Saturday, January 26, 2008

I is for Inevitable (give or take a day)

C. S. Richardson The End of the Alphabet

Perhaps "I" should be for "Impossible." The impossibility of escape (ultimately at least). A Simenon-like conceit. The protagonist finds that he has a month to live, give or take a day. A contrived, clichéd conceit? Perhaps.

The author is a highly accomplished book designer. The publisher, the Random House group, is the company he works for. One of his book design team designed the little volume. Cozy. A small press feel. The copyright is held not in the name of the author but by the Kiplingesque Dravot & Carnehan Inc, which happens to be the name of the advertising firm that the protagonist, the ever-dying Ambrose Zephyr, a creative type with a fascination with typefaces and travel brochures, has found employment with for many years.

{ Ironic that. Ambrose: Ambrosia, elixir of life. And Zephyr, the good old west wind, Shelley's vehicle for a spiritual rebirth. }

It's first incarnation in print for me was as an excerpt. It was published, if memory serves me, in the spring of 2006 with the then title The Grand Tour of Ambrose Zephyr. A small, slim paper covered edition of 35 pages (give or take a page), the alphabet running down the narrow spine in tiny typeface, the upper cover sporting an image of a vintage suitcase. Very much a promotional teaser. I read it and was hooked. Wanted to read more. Felt right. Sounded good. (Probably worth something if signed.) And then, eventually, I forgot about it. That is, until the day my wife the librarian who gave me the said teaser dropped the first trade edition in my lap, retitled and ready to go. A bit of a memory jog, but it started to come back to me.

The finished product is designed to resemble a leather journal, much like the Chatwinian Moleskin journals that have become fashionable. It sports two camels on the dustwrapper, a one-humped Arabian Dromedary facing the upper cover (west?), and a shorter legged two-humped Asiatic, or Bactrian camel facing the rear cover (east?). ('Bactrian' conjures up images of Alexander the Great . . . .) Chocolate-brown cloth-covered boards with a small, neat typeface in gilt upon the spine. For a dustwrapper designer it must have been a difficult decision to choose from so many images offered up by the text: a statue of Peter Pan (apt that) in Kensington Gardens, a painting by Rembrandt, the labyrinth of Chartres, antiquarian books, the pyramids of Giza, the Rokeby Venus, travel brochures, type blocks, the Hagia Sofia, Venice. . . perhaps tempting for a collage, or shadow-box a là Nick Bantock, but I guess that's been done. So, it is the moleskin journal and camels. The journal is important for it is the framing device of the very novel itself, and the camels are symbolic of Ambrose's imagination. As a youth with a fascination with typefaces, he would copy the lettering on cigarette packages, packages sporting images of camels, a source of imaginative escape and dreams. {Faint trade winds, the Peter Pan image hovers. . .} Ambrose Zephyr retains his youthful imagination, retains his ability to see the past, retains the ability to see far distant shores, conjuring history before his eyes while looking into the past. Ambrose, as adult, is perhaps a representative modern type, reflecting western traits of modernity: a professional nearing 50 years of age, married to a professional, childless, holding onto youthful imagination.

A. Z. over Z. A. These initials appear upon the spine of the dustwrapper. Ambrose Zephyr, and Zappora "Zipper" Ashkenazi, his wife. They reflect high-end fashion and design lifestyles. A childless professional couple living in fashionable London. Their emotions seem refracted, or cooly faceted, condensed within this grand melodrama. Two introverts who, though different (Wuthering Heights is the dullest of books to Ambrose, yet Zipper has lost count how many times she has read the novel), seem to fit like two letters in a devoted space. There is a yin and yang quality to them; a love story, muted in the silences of each other's quiet imaginations. Ambrose has thirty days to live and Zipper has thirty days to die, symbolically that is. Ambrose desires the movement of the old fashioned Grand Tour guided by the 26 letters of the western alphabet, a last chance to visit and revisit the locales of his imagination and his past, A is for Amsterdam, B is for Berlin, C is for Chartres. . . .
Minor characters are gently drawn, like Mr. Umtata, Ambrose's tailor, and an aged Florentine man with failing sight, perhaps the ghost of Ambrose's unattainable senescence.
It is a clever, well-constructed, laconically written novel, and upon finishing, one naturally returns to the beginning for in the end is the beginning.
The typeface chosen for the book is Filosofia, a typeface designed in 1996 by Zuzana Licko (yes, two z's and two a's). A typeface described as being able to provide "good readability in smaller text sizes." Seems apt for the novel itself.

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