Sunday, December 30, 2007

H is for Hullabaloo, or, Out on a Limb

Hullabaloo. Even if the precise meaning of the word is unknown, hullabaloo is one of those words whose sight and sound seems to evoke its very meaning. For me it has a light overtone, memories from childhood birthday parties, with musical chairs, and those rude, gleeful party horns that unfurl with a small faux-feather, in blue or pink, dangling on the end, ideal to tickle another's ear.

The etymology seems to be a native Scots/English derivation, but Indian English is also important: "The term 'Hullabol' is still used in Indian English to describe a type of public demonstration, involving making a great noise."

since its printing in 1998, and like many books I own, it has been shelved and half-forgotten. It was to this novel I turned in preparation for reading her Booker Prize winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss. The titles seem at opposite spectrums of seriousness. So desperate, in fact, that I half questioned myself as to the authorial connection. The title of her first novel is like the self-conscious smile of a brilliant mind, a smile that pokes fun and yet is heartfelt. The title of her prize-winning second novel hints that she has shed the youthful satire and moved on to serious affairs, exchanging the trampoline for the hammock. For it is a trampoline of a novel with moments of farce, great hilarity and satire. The middle-class Narayanesque world satirized with a soupcon of Rushdie and a touch of allegory.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is a title that in five words hints at the rich use of language, plot and setting. A title which gives the reader a sense of what to expect much like such titles as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There to name a few. Titles quite different from the poetic, symbolic, or conceptual like The Rings of Saturn, or Elementary Particles to name only two.

The story opens with the birth of Sampath Chawla, auspiciously born on the day the Monsoon rains finally arrived in the northern town of Shahkot after the hottest of summers, and at the very moment that a Swedish Red Cross relief crate crashes into the family's front yard tree. The second chapter shifts twenty years into the future and from here the plot follows a straight line to the finish. Sampath has turned out to be a rather reluctant partaker of life, and a failure at many a job; fed up with his latest position at the post office, he wanders off one day and finds himself in an orchard, and is possessed with the desire to climb a guava tree to escape. To escape it all. Gradually the cast of characters are introduced episodically as they react to Sampath's search for stillness and calm, a cast which includes a machination of monkeys with a taste for liquor, a spy for the BUFHM, Branch to Uncover Fraudulent Holy Men, various administrative types, and other town folk and of course his own family. There is a brief attempt to entice his son back to normality with the concept of marriage as a cure, but after Sampath has impressed the townsfolk with pronouncements from on high (personal insights into their lives due to his having passed the time as a postal employee reading their mail), Mr. Chawla has an epiphany that his son as holy man could make the family's fortune and raise them out of their middle-class life. He proceeds to reap the economic benefits while the farce unfolds. The minor subplot of Sampath's aggressive sister Pinky's pursuit of a suitor, Holy Hop, a lowly ice-cream vendor, is quite hilarious. There is a scene where there is a reversal of roles, Pinky as Romeo to Holy Hop's Juliet as he showers her with bathing implements from his bathroom on high.

This is a gentle satire of a society's superstitions, religious and social positions, the remnants of colonialism, and of human nature in general. The fanciful ending as the Baba of Shakhot, with all his cryptic and whimsical adages ("many a pickle makes a mickle") is spirited away to the ever present and looming mountains further north, symbolic of the mystic union of spirit and nature, is one that evokes fairy stories and folk fables. However, the spy for the Branch to Uncover Fraudulent Holy Men, gets his just desserts as he plummets from his hiding place in the tree down to his watery destiny. I somehow think that the author particularly enjoyed this character's end.

Allegory? Satire? Whatever it is, it is a an enjoyable read which lifted me out of the wintery doldrums of a Canadian winter and left me impressed with her sense of craft, style and humour and made me look forward to her Booker Prize winning second novel, The Inheritance of Loss.

Monday, August 27, 2007

G is for Gorey, Genji, Gotham, Grim!

My Dearest Pepys,

We've enjoyed your recent Homeric related letters at Postman's Horn, but glad you threw in a Thurber and that recent Chatwin. My dear wife says--and I agree with her--that you ought to find more women correspondents, though I understand your difficulties for I do realize that your collection is heavy on the male side. Yes, sorry, an unfortunate and unintended pun. My apologies. I shall keep my eye out for books of correspondence by women authors and send them your way.

I have recently been reading a book mentioned by you over at the Horn, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay written by Sir George Otto Trevelyan (orig. pub. 1876), and I was reminded of certain facets of your character. No, I will say no more. We would only disagree on which character traits you may share. I was, however, intrigued with a passage relating how Macaulay and his siblings were brought up with books, especially those of Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and other, more popular and hence forgotten authors. I quote:

There was a certain prolific author,' says Lady Trevelyan, 'named Mrs. Meeke, whose romances he all but knew by heart; though he quite agreed in my criticism that they were one just like the other, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank of life who eventually proves to be the son of a Duke. Then there was a set of books by a Mrs. Kitty Cuthbertson, most silly though readable productions, the nature of which may be guessed from their titles: --'Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector,' 'The Forest of Montalbano,' 'The Romance of the Pyrenees,' and 'Adelaide, or the Countercharm.'

Supposedly Lord Macaulay annotated his copy of Santo Sebastiano on the last page with a list enumerating the "fainting-fits that occur in the course of the five volumes." Five volumes! Unlike you who may be more familiar with such obscure works, I found myself surprised by the fact that it included many Lords as well as Ladies. Men swooning, indeed. I quote:

. . . A single passage, selected for no other reason than because it is the shortest, will serve as a specimen of those catastrophes: 'One of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal men diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia in a death-like swoon.'

The actual list of these fainting-fits I here append:

Julia de Gifford 11, Lady Delamore 4, Lady Theodosia 4, Lord Glenbrook 2, Lord Delamore 2, Lady Enderfield 1, Lord Ashgrove 1, Lord St. Orville 1, Henry Mildmay 1.

Certainly Julia de Gifford was adept, but one is left wondering about poor Henry Mildmay. A young suitor perhaps, or the young man who finds his father to be a Duke? Male swooners! It must have been a fashionable 18th Century break in one's deportment. I can certainly see Mr. Turveydrop swooning, but although a Victorian character, he was living in the past and Dickens' gentle satire of his type was finely drawn in Bleak House. This reminds me of Lady Dedlock. I have always remembered the phrase "equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction," which Dickens used to describe her psychological defensive stance, and yet that 'equanimity of fatigue' was unable to overcome the sight of her former lover's unique handwriting, and down she fainted like an icicle falling from an eavestrough.

This brings to mind the animated introduction to the PBS television series Mystery using the drawings of Edward Gorey: a women upon a roof edge, lying upon her back, sighing faintingly with high pitched oohs and ahhs (which my wife imitates to perfection), holding a handkerchief and waving it about her face. . . . Gorey was very fond of long Victorian novels and would probably have been amused and entertained by Meeke and Cuthbertson. I believe, though, that Jane Austen was one of his most especial favourites. Lady Murasaki as well. He named many of his cats from characters found in The Tale of Genji (Waley's version).

We remember when we visited New York and we made our way over from the New York Public Library to the Gotham Book Mart for a browse. The resident cat, a long-bodied pale orange tabby with watery eyes and slow movements quite ignored me but went straight for my wife as if he recognized an old friend. Edward Gorey's association with the bookstore is legendary and so I wondered then if this unusual cat had belonged to Gorey who had been dead, grimly so, for two years. I believe I later learned that all resident Gotham bookstore cats were named after authors, and that this specific cat held the moniker, Thomas Pynchon. As I am usually a cat magnet, this bit of info soothed my pride.

I see this letter has digressed too far to include my references to a scholarly article concerned with fainting: Fainting and Latency in the Eighteenth Century's Romantic Novel of Courtship by Christine Zschirnt, in the Germanic Review, 74.1 (Winter 1999). I kid you not. I have read it twice but still find myself puzzled, though fascinated. The author explores the fainting fit as "a device describing a state of unconscious consciousness." Yes, this letter may have brought you to that very state. I leave you, and hope this finds you well.

Your most humble servant,
R. P. Chumley

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

F is for Fortune, the Ambiguous Skill

I have been back, for some time now, from reading The Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias--my 'holiday from the infinite'--but I only now find myself writing this piece. Why the delay? Was it the weather? Ill health? Ennui? Was it perhaps due to lack of exercise, or, one too many digestive biscuits with my tea? No, I believe the delay was due to my having neglected my diary.

My diary would be tedious reading to anyone; the recording, however, of mundane occurrences and thoughts, impressions and feelings of my uneventful life seems to help clear the thought processes of mental sediment; or perhaps it is more like a yoga for the mind, keeping the brain limber and flexible, working out the knots and tension that can build up due to the general anxiety and stress of living. More importantly perhaps, is that this record of facts, thoughts and impressions is an aide memoire, an attempt to preserve times' passage as it so quickly slips by us, day by day, month by month, until we find ourselves another year older, trying to remember the past, and our other past selves, which are now in the shadow of time, seen darkly through the anxiety of our forgetting.

James Boswell wrote a monthly essay for the London Magazine between 1777 and 1783 under the byline The Hypocondriak; in his essay No. 66 (March 1783), 'On Diaries,' he writes:

For my own part I have so long accustomed myself to write a diary, that when I omit it the day seems to be lost, though for the most part I put down nothing but immaterial facts which it can seem no purpose of any value to record. For instance, the diary of this day will be little more than that 'I sat quietly at home, and wrote The Hypocondriak, No. LXVI, On Diaries.'

Perhaps diaries attempt to trap lost time, memory, the past, the shadows and ghosts of the ifs and what might have beens which all seem to have a place in what Javier Marias calls 'the dark back of time,' a phrase he has adapted from The Tempest (1, ii, 38-50) ; this phrase and title of the book, appears, along with another Shakespeare adapted phrase from Othello, 'put out the light, and then put out the light,' throughout the text like leitmotifs, whose reappearances guide the narrative of this 'false novel' through the digressions and meditations on the ambiguities of death and meaning, identity and significance, fate and destiny.

It is a book born of a previous book, All Souls, published eight years prior, a book taken for a roman a clef by numerous readers. Marias in Dark Back of Time begins rather straightforwardly and at times humorously with the reactions to this book by the various Oxonians and Oxfordians, and even his students in Madrid, and then develops the narrative, weaving in digressions of more complexity and depth as he explores the multiple strands, both historical and imaginative, personal and fictitious:

It was after the book's publication in England that the tempo of events and coincidences and confirmations I hadn't sought began to accelerate, and it hasn't yet slowed and may never stop, and I sometimes have the feeling that you must be careful about what you make up and write down in books because occasionally it comes true. {Dark Back of Time- translated by Esther Allen (New York: New Directions, 2001) p. 248.

By having included in All Souls, his fictional novel set in Oxford, references to real people, the obscure and forgotten and perhaps ill-fated author John Gawsworth being central, it elicited responses from readers which created such ramifications that to this day, the life of Javier Marias is for ever changed; the most extraordinary being his inheritance of the Kingdom of Redonda because of his treatment of Gawsworth in the novel. In the Dark Back of Time he explores these responses and ramifications which are informed, however, by Marias' perception of life, a perception ultimately coloured by the experiences of his father, Julian Marias, a future Professor of Philosophy, slandered, traduced and informed against by a colleague to Franco's Regime. Marias gives us clues on page twenty-four, clues that hint at this view of life, a view which he clearly and finally states near the end of the book.

As a reader, I feel I did my part, and followed his elaborate narrative, his explorations of coincidences, "inchoate combinations," responses, curses and blessings, and yes, many deaths, so many deaths. The strange sad fate of Odon von Horvath in Paris; the bizarre death of Wilfred Ewert; the unusual life of Oloff De Wet; the death of his brother at the age of 3 1/2, a brother he never knew; the death of his mother, a friends suicide and numerous other deaths, all these stories and more creating a sense of fate, a perception of destiny, of seeing a figure in the carpet. But it is near the end of the book when Marias' perception of life, and death, is revealed:

Everything is so random and absurd, it's incomprehensible that we can grant any transcendence whatsoever to our birth or our existence or our death, determined by chance combinations as fickle and unpredictable as the voice of time when it has not yet gone by or been lost, when it is not yet ambiguous, when it is not yet even time, that voice we all know and hear murmuring as we move forward, or that is what we believe, because really it is the voice that moves forward; how can any importance be conceded to our fragile and insignificant passage which could so easily not have occurred because of a lie or some false testimony , or could indeed occur because of the excessive fancifulness and hatred of two of Franco's informers . . . who fabricated accusations that were finally too improbable and novelistic about the man who couldn't yet even dream of being my father . . . Yet all we can do is grant ridiculous importance to the products of these inchoate combinations, to each one and to our own--or rather, the one that we are--to those already obliterated and to those that are present, and even to those that are fictitious, if we don't want our passage through time to be entirely idiotic as well as fragile and insignificant. So we spend our lives pretending to be unique and chosen when in fact we're interchangeable, each the random outcome of a spin of the wheel of fortune at a dank, decrepit carnival. (p. 314-315)

Perhaps this is the source of my having neglected my diary and hence my delay in writing this piece. Perhaps I have been maundering about with these thoughts, spun around and set off-kilter onto a variant path or perception of life; such is the power of a book. I console myself by looking back upon having had the Duchess of Ontario visit our little bookshop on various occasions all without knowing of her title bestowed upon her by Javier Marias, an author unknown to me at the time, and my running up the street after her with a copy of a Laurence Sterne she was looking for, an author Marias admires and has translated, and it restores a sense of the interconnectedness of humans, and that can help me find, perhaps not meaning, but at least solace in the strange, and perhaps ambiguous nature, of fortune's wheel.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

E is for Endogeny or What you Will

With my two volume Oxford English Dictionary, I resort to taking my glasses off and placing my nose close to the page where I can smell that ever relaxing fragrance of print and paper. This is the dictionary with the print the size of a grain of sand and the one that is a challenge to the eyesight of most, if not all, people, even with the magnifying glass, a glass which usually comes nestled in the little drawer built into the slipcase for the set--mine having mysteriously vanished with some previous owner who couldn't resist, perhaps, the shadowy sherlock mystique of holding one or having it just so, at hand, upon the writing table; then again, perhaps it was a youth who withdrew it from a parent's study to observe the structure of tiny black ants or the patterned veins of a butterfly's wing and then left it behind, forgotten in the meadow, grown over, lost. . . (Easy enough to replace a magnifying glass, but indeed, it would always be an impostor.) It was to my print intoxicating OED that I turned when, in the midst of enjoying Javier Marias's novel All Souls, I came across a wonderful passage--one of many--with a word that sent me to the dictionary: endogeny. Marias (here pictured), or more correctly the unnamed narrator, is describing a bachelor, a professor emeritus at Oxford, one Toby Rylands:

He was a very big man, really massively built, who still had a full head of hair: his statuesque head was crowned with wavy, white locks like whipped cream. He dressed well though, with more affectation than elegance (bow ties and yellow sweaters, rather in the American style, or the way undergraduates used to dress) and he was regarded as a future--indeed almost extant--never to be forgotten glory of the university, for in Oxford, as in all places where people perpetuate themselves by some form of endogeny, individuals only achieve glory when they begin to relinquish their posts and become passive beings about to be shuffled off to make room for their legatees. He and Ellmann, Wind and Gombrich, Berlin and Haskell, are or were all destined to end up as members of the same race: the retrospectively desired.
-Javier Marias, All Souls (New York: New Directions, 2000 ) translated by Margaret Jull Costa (1992) p. 128.

Endogeny: "growth from within." A botanical appropriation. It seems appropriate with Javier Maria's novel whose very subject matter, the endogenous intellectuals of Oxford, is spun around the themes of time, identity, the past, memory and change. How to reveal the inner lives of the characters is the challenge. The narrator is an outsider and is showing us a small group of intellectuals who lead rather closed lives, often solitary, withdrawn from everyday concerns. If one knows gossip about another, it is money in the bank, but one does not reveal anything about oneself. It is rather like a grand card game with all the players holding their cards close to their respective chests. But for the closed nature of the group, the narrator does enter into their world and does gain insight and understanding into some of these dead souls.

The unnamed narrator recalls his two years as a visiting lecturer of Spanish literature and translation theory at Oxford, "a city in syrup, where simply being is far more important than doing or even acting." He looks back and it is through his memory--reliable or not--that we learn of his observations, ever so detached, of the city life, its eccentric characters, and his experiences. The preoccupation with time, identity and perception is revealed in characters such as the touchingly drawn character of Will, the aged (almost 90 year old) porter of the Institutio Tayloriana who takes Martial's epigram to heart { "To be able to enjoy (in memory) your former life is to live live twice over." [Epigrams, Bk. 10, 23, I] }, for Will is a character whose life is atemporal. A man whose "limpid gaze" saw individuals differently each day:

Will literally did not know what day it was and spent each morning in a different year, travelling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires or, more likely, quite independently of any conscious desire on his part. (p. 4)

There is also Clare Bayes with whom the narrator has a rather abstract affair. He says of her that:

Everything about her was expansive, excessive, excitable; she was one of those beings not made for time, for whom the very notion of time and its passing is a grievance, and one of those beings in need of a constant supply of fragments of eternity. . . (p. 21)

It is perhaps within these abstract parameters of time that this novel exists. The narrator sees his time at Oxford as one of "unease" for the University was not in time, rather out of it, in stasis if you will, and it is only when he is back in Madrid does he re-enter the real world of time.

If one reads the novel with the thematic structures in mind, the series of observations drawn by our visiting narrator take on greater cohesion for each chapter seems to deal with a different individual or situation. There is the wonderfully comic scene of "high table" where the Oxonian congregation gather for their ritual meal; the visits to Oxford bookshops especially Mr. and Mrs. Alabaster's bookshop, two amusingly drawn individuals like spiders in their web of words; his observations of Oxford beggars, some fallen from creative accomplishment like the violinist John Mollineux and the theologian Professor Mew; his fellow dons, Cromer-Blake, Toby Rylands and Dewar, the latter a multi-linguist solitary and occasional pen-pushing spy; and Clare Bayes, the fellow professor with whom he is having the affair and who reveals to him in their final meeting in Brighton, the dramatic events of her mother's death, which, with a twisted trajectory, is connected with the author--the real-life author--John Gawsworth.

In the middle of the book there is a chapter devoted to the then obscure and forgotten John Gawsworth which reads rather like a non-fiction biographical piece. By bringing the real-life character of John Gawsworth into the fictional world of his novel, Marias adds but another dimension. His treatment of this obscure author led to Marias being given the title of King of Redonda, a title, fittingly abstract and quasi-fictional, which he has taken to heart and truly has done the most with in creating a publishing imprint and a literary prize.

After the book was published and translated, many individuals thought it was a roman a clef: Javier Marias, like the narrator, was a visiting lecturer at Oxford for two years in the 1980s. Many saw themselves in the book, others wished they did. In fact, the book created so many ripples that Javier Marias penned Dark Back of Time, what he called a "false novel," nine years later dealing with, among other facets of time and theme, the reception of, and reaction to, All Souls . And it is to this book that I now turn my attention, my time, in a "holiday from the infinite".

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Book of Joe

When I was still running a bricks and mortar bookshop, I had the great pleasure of meeting many erudite and artistic customers. Stratford is home to many visual artists, writers, and musicians which makes the city a lively and diverse community. Especially in the summer months. One of my customers was Virgil Burnett, an accomplished renaissance man: artist, illustrator, author, professor, sculptor, and publisher--if he raises rare orchids I wouldn't be surprised. Virgil asked me if I would like to carry a few copies of one of his latest publications, The Book of Joe: Joseph Plaskett and the Art of Painting which he published under his imprint Pasdeloup Press and co-edited with Bruce Barber. I said I would be delighted.

It is a handsome book, with cream coloured paper covers and is finely illustrated throughout with the art work of the acclaimed Canadian artist
Joseph Plaskett whose friends and colleagues have contributed reminiscences, poems and stories about their compatriot in the arts. It also includes a brief essay on art by Plaskett and an interview with the artist by the well-known Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel. The stories and anecdotes about the artist are wonderfully entertaining and informative, and the last reminiscence in the book is worth the cover price alone.

It is a book to have nearby. A book to dip into occasionally and re-read for the insights and the humour, and to enjoy the beauty of the
artist's work.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Black River by Kenneth Sherman

After finishing Kenneth Sherman's new sequence of poems, Black River, (Porcupine's Quill, 2007) I lay back and realised I have been living in the fast lane of prose--library work, book selling, blogging, book clubbing, periodical reading-- for too long. Reading these poems I found myself rediscovering a natural breath and rhythm, and I was carried along with the poet's evocatively natural, yet nuanced choice of words making ripples upon the surface as he journeyed along the Black River.

To have the time to read poetry, or to make the time to read poetry, is important. As Kenneth Sherman says: "Stop and search beneath life's flux / if you wish to discover your will, / your forbearance." (p.55) It is healthy and ultimately life affirming to meditate on the past, our place in the present, and on the ghosts of history that surround us, for we live with "forgetfulness / and nightmare blood below the surface." (p.29) His references to the First Nations people and the Holocaust make us mindful of man's inhumanity to man, and that our surface culture, fast moving and forward looking, is blind, and quick to leave the past behind.

For those who escape each weekend to the cottage life, this slim volume of poetry would be a good companion. One to make us mindful and much more conscious of our relationship to this land and to those we share it with; If you don't have a cottage, yet know someone who does,
order one, it would be an ideal thank you gift for that invitation to visit.

Like all books issued by Porcupine's Quill, it is a fine papered edition printed and bound with great artistry. The cover and the images in the text are by the Canadian print maker George Raab. The book was readied for the press by Eric Ormsby.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

D was for Digressive Thoughts Unsubdued

There is a saying in Tilvanica: "Whatever you do, don't discuss physics with mourning doves." Or so I was told. This reminds me of the day when an old friend Tristy Ramshand found himself on the street where Chumley and Pepys Used Books once existed, bricks and mortar that is; I was placing the sandwich sign out one morning, when who strolled by with pipe and avuncular smile but old Trist, and in he walked and proceeded to expound on the nature of coincidence (quoting a writer whose name I have forgotten: "coincidence traced back far enough leads to inevitability") and began to trace the veritable trajectories of his life and how they came to intersect with mine on the sidewalk outside old Chumley and Pepys. He rarely looked at me, fearing no doubt a vacuously rapt expression which might interrupt his thoughts with present reality. (He was rather like having the radio on, except one couldn't turn it off.) Within twenty minutes he had moved on to a discussion of theoretical physics which led him to reminisce about growing up in a small town in Outer Manitoba, called Tilvanica. (For years I have been meaning to see if such a place exists, but his digressions always left me exhausted, and therefore, once he had gone, I was ever reluctant to revisit these memories--does Outer Manitoba even have mourning doves?) Trist was a talking machine capable of holding multiple conversations on diverse topics, a true top lister at any dinner party or get together; and yet, though his digressions had digressions, he somehow managed to round off each conversation with what I like to call a cornerstone remark, which would leave everyone thinking to themselves "hmm, yes. . . .the man is brilliant, but thank god I don't have to live with him and pity the person that does."

Thankfully closing time came round and I went out to get the sandwich board leaving Trist talking to a cornered customer. Upon returning, I interrupted old Trist by giving him a copy of Sterne's Tristram Shandy so the customer could breakaway and make a quiet and quick exit. He said he had numerous copies--though he would like this one--and began to tell me about finding a singular copy translated into Spanish which he found in a book stall in the small town of Upper Sneezewood, and how the name on the flyleaf just happened to be that of a distant, and most eccentric, uncle of his. . . .
But that is another story.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

C was for Corso a Book Scout Pursued

When it was released in 1999, The Ninth Gate really didn't do well at the till, nor did it give critics much of a thrill, but I, like many who enjoyed reading Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas (originally published Madrid: Alfaguara Hispanica,1993), ventured out to see this film with a visibly evanescent hope that it might capture something of the novel's flair.

Dealing with books as it does, I had thought that there would at least be qualities of production design that would be of interest to the eye, and here it didn't disappoint; and with Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp one could be assured of something dramatically skewed, ever so slightly, like a cocked spine on an old Chandler first. The screenplay(s), however, dropped much of the book's material which was par for the cinematic course. Film is film.

Having not seen the film since its initial outing, I look forward to the recent DVD release and hope it has extras of interest. Perhaps it would be good to reread the book, though it can be a dicey affair to try and recapture that dizzily reserved feeling of a first reading. But one can try.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"B" Was for Blogger Who Went For a Walk

Walking thought No. 1:
I--like the majority of bloggers I imagine--have never submitted written work other than university papers for the eyes of Professors--or their assistants. I have always written though: journals, unfinished short stories, reviews and exercises in non-fiction, light verse and of course, ponderously derivative poetry written during my teen years, which, thankfully, still basks in the shadows of the unread--or is it the shadows of the unreadable? But though I have never submitted written work, I find I am still able to express myself, and weblogs are wonderful tools for self-expression. I envy the youth of today who are at the starting gate for they will be able to create an archive, an extended memory if you will, so upon reaching my graying age, they can, one hopes, with whatever technology exists in thirty years or so, bring up a review from their early university days and either nod or groan over what they had written.

Walking thought No. 2: The persistent discussions over the book review table of late have centered on whether reviews written by bloggers have any real merit. All I know is that I enjoy reviews written by bloggers as well as by professional reviewers and published authors. With blogs one doesn't know what diction to expect because there are no set parameters. With the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement, one has certain expectations. But blogs vociferously run the gamut. The diversity of views, and their likewise diverse use of language and style, can stimulate thought and promote the exchange of ideas. Perhaps it comes down to, like most things, tribalism, territorial defence and change.

Walking thought No. 3: Like most people too, I feel more comfortable with a few books on the go; I am not, however, one for building stacks beside the bed which threaten vulnerable toes in the night. No, a manageable pile is required. One that doesn't overwhelm. One that can sit upon the bedside table without undue stress. (Perhaps the older one gets, the greater the need to moderate and balance the weight of so many words, so many pages, so many books. Then again, it might just be me--I get vertigo, and perhaps a hint of envy, looking at all those book stack pictures on people's blogs!) Having a few books on the go, however, brings up, as many readers know, companion readings, or tandem narratives which are unplanned, at least consciously. How these narratives weave their way through the brain and affect my dreams I don't know, but it is sometimes quixotic how the narratives of different books mingle and exchange thoughts seemingly of their own accord, forcing themselves into my consciousness; at times it is dispassionately subtle and at other times emphatically obvious. This is generally the point where I reach for the pen and notebook, nodding as if to placate the intrusive nature of that other narrative as I jot down a few words and hopefully delineate my thoughts from the mingled narrative strategies.

Addendum: Perhaps in my dreams Paul Auster, Matthew Pearl and Cees Nooteboom are exchanging narrative secrets while I pour the wine and keep the fictional characters away from the expensive cheeses. Or maybe it is the fictional characters in control, and I find myself looking over the shoulders of the authors as we all try to catch a peek through the window--that point of view of the house of fiction--and try to catch glimpses of the cavorting characters.

Tables do furnish a room

On the official letterhead of the Palace, Jaipur, Rajasthan, this extremely thin blue paper was creased and folded inside a book on, what else, a history of western furniture.

This letter offers much to the imagination.

The history of the royal family of Jaipur can be found here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

After Dark with Murakami

Our viewpoint is from above, like a camera, our vision pans down to the rectangular structure lying upon the highly polished veneered tabletop, the subtly coloured dustwrapper of the book intrigues our eyes as the light from the window glints off the lettering, H a r u k i M u r a k a m i. Our left hand--or our right--reaches out and lifts the book closer to our vision and we see the title of the book is called: a f t e r d a r k; these letters are artificially superimposed on an image of thin vertical blinds over a photograph of what appears to be an urban night scene. We turn it over and scan the blurbs of acclaim for the author's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories, and our eyes rest upon the bottom edge of the dustwrapper where the image of colourful Japanese drink bottles nestle against one another, like bottles nestling against one other. We open the rear board and the photograph of the author instills us with a sense of anxiety, his expression is one of distant perplexity. We look down and see that Chip Kidd was responsible for the jacket photography and design. We nod. Our eyes notice the small print near the author's photo and we zoom in to see that it is not Jerry Bauer but Elena Siebert, photographer. We nod again.

Slipping the dustwrapper off the hardcover, our eyes widen with the colours displayed: pink on the spine, purple on the boards, with special ribbed paper for both. Spine title in gilt stamp. Our vision blurs as our hands feel the tactile qualities of the ribbed paper covered boards, the ribs echoing the vertical blinds of the cover image in a nuanced dance of sight and touch.

Opening the book to the title page our vision takes in the typeface used for the title and author, something modern, something different; a resemblance to a stamped name, a stamped title. Then, a fleeting image in our imaginations comes up, of a vast floor of workers, each sitting at a desk, each stamping books on title pages, the sound, a loud musical counterpoint to the unheard rhythms of their hearts. . . .

We turn to the first page and observe a stylised image of a clock showing just before midnight. We hear an old Pet Shop Boys song on the radio, in the distance. Our eyes scan down and we begin to read:

"Eyes mark the shape of the city. . . ."

-for a review of Murakami's After Dark, millions has an interesting one, or perhaps this review at Christian Science Monitor or here at the L. A. newspaper.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

From Awnings To Steinways

I must say that I am not a collector of ephemera or bookmarks. There are professional dealers in ephemera but I have never purchased anything, though I have browsed shows devoted to ephemera. Having been involved with books for so many years, I have merely accumulated items which I have found in books, certainly a modest collection. I am an accumulator if you will. And a preserver. I find them quite fascinating. There is much to be learned from them.

This business card which I found in a book on American history is attractive. Before air-conditioning, awnings and canopies did the trick. On the back of this card is written in pencil with a flourish: "$2.00 a window." Certainly sounds like a bargain today. I imagine many booksellers relied on awnings and canopies to keep the fading and sunning to a minimum in their display windows. There is certainly something stylish with those old awnings and canopies.

I am not familiar with Astoria and I didn't know of Steinway & Sons connection with the borough. Fascinating to find this out. The homepage for Steinway can be found here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pepys' Letters

My alter ego, or doppleganger, Mr. Pepys, (so quiet here at Chumley and Pepys on Books, never a peep out of old Pepys I always say) has started a weblog devoted to Letters. A daily selection of letters for the delectation of readers. A commonplace book shared.

Good luck, Mr. Pepys!

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Fridge Magnet Childe Roland

The profligate juggernaut scion
through arid vicissitude
by fusillade steed
and subterfuge
trod full
and brazen
herculean pedagogue
festoon him
with unctuous
pithy droll.

{A handfull of fridge magnet words brought this out and they seemed to bring up, in my mind, old Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came--even if the young knight was afoot and not on a horse-- or am I thinking of some other Browning bit? (Although, to be precise, the magnets were on the dryer, and, as I waited for the laundry to dry. . . idle hands.) With apologies to Robert Browning}

Bookmark of the Week: No. 14

For a change from the standard rectangular card stock bookmark we all know, this little leather corner marker is rather quaint. It measures 2" along the sides. This one has the name of the original owner on the reverse stamped in gilt. The short quotation on this side: "Books are Keys," my wife informs me is from a verse by Emilie Poulsson.

Not a bookmark for the busy commuter's paperback, or that thriller on the beach, but rather one made for the family bible or the book beside the bed.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Leopoldt, Holt, Schuyler, and Dewey

As books and their bibliographies can lead one to other books, so a seemingly insignificant piece of card stock ephemera like this, can lead one to new discoveries. I had never heard of Frederick Leopoldt and in doing light research, I also came across Eugene Schuyler, another person new to me. Although Henry Holt's name lives on as an imprint, the names of Leypoldt and Schuyler seem forgotten except by scholars and specialists in certain fields.

Of the many publisher's devices, the owl used by Leopoldt & Holt, and then Henry Holt & Co., is one of the more recognizable ones along with Alfred A. Knopf's borzoi and Allen Lane's penguin. I don't have many Henry Holt books but one can find the images online here and there. It is interesting to come across the different versions of the owl. The card to the left was issued by the firm, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, this one from the Canadian office in Toronto, and the card was placed in complimentary copies sent out to, one hopes, fortunate recipients.

Baltimore born Henry Holt (1840-1926) joined the company of Frederick Leypoldt in 1866 whereby it became Leypoldt & Holt. One of their publications in 1867 was Edmund About's The Man With the Broken Ear translated from the French by Henry Holt. Two years before they joined together in business, Holt had offered this translation to Leopoldt who had graciously declined. Holt dedicated the translation to Leopoldt in an amusing paragraphe concerning this. You can find the translation and the dedication at Project Gutenberg. More importantly, in 1867, the company published the first English translation of Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons: a Novel, number 3 in their Leisure Hours Series. The translation was made from the original Russian with the approval of the author by Eugene Schuyler(1840-1890)the extraordinarily accomplished diplomat, author and traveller. Schuyler was one of the first recipients of an earned Ph.D. degree from an American University: Yale, 1861. The firm became Holt & Williams in 1872, and then Henry Holt & Co. in 1873 and continued to publish translations of Turgenev's works. Holt's memoirs entitled Garrulities of an Octogenarian Editor came out in 1923. (I can't think of another book with 'garrulities' in the title, although there may be other examples.)

Frederick Leopoldt (1835-1884), originally from Stuttgart, Germany, arrived in America in 1855. He was interested in creating better bibliographic records which would make the bookselling and publishing business more efficient. His Annual American Catalogue came out in 1870, his Publisher's Weekly came out in 1872, and Publishers' Trade List Annual in 1873. He was a busy man. Richard R. Bowker was Leopoldt's associate editor and he later took over the business. R. R. Bowker is a name that has survived into our day, as any one involved in libraries or publishing will know. They are also the official U. S. ISBN agency. Poor Leopoldt, his name continually dipped into obscurity, and yet he was the catalyst for so much. He was, in fact, instrumental in the start of the American Library Association.

In the month of May 1876, Melville Dewey had dropped by Publisher's Weekly in New York to tell Leopoldt about his idea for a library journal. Leopoldt was interested in the idea very much. Leopoldt in turn, told Dewey that in a forthcoming Publisher's Weekly editorial, he had suggested that librarians get together to meet in Philadelphia for the centennial celebrations: a conference to discuss and share information. This eventually happened, and the American Library Association was formed. Leopoldt liked the idea of a library journal and wanted to own and publish one. He asked Dewey to become the editor, and Library Journal came out in 1876.

Frederick Leopoldt, responsible for so much, yet, never achieved that lasting impression of a trade name like a Holt, or a Bowker. I only hope there is a bust of Leopoldt in the foyer of Publisher's Weekly, or an engraving of him at the home of the Library Journal.

For those with time on their hands, there is in an interesting interview with a Publisher's Weekly editor at this link.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 13

This is a small bookmarker (6.5cm x 3.5cm) with an uneven top edge and a cut out flap to mark your place. After spending two hours weeding and cutting the lawns, I could have used a nice cool New Yorker Lager. Not being a beer drinker except after cutting lawns or after a round of golf -which I haven't played for twenty years-I don't usually keep any in stock. Canada Dry Ginger Ale had to do.

This would be a good bookmark for books by Hammett or Chandler or even those west coast hardboiled favourites of mine by Ross Macdonald. Ah, I see some of my summer reading taking shape already.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Gielgud's MacBeth

In honour of Scotland's election day, I looked for something related to the country in my ephemera and came up with this 1942 programme for John Gielgud's production of MacBeth for a two week run at the King's Theatre, Glasglow, during the month of February 1942.
The air raid warning notice above, centre, and the advertisement for Kelvin Court flats listing it has air raid shelters certainly provides a context to these performances.
It was Gielgud's 1942 production that saw three actors die and the suicide of a costume designer. The curse was much on the minds of the theatre company to be sure.
At the bottom is the announcement of the production to follow: More 1066 And All That, presented by Emile Littler.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Harper & Brothers

Ephemera for the month of May seems appropriate.

This is a Harper & Brothers Form No. 802 which was placed in each box of books packed for shipment. Printed on the reverse are lines for the initials of the individuals who packed the box and checked the box after packing. Their quality control of the day.

If you are visiting New York you may want to check out the exhibit at Columbia University: Caterers General to the Literary World: The House of Harper (Chang Octagon, RBML, Butler 6th Floor East, 535 West 114th Street) March 28 through June 30, 2007. It was mounted to coincide with the Bibliographical Society of America’s conference: Birth of the Bestseller: The 19th Century Book in Britain, France, and Beyond which ran from March 29th to the 31st.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 12

I believe this to be the smallest rectangular card stock bookmarker I have. There is a history of the bookshop written by the owner, Margaret Hard: A Memory of Vermont: Our Life in the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop, 1930-1965, originally published by Harcourt but it was reissued in 1995.

During the summer of 1942, Vladimir Nabokov was staying at the summer home of a Harvard Professor near West Wardsboro, Vermont, not far away at all from Manchester Village. I wonder if he ever dropped by looking for books on entomology.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Signed copy

Having recently looked into the in-print status of a certain author long deceased, I came across a publishing site whose basic set-up for each book provides for author contact information. If I would like to contact so-and-so and see about getting a book signed etc. Since the author was quite dead it provided food for thought. Could it be a job for Margaret Atwood's innovative and exciting Longpen technology I wondered? It would make a good New Yorker type of cartoon. Deceased authors lining up on the other side to sign books for the living. Jane Austen stepping back on Herman Melville's shoes as she backs away from Cervantes gesticulating in earnest as he explains a basic narrative premise to Goethe, and Henry James and Joseph Conrad at the end of the line looking the other way, confirmed in their belief that this was a bad idea altogether.

I do think the Longpen is quite marvelous. And Atwood, well, our resident genius.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Browsing? Our Robots can do that for us.

Over at Librarian's Place I came across a link to an article about a Chicago University Library using a robot to retrieve books from a warehouse-like set-up called a library, thereby creating efficient retrieval. One can see certain benefits. Books would not be lost, mishelved, damaged or hidden, at least one would hope. Any university student or librarian knows of the chaos that can occur in a library at paper writing time. Books everywhere. The shelves in disarray. Reshelving carts overflowing. Books with chapters sliced out. Bound periodicals in stacks and piles on the floor beside photocopy machines. At least those were my memories, dated though they may be.

To lose the on-site browsing ability, however, certainly guts the very life out of a library.

Perhaps the librarians can give the robots names, like Helena or Marius from Karel Capek's R.U.R., or Hadaly from Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, the guy who coined the word 'android'.

It would be nice if the robots were androids. One could listen to their complaints over a cup of coffee. They could sport reading glasses. And a cardigan. Those warehouses must be cold after all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


For every action there is a reaction. The recent article in the Times about the supposed negative effects of internet bookselling on the art of the browse can be seen as one journalist's attempt to get a reaction. At least it makes us think about the issue. Margaret Atwood's and Kazuo Ishiguro's remarks may have been used by the journalist to point the brick wall he was building, but I think the wall is only knee high and we can safely sit on it and see both ways. Margaret Atwood and Ishiguro are of a certain age, and like many of their age, myself included, they spent their formative years in open stack libraries and a selection of bookshops both retail and second-hand. I use the internet and it is a very useful tool like Ishiguro mentions, but I too, like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, have been conditioned over the many years by the browsing in bookshops and libraries. The utter reality of it: the sunlight coming through the window; the smell of the books; the excitement and pleasure upon finding what one was looking for and for the chance discovery of something utterly new; the bookseller's friendly banter; the cat sleeping in the sunny window; the sound of the door closing and opening; the feel of that little step down into the shop; the chance meeting with a friend; the old chair next to the heating stove; the sense of comfort and well-being as rain taps against the window and one has no umbrella; the light upon the gilt titles and colourful softcovers; the feel of the binding and the sound of the paper as each page is turned. . . Endless memories come back to me of experiences in bookshops over the past close to 40 years. This is what cannot be replicated on-line. There is something unique about reality.

Although the internet has indeed brought about all sorts changes and adjustments in the bookselling world, I agree with Michael Gove's response in the Times that it is "the spread of bookselling by the major grocers that has caused real problems for the margins of smaller bookshops." His article is quite humourous and he is obviously an ardent bibliophile.

I came across an article only yesterday quite inadvertently on a library database (yes the internet does have its serendipity but of a different kind) written for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton titled Stacks Appeal. It is his lovely paean to open stack libraries and the art of the browse. Very well said and humourous. Yes, browsing in reality is different. And may we always have it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Memoirs Extraordinary

In London, on April 23, 1841, the poet, author, journalist and editor, Charles Mackay (1814-1889), penned the preface to a book which, unbeknownst to him, would become the one publication of his fairly prolific output which would keep his name alive into the present age. Had he not written this book, he would have been but another forgotten author (though perhaps remembered as the father of Marie Corelli) who would be known only to book collectors and scholars, his titles listed in antiquarian booksellers' catalogues, and his volumes gathering dust in closed stacks of older library collections.

The book in question was first issued by Richard Bentley in 1841, with the title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (3 volumes). A new edition was issued in 1852 in 2 volumes by the National Illustrated Library with the ammended title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (though the spine titles could read Mackay's Popular Delusions which seems rather humourous today.) The American edition was issued in 1856 by G. Routledge in 2 volumes, and later issued in one volume in 1869 in their Routledge's Standard Library series and reprinted subsequently.

The book gained new life when in 1932, during the lowest period of the economic crash, L. C. Page issued a new edition through the influence of Bernard M. Baruch. It was just what people needed. To read of follies and delusions in past ages, and to see that recovery was possible. It is to Bernard M. Baruch that we owe its continuing success. In the foreword to the 1932 edition, Baruch concludes: "It is bound to produce a confirmed and vital conviction of the value and the invariability of the simpler axioms of human conduct and that, I take it, is, just now, a consummation devoutly to be wished." It was reprinted many times throughout the twentieth century and most recently by Harriman House.

It seems we are in constant need of being reminded of our human folly.

Mackay chose as the epigraph to the first edition the following words:
Il est bon de connaitre le delires de l'esprit humain. Chaque peuple a ses folies plus ou moins grossieres.

For the 1852 edition, Charles Mackay chose for the epigraph four lines from Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux (a favourite of Dryden) . The last two lines read:
Tous les hommes sont fous, et malgre tous leurs soins
Ne different entre eux que du plus ou du moins.

Portrait of William Shakespeare

In honour of the accepted date of William Shakespeare's birth date, I have chosen the Grafton Portrait which has generally been discredited as a possible painting of Shakespeare, and yet it appeals to me in that it captures the tension of youthful uncertainty combined with the all perceiving eye. J. Dover Wilson used this for the frontispiece to his book The Essential Shakespeare: a Biographical Adventure (Cambridge 1932), but it is now seen to be more likely a picture of the young Marlowe if anyone.

The scholar Peter Beal (author of Index of Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700, and In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England) has recently reviewed a new book concerned with the authenticity of certain portraits of the bard: The True Face of William Shakespeare by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel (Chaucer Press), and he ends his review with the following words: "By all means, let readers engage with this book and make up their own minds. Absolute truth, however, remains as elusive as ever."

Bookmark of the Week: No. 11

In honour of Shakespeare's birthday, I thought this bookmarker would fit the Bill! I've never been to their shops, though I believe they still exist. On the back of the bookmarker in very small print they explain the reasons for having chosen the name. In honour of Sylvia Beach's example in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, they chose to use another reference to Shakespeare and attach "and Company". Robert Greene's reference to Shakespeare as an "Upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers" fit their bill.

The artwork seems to be by Leonard Baskin. Ted Hughes was prompted by the artist to write a text for his artwork and their collaboration produced Crow among other works. There may be a connection between Baskin and the bookstore but I don't know the story there.

I cannot find my copy of Hughes' Crow. I usually keep all my Faber paperbacks together but It seems to have migrated. Or walked.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lightly Versified 1

Perusing The New Oxford Book of Light Verse edited by Kingsley Amis has, as usual with these things, influenced me. For some reason the following Limerick came to me as I tried to fall asleep last night.

There was a young man of Chambly,
Who incapably sang in a tree.
When asked why it was,
He said, "It's because,
I'm a descendent of Madame Albani."

A friend I used to know grew up in Chambly and told me of the young man there who was known to be a descendent of the renowned and extremely talented international opera diva Madame Albani, and how he lived off the name. My friend was a great opera fan, and he could see why this young man should be proud, but I think he grew tired of being reminded of this young man's relation to fame.

In the 1850s when Madame Albani was still the young Emma Lajeunesse from Chambly, she performed a number of times at the Montreal Mechanics' Institute Hall where she played the piano and later sang. The Montreal Mechanics' Hall on the corner of Great St. James and St. Peter streets (now St. Jacques and St. Pierre) was opened in the spring of 1855 and was later demolished in the 1920s for the Head Office of the Royal Bank of Canada. That building still exists in its massivity. An astonishing pile indeed. When it was built in 1928 it was the tallest building in Canada. Here is a view of the interior of the main banking level. You would feel confident with your money in this bank. Hmm, I think I have digressed rather far from Kingsley Amis and light verse, but, if you look very closely, you'll see that the man in the photograph bears a striking resemblance to the English author.