Archive for the '(rare shit)' Category

Luigi Serafini – Storie Naturali Photo Gallery

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.

Cardboard shipping box

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

The case-binding

Title Page

Interior spread

Leaves in pockets (20 die-cut leaves are removable)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (it wouldn't be Serafini without eggs somewhere)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (King Botto makes an appearance)

Colophon page (with Serafinian writing, including the Serafinian signature)

Serafini's signature and seal (note King Botto in the seal)

Some of the removable leaves

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.

Tardi is Really, Really, Really, Really Rad

The title pretty much says it all, but I’m still going to wax eloquent about Jacques Tardi for a while, since brevity fits me about as well as jeans with a 32″ waist (eg: LOL I’m fat).  As I’ve written elsewhere, although I’m totally obsessed with comics now, they haven’t been a lifelong obsession (with the exception of Tintin).  However, Tardi has been a part of my bookshelf for a long time, in the form of his incredible “collaborations” with Louis Ferdinand Celine.  To recap – Gallimard (major French publisher – think Penguin or Random House) has a comics imprint named Futuropolis, and in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Gallimard pulled classic texts from its canon and put out Gallimard/Futuropolis combo editions pairing the text up with extensive internal illustrations by well-known cartoonists.  They’re really unparalleled, essential editions for any comics fan, because the books are collaborations in the literal sense of the word, even though many of the original authors were dead at time the books were released.  Forget the traditional idea of an illustrated book (page after page of text, with an occasional full page plate, and some 1/4 page spot drawings sprinkled throughout).  Although the words in these editions are typeset rather than hand lettered (so no speech balloons), the text is fit around the illustrations – and not the other way around –  in a way that enables the illustrations to push the text in directions the original books never anticipated.  This isn’t “the classics – illustrated,” because the entire text is present, and the illustrations challenge and engage the text, instead of merely showing what happens on each page.  I can’t think of anything similar in American publishing (maybe it’s out there and some well-read comics enthusiast would like to suggest it in the comments?)… here we think it’s a great step forward when Penguin solicits covers for classic books from well-known cartoonists.  And hey, those books are cool, but they don’t offer anything for the comics fan beyond the cover.  By contrast, the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions are designed to look like Gallimard’s classic NRF series, with their cream-colored covers and red/black lettering, instead of a typical European comics album.  In other words, cartooning is folded into Gallimard’s literary canon instead of simply being window dressing for canonical texts.

Right, and so Tardi did three of these babies – all books by Celine.  When I discovered them for the first time, I didn’t know who Tardi was, but I was obsessed with Journey to the End of the Night, and the Tardi-illustrated version was a great way for me to read portions of the French text without getting too lost, thanks to the illustrations situating me along the way.  Of course, as I’ve written about earlier, it only took me flipping through the book a few times to realize Tardi’s masterful skill, and as I’ve become more familiar with his work over the years, it has become more and more clear that Tardi-Celine was a pairing that was too perfect to not happen.  I can’t think of another creator with the ability to capture the grotesque and gritty aspect of Celine’s writing in a way that also plays off of how Celine – with his pacing and rhythm, his slang, and his theatricality – creates a cartoon of the modern society he detests.  A strictly realist style wouldn’t fit Celine at all, but no one balances “cartoony”  imagery with an earth-shattering realism like Tardi.   (Sorry I don’t have a better word than “cartoony;” this is why I write my own blog and not for Comics Comics.)

So I came back from France in 2001 with the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit, and over time, they became two of my favorite books in my collection.  What never occurred to me, however, was that Tardi might have another body of work – you know, normal comics – that I should seek out.  And so I dove into the rabbit hole of graduate school and critical theory and all that, and then I dropped out and never felt like reading again, and then I started reading for fun, and then I discovered alternative comics, and since then I’ve been receiving a way more fun education that shows no sign of ending any time soon.  Cue Fantagraphics announcing last year that they were going to start releasing classic Tardi works in English in handsome hardcover editions.  I read the first two they released and saw the genius I saw in the Celine books in full bloom, with 100% of the page at its disposal.  (I should note that much of Tardi’s best work involves collaborations with other authors, although these are rendered as true comics, with the text as part of each panel, rather than typeset separately.)  While waiting for the third Fantagraphics release, it occurred to me that I could dig deeper into Tardi’s back-catalogue without the wait if I tried to read some of the books in French – even Le der des ders, a title whose translation completely escapes me (Google Translation helpfully provides “The Der of Ders”).

I went to my favorite site to buy French books – Chapitre.com – and spent some extra disposable income on 5 Tardi books, including Casse-Pipe, the much less common Gallimard/Futuropolis edition of Celine’s unfinished World War I novel.  Now, this was a find for me, since I’ve been looking for it for years… it’s available on used book sites, but usually costs in the $100 range, and the condition is often suspect.  But, and this is why I love Chapitre.com, it just happened to be available from a particular seller for 12 euros, even though the original edition has been out of print for years and is never found for so cheap (this isn’t uncommon with Chapitre – see my last post about the mysterious French website selling the Codex Seraphinianus for around $140).  One delayed FedEx shipment later, my Tardi collection has grown exponentially.   Now, I just need Fantagraphics to get him to appear at Comic-con so I can get these things signed, and I’ll be good to go.

So, like I said 950 words ago, the title says it all.  But in case you needed a little extra convincing, there’s the rest too.

Jordan in Wonderland – The Intro

So, I’ve been off work the past few days attending book-related events surrounding and including the Calfornia Antiquarian Book Fair (actually, that’s not the exact name, although it gets the point across, which is the goal).  Truly a wonderland of shit I never thought I’d see, and what will be the subject of one of my trademark long, rambling diatribes.  My eyes are going blurry staring at the computer screen right now, so here’s a little teaser of what you’ll get.

Topics to be covered: Rare Shit and Expensive Shit that put the previous rare and expensive shit discussed herein to shame; exclusive behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred guerilla reporting on the book business; my ongoing effort to cope with the fact that I have to operate within a reasonable budget; so many handmade books that your hands hurt just thinking about making them; a report and in-depth discussion of my wisely-chosen purchases, and finally, my crushing insecurity and desire to fit in among people who I assume secretly hate me.

Stay tuned for more!

Critical Massin and Other Observations about Book Collecting

This is an essay about random connections that pop up when I start really digging in and researching books. These connections are what make book collecting so great: it’s not just finding a book you want, buying it, and then staring at it occasionally as it sits on your shelf. It’s about realizing that a book you’ve wanted for years is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are tons of interesting tendrils hanging off of that book, dipping into the vast ocean of everything else that’s ever been published… and about finding that things you’ve never known about aren’t actually that far removed from books you’ve had for years.

This particular adventure started, as it often does, with regret; the one that got away, the book with the pretty face that I always thought I’d see again but never did. When I lived in France, I bought as many cool French books as I could, constrained by my college-life means, but helped by the weakness of the Franc before the transition to the Euro and the strength of the dollar before the transition to GWBush. Still, there are some books that I never got around to buying, and others that I visited over and over again in rare bookstores but knew I’d never be able to afford. Two particular books come to mind: the NRF publication of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes and Une Version Inédite du Premier Chapitre de Voyage au Bout de la Nuit de L.-F. Céline. And of course, these books are connected by more than just being sites of regret in my book collecting past.

First the Queneau: he was a mathematician in addition to being a writer and poet, and he is probably most famous for co-founding the literary workshop “Oulipo” (the workshop of potential literature) and writing Zazie dans le Métro, a novel about labor strikes, trains, and transvestites. When I first heard about the Oulipo, it sounded like a bunch of pretentious wankery, until I realized how bizarrely fantastic its approach to literature is. The basic precept is that creativity can be focused and harnessed by applying specific, often mathematical constraints to the creative process (see for example, La Disparition by Georges Perec, an entire novel written without the letter “e”). There are a couple good books on Oulipo that can be had for fairly cheap that explain the concept much better than I can, but suffice it to say that a constraint generates “potential” literature that wouldn’t exist if the creative process were left to operate unfettered.

Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes is generally regarded to be the foundational text of the Oulipo: the potential here is derived from the constraint of the sonnet. Queneau wrote ten sonnets, each line of which interchanges syllabically with the same line in the nine other poems. Even more, the lines have the same general intonation and cadence, such that any one of them could be substituted in a different poem to create a new poem. The result, taking into account a 14-line sonnet is, as the title suggests, 100,000,000,000,000 poems, or, the longest work of poetry ever written. To facilitate the potential creation of all quadrillion of them, the NRF published an edition in which the 14 lines are cut into 14 separate strips, enabling the reader to generate sonnets at will. It was released in a limited edition of 2200 in 1961 and then reprinted fairly regularly. I came across it in bookstores a number of times, but I never bought it, favoring a couple other Queneau titles instead.

One of those titles, and probably my favorite book that I brought home from France, is NRF’s deluxe publication of Queneau’s Exercices de Style. Here, the idea is to tell the same banal story 99 different ways… On a hot day, a man with a long neck and a hat with a cord around it instead of a ribbon boards a bus, yells at another passenger for jostling him, and takes an open seat. Later, the narrator sees the same man in front of a train station talking to another man who points at a button on the first man’s coat. That Queneau was able to retell this story in 99 different voices, to me, speaks volumes about his genius as a writer. It surpasses a mere student’s exercise (to which its detractors have compared it) by its sheer inventiveness, and it does things with the French language the likes of which hadn’t been tried in a literary format since Céline and Journey to the End of the Night (there they are, connected again). In this particular edition, Queneau’s exercises are accompanied by typographical exercises by Massin and 45 visual interpretations by Jacques Carelman (a board game, a Rorschach test, a rebus, etc.), in a cornucopia of artistic output generated by this one little story.

As much as I like this book, and as many times as I’ve flipped through it, I had never really followed up on either Massin or Carelman until recently. It turns out that Massin is a legendary French typesetter and designer, having designed some of the most well-known series in French literary history (primarily the Gallimard Folio collection, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever seen a French book). I had no idea, until I picked up Phaidon’s handsomely published retrospective of his career at Moe’s a few months ago. Looking through the book and getting a handle on Massin’s incredible contribution to French literature in the 20th century stimulated my collector’s itch, and I decided to start looking up some of Massin’s more famous books… which I learned, of course, included Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Also of interest was his rendition of Ionesco’s absurdist play La Cantatrice Chauve, in which he set out to make the type another character in the play, as well as his more recently published edition of Cocteau’s Les Mariés sur la Tour Eiffel, a culmination of over thirty years of effort. (The fact that this book took so long to produce has the added bonus of demonstrating the evolution of his technique, moving from text pasted down manually to digital layouts.) Take a look at the pictures at the bottom of this article to see what it really means for Massin to “typeset” another author’s work… It’s not just a mere decision of font; rather, he totally reinvents the text and creates a totally new reading experience in which the type on the page plays as much of a role to the reader as the words themselves. It turns out Massin also wrote a book, Lettre et Image, which is a survey of type’s role in culture from pre-history up through present day. It is a big, heavy book, and while I haven’t yet read it, the illustrations alone are an incomparable sourcebook for anyone interested in type (such as, oh I don’t know, someone who has recently started a small press). And, in the course of digging up these books, I learned that Cent Mille Milliards is still in print, so after 7 years, I finally own a copy.

However, all this Massin-mania had me looking at my copy of Exercices, wishing it were a first edition, that the binding were a little tighter, and that the boards didn’t have those little imperfections… and so I started digging, and I found out that this particular edition has some interesting variants. In its first state (published in 1961), it featured 33 (not 45) illustrations by Carelman, meaning the book I brought back from France was a revised edition, with additional and revised illustrations. Interestingly, both collections of illustrations are unique, with a good number of the original 33 not appearing in the revised edition. The first edition is printed on heavy, matte paper, and many of the illustrations are on fold-out panels, whereas the second edition is printed on thinner, glossy paper (such that, with the same amount of pages, it is about half as thick as the first edition), with two-page spreads rather than fold-out panels. While the second edition was never issued as a limited edition (to my knowledge), the first edition was split into 3 versions: numbers 1-150 contained an original woodcut illustration numbered and signed by Carelman, and they were housed in a box covered in shirt fabric, secured by a button. Numbers 152-10000 (evens) were published under the Club Francais du Livre imprint bound in green semi-hardcover boards, and numbers 151-9999 (odds) were published under the NRF imprint, with the same cover as the special edition sans the box. (Another Massin tangent: before working as the design director of Gallimard (the French publishing giant one of whose many imprints is the NRF), he cut his teeth working for the French book clubs, meaning that a Massin-typeset book published simultaneously by the NRF and the CFL really covered all the bases.) With impeccable timing, an affordable copy of the special edition showed up on eBay in VG condition but lacking the box (an Abebooks search found one copy in the box for a cool $840), and I put in the first and only bid on it. My Massin collection was growing like a bamboo shoot, and I was really excited to have a piece of art signed by Carelman, an artist who I liked very much.

The weekend the auction ended, I was in Chicago, and, of course, a trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a visit to the rare book room at Powell’s Chicago Bookstore. After perusing a while, I was about to leave empty handed when I spotted a couple cases behind the counter and asked if I could look through them. I reached for a nondescript white book in a black slipcase, simply because it looked interesting… I pulled the book out of the case and noticed it was covered with signatures, and my mind got about as far as, “Is this….???” before I opened it and realized that yes, it was in fact the elusive 100-copy limited edition of the Atlas Press’s Oulipo Compendium, the ultimate English-language resource for the Oulipo. This book had been on my radar for years, but the only way to get it is to order directly from the UK for around $400. This copy was much more reasonably priced, and, while still technically an irresponsible purchase, I jumped at the chance to grab this rarity, especially since it was more impressive in person (as books of this nature often are). The interior is the same, save for the addition of a colophon page, and the book is bound in plain white wrappers, rather than the pictorial wrappers of the trade edition. The real bonus is the dustjacket made from handmade Rives paper, stamped with Atlas Press’s symbols and signed by twenty-six members of the Oulipo (and its poetry and visual art offshoots, the Oupopo and Oupeinpo, respectively).

It shouldn’t have surprised me, looking through the section on the Oupeinpo, that Jacques Carelman was a founding member of the group, just as Queneau had been for the Oulipo. Their collaboration on Exercices suggests as much, and the laws of book collecting coincidences would seem to pre-ordain such a connection. After reading about Carelman’s contributions to the Oupeinpo, my attention turned to the dustjacket to see if I could decipher his signature among the European scrawls… I had to wait for the woodcut to arrive from France before I could confirm it, but yes, there it was on the back, and even reasonably legible. Two Carelman signatures acquired in one weekend… not bad for an amateur book collector, and all thanks to picking up that Massin retrospective that got the ball rolling.

Of course, this was not the finishing point. In the months after the Oulipo Compendium find, I continued to look into books by/about Massin, in order to gain as comprehensive a view as possible of his body of work. Without too much more digging, I found a two-volume pictorial catalog published in French by Librairie Nicaise in Paris. While the books were a little expensive for me to buy sight-unseen (although I was certainly tempted), the name jumped out at me. First: “librairie” in French means “bookstore,” not “library.” Bookstore catalogs are not especially rare, but these books were comprehensive retrospectives/reference books, not catalogs of items for sale. Why would a Parisian bookstore be in the business of publishing books, and of all the hundreds upon hundreds of bookstores in that city, what were the odds that it was a bookstore I had emailed two days prior about an unrelated matter?

Paris is full of a staggering number and variety of bookstores. Bookstores and places to eat – if I think back on my time wandering around Paris, almost my entire memory is composed of looking among the shelves at a bookstore or eating something. As for the variety, there are the booksellers selling everything from cheap paperbacks to rare items out of painted green stands that line the Seine, multi-story emporiums like Gibert-Jeune, corner shops, and more rare book dealers than you can count. The last type was of the most interest to me- there’s really nothing like them in the US. There are plenty of rare bookstores, but almost all of them have a section of cheap paperbacks or standard fiction books, with the real “A” items under glass or in a separate room entirely. The Parisian rare bookstores, on the other hand, house the types of collections you usually only see here in appointment-only dealers. Even getting in the stores can be a challenge- most of the doors are locked, requiring you to ring a bell and subject yourself to the studious gaze of the proprietor. More than one time, I was refused entry to the store, probably because I looked like I didn’t have any money (mostly true, anyway). But there was one store I could reliably count on to admit me- the Librairie Nicaise. This was my favorite bookstore anyway- instead of floor-to-ceiling shelves, it was organized more like a little art gallery or museum, with waist-high bookcases displaying unique and rare items on top of them. Down the center of the shop was a long table, and more than once the owner invited me to sit and take as much time as I needed to peruse whatever interested me that day.

Most of the books at the Librairie Nicaise were limited-edition fine press books housed in clamshell boxes. I often felt a little guilty opening box after box to see what was inside, wondering when I would finally wear out my welcome – especially as it became clear that I would never be able to afford anything there. During that time, I had three authors on my watch list: Queneau, Jacques Prevert, and Céline. One day, I asked the proprietor if he had anything by any of these three, and he showed me a volume of Céline that I would return to look upon multiple times before I finally moved back home. It was a private press volume – published by Balbec, about whom I haven’t been able to find any additional information whatsoever – housed in a gray cloth clamshell case. The book itself was unbound, consisting of signatures loosely laid into the box, printed letterpress on Rives paper. It was illustrated by Thomas Gosebruch, an artist who is about as mysterious to me as the publisher. The text is simply the first chapter of Céline’s Journey to the end of the Night (a piece of text that holds up surprisingly well by itself), although it is printed alongside the original text from Celine’s manuscript.

The original manuscript is what threw me – in all the reading I have done about Céline (who was a primary focus of mine in college as well as in graduate school), I have never uncovered another printing of the original manuscript. Céline dictated his books, rather than writing or typing them himself, and so the original manuscript represents the closest that this text ever was to Céline’s mouth. After all the time I have spent reading poststructuralists work to set the text free from its author figure, the idea of Céline sitting at a desk actually speaking the words that became Journey while a dactylographer dutifully records them is too neat for a romantic like me to discount. That this text is reproduced in one of the single most luxurious books I have ever held just makes it that much more incredible.

The problem was, the book was priced at about $400, which was more than I could ever imagine spending on a book back then. I thought about trying to save up for it, but I knew that I’d fail and just get frustrated, so I wrote it off as something I’d never end up owning. I actually said good-bye to it in my head when I visited the Librairie Nicaise the last time before I left France, and I all but forgot about it when my book collecting habits went on hiatus in my mid 20’s. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started trying to find it again… at which point I realized that I didn’t remember any of the identifying details about it. Eventually, my frustration at not being able to find it converged with my desire to own it, and I decided to spend as much time as necessary finding it again.

I started on Add-all, a website that amalgamates the listings of 30-odd used book sites. I searched “Céline” and “toile grise” (meaning “gray cloth”), hoping I’d catch a mention of the clamshell box in one of the listings. Eventually, it popped up – limited to 100 copies, no wonder I had never seen it anywhere else. And, surprisingly, that one copy was the same one I had seen all those years ago back in Paris at the Librairie Nicaise. I sold off a few books and used the money to buy it off of ILAB, an antiquarian book site that lists a lot of European dealer catalogs. A few weeks went by, I didn’t hear anything, and my emails asking for order confirmation went unanswered. I finally worked up the nerve to place a call overseas, and in my best French and his best English, Mr. Librairie Nicaise told me that he couldn’t find the book, and thus, he couldn’t sell it to me. He said he was going to spend one more week looking and then cancel my order. After a week of not hearing anything further, I assumed the book wasn’t available. The one that got away, indeed.

Still, tying up all of the above with the Librairie Nicaise as the center, all neat and trim, isn’t quite accurate.  The whole point is that the connections spew forth such that there is no center at all, just points of interest that sometimes intersect unexpectedly, sometimes over and over again.

Note: the preceding theme will be continued in the upcoming entry: “Quelquechose in the Water: More Observations about Book Collecting.”

Pictures (please excuse the low photo quality – I’m a bad photographer using a worse camera, so hopefully you came here for the brilliant writing, rather than the photos):

Phaidons Massin book

Phaidon's Massin book

The cover of Massins rendition of Ionescos The Bald Soprano

The cover of Massin's rendition of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Cover of Massins rendition of Cocteaus Les Maries

Cover of Massin's rendition of Cocteau's Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

The separated strips

The separated strips

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The story, typeset as a telegram

The story, typeset as a telegram

Fold-out panel of Carelmans interpretation of the story as a board game

Fold-out panel of Carelman's interpretation of the story as a board game

Carelmans interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelman's interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelmans signed print - Danse Macabre

Carelman's signed print - "Danse Macabre"

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

Jordan and the Lost Illustrations of Etimologiario

A while back, I posted a blog about a book I had found that contained illustrations by Serafini (here is the link, if you’re really that bored: Etimologiario Post #1 ).  Due to my laziness, I never got around to adding the promised follow-up post with all of the illustrations in it.  A quick recap: the book is called Etimologiario by Maria Sebregondi and published by Longanesi, the same publisher who put out the Pulcinellopeida (Piccola).  It was originally published in 1988, and it was reprinted by a different publisher in 2003, although I don’t know if that new edition has the Serafini illustrations or not.  The book is a small 16mo paperback, a far cry from the deluxe publication of the Codex or even the large-format Pulcinellopedia.  I have sent a couple excerpts to an Italian-speaking friend of a friend, although I haven’t heard anything back, so I still have very little idea what this book is about.  This is familiar Serafini territory, however, since nothing he has ever done has ever had any sort of text to explain the image.  And, in typical Serafini fashion, these illustrations speak for themselves with the same tortured internal logic his fans would expect.

They are recognizable as Serafini illustrations at first glance, using the same pencil technique as the Pulcinellopedia, with only the cover illustration being in color.  It is interesting that this book and his other illustration work has pretty much been swept under the rug, while all the other facets of his artistic output have been chronicled in various design anthologies and the Luna-PAC Serafini book.  I’m still holding out for a copy of In the Penal Colony, but that’s not something I expect to find anytime soon.

Anyway, enough rambling… here are the illustrations, which – to my knowledge – are making their grand debut on the internet.  Enjoy!

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.”

I’ve Never Been More Excited About a Book I Won’t be Able to Understand

I’m happy to see that the Serafini article I wrote is the most-viewed page on this blog… I worked hard enough on it, so it’s pretty gratifying that people are taking the time to read it (well, I’m sure people aren’t reading ALL of it, but still). Anyway, for those that didn’t make it to the end (or for those who skipped to the pictures), I ended by mentioning an edition of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony illustrated by Serafini that I don’t expect ever to find. Well, since I finished that article, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching books that Serafini appears in, in hopes of assembling a wide-ranging collection of his work. His art has appeared in a handful of Italian art books (books that are available on Abebooks, although they’re pretty expensive to have shipped from Europe, especially with the Euro so frustratingly strong right now), and I think I even found a collection of short stories that he contributed to… also, various compilations of modern interior designers feature Serafini (I picked up one published in the US for $6 on Amazon the other day).

If I were going to separate Serafini books into tiers (as collectors often do), I’d classify “A” items as those written and illustrated by Serafini (such as the Codex and the Pulcinellopedia) or books dedicated to him (such as the Luna-Pac book), “B” items as books featuring his illustrations throughout (such as the vaporous In the Penal Colony), and “C” items as anthologies in which he appears. I’m fairly certain that I’ve collected all the “A” items, but a recent discovery thickened the plot significantly as to the “B” items… (As for “C” items, I’m sure there are a bunch of Italian books I’ve never heard of that he appears in… if I could find something pre-Codex, however, I’d be ecstatic.) An unfamous author (at least to English-speakers) named Maria Sebregondi published a book called Etimologiario in 1988, and it features a bunch of Serafini illustrations. The book is on its way to me from Italy, and I’ll post more about it when I get it in a couple weeks. From what I’ve seen, the illustrations are in pencil, similar to the Pulcinellopedia. Really interesting, however, is that the book is apparently a deconstrution of written language, which is a subject about which Serafini would seem to have a lot to say.

Like the title says, I’m in the dark until I find a friendly Italian person who can translate some of the book for me, but I’m still pretty damn excited about it. I mean, I’ve spent hours researching Serafini, and I had no idea this book existed. It’s listed at various websites, but never with Serafini as the illustrator, which is why I was never aware of it. Anyway, stay tuned for more, including as many pictures as I have the patience to upload to Flickr.

Another trip to the well: An Update

Evidently, I’m not as dumb as I look. The “more common” edition of the Codex sold for $280… $20 MORE than the much more difficult-to-find first American edition I bought on eBay two nights ago. I will have a huge post about the Codex coming soon (I need to really let it ruminate… I’m going for 2000 words!), comparing all the different editions, with tons of details that no one cares about. But, suffice it to say for now, I can’t believe it sold for that much, especially to a French guy who could probably find it for its published price of 89 Euros at an art bookstore somewhere. (Or maybe it’s rarer than I think, and I’m just incredibly resourceful.) Anyway, I need to figure out what to do with the first-American edition before I buy another copy of the 2006 Codex- the cheapest copy on Abebooks is $650, which makes it the most valuable book in my collection (if you use the “cheapest copy on Abebooks” as a reliable measure of the value). Do I sell it? Sell other stuff to keep it? I’ll be up all night at this rate.

codex1Since I’m sure people only read this blog for the [book] porn pictures, here’s the title page of the American Codex (the only one in any edition that is illustrated)…

As for the Serafini book, it sold for $200 in about 5 hours… even better than the first copy I sold. I knew I was onto something with that. Although, of course I immediately bought another one to sell, and after all this gloating, I’m sure I’ll end up getting $40 for it.

And on to the Ryden stuff… I’m stuck waiting out the current state of the market before I try to sell my expensive items. I lost money on Quadratum, one of his microportfolios, and I haven’t tried to sell the Artist Proof yet (I took it to some bookstores, but they didn’t offer me enough for it). I still have a later-edition microportfolio and a signed first-edition of his book that I’m dealing with… so it might be a while. And once it’s gone, I’m going to have to find a new market niche to research. Do the 2 people that read this blog have any hot leads for me?

My favorite books, explained in a verbose manner: Volume 2

I wrote about the Futuropolis edition Celine’s Journey to the end of the Night (illustrated by Jacques Tardi) a couple posts ago in volume 1 of the promising series, “Books I’ll Never Own,” although I thought it deserved treatment in its own right as one of my favorite books (explained, of course, as you must have expected by now (and as the title obviously dictates) in a verbose manner). Below are some images of the book that show just how large a part the illustrations play in this presentation of Celine’s novel…

voyage1

This is the first page, where it all started like this: Ferdinand met his pal Arthur Ganate at the Place Clichy, and he just started talking (he’d never said anything before that). Of course, when I lived in France, I made sure to meet a friend at the Place Clichy and get coffee with them. I’m lame like that.

voyage2

The book is 350+ pages, so it’s tough to pick out one spread that shows just how much Tardi adds to the story (I know I’m being effusive, but this is about my “favorite” books, don’t forget). But, this page just gets me… Journey is an incredibly potent anti-war story, and Celine captures the futility, absurdity, and hypocrisy of war like few other authors I’ve ever read. The passage about the soldier vomiting over the pile of mangled, dead human meat has always stuck with me, and something about Tardi’s illustration just nails the potency of the text perfectly.

voyage3

This illustration is from one of my favorite passages in the novel. Ferdinand, well on his way to the end of the night (which is a cipher for what he sees as the ultimate triumph of human misery), finds himself living in a dirty tenement with a window that opens out to a narrow courtyard that captures all the sound from all the other units in the building. He becomes transfixed listening to the violence, suffering, abuse, and misery of his neighbors. Over the course of this section of the novel, he begins to realize that he has only scratched the surface on discovering what humans are capable of … that there are layers and layers of horror in the world, and that the window next to the courtyard allows him to access them one by one, going deeper each time. Somehow, I find this passage inspiring through its grisly depiction of the world… it is so beautifully tragic (as is Ferdinand’s entire quest) that I can’t help but be emotionally moved by it, and it is the power of Celine’s art not only to disgust me, but really to affect me that I find inspiring.

Of course, Celine is not one to be lionized, at least as a person. Brief background on the guy: he was a doctor who treated mostly poor people, and he didn’t have formal training as a writer. His first “literary” piece of work was his doctoral thesis, a biography of the scientist Semmelweis, in which he took a lot of liberties in order to depict Semmelweis as a maverick genius who was persecuted by the academy of his day. He then published a play titled The Church, which (in my opinion at least) isn’t very good and introduces the anti-semitism that characterizes a lot of his writing. From the play, he went on to write Journey (retreading some of the same locales as The Church, although with none of the heavy-handed plot and unnatural dialog), which is his unquestioned masterpiece. Interestingly, although racism and anti-semitism are absent from Journey, Celine famously wrote in the preface to a later edition of the novel that everything he was ever “hunted” for is there plain-as-day in Journey. I disagree with this, although it brings up the an important question about where Journey fits in with the rest of his work. Anyway, after Journey, Celine published Death on Credit, a prequel of sort. And then shit got fucked, as they say. He stopped writing novels and instead turned his talents to his “pamphlets” (which aren’t pamphlets at all- more like 400 page books)… three of them published during the late 1930’s. They are ridiculous anti-semitic, racist diatribes that mostly recycle facts from the anti-semitic newspapers circulated around France during that time. Well, that and ballet scenarios. Not kidding: his first, Bagatelles pour un massacre, begins with a bagatellesconversation among four people, one of whom is a Jew, about how the Jews prevent real art from being shown to the people, and then, by way of example, segues into a full-fledged 25-page ballet scenario. This happens a few times in the book. The root of the anti-semitism has been apologized for (“He was just ignorant!” or “He didn’t really want the Holocaust to happen!”) My personal opinion is that a) you don’t have to love an author as a human to love books he wrote; and b) Celine was an extremely flawed human. I think his staunch opposition to war (having fought and been injured in WWI) screwed with his brain to the point that he caught wind of a sinister plot by the Jews to lead the world back to war (propagated in propagandistic “newspapers”), and he couldn’t get it out of his head… and that motivated him to publish awful things about Jews because he was… an extremely flawed human. He wasn’t a Hitler supporter (he even writes something to the effect of, “Hitler? A cunt! Another Jew!” in one of his later pamphlets). I haven’t read the whole thing (it gets fairly tedious, and it’s goddamn offensive), but what I’ve read is really interesting. Aside from the whole anti-semitic/ballet dialectic (has there ever been a more ridiculous dialectic?), there’s the issue of Celine’s stylistic development; from a poetic standpoint, this book is a masterpiece. The … ellipses that characterize his work (used to color characters’ rants in Journey) start to take center stage for the first time in Bagatelles, dominating the text and giving it a songlike rhythm that’s really mesmerizing.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to have found this book, though. It is a facsimile of the original, but that doesn’t bother me at all. You see, after the Germans fell in Europe, the Resistance raided Celine’s apartment and burned most of his work (including the last 300 pages of his novel Casse-Pipe, which is really depressing to me, although I’m not about to start criticizing the French Resistance). Around the same time, Robert Denoel, Celine’s publisher, was assassinated for working under collaborationist publishing houses during the Occupation. Celine had fled the country by this point, although he would eventually be jailed before being pardoned a few years later. When he came back to France, now around 1950, much of the Celine stigma was lifted, and Journey to the end of the Night and Death on Credit were republished. This is where his whole, “Everything you’ve ever hated about me is right here in this book” preface comes from.

Never republished, however, were his pamphlets. I understand this decision in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but now, with the perspective granted by 75 years of history, I think we’re mature enough to read this stuff. I mean, Celine is one of the most important authors of the 20th century (try finding Henry Miller, Bukowski, or half the beats with no Celine), and I think it’s a shame that such a significant portion of his body of work remains off-limits because of its subject matter. Like I said before, in the context of Celine the stylist (a stylist who has had a profound effect on literary style), these books are indispensable. Well, I spoke too soon: Bagatelles has been sanitized and published as Ballets without dancers, without music, without anything, a little book consisting of just the ballet scenarios. Because, I guess, ignorance about the context surrounding those scenarios is blissful.

Along the Seine river in Paris, booksellers set up each day and sell used books out of carts. Some sell fairly nice books, but most sell cheap paperbacks. The stock is inconsistent, as can be imagined, and so it’s like a daily rummage sale. I got sick of it after a couple months, spending a few hours every weekend picking through books I had no interest in and never finding anything. Then, one day while I was walking to school, I decided to take a detour and check out the books, and I saw this one sitting in someone’s cart wrapped in plastic. Like I said, it’s a facsimile and therefore probably worth less than $50, but this is the kind of thing that’s priceless to me, because it’s so rare. There are some copies on Abebooks for around $350, but nothing beats stumbling upon a book like this, a book that even ardent Celine scholars probably haven’t read, because it is absent from University libraries, bookstores, and pretty much everywhere. In fact, a professor of mine asked me if he could Xerox the entire book, because he had never come across a copy (and he was from France). So, deplorable as it is, I have to count it among my favorite books… which makes me a bad Jew, I’ll admit. Still, the rarest book by my favorite author has to count for something, right?

My favorite books, explained in a verbose manner: Volume 1

Most of the books I’ve described so far (specifically, the Codex Seraphinianus, Hollywood, and Voyage au bout de la nuit) are in my top 10 or so favorite books, with the Codex occupying the top spot. As such, look for a future installment of this soon-to-be-regular blog series dedicated solely to Serafini and my art-crush on him. For now, however, I want to dwell a little bit on my love for a pair of books I refer to as my “yearbooks.” They are both anthologies that I carry around with me to readings and gallery events in hopes of getting them signed by various contributors, just like a nerdy kid trying to get some of the cool kids in school to sign his yearbook (I’m so creative I could just melt, just like that).

CoprotasticThe first is the art anthology Copro/Nason: A Catalog Raisonné . Copro/Nason is a famous gallery in LA that has been at the forefront of the lowbrow (not really my taste)/pop surrealism (much more my taste) movement pretty much from the beginning. I found out about the gallery through my interest in Joe Vaux, one of the artists they’ve published. In fact, it was at a Joe Vaux opening that I got the idea for the yearbook in the first place. I had planned to pick up the book while I was there, and the person behind the desk gave me the option of the shrinkwrapped book or the opened, signed-by-the-editor copy. Naturally, I chose the latter, and when I turned around, one of the artists in the book, whose show was opening in a different part of the gallery, offered to sign a page for me (his name is Dan Quintana- his stuff isn’t my favorite, but it’s damn good). Feeling emboldened, and now with two signatures to enrich my life, I approached Joe Vaux and humbly asked him for his signature as well. Vaux’s signature is cool in that it’s not a scrawl like most- rather, it’s a spiral with the letters V-A-U-X dispersed among the coils. AND, to top it off, he drew a small sketch of a Vaux-like character right next to the plate featuring his artwork. Since then, I’ve managed to have Luke Chueh and Greg Simkins sign it as well, although I missed opportunities to get Robert Williams and Amy Sol to add their names. The Simkins signature looks very graffiti-ish, like a tag, while Chueh’s is just his name in block letters (distinctively written nonetheless). Plus, he went to the trouble to draw over a photograph of himself in the book so that he looks like one of the teddy bears featured in his paintings.

mcsweeneys 13Yearbook #2 is issue #13 of McSweeney’s. I bought it last summer on eBay for $30 with Dave Eggers’s signature in it (a good deal, in my opinion), which is ironic, given that Eggers has even less to do with this issue than most other ones. #13 is a fantastic collection of comics, edited by Chris Ware (whose signature I’m dying for), and it really rekindled my interest in non-superhero variety graphic novels and comics. This book has Joe Matt’s signature (I got it on “Joe Matt Day” – for a long, long, tediously long account of Joe Matt Day, click the link for my MySpace blog and scroll down a few entries), as well as a cool little drawing, and anything with Matt’s signature is pretty high up on my list of favorites. Also, I picked up Adrian Tomine’s signature at a reading he did to promote his new book Shortcomings (yes, I also got that one signed. I have no qualms about presenting an author 5 or 6 books at a signing. My only rule is that stuff I get for free doesn’t get sold at a profit. I don’t mind reselling something like a book or a print, where everyone involved was fairly paid for it at some point. But profiting off of a signature I got because an author is a nice guy just doesn’t seem right).

Because of the whole multiple-signature aspect, as well as the fact that these books are works in progress, they are really special to me. They aren’t in perfect condition, due to being lugged around in my backpack a bunch, but they’re still pretty nice, and they’re really unique. These aren’t books I could just buy on Abebooks or something, and I imagine I could probably get a pretty high price for both if I were willing to break the ethical standard I just enumerated a moment ago. It’s probably a rule I will break once or twice if a real rarity shows up on eBay that I just HAVE to have (and I’m positive that that will happen at some point), but for the most part, I don’t want to feel like a jerk when I ask authors for signatures. Plus, a lot of the books I’ve had signed in person are signed to me- this is on purpose. I know that flat-signed books are way more valuable (unless I become famous, which is, you know, pretty likely), but something about a stack books signed to me just adds sentimental value to my collection, and since I don’t plan to sell them anyway, that’s more important than dollar value.


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