Friday, December 16, 2011

Late For Layton

Browsing my small record collection--hardly a collection anymore, more a remnant from youth having sold many during the late 80s to that wonderful source of so much, L'échange in Montreal--I felt for every LP I flipped through, four or five ghost LPs would be conjured up. Sometimes with regret. I was not like a few of my adolescent friends in the early 1970s who saved up a substantial amount of money and stood in line outside Sam the Record Man in Montreal on Boxing Day in the early hours to shiver with more than anticipation, envisioning every desired pristine record on their wanted list to be resting gently awaiting their nimble half-frozen fingers. No, I was likely down at the local park's outdoor rink with my brother, pretending to be Guy LaFleur or Ken Dryden. (There was something special about outdoor rinks in Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s, rinks where they left the shovels for you to remove the snow yourselves while the caretaker drank his coffee in the building talking to his compatriots, often in French or Italian; the sound of skate blades sliding across the ice, the sound of the the Victoriaville hockey sticks tapping the ice, the smell of hockey tape, the sound of pucks as they hit the aged frozen boards with an invigorating thud.) I knew I could always check out my friend's LPs in the New Year and wait for a later sale and browse without the crowds elbowing me for that prized LP.

(Why did I sell--or was it one of the lost--Sing it Again Rod (1973) one of my favourite LPs from that year and with that fabulous record sleeve? Oh, well. And Clapton's Rainbow Concert? Rick Derringer's All American Boy? Young's After the Gold Rush? Frampton's Camel? Somethin's Happening? Tubular Bells?..... I guess I changed, outgrew some, moved on to Jazz and classical. Perhaps it is all just nostalgia now. They moved me then, and now rekindle memories. But it would have been nice to have kept those and so many more, and have the senses of touch, sight, smell, and sound fully involved. Rather like old love letters.)

Well, life is a progression of sorts. So, to get back to the browsing, I came across an unusual LP.

The year was 1992. The Montreal Library in which I worked was planning its annual fund raising campaign. The chair of the board of directors, having a background in Canadian literature, put forward the name of Irving Layton to be their fundraising spokesperson. He accepted. The chair thought it would be appropriate to have a display of the poet's works and she made the request of the poet whether he had anything of interest that could be used in the display. He said he would look for items. Since I was overseeing the archives and displays at that time, I was generously given the opportunity to go to the poet's house and make a choice of the selected material. I was truly excited. This was not the kind of opportunity that ever came my way. I had a week to think about the approaching day. I had a couple of Irving Layton's many, many books of poetry, and wondered if I should scour the shops for additional titles so I could bring him a handful of books to sign. I did, I confess, pick up a few more.

The day arrived, August 29, 1992. I was given the afternoon off to visit his home in my old neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grace. I was fairly nervous to meet him. His poetic reputation and his robust personality was on my mind as I entered the taxi. Half-way there I realised I had forgotten his books. In my nervous haste I had left them on my kitchen counter. To turn back and retrieve them was a fleeting thought, but I would be late for Layton. I didn't want to be late for Layton.

Arriving on time, I approached the front door on Monkland Avenue and rang the bell. As I readied myself to say hello to a renowned poet, the door was opened by an attractive younger women, his partner and companion of the time, and she invited me in. I waited in the entrance as she quietly disappeared to the back of the house. As I waited, I heard some movement upstairs and the great poet came into view at the top of the stairs and began a composed descent. For his age, 80, he seemed in robust health, his thick long grey hair was impressive, an ideal poet's mane. A strongly built man who in his prime could probably have taken me out with his pinky. Though not a tall man, he had a strong physical presence. Our pleasantries over, he ushered me into the living room and back to the dining room where he had laid out the chosen materials. I think he recognized a devotee and he was quite lovely. There were a number of foreign language translations of his works and he was proud of his popularity in Italy. I looked over the material and made my choices. Then he brought out an LP of a reading he did back in the 1980s. I said that was terrific for the display. I told him I had forgotten a few of his books to sign, and he brought out another copy of the LP. He bent over the dining room table, rested the LP on the books and papers and delicately inscribed it for me in a somewhat shaky hand.

I left with the materials, feeling invigorated by the meeting. I walked back into my old neighbourhood before setting off for lower Westmount. It had been an interesting visit.

When the annual board meeting took place in September and Irving would give a speech, I was unable to attend as I had a university class that evening, so I missed out on a bonus meeting and chance to have my books signed. I did get one however. A few years later I came across a limited signed fine press edition of one of his books in Italian translation illustrated by an artist. Some things take time.

The LP: Layton Reads Layton The poetry of Irving Layton as read by the poet himself. Recorded live at the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Public Library, November 10, 1981. (A Karlay Production, recorded by Satalite Sound, 1981.)

Monday, December 05, 2011

Nabokov Covers

I am in the midst of reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and the latest warm-hearted offering by Alexander McCall Smith, but I now find myself 90 pages into The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov.

I blame housecleaning.

In a moment of vacuous calm after a bout of dusting and vacuuming, I happened to be staring at bookshelves, no doubt through the rise and fall of imperceptible dust motes, when I noticed how very plain the dustwrappers of the
Nabokov hardcovers issued by Putnam in the 1960s were in comparison to the surrounding books. My initial reaction to the covers was to wonder why they were so drab. Was there a lack of direction in the art direction department? Was there a lack of funds? Was it a style of the period? Was it due to the sophisticated nature of the text that made them avoid putting a foot wrong, and resort to plain typographic design with a wash of backcloth colour? The contrast with contemporary designs for Murakami's works by Chipp Kidd made these covers seem exceedingly plain.

While these questions settled in my mind, I looked at some of the paperbacks of his work for which I have a fondness. The vintage illustrations for the Popular Library editions issued in the late 1950s and early 1960s do not tend to correspond to the text within but at least they are on the conservative side of the lurid illustrations of the day, when sex was used to sell paperbacks. These latter covers generally remind me of the
1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, where the actor Tom Ewell, portrays a character who is overseeing a manuscript by a pyschiatrist, and the cover art designs for this non-fiction work are luridly ridiculous.

My first encounter with Nabo
kov's work was with Nabokov's Dozen (Popular Library, 1958), a paperback I picked up secondhand. I still return to this slim volume to reread Spring in Fialta and other short stories, sporting my pencil marks, signposts of a youthful passage. These illustrations are by the talented and prolific illustrator Stanley Zuckerberg (1919-1995), a New Yorker who illustrated many paperback covers during the 1950s and 60s, and according to Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History by William B. Jones, Jr., he illustrated two Classics Comics, A Tale of Two Cities (1942) and Robinson Crusoe (1943). He married a fellow artist, Lillian Chestney who also had a long and prolific career as an illustrator, and she also illustrated two Classics Comics, Arabian Nights (1943) and Gulliver's Travels (1943).

I cannot find a reference by Nabokov to this specific cover art
for Nabokov's Dozen, nor to The Gift, but I gather from reading his selected letters, that he was adamant about what he did and did not want, and was often provided with cover art that was not to his liking in the extreme. The cover for Nabokov's Dozen does seem more like an advertisement for hair styles, but as a reader, I am rather fond of the volume.

The one-line blur
bs on the back of the Popular Library edition of my 1963 copy of The Gift pictured here, are rather amusing: "A bizarre and special romp" (St. Louis Globe-Democrat), "A powerful kick" (Associated Press), "An occasion of delight" (Commonweal). On the back of my 1964 Popular Library copy of The Defense is the following hyperbolic purchase-motivating blurb: "Superior to Lolita and, in its way, as much of a shocker" (W. G. Rogers, Saturday Review Syndicate). Anything to sell a book.

In the late 1960s, Nabokov's son Dimitri
provided paperback cover art sketches for a number of his father's works, The Defense being one. When it was to be reissued in the early 1970s, Nabokov was unhappy with the new cover. Writing to Rosa Montague of Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, the author wrote :

I do not wish to appear choosy, but the new cover design won't do. The banal pop-arty combination of a broken chessboard inserted between Siamese twins (identical except for the forlock on one brow) is meaningless and repulsive. I do not insist on cover designs illustrating a novel realistically, but I do object to a pseudo-realism unconnected with anything in the book. It is a great pity Panther does not wish to use the 1967 cover-design, but if so, let us have some purely ornamental pattern without eyes, noses, or hands. -September 9, 1970. (Vladimir Nabokov Selected Letters 1940-1977, HBJ, 1989, p.472.)

Dimitri Nabokov also provided the cover art for The Gift issued by Panther in 1967, one that his father approved of fully, referring to it as a "subtle and intelligent sketch. . . with the keys on the floor of the hall."

It seems if the art departments of publishers could not figure out a proper concept for his covers, large black lettering on a pale background was preferable. I gather that is what helped sway the decision process at Putnam's when they issued his books in hardcover with similar dustwrapper designs with the only variation being the subtle colour shadows to the titles.

Much more could be written about Nabokov covers, especially the wonderful book, Pnin, but I will leave that to another day, or to another altogether. I really should get back to 1Q84, but I so enjoy the rich textured prose of The Gift that I forget I have already been there before, walking beside Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev listening to his thoughts.