Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 MARCH, 2014

John Vernon Lord’s Whimsical Illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

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Enchanting drawings bring to life “a book that has to be experienced rather than fully understood.”

The history of artistic takes on literary classics is long and colorful. There are William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975. In recent years, we’ve seen such visual treats as Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness and Yayoi Kusama’s take on Alice in Wonderland.

Now, from the Folio Society — who also gave us those gorgeous illustrated editions of Irish Myths and Legends and the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook — comes an exquisite edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, illustrated by artist John Vernon Lord. In his whimsical and wonderfully weird collage-like drawings, Joyce’s experimental narrative, seventeen years in the making, and idiosyncratic storytelling blossom to new life.

Lord, who set out to illustrate the Joyce classic in order to better understand it, writes in the introduction:

Reading such a text as Joyce’s, and interpreting it, is a greater challenge than for most books. After all each word is “as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a nest of coloured ribbons.” Sometimes I felt like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass when she first read “Jabberwocky.” She commented, “It seems very pretty… but it’s rather hard to understand… Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Finnegans Wake is a book that has to be experienced rather than fully understood.

As a lover of artists’ sketchbooks and creators’ notebooks, I was especially taken with this glimpse of Lord’s notebooks, revealing his necessarily messy but clearly fruitful creative process:

Compare and contrast the Folio Society edition with a wholly different take on the Joyce classic, artist Jacob Drachler’s vintage typographic “confabulation” Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs, then complement with these lovely illustrations for James Joyce’s children’s book.

via The Guardian

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27 MARCH, 2014

Frank O’Hara Reads “Metaphysical Poem” in a Rare 1964 Recording

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“I’m not sure I want to go there…”

“Love is metaphysical gravity,” Buckminster Fuller wrote in his scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer.” From beloved poet Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) comes a very different and very wonderful cross-pollination of love, metaphysics, and the art of verse. In this short, damaged, yet infinitely delightful reading recorded at the Lockwood Memorial Library at SUNY-Buffalo on September 25, 1964, two years before his death, O’Hara reads his “Metaphysical Poem,” found in the altogether spectacular volume Selected Poems (public library). Please enjoy.

METAPHYSICAL POEM

When do you want to go
I’m not sure I want to go there
where do you want to go
any place
I think I’d fall apart any place else
well I’ll go if you really want to
I don’t particularly care
but you’ll fall apart any place else
I can just go home
I don’t really mind going there
but I don’t want to force you to go there
you won’t be forcing me I’d just as soon
I wouldn’t be able to stay long anyway
maybe we could go somewhere nearer
I’m not wearing a jacket
just like you weren’t wearing a tie
well I didn’t say we had to go
I don’t care whether you’re wearing one
we don’t really have to do anything
well all right let’s not
okay I’ll call you
yes call me

Complement with O’Hara’s exquisite reading of “Song (is it dirty),” his love letter to New York City.

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26 MARCH, 2014

A Picture-Book Like No Other

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The gloriously illustrated story of an errand turned adventure turned existential parable.

The Moomin series by Swedish-Finn artist, writer, comic strip creator, and children’s book author Tove Jansson (1914–2001), recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, is among the most imaginative storytelling of the past century. Partway between children’s books and comics, her lovable family of roundish white hippopotamus-like creatures have captivated generations since their birth in 1945. The crown jewel of the series is arguably the 1952 picture-book The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (public library) — a playful and philosophical tale that falls somewhere between Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole (which was possibly inspired by Jansson) and Dr. Seuss, with a touch of Edward Goreyesque creaturely magic and Alice in Quantumland mind-bending. Parallels notwithstanding, Jansson’s singular sensibility makes this vintage treasure one of the greatest children’s books of all time, so unlike anything else that ever existed before or since that it inhabits a wholly different yet timelessly welcoming universe.

The story is driven by a clever what-comes-next guessing game as we follow little Moomintroll on an errand that turns into an adventure that turns into an existential parable. Moomintroll, brimming with the boundless optimism typical of Jansson’s Moomin family, sets out to help the distraught Mymble find her sister, Little My — an irreverent, independent-minded, sharp- and even acerbic-witted heroine who stands as the naughty but necessary anchor to the Moomin buoyancy. That dynamic — the eternal tussle between skepticism and openness that keeps life in balance — is one of the story’s powerful underlying themes, and yet it only amplifies rather than detracting from the joyful hopefulness of the overall message.

Beautifully illustrated and hand-lettered in rhythmic verse, the book features gorgeous and brilliantly placed die-cut holes, reminiscent of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which lend the story an enchanting quality that plays into our human restlessness for knowing what’s around the corner, cleverly reminding us that what we think we see is often a distortion of what actually is.

And while the book was Jansson’s first to be adapted for iPad, what screen could possibly replace the immeasurable tactile magic of this beautifully, thoughtfully designed paper masterpiece?

Tove Jansson with her Moomins in 1956. Photograph by Reino Loppinen.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, translated into English by Sophie Hannah, is impossibly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart of Scandinavian storytelling sensibility, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, one of the best “children’s” books of 2013 (with scare-quotes for the reasons Tolkien so memorably outlined).

Thanks, Jad

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