Archive for the 'bukowski' Category

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.

Books I Love that Aren’t Worth any Money: Volume 2

The Brandeis book fare was an annual bibliophile tradition in Chicago for many years. My earliest recollections of the fair are of boring, seemingly endless days spent as a little kid wandering from table to table under the giant white and yellow-striped tents with my dad. When I got older and started getting into book collecting myself, I took a trip there every year — it was always in the parking lot of the Old Orchard shopping mall, covering thousands of parking spaces, like some sort of circus for people that preferred old books over lions and stunts.

I don’t know who “Brandeis” was, or where their books came from, but I know a lot of them came from dead people. Because of the large Jewish population in the northern suburbs of Chicago, you were guaranteed to see hundreds of books by authors like Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok, as well as an enormous collection of books on Jewish history, famous Jewish figures, and the like. I bought a lot of these types of books, not really to collect, but more because I could: at Brandeis, prices were an afterthought for most books, scrawled on the front page in a red colored pencil. Paperbacks ranged from $.10 to $.25, and hardcovers from $.25 to around $3.00. They made their money on sheer volume, and the promise finding rare treasures mixed in with pocket paperbacks and 50 copies of The Adventures of Augie March drew booksellers from all over the Midwest. You could tell the people that had driven in just for the fair… (Sidebar: I haven’t really displayed my prejudice against booksellers in this blog, but I do have one. I hate 90% of them for being arrogant, ageist cranks who assume that, because I look like some dumb kid, I must not know anything whatsoever about rare books.) They would grab shopping carts at the front and tear through the aisles, tossing books they didn’t want onto the floor, elbowing their way up to the tables to paw through everything… Thinking back on the scene now reminds me of a passage I read in a book about a woman who, as a social experiment, takes a job at Wal-Mart to test the viability of working a minimum-wage job as a way to make a living. Anyway, she is initially shocked at how housewives enter the store and toss clothing on the floor, leave trash on the shelves, and generally make a mess of things… then she realizes that Wal-Mart is the one place where these women – often poor and overburdened with too many children – can shrug off the responsibility of straightening up, the one place where they can have someone else clean their mess for a change. It was the same with the booksellers. After a year of impeccably maintaining their shelves, and frowning disapprovingly at anyone who dared pick up a book off of said shelves to examine it, and dusting fingerprints off of each book after the customers left, they could finally act like bulls in a china shop. And so they descended on Brandeis, intent on acting like their idea of the asshole customers who came to their shops and left them in tatters.

I never found anything great and Brandeis, and in fact, I have donated a lot of the books I bought there. I did find a book of short stories by Balzac from 1920 that was wrapped in heavy paper by its original owner, causing the dustjacket to be in 100% new, unfaded condition. Although it’s not worth any money, to me, this is a fairly rare book, just because I haven’t often seen a book that is 80-90 years old and looks like it could be new off the shelf.

The one Brandeis treasure that I can claim is a giant, fat, thick, heavy hardcover book called The Evergreen Review Reader. I’ve seen it in paperback quite often (I think it was reprinted a bunch of times), but I’ve never seen the hardcover version in bookstores. Which isn’t to say that it’s rare by any stretch- copies about on Abebooks for around $50 and up… and those are in better condition than mine to boot. Still, something about stumbling upon the book sitting in a stack on a table was just too cool for me to really care that much about “upgrading” my copy to one in better condition. The dustjacket has some small tears, the pages are a little warped, and the book itself is a little warped, but you don’t go to Brandeis to find pristine beauties. You go to find books like this, seemingly impossibly priced at $7.00.

For some background: the Evergreen Review was a literary magazine in the US during the 50’s and 60’s (I don’t actually know when it stopped being printed, although it was during these decades that it was really prominent), and it published a huge range of literature: beat, french existentialist, whatever you want to call Samuel Beckett, Bukowski (although he’s not in this book), and tons, tons more. The reader is really a triumphant collection of Evergreen Review’s pages- it’s a really large, square volume with 800 pages, weighing around 10 lbs. Reading it is daunting- there’s so much literature crammed into the damn thing that a single two-page spread can take a half hour to digest. I look at it on my shelf (it’s hard to miss, since the width of the book gives the spine a lot of real estate to scream out the title), and I think of it as a literary bullion cube, a super-concentrated dose of global literature over a ten year period. For seven dollars? Talk about value!

Unfortunately for surly booksellers everywhere, Brandeis discontinued the book fair a couple years after I went to college. I had looked forward to flying back to Chicago and going to the fair with my dad, this time with both of us actually interested in the shockingly vast array of tables and piles of books, but I guess the fair got to be too much of a hassle to organize every year. It’s a shame, but really, how many Saul Bellow books can one book fair be expected to move every year?

I love you like a mesh bag filled with eraser crumbs

First limSo, today I received what I thought was going to be one of the cornerstones of my book collection- a signed copy of Bukowski’s novel Hollywood, limited to 150 copies (copies that are hand-bound with special touches that only matter to me and 8 other people in the world). It was the most I’ve spent on an individual book – $350 – and I had to sell some books I really liked in order to afford it. I knew it wasn’t in perfect condition (this one sells for $650-$750 in “fine” condition) but I wasn’t quite prepared for what was in the envelope… bottom line, the book was gross. It smelled like it had been sitting in a smoky den for the 18 years since it was published, and it looked that way too… it looked sickly, with a yellow patina, and little brown stains on the back (affectionately termed “foxing” by booksellers) that happen when a book sits in a high-humidity environment. I was mad, and I emailed the seller demanding $150 of my money back. I didn’t think he’d go for that, and I was ready to send the book back to him, but to my surprise, he took my offer. I felt like it was worth $200, but I still wasn’t “proud” of it, if that makes any sense.

The lovely and talented Rubyred had shown me a website about book preservation that recommended using a “dry cleaning pad” to remove stains from books, so I swung by my local art supply store after work and picked one up. I am in love with it. The obscure object of my desireIt’s basically a mesh fabric bag filled with eraser crumbs, and it allows you to erase paper without abrading it at all. I wore out my forearms cleaning off both the front and back covers of the book, and I stripped away years of cigarette smoke residue (gross). Now, the book isn’t in perfect shape- it’s still yellowed along the top and bottom of the boards, but it is pretty bright on both the front and back covers. Huge improvement. Then, I switched out the cloudy, yellowed dustjacket (most Bukowski hardcover books come with clear unprinted dustjackets) with a pristine one I had on another book, and it looked even better. Next, I’m going to seal it up with some “Book Deodorizer Granules” that I bought to get the cigarette smell out. When I’m done, I think I can legitimately claim it to be in “Very Good” condition (again using those arcane bookseller terms), whereas when I got it, I think it would probably be described as “Good” (which means “bad”, whereas “acceptable” means “acceptable for wiping your ass with”). So, NOW I think it is worth the $350 that I paid for it… good thing I only paid $200!

Hollywood first-tradeI sold a pristine copy of the standard first edition of this book (pictured to the right) to a friend in order to afford this copy, and I was a little disappointed at first that I dumped a super clean copy in exchange for this. But, in addition to having always wanted signed copies of my 2 favorite Bukowski novels (this and Ham on Rye), I do like the fact that this has some history… see, when the bookseller agreed to my refund request, he told me he could because he got the book “very cheap.” Which leads me to believe that he picked it up at an estate sale for $25 or so… and I started thinking about the crusty old chainsmoker who had this book sitting on his shelf while he puffed away and drank scotch until he croaked. Part of me feels like that’s a better place for a Bukowski book to live than a climate-controlled shrine to anal-retentiveness (or at least that some of the books in my personal climate-controlled shrine to anal-retentiveness should have come from these types of places). Of course, I wouldn’t feel this way if I couldn’t at least clean the book up a little bit, which is why I’m grateful to my little rubbery-smelling crumbly pillow of joy.

When I was done with Hollywood, I started going after some other books I had with smudges on them, and I have to say, the $7 I paid for the dry cleaning pad has probably paid for itself 20 times over just in terms of value I’ve added to my books. It doesn’t do much for yellowing or foxing, but it takes care of soiling incredibly well. There’s a magazine I bought for the lovely and talented Rubyred that I got a nasty smudge on a ways back before I sent it to her… when she brings it back to me, it’s getting the treatment, and I can’t wait (well, that’s fairly low on the list of things I can’t wait for relative to Rubyred’s arrival here, but still…).

I’m about to shut down the computer for the night and read this book (that’s one of my rules of book collecting: no owning “reading copies” of expensive books… books are meant to be read, and I’m going to read them, even if it means worrying incessantly about whatever damage I might be doing to them), after playing with it all evening, and I’m finally proud to own it. Thanks, dry cleaning pad. Some may think you’re just a mesh bag filled with eraser crumbs, but to me, you’re the sun and the moon, the oceans, and the night sky (or at least what I’d use if there were smudges on the sun and the moon, the oceans, and the night sky).

January 2022