Archive for the 'marc chagall' 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 1

I spent enough time in academia to be inundated with literary criticism about James Joyce’s Ulysses from all sides (feminist, linguistic, postcolonial, deconstructive, and on and on), but I never really got tired of the book or all the brouhaha surrounding it. I genuinely think that Ulysses merits that level of attention, because it affects the literature that follows it in such a foundational way. I’ve written about some authors (mainly Celine) who I think are important for various reasons, but Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses is singular in that he sets the stage for the modern novel in one fell swoop. He reinterprets so many tropes through his subjective and almost obsessively character-centered lens (the hero, the homeland, the son, the ideal mate, the oppressor/oppressed, and on and on) that everything from that point on was pretty much fair game. Other authors, of course, took stabs at doing this, and it’s not as if Joyce is the only author from that period with enduring influence, but I think it’s difficult to find any one author who had such a large effect on so many different aspects of literature.

And yet, I still hesitate to recommend Ulysses to friends who are curious about it. It’s not that it is too hard for non-academics to read (far from it)… with some effort, anyone can understand it, and there are books upon books explaining the plot for anyone who has trouble. It’s just that (and this is a decidedly non-academic point of view here, one which I am proud to have cultivated in the last few years), it’s not that good of a read. My favorite books are ones that totally engulf me, ones that display the full and raw power that literature can have (something that goes beyond simply having an engaging plot). And while Ulysses is an achievement of the highest order, and a work of art whose complexity is on a level almost completely untouched by other authors, I feel like the emotional power of the narrative gets buried under all the linguistic games. I love reading Ulysses for the artistic aspect of it, and I like thinking about the themes and characterizations, especially in terms of how they fit in to the history of Western literature, but the two don’t meet on the page, so to speak. The thematic force of the novel is a level removed, being reconstructed in my own head after reading articles and books and writing papers about it.

So, I have an ambivalent relationship with this book; it’s one of my favorites at the same time that I don’t really like it that much. An interesting sidebar about Ulysses, however (well, not a sidebar if you’re a First Amendment lawyer), is that it defined the test for obscenity in the US until Burroughs’s Naked Lunch necessitated a new test in the 60’s. Because of the raw subject matter (shitting! jerking off! nudity!), the book was outlawed in the US, although it eventually survived a court challenge (I can’t remember off the top of my head what the actual standard they used was, but it focused on the artistic merit of the book. The Burroughs test that came later had to relax this standard, since the stodgy court justices had a more difficult time finding artistic merit in places like Hassan’s Rumpus Room than they did in Joyce’s Dublin). Materially focused as I am, I really like early editions of Ulysses, because I feel like there’s a lot going on, from a historical perspective. Literary history is being made. US obscenity and censorship laws are being rewritten. The greatest novel of the next 86 years (at least according to the Modern Library) is sitting in a bookstore in a trade edition, for anyone to buy. Something about that really gets me.

Predictably, early editions of Ulysses aren’t cheap. I used to know the publishing history of it, but I’ve forgotten some of it. It was originally published in France in a paperback with turquoise covers, and those go for thousands of dollars. It made it to the US in a plain-looking hardcover with a dustjacket. Ulysses Since the original trades, there have been countless special editions by pretty much every publisher who ever published special editions of “great books”. I remember seeing an artist’s edition of the book in the Heritage Bookshop in LA (aka the Heritage Museum of Shit You’ll Never Be Able to Afford) that was a reproduction of the original paperback edition, only 5 times the size ($20,000). They also had a signed copy of the actual original edition, although they didn’t list the price for it. The one edition that I really want is the Limited Editions Club version that came out in the 30’s. I used to be big into collecting Limited Editions Club books when I first got into book collecting, but they seem kind of boring now (although that is probably due to my tastes in literature changing more than anything else), and Ulysses is the only one I still really want. It is illustrated (and signed) by Matisse, limited to 1500 copies. I have another, unrelated book illustrated with line drawings and sketches by Matisse, and I really like these types of illustrations when they’re done well. Chagall is another artist who I think pulls them off especially well. But, the kicker with Matisse’s illustrations of Joyce is that he didn’t illustrate Joyce’s novel. He sent back his sketches so quickly after he received the manuscript that the publishers asked him if he had even read the book… he hadn’t, and he had thought he was illustrating Homer’s Odyssey. So you get sketches of Odysseus slaying the cyclops while you read about Bloom circumnavigating Dublin.

Copies of that edition go for around $4000 to $10000 (unless you find one signed by Joyce as well), so that’s not high up on my priority list. However, (we’re finally getting to the title of this entry, after 1000 words) I did find a beat up copy of the first US edition at a bookstore in Chicago for $10 back when I was in college. Like I said, the first trade editions of Ulysses really intrigue me as historical objects, so let’s just say I was excited when I found it. Plus, the condition isn’t that bad… For $10, I’d expect the binding to be falling apart, pages torn, that type of stuff. This one is still fairly tight, although it has no dustjacket, and there are some pretty ugly stains to the cover, as well as holes in the cloth that expose the boards. But still… $10? Out of all my books (excluding those with sentimental value because they were given to me by someone close to me), this one is by far the most important “cheapie” on the shelf.

PS- where I said we were getting to the title after 1000 words… The word “words” is literally the 1000th word in this entry. I planned the whole thing like that, because I’m incredibly smart.

January 2022