Sunday, July 1, 2018

Max de Radiguès

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Belgian graphic novelist Max de Radiguès, has a new book out from his frequent French publisher Sarbacane, the house that handsomely publishes his full-color, large-format books geared toward young readers (and toward all of us who, regardless of age, love diving into his compassionate, entertaining tales). This latest, L’île du disparu, introduces two new characters, Stig and Tilde, who undertake an island adventure.

It’s hard for me to believe that a couple of years have already gone by since I met and profiled Max in a short essay that appeared on the Paris Review’s blog. That post is still there, for those seeking a succinct introduction to this most admirable of storytellers. Several of his earlier books are available in English, and all are worth discovering.

Below, a handful of characteristic Max de Radiguès moments, from 520 km, the autobiographical Pendant ce temps à White River Junction (Meanwhile in White River Junction), and Moose.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Nabokov Revisited

I like very much this author photo from Vladimir Nabokov’s later years, showing him soaked by a sudden rainstorm, delighted. I know that for some, his mischievous, playful spirit is often overshadowed, if not altogether eclipsed, by his intimidating intellectual prowess, recondite allusions, and (mis)perceived arrogance. Consider, however, that face, the face of a man who brandished a net to capture fluttering things; and place it alongside this, from biographer Brian Boyd’s introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies:
His love of Lepidoptera drew upon and further sharpened his love of the particular and the habits of detailed observation that gave him such fictional command over the physical world—biologically (birds, flowers, trees), geographically (localities, landscapes, ecologies), socially (manorial Russia, boardinghouse Berlin, motel America), and bodily (gesture, anatomy, sensation). He thought that only the ridiculously unobservant could be pessimists in a world as full of surprising specificity as ours, and he arranged his own art accordingly.

I once wrote a brief essay on Nabokov’s tantalizing definition of art as “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy”; first published in a journal called The Nabokovian, the piece now resides here. I offer it as a tiny indication of why Nabokov’s smile reflects such a genuine, knowing sort of joy.

(Photo by Horst Tappe)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Remembering Peter Sims

Peter Sims, who contributed two very fine short stories to the Folio Club (“A Painting” and “Estuary” in issues four and five, respectively), was, among many things, a bon vivant. It seems somehow appropriate, then, that when told he had only a few months to live he instead stayed around for thirty-two, to astonish his oncologists, delight his loved ones, and continue to fill his days with as much love, laughter, and voracious reading as possible. His bravery and grace were, characteristically, wrapped in mischievous humor to the end. Having long appreciated Nabokov’s observation that the comic and the cosmic are separated only by the letter s, Peter put that knowledge—and all of the other deep but lightly-carried wisdom he had gleaned through his enormous capacity for life and literature—to excellent use.

He had always cast a wide but distinguished net as a reader. His great favorites, in addition to Nabokov, included Americans (Hawthorne, Emerson, Cheever, Kerouac), Brits (Forster, Woolf, Ford Madox Ford), Russians (Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), and plenty of French (Flaubert, Proust, Camus, and, in the past year, the Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano, of whom Peter declared exuberantly “What a discovery!”), as well as Kazantzakis, Hesse, Kafka, and countless others. It says much about Peter’s appetites that the list, no matter how long, always felt to him like barely a beginning.

A few years back, Peter’s idea—and mine—of a perfect literary lunch was to “sally forth” (his favorite term, always launched with comic gusto: “Roberto! Are you ready to sally forth?”) to share an Indian buffet (the latter word he always deliberately mispronounced as “buff-it” as if we were soon to be buffeted) and enjoy a wide-ranging conversation about books and authors, preferably as a trio with our much-admired, erudite literary-editor friend John Kulka. The three of us had met in the years that we’d all worked together at Yale University Press, a place and an enterprise Peter cherished (and in which I still labor happily on behalf of books by the likes of Proust and Modiano).

Back in 2009, when I decided to create the Folio Club, Peter warned me to think twice. He well knew how much work it would be, and he was right. Still, when I went through with it, he fell in love with the results and became an unwavering supporter, and, eventually, a contributor. His stories were not his only contribution. Unbeknownst to all but me, he also served as the “first reader” for several of my own pieces—because, after all, every editor needs an editor (and wants a good one). Peter’s “first readings” were always first-rate, helping me find those last, elusive quality-control tweaks that could push a story or essay across the finish line before I committed it to print; and, best of all, the process was always an intellectual pleasure for us both.

As a man of many hats (and even more neckties), his literary passions were only one side of his multifaceted spirit. A master gardener; a passionate foodie devoted to cuisines both high and low; an enthusiast of travel, and archaeology; a music lover who reveled equally in classical, jazz, and rock; and a devoted Red Sox fan—his plethora of interests meant he could find common ground with almost anyone he met. And indeed his appetite for friendship and social conviviality was as huge and inclusive as his reading, his immense kindness, and his endlessly delicious sense of humor; so he collected a multitude of friends, not the superficial kind that easily come in bulk but rather the real, deep, familial kind that can rarely be amassed in such quantity. Through him, they—we—also had the privilege of discovering that his wife and sons too are wise, funny, talented, and wonderful.

Once, when corresponding about some of our many enthusiasms for French culture, Peter sent me an email that still makes me smile every time I think of it, an email that is quintessentially him. It read, in its entirety, as follows:

“The French, as you know, are very groovy.”

So was Peter Sims. For the rest of my life I will cherish every moment we shared during the thirteen years of our friendship.

—Robert Pranzatelli


In memory of Peter Sims, 1961-2016.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hergé & Tintin: An Appreciation

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), better known by his pen name Hergé, and his marvelous use of color, the bright colors of his idealistic protagonist Tintin’s comic world, populated by funny friends and sunny ideals of loyalty, decency, and valor—their hues as reliable as the tight rows of panels that fill the pages of the Tintin books, as constant as the ever-loyal Tintin himself. Hergé, perhaps in accordance with his personal conservatism, offers readers the pleasures of a steadfast orderliness, a model of stability in form and detail: consistency and continuity are virtues inseparable from the ligne claire style he created. Having begun the series in 1929 in black and white, by mid-century Hergé had a staff of assistants to help him rearrange, color, and extensively revise his earlier volumes; with motives that bridged the commercial and the aesthetic, he went to considerable lengths to revise his earlier books to conform to later choices, in color, style, format, and overall unity. There is no question that the “colorized” versions are final, definitive, canonical. The entire series Les Aventures de Tintin coheres accordingly.

Hergé’s cast of characters exists to charm the reader. Tintin, virtuous but amiably down-to-earth, is accompanied by both his faithful fox terrier Milou (renamed Snowy in the English version), whose opinionated canine perspective is conveyed in thought balloons with human language, and Captain Haddock, a blustering sailor whose outbursts make him a kind of one-man storm-at-sea. Like this sea captain named after a fish, the absentminded and partially deaf Professor Tournesol (a name that means both “sunflower” and “litmus” in French, but became Professor Calculus in English), the blundering detectives Dupond et Dupont (a.k.a. Thomson and Thompson), and the overbearing opera diva Bianca Castafiore, are each a walking bundle of conspicuous comic set-ups, all designed to run afoul of one another, but each is also a figure rendered lovable by its creator’s ability to measure and mix displays of egocentricity, eccentricity, and underlying good intentions into an instantly recognizable portrait of the human comedy. This beloved comic “family” is inseparable from Hergé’s commitment to narrative construction: his creatures require fully formed stories in which to fumble, bumble, and ultimately thrive. Hergé believed in carefully orchestrated plots. He loved cinema and wanted to make comics-as-movies.

Hergé’s habit of peppering a story with mini-cliffhangers every two pages—crises often resolved only a moment after being introduced—is a fortuitous byproduct of having first serialized the stories in brief increments. When conceiving or re-conceiving the adventures as books, he knew to preserve the cinematic pratfalls, surprises, false alarms, and sudden bursts of danger that punctuate and pace the narrative. This, coupled with the almost statically decorative ambience of the art, makes for an interesting balance. Encountering the entire Tintin series is like watching a lovely folded paper dropped into water where it continuously unfolds, not into a flower but into a montage of cheerfully constructed images of amusing characters in impeccably rendered settings, bouncing and bumping along through adventures that despite all the vigorous action and danger and hairbreadth escapes are essentially a succession of pratfalls, punctuated by moments of catching one’s breath, dusting oneself off with dignity, and reasserting, in various ways, goodness and comradeship. The overall effect is of serene chaos, and it is oddly pleasing.

Tintin au Tibet (Tintin in Tibet, 1960), Hergé’s favorite among his own works, is also the favorite of many critics. Often hailed as the best French-language graphic novel ever, it is both the epitome of, and a departure from, the Tintin series. The comedic touches, sense of adventure, exotic locale, and moral idealism are all there, but the regular cast has been narrowed to Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Milou, and there is no villain, no police work, no crime; yet the emotional stakes have been raised considerably. Tintin, inspired by a dream vision, is determined to rescue an old friend reported lost in a plane crash in the mountains of Tibet, and he refuses to give up the seemingly illogical search despite growing evidence that there were no survivors. The enemy, apart from the unforgiving natural elements, is self-doubt, uncertainty, despair—in other words, the hero is faith and the “villain” is excessive rationality. Tintin’s tenacity is put to a test that is more personal, more affecting, than ever before, turning the story into a powerful tribute to unwavering friendship in the face of adversity. Or, as Hergé himself put it (as revealed in Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, translated by Charles Ruas), “It’s the story of a friendship, the way people say, ‘It’s a love story.’” It is also a story of human dignity and spiritual conviction, and graphically, in its contrast of crisp but forbidding white expanses of snow with the otherwise colorful components of Tintin’s world, it is the apotheosis of ligne claire, proof that a style sometimes characterized as flat, rigid, or limited can in fact provide the perfect (and perfectly rich) frame for a consummately humane work of art.


And for further reading... The Paris Review has published my essay on the great French comics artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Moebius and the Key of Dreams.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Museum Café

by Robert Pranzatelli

From his small table Zach surveyed the art museum’s café with a satirical eye, a predisposition to see strangers as figures in a cartoonist’s sketch: at a table several steps to his right, two jowly older ladies chatted like bantering bulldogs; an elderly gent, nearby, seated alone, scrutinized the block of lasagna placed before him as if to assess its integrity; a young waitress moved with the unselfconscious quirkiness of a talking animal in a children’s animated film. Lines, of pencil or of ink—imagined, recalled, or reimagined—swiveled in and out of his mental view, yet did not obscure his awareness of the clean white table tops, or of the intersection of the institutional and the humane in this warm busy hive defined by polished metal and glass, the hum of conversations at other tables, the quietly clinking cutlery and plates, the slightly overpriced but attractively presented cuisine (he had made quick and satisfactory work of his own lasagna block), and, not far away, a glass wall and its generous gift of natural light.

The expansiveness of that sunlight brought to mind a recent conversation with a friend, a long, calm talk about reality, or realities, about faith, or faiths, about rationalism and its discontents and inadequacies. “All I’m saying,” the friend had said, “is you can’t know. You can’t know either way.” As is the nature of such talks, it had been circuitous and inconclusive; but that day had been greyer than this, and something in its mundane flatness had mutely supported the assertion. Besides, he and Eric essentially agreed, in that both felt as if life specialized in indistinctness, until, every now and then, a stroke of near-clarity offered, fleetingly, a crisper picture, of a setting, an object, a person, a situation—but only one panel in an otherwise uncertain series.

In a corner a young woman sat deep in thought, focused entirely on the screen of her tablet computer. A few feet away, the animated waitress wrote by hand on a pad of paper, and another few feet away a cashier touched the screen of a computerized cash register. To Zach, even the sleekest contemporary equipment seemed far less elegant than a sleekly employed pen and paper, but then of course he usually imagined the hand of an artist, whose pen glides along the lines of his or her thoughts and summons a multitude of times and places to be dealt like cards, shuffled, flipped—played with, but in a way that transcends play. The desert, the sea, snowcapped mountaintops, the jungle—and the large rooms and elaborately odd cityscapes of science fiction—all these had been conjured with mere pen and paper. Such acts of prestidigitation appealed to an inchoate kindred force in him. Not that he considered himself an artist, exactly. He only thought like one: he had the eye but not the hand.

He had spent much of the morning in the prints and drawings gallery—at first glance, the most modest exhibition in the museum, for its works were of far smaller dimensions and, for the most part, less colorful than those in the painting and sculpture galleries, and did not reach out to the passer-by to demand attention. He felt he’d chosen to approach and study their details without being beckoned—and soon he had become transfixed by a vintage print, made from an etching, its 5 x 8 rectangle of existence composed entirely of black and pale grey, filled with sharp yet delicate lines; it depicted a hand and forearm, entering from the right, reaching to grasp a mysterious clothbound book lying on a table as, hovering in the background, a half-open eye bore silent witness to the scene. The wall label revealed the work’s title, Un homme énigmatique, and that it dated from late nineteenth-century France, perhaps inspired by a now-forgotten, or at least unidentified, literary composition; of the artist only an unfamiliar name and the absence of biographical details were offered, an excessive irony given the image’s title.

The shadowy triumvirate of hand, book, eye had the rough evasiveness of a wisp of wood smoke, distinct, even harsh, but ungraspable, and he did not want to reduce it with “understanding” but rather to set it whole into his subconscious as he imagined the artist had, perhaps, summoned it from his own. He stared, he wandered, he returned; and when he felt he had imbibed it as fully as he could, he walked away more definitively, though still in something of a trance. As he emerged from this he stood before a granite staircase, its steps in an ascending spiral, as if they might lead to the tower of a cathedral rather than the upper galleries of the museum; and because the clean pale granite evoked the relatively new rather than the ancient, it conveyed a sense of massive strength (the strength of the historical, the monumental) imported into the quotidian present. By contrast, he thought, highly polished oak—highly reflective and bright, as he had seen in another part of the museum, in a newer building attached to the one in which he now stood—would convey a subtler, more easygoing solidity; even one’s footfalls would resound differently, their character altered by the material of the staircase. He realized, to his satisfaction, that he was standing in a vast structure designed to stimulate these sorts of reflections, and that the outside world, all of it, could be seen as a structure capable of the same effect but on an infinitely vaster scale.

The waitress scurried by, and aromas of cafeteria entrées swirled past as if indicated by a cartoonist’s curling lines, but Zach had reached satiety. He took one last careful, deliberate look around, as if to memorize the line work with which his sibling humans had been drawn, and then he rose to exit, like a man carrying something valuable into the sunny day—but with the intention of sheltering it, perhaps to protect it from erasure.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Folio Club’s Drawing Issue (issue number seven) in 2014.

Image by Onsmith.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Artistic Dignity

“Dignité artistique” (“Artistic Dignity”), a drawing by Lucien Métivet from La Baïonnette No. 46, May 18, 1916. The caption reads: “Je leur mets que je gagne cent mille francs par an…, autrement, ils me traiteraient de raté.”

In English: “I told them I earn a hundred thousand francs a year… otherwise they would treat me like a loser.”

You can learn more about Métivet from this earlier Folio Club blog post and my two subsequent essays about him for the Paris Review, related to his comic take on fashion and his World War One drawings (with slideshow). An abundant selection of additional images can be found on this Tumblr devoted to his work, including a larger version of the drawing above.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

That Hill

by Mark Saba

That hill. What was it about that hill?

It was a hill that made his heart jump, a yellow brick that seemed too bright for cars and busses. Too clean.

Today is a day for a dreamsicle, a quarter in his hand, a walk up the long, long hill up from his grandparents’ house and up to the flatter road, then on to that hill. He doesn’t often walk up that hill; he usually only sees it from the back window of their car.

But today he is walking with his sister Katie and yes they are going to walk up that clean bright hill. At the top there is a movie theater. Halfway up there is an ice cream store. But they will not go there, she says; they will go instead to the top and around the bend. There will be another store and that’s where all the dreamsicles are. He usually doesn’t want a dreamsicle but today he does.

They are going up. He watches the bricks and they are not really as clean as they look from the car window. There is a bit of paper here and there and tired looking grass every few bricks, and big oily spots. But there is ice cream at the top and now ice cream in a big store halfway up and they’re not stopping there.

Katie has a loud voice. Sometimes he thinks it is louder than his mother’s or his grandmother’s. Now it is very loud as she explains to him that they just don’t sell dreamsicles in the big ice cream store. They are passing it anyway and there is the yellow hill beside him.

A wide blue car is coming down, turning into the ice cream store which is really a milk store because Katie just said so. And she can read, or else she pretends to which is what he really thinks. But he doesn’t like to fight with her when there’s something to look at. The road.

But soon he has to think about breathing instead because Katie walks fast. And it’s summer and sometimes in summer you can’t breathe because the air is full of steam.


They’re already at the top. Come on, come on, says Katie, but no he will stand right there and not talk but breathe.

Below them is the hill now, coming right up to their feet and to Katie’s twisted up face. God will get her for making those faces. Standing above the yellow road which isn’t yellow anymore, but brown or red.

There are hills far back. They are hills against the sky that is faintly blue and the hills gray. A little smoke comes up behind them—between him and the hills comes the yellow road turning brown or red, the old red school, black and gray and green rooftops, busses and streetcars. But he doesn’t see any of this; he only knows he must look at it while Katie pulls him by the shoulder. He will not know or see it for many years. After twenty years he will slowly come to see it, while living in a similar land very far away.


Later they are on the streetcar. He, his sister, and his mother. His mother is sitting quietly the way she usually sits; Katie is asking her things and sometimes she answers Katie. But he has a big seat to himself. He has already looked at all the faces riding with them. Now it is time to look out the window. There are other hills—they go up and down and the streetcar goes back and forth. He doesn’t see the hills; he feels them because the streetcar feels them and he is with the streetcar.

Every single day he wishes he could ride a streetcar. On the streetcar he doesn’t feel like talking. When his mother talks to him he hears her but he doesn’t turn his head; he doesn’t talk. He’d rather say something to the people outside the window, and they can’t hear him.

Some stores go down and then come up again; then he is thrown back a little on the seat and he has to hold on. Sometimes a pigeon flies along with the streetcar; sometimes it is gray and purple or brown and white and one time it was mostly white. That was a good pigeon to see.

Then there is a pizza store with a little green man holding up a big circle pizza, with brown dots on it. Once he saw a big dark sky, and thunder he could hear, and smell. On a hill way out is a line of tall crosses, a place to put people after they die. And there is a place to put fire engines, a place to put a lot of cars, a place where grandfathers go that has dark windows and pink lights like worms, a place where his mother has a friend and they go to visit her.

Balls roll down streets after people lose them. If they are big speckled balls you can see them but if you’re in a streetcar you can’t get them.

Once when the streetcar stops there is a pet store. Now he will tell her he wants a parakeet. Like Lois next door has, but not that color. One that’s blue. He’ll tell her. Not now, after the streetcar ride. He’ll teach it to talk. To say shut up hello I want some pizza and ice cream.

But there is where the doctor is. He doesn’t like the doctor with the cold hands and bald head that gives him shots every week. He smells like new clothes. New clothes are bad to smell and wear. It’s bad to get them new on Christmas morning instead of toys.

There’s the place where all the new cars are parked with big price tags in their windows. New cars are good to smell. Candles are good to smell too and there they are in the window with statues of church people. Church people don’t live, but you can look at them and look at them until their faces shine. And the man with the big voice starts talking all around you. Everyone gets up and sits down and then again.

There’s an older boy on a red bike like he’ll have. He’s going so fast he’s bending down and passing up the streetcar because it stopped. Another grandmother is getting off slow. Nobody is saying anything until she is off and holding a bag hanging down her arm. She is walking away a grandmother like his down the new hill with big ugly toes coming out the front of her shoes like his grandmother’s, who smells good.

It’s okay to close your eyes if the sun feels like it. The streetcar’s going around a bend now with the sun on it.

She wakes him. The streetcar man is waiting for them to get off. He’s not friendly from behind but then he is if he turns around.

The ground feels moving. She has to use his hand to go across the street. Across the street where his father is sitting in the goodsmelling car with candy, waiting.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Saba. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Folio Club’s Drawing Issue (issue number seven) in 2014.

Image: Mark Saba, self-portrait, oil on canvas.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Day in New York

That Saturday—as fresh and blue-skied a spring morning as one could possibly want for a stroll up Fifth Avenue—I walked happily, block after block, a Jersey boy on a pilgrimage to the Upper East Side. I was twenty-four, an aspiring writer in whom certain tastes had already settled deep and firm: favorite author, Truman Capote; favorite band, Blondie; favorite artist, Andy Warhol. Warhol had died a year earlier, and now the much-anticipated Sotheby’s auction of his estate promised a public view of the artist’s massive and wildly eclectic accumulation of possessions, all of which would be on display prior to the auction itself. On display today, April 23, 1988; which was why I, a young man with no interest in auctions and no intention of bidding, was headed to Sotheby’s to seize a once-in-an-eternity opportunity: to walk through a momentary museum of Warhol’s acquisitions before their dispersal.

“That painting looks like the Duchess.”

“Oh, she’d like that. She’s got a fascination with nudes.”

I did not recognize the speakers, but that bit of overheard conversation reached me as soon as I entered Sotheby’s and began milling about. Not far behind me, near the entrance, a television news crew was interviewing a handsome young gay man with a gigantic Mohawk haircut; he told them he was an artist and that his appearance was necessary to attract attention to his art, and he easily connected this concept to Andy Warhol, or perhaps to Warhol’s wig, I don’t recall which; but somehow between his presence and that stray remark of the friends of the Duchess (and was she a genuine Duchess? Or was that a nickname? Or was “she” a drag queen friend of Andy’s?), I felt that I’d stepped into Warhol’s world.

Around me, and in the spaces that I and many other visitors would soon explore, rested Andy’s expansive collection. Beyond the amazing reality that one guy had amassed it all, its oddest attribute was that its mad mix of elements—a Fred Flintstone watch next to a Cartier, junk jewelry next to treasures fit for royalty, American Indian artifacts a stone’s throw from subway-graffiti-inspired paintings—somehow all fit together. As I wandered, the definite unity of the whole wacky assortment made me wonder: Is it possible to have great taste in garbage? And I understood differently a remark Warhol had made: “I just like everything. Everything looks so great.” Because walking through Sotheby’s everything did look great, and I wished it could stay together as a museum. Items that caught my eye, but were only small curiosities on their own, fed into the larger elusive “something” of Andy’s treasure trove. Here, for example, was an Andy Warhol Director’s chair; a display of giant Coke bottles, giant crystals, and a Campbell’s soup can full of smaller crystals; a TV script for Truman Capote’s “Children On Their Birthdays” inscribed “Happy Birthday dearest Andy—Truman”; and art by both the French cartoonist Hergé, who had autographed a pencil Tintin page to Andy, and by John Lennon (a “John Lennon Bag”). Whatever power these things might each hold in isolation couldn’t compare to their role here, as part of a vast network, in tandem with, for example, art deco objects or a brilliant canvas that Warhol had painted with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In this, their cumulative effect, Warhol’s possessions hinted at a central aspect of his artistic legacy: his uncanny ability to combine two seemingly contradictory qualities, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector. Viewed en masse his works are an overwhelming portrait of his times and culture: guns, flowers, celebrities, cows, skulls, balloons, electric chairs, cupids, shoes, money, advertisements, and so on, all in an unprecedented array—and I haven’t even mentioned the soup cans and Brillo boxes (or the films, the live events, the interviews-as-performance-art). While few of his own works were part of the Sotheby’s sale, they were, of course, everywhere in the consciousness of the browsing visitors.

The boldness of his color choices, the innovation of his silk screen technique, and the acuteness with which he selected images that he could position on a pedestal, so to speak, and endow with iconic status (and, despite the acuteness of his selectivity, his ability and desire to find more and more and more such images) allowed him to take in and epitomize American culture with deceptive simplicity (and, make no mistake, a green Mao is an American image, just as a camouflage Statue of Liberty is a deceptively simple way of making multiple statements at once). Like many artists, but with far greater effect than most, Warhol could stand back pokerfaced and let a painting “read” in different ways simultaneously. Is his vision of Marilyn Monroe, in garish make-up and depicted like a mass-produced object, intended as tribute, putdown, critique of Hollywood culture, wisecrack, or deliberate provocation? Is his cow wallpaper art or anti-art; product, décor, affectionate joke? Is his camouflage Statue of Liberty a political statement, an aesthetic statement, or “merely” a conflation of two aspects of American culture? Are his works charged primarily with philosophy or with the profit motive? Are they symbolic, symptomatic, or existentially empty?

To say his ironic wit was double-edged is a reduction: in his best paintings the possibilities are far more than double and the wit unquantifiable. He combined the virtues of abstraction (ambiguity that allows for flexibility of meaning and interpretation; near-endless possibilities for decorative and symbolic resonance; freedom from the more stifling aspects of specificity) with the solidity and “thing-ness” of representational art—and while seizing the possibilities before him, he mixed distillation and accumulation in unprecedented ways; he became the artist as consumer of everything.

Admittedly, not all the items at Sotheby’s fed my enthusiasm. I browsed Andy’s bookshelves to peek at what he had read, or perhaps left unopened: the books included The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne; Stardust, a hack biography of David Bowie co-written by a friend of Andy’s; a High Times book of drug lore; Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins; Dali, a book about Warhol’s surrealist hero; and the Ed Koch opus Mayor—nothing I’d be tempted to add to my own bookshelf. All of these books, however, feed in their different ways into or off of the celebrity culture of which he was a part, and in which he made himself into a kind of icon, revered (not always for the right reasons) by younger artists.


When I recall that spring Saturday now, twenty-two years later, it’s not only the Warhol auction that comes to mind but the entire weekend. After I left Sotheby’s I walked to the Whitney Museum of Art and looked at Warhol’s Mao, his Flowers, a Self-Portrait, Green Coke Bottles, and Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times; also Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (about which I had once written a poem), and many other works for which I had a youthful breathless reverence. Then I headed to the New York Society Library, simply because in his book Music for Chameleons Truman Capote had mentioned it as a “pleasant shelter” where he had met Willa Cather in the late 1940s. The library had, I found, the right ambience for that kind of literary anecdote; tasteful, elegant, and sleek, it fit the image I had conjured of a perfect place to come in from the rain and fill one’s notebook by writing or one’s mind by reading. The essay in which Capote had told the Cather anecdote had originally been written, like much of Music for Chameleons, for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

Eventually I walked all the way from the Upper East Side through midtown, downtown, and into and around Greenwich Village. Then I took a train back out to New Jersey to see my friend Phil West sing and play guitar that evening at a coffee house called The Other End, on the campus of my alma mater, Drew University. It all made for a long and exhausting day, but a satisfying one. Phil stayed over at my apartment in Morristown—I cooked rice in the wee hours of the morning because he had never eaten dinner and was starving—and on Sunday morning we ate at a favorite local restaurant, Calaloo Café, and discussed Europe: my recent trip to Italy and France, and his experiences there in the past, an “exotic” contrast to our day-to-day lives of mostly menial work and low-budget living.

All these years later, Phil and I are still good friends; and though my cultural tastes have expanded, Capote remains a cherished literary inspiration and Blondie is still my favorite band. As for Warhol—my interest in him waned for some years, having been satiated after I had read thousands of pages by and about him, and had sufficiently experienced his works. At times, however, the bright ingenuity of his paintings still delights me. In the odd way that a life often has of following and weaving together its most resonant threads, my own life led me to several years of work in an art museum that included Warhols in its collection, and later to a publishing job in which I’ve served as publicist for books about Warhol; but these facts are tiny points amid the vast weave of cultural influences in my life and the synchronicities and intersections of those influences with, within, and throughout my reality. When I think back on not merely the “bright ingenuity” of Warhol’s paintings but the bright ingenuity of that long-ago spring day in Manhattan, what resonates is its freshness and my wide-eyed receptiveness, and how well its blue-skied grace looks now, shining like a precious object amid a vast network of collected moments, some of them junk and some of them treasure, but all together suggesting a definite unity, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector.

Originally published in the second issue of the Folio Club. Copyright 2010 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved.

Image: Andy Warhol, Flowers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


This week marks the 25th anniversary of the film Maurice, which was released in the U.S. on September 18, 1987 (three days earlier in the U.K.).

I’ve already written—in the context of an earlier consideration of E. M. Forster—of my high regard for the vastly underrated Forster novel of which this film is a faithful adaptation. It’s difficult now to believe that the movie, which holds up splendidly, is already a quarter-century old, and even more difficult to believe that Forster composed the novel a century ago, in 1913-14. (He made important revisions to the manuscript decades later, in both the thirties and the fifties, before leaving it to its posthumous 1971 publication.)

A website called “Cinema Queer” features an excellent review essay about the film, with a number of stills. Though posted a few years ago, the essay is still relevant. Be forewarned, however: like many articles about this book and movie, it gives away the ending.

I read the book before I saw the film, and I began reading with no idea how the story might end. From the first page I thoroughly enjoyed it, but as I neared the final chapter it seemed to me impossible that Forster could resolve the plot in a way that would satisfy me. Ah, but he did—I won’t reveal how—and though the ending may not be to every reader’s taste, I regarded it (and still do) as brave, thrilling, and magnificent.

P.S. The film’s 2002 “Criterion Collection” two-disc DVD release contains a number of genuinely interesting extras, including deleted scenes and short documentaries. I particularly enjoyed the interview clips in which actors James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves—the three charming and talented straight boys cast in this very gay drama—recall with pleasure the making of the film.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Today is Tolstoy’s birthday. I like this description of him given by Professor Nabokov in Lectures on Russian Literature:

Count Leo (in Russian Lev or Lyov) Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a robust man with a restless soul, who all his life was torn between his sensual temperament and his supersensitive conscience. His appetites constantly led him astray from the quiet country road that the ascetic in him craved to follow as passionately as the rake in him craved for the city pleasures of the flesh.

In his youth, the rake had a better chance and took it. Later, after his marriage in 1862, Tolstoy found temporary peace in family life, divided between the wise management of his fortune—he had rich lands in the Volga region—and the writing of his best prose.

Tolstoy’s miracle, as has often been observed, is the sense of life, of lived reality, that permeates his best work, especially Anna Karenina. Open that enormous novel to any page and start reading and you will instantly feel you are in the midst of the characters’ lives, as life is lived daily, in motion—both outward and inward motion. This lifelikeness or “actuality” (as Lionel Trilling called it) has been attributed to various causes: Trilling credited Tolstoy’s moral vision and affection for his characters, Nabokov pointed to Tolstoy’s handling of time.

James Wood has focused on “the physicality of Tolstoy’s details”—brought to the fore in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina, which Wood praised in the New Yorker in 2001. As he points out, Tolstoy “is not interested in telling us what things look like to him [emphasis added], and he is not interested in telling us what else they resemble. This is why he eschews simile and metaphor at these moments of physical description.”

I particularly like Wood’s observation that Tolstoy’s descriptive details portray signs of wear on everyday objects, reflecting their ongoing use and, by extension, the lived day-to-day reality of which they are a part. Furniture, clothing, other household possessions, as well as the objects in the world beyond the home, are all seen in an ongoing state of existence, whether new or used or aged—and here we cross paths again with Nabokov’s consideration of time as a key element; and, as time means for humans a progression toward death, we recall Trilling’s view that it is Tolstoy’s humane feeling for his characters, his moral vision, that is the crux of the matter. The three factors intertwine; the rooms have been lived in and are being lived in; the book is being lived in; and as we read it we enter and live in it too, to a greater extent than with any other author.

Photos: Tolstoy in 1848 (upper) and 1854 (lower), at the ages of approximately twenty and twenty-six—when, as Nabokov put it, “the rake had a better chance and took it.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Three by Moebius

Here’s a little “art appreciation” exercise with three images by the great Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius. Look closely at the first two to note the differences, not only due to the change from black-and-white to color but also the subtle alterations to the drawing itself. And then compare to the third image which represents a sequential movement. (Click images to enlarge.)

The black-and-white image is from Moebius’s 2008 graphic novel Chasseur déprime (literally Depressed Hunter, but also a play on the term chasseur de prix, bounty hunter).

The color images were created for two limited edition digigraphie prints based on the book and sold through the official Moebius website.

(Images: Jean “Moebius” Giraud.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Tribute: Moebius

Images by Jean “Moebius” Giraud (1938-2012), in my view the finest artist in the history of comics. Click for a more detailed view of each.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Virginia Woolf

“I love her strange whirling rhythms,” Truman Capote once said of Virginia Woolf. He claimed not to like her novels—“But I love her criticism and I love her diary.” While I don’t share Capote’s aversion to the novels, among which I would single out To the Lighthouse as Woolf’s masterpiece, I do find those three words “strange whirling rhythms” marvelously apt. For whether in fiction or nonfiction, Woolf’s prose has its own pleasurable, not to say captivating, cadences; the strange whirl of her complex yet always pellucid sentences derives not only from the musicality of her diction and syntax but also from the strange whirl of the ideas beneath the surface, which the prose precisely reflects. “Strange” because the author relentlessly found fresh new angles of approach to her material, which was life, its consciousness and the consciousness of it; “whirling” because in her narrative and rhetorical strategies for both fiction and nonfiction she never stood still, never proceeded in predictable linearity, always whirled in an improbable circle around her subject, within her subject, bringing into the whirl seemingly disparate peripheral subjects, and then, in perfect rhythm, landed with an artful smack onto the dead-center of the target one hadn’t realized she had been after all along, its essence illuminated by her unconventional sweep as it could never otherwise have been. Yes, I too love her strange whirling rhythms.

I appreciate, too, a term that Virginia Woolf used as a genre category: “life-writing”—a useful label for a broad array of work. Woolf applied the term loosely, to biographies, to memoirs and autobiographical essays, and to letters and diaries; and, not surprisingly given her identity as an innovator, the term is suited to a merging of such forms, and seems to imply spontaneity as well. “Life-writing”: direct, intimate attempts at capturing life, and capturing it alive.

This valiant woman, beleaguered by severe mental health crises, once wrote in her diary: “But I will use all my art to keep my head sane.” Part of her greatness stems from her insistent ability to prize and chronicle those moments when, most alive to the reality of beauty, she could revel in the union of language and life, in, for example, a phrase jotted in a journal entry: “A lovely soaring summer day this; winter sent howling home to his arctic.” Or another: “The world swinging round again and bringing its green and blue close to one’s eyes.”

“Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas…” How perfect, how appealing; yet in place of the “preaching” there are of course silent selections of values, choices; and even when she did wish to “preach” (I’m thinking here of A Room of One’s Own, that most gorgeous lecture-argument), she could make rhetorical magnificence—in a word, art—of the entire proceedings, and finish with four paragraphs (“and please attend, for the peroration is beginning”) that hold a place of honor among my favorite passages in literature.

It wasn’t Virginia Woolf but Colette who said: “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.” —but Woolf did her best, in regard to both happiness and wisdom, despite ghastly obstacles stacked against her. Literature provided a lifeline again and again. Through her voluminous writings her inspirations are thoroughly documented, her love of English poetry and of Shakespeare and of biographies and histories—and then there is this:
My great adventure is really Proust. … I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.
They were kindred spirits in several ways. She hailed in Proust “his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.” In these sentences she might as well have been describing her own best efforts. Yet her sensibility, her strategies, her preoccupations and special lyricism, remain entirely her own.

Contemporary editions of her books sometimes quote, on their back covers, a few words of tribute from her friend E. M. Forster: “She pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness.” In the essay from which that phrase is taken, Forster also noted, in the very same sentence, that “she gave acute pleasure in new ways”—all of which I mention because it’s easy to forget that art at its best is both a remarkable pleasure and a heroic act; in the midst of its wit, insight, and delectability it almost inevitably advances the energies of the truly human.

Virginia Woolf’s birthday is January 25—this Wednesday. I recommend you curl up with at least a few paragraphs of her strange whirling rhythms today or sometime this week.