Archive for May, 2008

My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Vol. 3: Chagall in the Lines

I’m not much of a fan of Cubism… as art movements go, Cubism for me occupies the sphere of “I know what the artists were after intellectually, but the aesthetic experience of viewing this art is largely empty to me.” Still, there are a lot of artists who dabbled (or more) in Cubism that I really like, and Marc Chagall is chief among them. Unlike artists like Braque, Chagall doesn’t so much espouse or exemplify Cubism as much as he makes it his own and employs it as but one tactic in his depiction of his world. I can’t imagine Chagall’s world without hard-angled shapes, just as I can’t imagine it without emerald green-faced violinists.

When I was bookhunting in France, I simultaneously uncovered two additional sides of Chagall beyond what I had known from his paintings. In a fairly upscale (yet uncharacteristically friendly) bookstore near the river, my eye caught a plain white volume in a blue slipcase entitled, “Chagall: Poemes.” I pulled it out and gave it a look- it’s a collection of Chagall’s poems, along with a bunch of line-drawing illustrations. I bought it for around $40 (this was back when the Euro was worth $.70 on the dollar), since I was curious to sit down and read Chagall’s poetry. The poems are okay- there is a reason Chagall is known as a painter rather than a poet, but it’s always interesting to see how someone famous for expressing himself in a particular way does so in a different art form. (As an aside, this is why I like Bukowski’s art and drawings… as art, they do almost nothing for me (although as a comic book fan, his drawings and cartoons interest me more than his watercolors and oil paintings). In these types of cross-medium examinations, interesting patterns emerge, such as Bukowski’s uncompromisingly plain writing style juxtapozed (ha) with his bizarrely abstract oil paintings.) More engaging than Chagall’s poems, however, are his line drawings – one of the reasons I like Chagall so much is his vibrant use of color, so I was kind of surprised at first that I was so drawn to such simple drawings. However, Chagall has a striking talent for evoking extremely complex images and scenes (even emotions) with only a few well placed lines.

chagallI’m sure the decision to illustrate his book with line drawings was one of economy as much as it was an artistic choice, since creating an equivalent number of oil paintings probably would have demanded more effort both to produce and to publish than the monochrome illustrations he came up with. However, the drawings do complement poetry’s capacity to suggest a scene via small observations, and in this way, they fit with the text really well. Moreover, they suggest a confidence on the artist’s part to leave the reader to his/her own devices in fleshing out the scene. As a poet, I would later find via an interesting coincidence, Chagall didn’t have the same confidence to do more with less. Reading the book’s colophon page, I found that this was actually the second French edition of Chagall’s poems (originally written-but never published-in Russian), representing a revision of Moshe Lazar’s original French translations. My eyes lit up at the name… Moshe Lazar is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, and I had just taken a class on Jewish literature after the Holocaust with him the previous semester. When I returned to school the next fall, I stopped by his office and showed him the book.

Moshe Lazar is worth an entire story by himself- he has studied and published on a staggering array of topics, from early Talmudic studies to modernist Irish literature, and when I left school, he was working on translating an 11-volume medieval Spanish Biblical interpretation. He is fluent in 13 languages, survived a Belgian concentration camp as a 9-year old boy, and is one of the most approachable of the “rockstar” professors that I met. Like many professors, his office is a pile of paper, he forgets to hand back assignments, and his lectures are free-form discussions of the texts at hand (leading some students to wonder if he is descending into senility). Still, the last time I saw him, three years after graduating from USC, he remembered my name, my seminar paper on Beckett’s Malone Dies, and then asked me how graduate school at UC Irvine was going.

When I showed him the Chagall book, he got an excited look, like he hadn’t thought of Chagall or his poetry in years. Apparently, through academic excellence and the street cred that withstanding a starvation camp gets you, he had a lot of cachet among Jewish artists (after all, we’re talking about the guy who helped Elie Wiesel trim Night down from a 600+ page rant against the Holocaust and those who let it happen to a slim, devastating, perfect volume on what happens when humans lose sight of humanity), leading Chagall to get in touch with him about translating his poetry from Russian into French, where it was to be published. According to Lazar, Chagall was unhappy with the first round of translations, since the poems seemed flat and unpoetic. He asked Lazar to embellish on his stark lines, leading to a not-so-faithful-to-the-original first publication of the poems. The version I had had been corrected by another translator to strip away some of Lazar’s interventions, although whether or not the new translations represent a return to the original or yet another intervention by yet another translator is unclear.

Like any good literature student, I pull the book out from time to time intending to read the poems, but I always end up looking at the pictures. In a book full of hacked-up poetry, the black lines on the bright white pages evoke a purity that Chagall just couldn’t produce with words.

ChancePress vs. Wikipedia

I had pretty much expected that the link I put on the Codex’s Wikipedia page would get deleted fairly quickly.  What I didn’t realize is that it would get deleted immediately… apparently, Wikipedia snuffs out all links to blogs right away, and then users who choose to look at the page history can go through the revisions that added these links and decide whether or not to reinstate them.

Well, I’m happy to report that the score is now CHANCEPRESS 1, WIKIPEDIA 0.  A friendly Wikipedia user by the name of Gwern justified restoring the link to my article with this glowingly positive review: “that looks like a great essay on the book, so restore.”  Restore indeed, Gwern!

That little link has been a goldmine for driving traffic to this site, sending by ten(s) of users every month!

PS- Read the post below… I’m promising myself I’ll write a real entry tomorrow, and it’s all going to be based on your vote(s)!

Future Posts that may or may not get Written

Well, due to my slothful ways, I have built up quite a backlog of posts that I want to write… even posts I meant to write, but that I didn’t ever get around to writing.  So, I thought, what better thing to do than to list them here on this page (that no one will ever go to) so my reader(s) can vote on which ones would be the most interesting for me to write when I finally get around to it?  (Turns out, there are plenty of better things to do, writing more posts being chief among them).

Anyway- here’s what’s in the cerebral sewage line:

  • The Bookseller Chronicles Vol. 1: The Most Condescending Guy in the World
  • My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner, Vol. 3: Chagall in the lines
  • Indiana Jordan and the Lost Illustrations of Etimologiario
  • The Bookseller Chronicles Vol. 2: The Least Condescending Guy in the World
  • The Double-Headed Chicken on an Acid Green Cart Sculpture: What Serafini Does When he Think’s I’m not Looking
  • My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner, Vol. 4: Jimland Novelties
  • Yes I Died a Little Inside when Juno Coined “Nerdy Chicks who Read McSweeney’s” as a Cultural Trope, but I Suppose I Could see it Coming
  • My Sense of Social Superiority Comes Mostly from the Original Luke Chueh Drawing I got for Free

This post contains something so rare that everything that has ever existed before is now abundant…

What could possibly be that rare? A comment about the Codex Seraphinianus by the man himself, Luigi Serafini, that’s what. Serafini scholars (all two of them) generally consider Serafini to be a reticent man, content to put his work out into the world and let people form their own conclusions about it. (See, for example, Justin Taylor’s Codex article in which Serafini coquettishly dodges Taylor’s request to interview him.) However, in some sort of life-imitating-cliché, I finally managed to unearth a real, actual, written (well, translated, most likely) quotation by Serafini about the Codex only after I had stopped looking. (And yes, I plan to blab on about it at length before transcribing the quotation itself, which is actually pretty short.)

The funny part is that I found this rare gem in a book that’s not rare at all. In fact, I picked it up on Amazon Marketplace for $6, and although there are less copies of this particular book available online than the Codex itself, it doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult book to find. The book is called New Italian Design (edited by Nally Bellati, whoever that is), and it’s an anthology of Italian designers, tucked amongst which you’ll find Serafini. I bought the book mainly because it was so cheap, and I’ve been feeling lately (rightly, as it turns out) that if I simply hoard everything that has anything to do with the man, I’m bound to find some interesting stuff.

Of course, the Serafini-related content of the book is fantastic (including a jug shaped like his “King Botto” character, who is most prominently featured in the new introduction to the Codex, a two-headed horse teapot, headless goblin wine bottles, and one of the most uncomfortable-looking chairs I’ve ever seen). Worth the $6 I paid for the book for sure.

What I didn’t expect to find, however, was the two-page introduction/bio. The bio treats Serafini mostly as a designer (although it concludes, “For Serafini is first and foremost a poet and a thinker who not only mediates between the world of dreams and that of reality but also manages to blur the division between the two”), and my amateur detective theory is that, since the audience for this book probably had never heard of the Codex, Serafini didn’t see too much harm in going on the record about it a little bit. In other words, here, Serafini isn’t the “Codex guy” that most people know him as- although the few pages devoted to him are the high point of my reading this book, the book certainly doesn’t make a point of elevating him above any of the other 40 or so designers it features. Having written the Codex is merely a feather in his cap, an additional credential that bolsters his status as a visionary designer. Taking this line of reasoning a little further, this book showcases Serafini’s commercial pursuits- many of his designs are manufactured, rather than composed solely by him (although there are some prototypes present). It therefore stands to reason that, while he might playfully turn away an interested Codex scholar like Justin Taylor, he doesn’t mind waxing eloquent about the Codex when it can make him seem like a desirable asset for a manufacturer looking for striking new designs.

So, on to the main event: so far, this is the only published comment I’ve seen Serafini make about the Codex. I don’t doubt that there is vastly more available in Italian newspapers and magazines (not to mention design books, etc.), although this is all I or anyone I know who has researched the Codex has found in English. And it’s here and only here on this here muthafuckin blog. Enjoy!

On the Codex:

“I’d call it a dream in writing,” he explains with a whimsical smile, “an image of something that has been deformed, and yet is nevertheless recognizable. The writing itself is vaguely reminiscent of Arabic script, although it is entirely the fruit of my imagination. And the strange thing is that it sort of looks realistic, intelligible. In fact a few people have actually studied it in some detail, and have discovered that there are certain shapes, certain signs that are recurrent and that give the impression of real words and a kind of syntax [my emphasis, meant to convey the “holy shit” I emitted when I read this part].”

On his work in general:

“My work really derives from a sort of vision that there and then seems to be completely autonomous. It’s usually only sometime later that I begin to realize that certain memories and recollections spurred that vision into being. On occasions, these images may also act as antennae for something that’s in the air. When this happens they’re more like visions of things still to come.”

On leaving Rome to travel to the US in the 70’s:

“At the outset, I was knocked out by the whole experience. That leap from the seventeenth century to the year 2000 was almost more than I could cope with. I knew no one there, and I just started traveling, almost obsessively, all over the place. And when I did get back to Rome, I couldn’t sit still. I set off again, for the MIddle East, as far as Babylon. And then for equatorial Africa, where I was mistaken for a spy and flung into jail for several days. All these experiences were bound to find their way into my work sooner or later.”

On his “current” projects (ca. 1990):

“At present I must confess that I’m not very pleased with how I divide my time between my various activities. I tend to get asked to do things and am unable to say no. So then I find myself involved, but not with much enthusiasm. I hope to get myself a bit better organized in the future. [These] are the years of my maturity, I suppose you’d call them. I’m aware of a certain fullness, like in the mid-afternoon when all colors seem particularly intense and nature exhibits a richness that is only visible before the first breeze of evening.”