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

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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.

*****

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Folio Club Books announces new e-books, celebrates the work of Truman Capote

The Folio Club is pleased to announce the publication of two short e-books containing work by its founding editor, Robert Pranzatelli.

A Chameleon Poet: Truman Capote is an essay that takes readers on a tour of the subtle artfulness of a great American writer’s prose style, examining Truman Capote’s famous and famously varied body of work to reveal the hidden dynamics behind its masterful effects. In doing so, it sheds new light on the legacy of a literary chameleon.

“A beautifully made essay that opens up a writer I thought I knew . . . A lovely piece.” —Jeff Sharlet, bestselling author of The Family

“A compelling and necessary angle on the always dynamic Capote . . . A very fine essay by a very fine critic.” —William Giraldi, author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark

Also newly published and from the same author is String Quartet: Four Stories, a selection of short stories originally published in the Folio Club literary journal (including the title story plus “Free-Floating Faith,” “Glass Cabinets,” and “Sterling”), now brought together for the first time.

Both books are available via all major e-book distributors, including the Apple iBookstore, Amazon (for Kindle), Barnes and Noble (for Nook), Kobo, Lulu.com, and others.

Cover images by Onsmith.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Folio Club Books announces publication of Romy Ashby’s long-awaited novel, Stink

Twenty years ago, Romy Ashby published The Cutmouth Lady, a remarkable collection of six related stories. In the years since, the book has acquired cult status, and its devotees have followed with great pleasure its author’s subsequent endeavors: as a writer of nonfiction, as an interviewer, and as a songwriter with Blondie. Yet they—we—have waited in vain for a second work of fiction, until now.

The Folio Club is pleased to announce the publication of Stink. Written two decades ago (after the stories in The Cutmouth Lady) but never before published, Stink is a wild lark of a novel that its author calls, aptly, both a time capsule and a curio.

The book’s narrator is Adlai, born as what was then commonly called a hermaphrodite, who sets off into adulthood as a male, to forge an identity in a coastal city teeming with life, mystery, and eccentricity (and teeming, too, with odors of every imaginable kind, in keeping with the novel’s title). Adlai’s gender, however, is only one facet of his identity and almost peripheral to the story, for thanks to his natural curiosity and observational skills he is less interested in himself than in the colorful characters around him. These include, among others, his feisty Uncle Jechiel, an inventor, magician, and poet; his uncle’s favorite verbal sparring partner, Harry, in whose atmospheric shop Adlai learns of the occult arts; several young enthusiasts of the local punk and DIY culture; and Ettie, an elderly lady whose manners and memories hearken back to a jazz-inflected past. As Adlai begins to find a place in both the unusual new community and the strangely shifting realities around him, he stumbles over clues to long-buried secrets entwined with bizarre local mysteries—some of them horrific. Wielding the vivid, sensational palette of a pulp novel and a brush dipped in camp, Romy Ashby has created a brilliantly playful, thoroughly engrossing novel that, like its endearing hero, has an identity all its own.

Chris Stein writes:

Stink starts off with a little dream. On a personal note, I am sort of amazed by the rest of the story’s resemblance to my own dream states and landscapes. Stink is an incantation and exhortation of the love of things gone by, things lost in the alleys of time. Early on we are told that ‘...when they stopped using upholstery in trains and buses...they changed fabric to plastic and people forgot how to love!’ This theme is maintained throughout, but gradually we see that romanticizing the past is perhaps an inevitable side effect of love and magic. And magic abounds here. Today we are absorbed in tech and forget that we still need religion, which in the universe of Stink is indeed magic.”

Debbie Harry writes:

“Romy is such a wonderful writer. I hope there will be further episodes, future tales of these curious people from a charmed city in a more magical time for me to sink my teeth into.”

The Folio Club is delighted that this volume—a treasure unearthed, a long-deferred treat—will initiate its new project, Folio Club Books.

True to its indie origins, Stink will not be available through mass-market retailers upon publication, but exclusively through the author’s website and a very small handful of selected independent booksellers.

Right now, Stink is available from St. Mark’s Bookshop at 136 East Third Street in New York, or you can order direct from the author via her website.

Stink by Romy Ashby / Trim size 5.5" x 8.5" / 240 pages / ISBN: 978-0-692-41965-6 / Official publication month: July 2015

Image: Stink cover design by Michele Burgevin; cover image of the Coney Island Wonderwheel by Chris Stein.

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, December 30, 2014

Forster & Salinger

What do E. M. Forster and J. D. Salinger have in common? Not a whole lot, one might think, but there are a few interesting parallels. Both men were new year’s babies, exactly forty years apart: Forster born on January 1, 1879, and Salinger on January 1, 1919. Both men lived to the age of ninety-one, passing away in 1970 and 2010 respectively. For authorial identification, each used his first and middle initials rather than his first name; each achieved major success as a novelist by his early thirties; and each became one of the most celebrated writers of fiction in the English language. And both men famously stopped publishing fiction in their mid-forties—but there the paths diverge, for unlike Salinger, who chose to remove himself from the public sphere, Forster continued to publish nonfiction, including biographies, essays, and frequent book reviews, and became a familiar, rather avuncular figure to the British public as a BBC radio broadcaster. Can you imagine Salinger with his own “book talk” on radio? Well, actually, I can—but in a different time and place, in a different life.

One other interesting parallel: Forster is often said to have “abandoned” fiction in midlife but he didn’t entirely; he went on to write a book’s worth of audacious short stories, he meticulously revised the first few chapters of an unfinished novel, and, most importantly, he continued to fine-tune, on and off for a half century, his novel Maurice, which, like the stories, could not be published in its author’s lifetime due to its homosexual theme. All of these works were left for posthumous publication; their relative merits and appropriate place in the Forster library have been debated, but their significance—to both their author and to those of his readers who cherish them—can’t be denied.

And this, perhaps, will be the most significant parallel with Salinger: works awaiting posthumous publication, likely to be disparaged and argued over and only fully embraced decades after their already long-deferred arrival. So here’s to another new year, another anniversary of the births of these two remarkable writers, another question mark as Salinger devotees continue the seemingly endless wait-and-see.

Image: James Wilby and Hugh Grant in the excellent film adaptation of E. M. Forster's Maurice. Here they contemplate their desperate desire for more books by J. D. Salinger.

For further reading:

More of my thoughts about Forster

My post about the film version of Maurice

A selection of favorite Forster quotations