This is a richly mirrored narrative, full of stories within stories and interesting characters such as Isabella, a bright resilient young Jane Eyre-like character who becomes David's writing assistant. There are amusing minor characters such as an all knowing librarian, a recalcitrant archivist, a stiff-lipped lawyer, and avaricious publishers among many others. The character of Isaac, the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten books returns and his usually laconic manner gives way to a bit of storytelling himself. The setting of Barcelona is a wonderful character in itself, from the cemeteries to the parks, from the libraries and archives to the bookshops, from the mansions to the slum dwellings, from the baroque old quarter to the recently abandoned buildings of the Great Exhibition and its cable car over the city.

The Angel's Game is a good read and it is a novel that can be enjoyed at different contextual levels. The narrative threads of suspense, crime, romance and the supernatural are intertwined with skill, but they are all bound by the subject of storytelling and writing which surround and permeate them. This literary thread is perhaps the most important thread we as readers should follow though this land of shadows.

A link to music the author composed around the novel can be found here

A link to a video interview with the author can be found here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton (McClelland & Stewart) black/white photographs by Richard Baker, 327pp.

My initial impression of this book was its weight. This Canadian edition is a smaller format book, so it is surprising to the senses when one first picks it up. It is due to the selection of heavier weight paper which has been used to accommodate the black and white photographs which accompany the text, photographs taken by Richard Baker. Holding the book made me think that weight is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for work itself. Images of Atlas or Sisyphus came to mind, representative precursors of the daily grind.

Alain de Botton writes that he was inspired to embark on this book by his observation of shipspotters on a pier in London. Perhaps there is a source of irony there, for the casual passerby, noticing strange individuals hanging about a pier with binoculars, would probably think they were jobless and had time on their hands. Either that, or eccentric retired folks with time on their hands. Perhaps the more imaginative would wonder if they were sailors waiting for a ship, and think wistfully of sails and the open sea. But Alain de Botton was truly inspired by their fascination with what most of us ignore.

In his essay on Accountancy, he shadows an accountant rising from their home in the Berkshires and catching the commuter train to London, and follows them through a day at the office of one of the world's major accountancy firms. He writes:

The headquarters on the bank of the Thames is the setting for a range of behaviours at least as peculiar as anything that an ethnographer might uncover among the clans of Samoa. (p. 231)

This is perhaps the thought that governs his work, for everything we do as humans, whether we are a tribe of accountants in an air-conditioned tower, tuna fishermen off the coast of the Maldives, or a single artist in a field wielding a paint brush, human endeavour is rich in consideration.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a book with wonderful writing, sharp insights, wry humour, and thoughtful philosophical musings. Whether it is about biscuit manufacture, pylon towers, accountancy, career counselling, or the craft of painting a single 250 year old oak tree over and over, Alain de Botton uses his wonderfully lucid mind and masterly writing skills to make us see life about us in a fresh and invigorating way, and makes us mindful of the interconnectedness of humans. There is a tinge of stoic melancholy about his conclusions of the necessity and importance of work, and a poignancy that for most of us, fulfillment and happiness are not to be found in our working lives.

Alain de Botton is travelling the world promoting the book. If that's not work, I don't know what is. Here is a link to a video of one of his lectures.

And here is a shorter video of a conversation with Will Hearst.

And for the curious, the room where some of the work gets done, Alain de Botton's room.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Concord of Sweet Sounds

Concord of Sweet Sounds: Musical Instruments in Shakespeare / Gerard Brender à Brandis; F. David Hoeniger (The Porcupine's Quill)

This is the second collaboration of master wood engraver and bookwright Gerard Brender à Brandis, with F. David Hoeniger, distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Toronto. The first was A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare (1997), a very special limited edition folio production, printed and bound by Brender à Brandis. A selection from this initial collaboration was featured in The Devil's Artisan/DA, 50 (Spring/Summer 2002), and then a commercial edition was issued by The Porcupine's Quill Press in 2006.

This new work presents a very handsome cover and title page which leads us to superb wood engravings accompanied by the textual references to Shakespeare, selected and interpreted by F. David Hoeniger. As always, The Porcupine's Quill Press maintains a consistent quality of production with fine paper, coloured endpapers and pleasing type faces.

The Devil's Artisan/DA, 64 (Spring/Summer 2009)
The latest issue of The Devil's Artisan/DA is devoted to master wood engraver and bookwright, Gerard Brender à Brandis, and is guest edited by Marianne Brandis who provides an excellent biographical essay on his career. The work includes very helpful bibliographical checklists of Gerard's works and shows, and is illustrated with samples of his wood engravings and images of his productions. This is a must have for any follower of Gerard's work. And for anyone interested in wood engraving, Canadian small press history, and bibliography, this issue will also be of great interest.