It was recently pointed out to me by my very astute wife that my clever titles, while endearing, probably hurt my blog’s googleability (as does the fact that I almost always refer to “Serafini” and “The Codex” rather than “Luigi Serafini” and “The Codex Seraphinianus”). So, this post’s title is boring for a reason – I’m flirting with search bots ever-so-delicately.
So, it’s an exciting day for this Serafini enthusiast. After only a week of waiting, I received Serafini’s new book – an illustrated deluxe edition of Jules Renard’s Storie Naturali in the mail today. Untrue to form, I will post a bunch of pictures first and then offer my extraneous commentary below.
So, it is obvious from the above pictures that this is a remarkable book – just the amount of die-cutting to make those leaves on its own is impressive, as is the effort it must have taken to insert twenty leaves into each copy. The quality of the materials is very nice as well – the paper is very heavy with a nice texture, and the boards are extra-thick, which makes the book feel very substantial. Like the best FMR books, it is obvious that you are holding a deluxe book before you even open the cover. The printing, while not on the same level as the original editions of the Codex Seraphinianus, is very vibrant as well (better than the current Rizzoli editions). And, in a neat tip of the hat to history, the front and rear cover have pastedowns showing the original covers of Storie Naturali as published by BUR in 1959.
So – a couple thoughts, now that I have had a full day to look through and absorb this book. First, although value and prices are of course subjective, I had no problem with the 300-Euro price tag on this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it is signed by Serafini. The only other signed Serafini edition is the FMR first-edition of the Codex, which sells in the thousands. Plus, the limitation on this book – 660 copies – is smaller than any edition of the Codex, leading me to believe that this one might not be around for very long. It’s never easy to predict what will happen to a book like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around for a couple years before it sold out from the publisher, especially since BUR is doing almost no promotion outside of Italy (as far as I know, I was the first person to blog about it, except for a line in Serafini’s Wikipedia entry added in January – and I didn’t find out about it until 4 months after it was published). None of the other European online bookstores I look at are carrying it – only Italian stores. So, it takes some doing to track it down, and then you have to have a spare 300 Euros laying around (or a credit card, in my case). But, I am pretty sure there won’t be a trade edition of this book, since it is a special edition of a book by Jules Renard – the trade edition is the paperback you can get for $10. For Serafini fans, it would make sense to make a trade edition, but this isn’t a Serafini book, per se – it is catalogued under Renard’s name, with Serafini as the illustrator.
That being said, this is very much a Serafini “A” item, on the same level as the Codex Seraphinianus and the Pulcinellopedia Piccola. Although the text belongs to Renard, the world inside the book is Renard as interpreted through Serafini’s worldview. He isn’t just illustrating the book as much as he is providing a view into the world of a reader (himself) of Renard’s world. And, as we’re already well aware, Serafini’s world is dominated by its own logic, a logic that mirrors ours but also brings its idiosyncracies into neon-lit relief. Here, we have a multitude of leaves, but each leaf plays off the conventional biological blueprint of a leaf by introducing characteristically bizarre inhabitants or states. One leaf features a microscopic tennis game being played on its surface, while another one hosts a familiar collection of characters from the Codex. Some incorporate processions of characters, while others incorporate familiar Serafinian themes, such as eggs or the “King Botto” character. That Serafini brings signifiers of the world he has developed and illuminated over the course of his career only drives home the point that this isn’t a mere illustration job, but a cohabitation of his world and Renard’s world.
One thing still unclear to me is the limitation – 660 copies. Everything I had read about the book initially noted 600 copies, although the colophon mentions 660 (600 numbered in standard numbers and 60 in Roman numerals). I’m wondering if the gray clothbound copy pictured in my first post – with the stand-up leaves and the giant fox – is actually one of the 60 super-special editions, or if that one was just an advance photo before final production specifications had been finalized. I haven’t seen a word about one of those 60 copies anywhere, with none showing up for sale on any website. I emailed BUR about it, but aside from the language barrier, a specialized question like this doesn’t usually elicit much help from the publisher (anyone tried emailing Abbeville lately?). So, like everything Serafini-related, there’s still a little mystery.
Finally, a few words about the idea of meaning in Serafini’s work. It occurred to me while looking at this book that the meaning behind Serafini’s other work was becoming clearer in its deliberate unclarity. In other words – the Codex, and to a lesser extent, the Pulcinellopedia, aggressively goad the reader into trying to make sense of them. The Codex – with its invented language and encyclopedic scope – seems like it should be understood, which has led most readers at some point or another to try to figure it out. Most people get hung up on deciphering the text, assuming that if the code were cracked, everything in the pictures would all of a sudden make perfect sense, and the strange machines and sex-people-alligatorization would no longer be so vexing. Now, by contrast, we have Storie Naturali, an actual book by an actual author who wrote stories that people were actually able to read. And alongside this totally decipherable text is a series of window’s into Serafini’s world, and guess what: it doesn’t make any more sense here than it did there. Serafini’s world has always been one that operates with its own set of logic, and no rational-textual explanation is going to lay bare its inner workings in terms we can easily understand. Just like each page of the Codex, each leaf in Storie Naturali needs to be taken on its own terms, even though we know exactly what Serafini’s project is, what he’s illustrating, why he’s doing it, etc. There’s no romantic genesis myth about this book – he wasn’t holed up in an apartment furiously creating this book with no discernible objective – he was approached by a publisher and he did a job for which I’m assuming he got paid. But the end result in both cases – an illumination of his world – isn’t something that conventional Western logic enables us to comprehend.
Those that can’t wait to decipher the Codex should take note that the cover of this book shows Serafini’s signature written in Serafinian (with the translation, “Luigi Serafini,” written beneath). Start there guys, and let me know when you get to the epilogue page with the skeleton hand in the Codex. In the meantime, I’m excited to be able to refute the scholar (I can’t remember her name, but she’s interviewed in Justin Taylor’s essay about the Codex) who says that the Codex will lose its power the instant it is translated. The more you see into Serafini’s world, the more it becomes clear that its power comes from its uniquely Serafinian logical foundation, of which the text is merely an outgrowth, and not the only thing shrouding it from our own methods of comprehension. Otherwise, as soon as you paired his illustrations with a “real” alphabet, all of that mystery would disappear – and in Storie Naturali, that very clearly is not the case.
One note: this blog doesn’t get many comments, but I’m especially curious what Serafini fans think of this new work, so I encourage you to leave a comment with your impressions of it.