Recommends – Simon Leys

I came to Simon Leys’ (pen name of Pierre Ryckmans; 1935-2014) work by the amazing publisher New York Review of Books (NYRB Classics), a house that  strives to reprint “lost” or “forgotten” books along with first appearances. As stated on their site:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

There’s is a list that I feel I can trust, admire, and look forward to. More about following publishers in a future post.

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I first read The Hall of Uselessness, a few years back. I had never heard of Leys before, but because it was NYRB, perhaps read a nice review somewhere, and was struck by the title, I ordered the book. It didn’t disappoint, with his wide-ranging interests in literature and Chinese culture, along with his excellent writing, made for a satisfying and deep, reading experience.

Now, just this weekend, I finished The Death of Napoleon. Originally published in 1986, translated by the author and Patricia Clancy in 1991, NYRB brought out their edition in 2006. At 130 pages, this  is not the typical historical-fiction tome; it lacks broad sweeps and swirling casts of characters, there are few plot points, and it is fairly slim in minute descriptions. In fact, as the Penelope Fitzgerald blurb states,  on top of being historical fiction, it is a “fable, and Simon Leys is an expert fabulist.”

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This tale focuses on Napoleon, the epic war-genius, emperor, conqueror, but the wonderful thing is that Leys eschews all these features that for so long have made Napoleon a captivating figure, and writes an alternative end to the once large persona. It is a book about finding and understanding oneself, about rebirth and second chances. It is about being haunted by the past.

The book begins with Napoleon’s escape from Saint Helena island already concluded. Aboard a ship as an anonymous cabin hand, ushered through the cogs of a machine set in motion by his loyalists, the book’s character is on a path to reclaim his former glory, yet uncertainty pervades his thoughts and adventures hence forward. Leys has captured the tired and exhaustive atmosphere created by a vacuum. There is Napoleon’s physical deterioration, delusional veterans of Waterloo, madness of the few loyal hopefuls, and sadness.

Alternative history is a fun and interesting game, where an author can play out all kinds of imaginings. I found Simon Leys book so compelling because where he could have played the epic card, redrawn on the past’s full canvas, he created a quiet, subtle book. As Gabriel Josipovichi says: “…Simon Leys  throws light on our universal need to bring inner and outer reality together, to understand who we really are.”

Jockum Nordstrom

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Just saw that this artist is having an exhibition next month. His work is called contemporary folk, outsider, naive, probably among other things, but I think it’s great work. He has been building this body of images for years, and there lies a consistency that I really appreciate. He’s a master of color and composition. Much of his earlier pieces were simple graphite on paper, but now there’s an equally appealing, and perhaps stronger collage component. I love that the collage elements are mostly his own little pieces attached to the surface, as opposed to primarily cutting out found images, though there is that too.

The work can seem crude, very personal, strange, even off-putting at times, but this is okay. He has a vast world of story telling and references, and it seems often to resemble the strangeness we all are accustomed to.

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Images courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

In addition to the flat work, he has exhibited many sculptures. These are buildings made of found and glued materials such as match boxes, paper, cardboard, etc. They are strange, precarious structures, that often remind me of decaying modernist, Eastern Bloc cities, worn out Brutalist architecture.

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I had the opportunity to briefly meet Mr. Nordstrom, and his wife, the great Swedish painter Mamma Andersson, in New York for one of her openings. Well, it wasn’t a meeting so much, as I got in line to get books signed by them both and awkwardly say how much I love their work, but it was an incredible trip, taken last second and spontaneously. Check out his work if you have the chance.

Hermann Hesse

Glad to have just got in this nice batch of titles by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). He does not need much introduction, considering the fame of numerous of his works. This group includes some of the lesser known books! Love these dust jackets.

Recent Inventory – Literature in Translation – Sharp Views

Here is a sample of some recent inclusions to the Black Forest list. These authors and titles represent the direction I am looking to build my inventory. Literature in translation, and perhaps of a somewhat edgier or experimental sort, though I believe, you will find these authors are representatives of the high quality, important global literary tradition most already know. My hope is to widen my customers’ experience and knowledge of those artists that may be less well known. I have long had a fascination of European modern and contemporary arts, as my Artists posts may illustrate.

In this particular batch you will see the First American printing of Juan the Landless, by Juan Goytisolo, the third in his Alvaro Mendiola trilogy. These works were banned from publication in Spain under the Franco government. Goytisolo passed this summer, and an informative send-off was written by William Grimes at NY Times.

Here is also the First American printing of Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, a novel that he was told by the Russian authorities, could not be published for 200 or 300 years. Some compare this work to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The book was smuggled out in microforms, and the author never saw its publication.

I have also included the First printing of Robery Bly’s translation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Hasek, poetry by Zbigniew Herbert, and Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan, translated by Ralph Manheim.

In contrast to this last writer’s poor reputation and sometimes hateful, bitter works, (influential and significant as some may be) I have included Wolfgang Langhoff’s Rubber Truncheon.

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1935. Trans. by Lilo Linke. Foreword by Lion Feuchtwanger. First American edition.

Arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, he spent thirteen months in prisons and Börgermoor and Lichtenberg concentration camps. This book, published in 1935, became one of the first published eyewitness accounts of Nazi evil and brutality in the concentration camps.

I hope you find yourself curious and pulled to exploring some of these works, and others that can be found under most recently listed. Some of these writers may be intimidating, for their style or unflinching content, but I also find the view can be compelling, or at least informative, certainly works of art, and perhaps relevant to where things in our own country currently stand. I hope to immerse myself in such work, to get lost, find myself, and ultimately, learn something about this difficult effort of humanity.

Be well.

 

 

Raoul De Keyser (1930-2012)

The usually small and understated works by Raoul de Keyser have called me back to them for years. Much of his work impresses on me how powerful a quiet and private vision can be.

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“Oskar 5” Image courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans (b. 1958)

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Published by: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/ Wexner Center for the Arts/D.A.P, 2009

A long-time favorite painter of mine, Luc Tuymans has mastered a style and technique that has been quite influential. His appropriation and re contextualization of imagery, coupled with his diffuse, vague, and chalky paint, creates an often eerie or mysterious atmosphere. Often, it is the behind the scenes content that is what gives his body of work so much impact. He brilliantly straddles the line between representation and abstraction, and in my opinion, portrays the world as it actually is. Uncertain, confusing, diffuse and associative. His work can be viewed at the David Zwirner Gallery or Zeno-X Gallery.

 

Engage With Literature From Around the World

I am very excited to announce that we have recently acquired a wonderful collection of literature in translation and from around the world. Japan, Germany, France, Argentina, Italy, Chile, South Africa, Russia, Bosnia, and Poland are all represented. This is an excellent group of books, in near fine to fine condition, prominently first American editions. The publishers vary from Knopf to New Directions to Dalkey Archive Press, with lovely books from Archipelago Press. Here is an opportunity to encounter major influential texts from all over the world, to become acquainted with writers you’ve perhaps not heard of: Cesar Aira, Nina Berberova, Julio Cortazar for example. Read the prison and political works of Breyten Breytenbach, or the interesting historical perspectives of Shusaku Endo. Here is a sample from this first group, with many more to come, so be sure to check back!

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An uncommon John Williams item!

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This interesting little book requires some thought. John Williams has surged forth as one of the respected giants of mid-century American prose. His masterpiece, Stoner, has garnered such acclaim in recent years, that print runs seem to be selling out all over America and Europe. His other novels, Butcher’s Crossing, a stark portrayal of the final years of the buffalo hunt in Colorado, and Augustus, about the Roman Emperor, are as different as they are wonderful reads. But what does one think about the early and largely unknown poetic work? The wider study and discussion of this effort is yet to be done, but as an early illustration of this artist’s creative trajectory, has much interest. In terms of the collectible realm, this is an uncommon item, in rather quite excellent condition. The boards and text are bright and clean, judiciously protected by its very good dust jacket, which holds some light rubbing/scuffing. The spine is lightly toned, with minor rubbing, and all housed in a custom-cut mylar cover. What makes this an even more exceptional item, is the John Williams inscription:

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Threads and connections through poetry: Robert Frost/Edward Thomas/ William H. Davies

One of the most rewarding aspects to immersing oneself in books and its inherent way of life is the discovery of new pathways, threads, heretofore uncovered narratives that once trodden on, become the illuminating points on a personal constellation.

A few years ago, I read the excellent nature/travel book The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane, in which the English poet, Edward Thomas, serves as McFarlane’s inspiration and lodestar. I was captivated by this book, and in particular, the solemn narrative of Thomas’s life, his relationship to Robert Frost, and his development as an influential poet. Thomas and Frost were great friends, trekkers, and nature enthusiasts. But there is an unfortunate point in this otherwise valuable exchange: Frost sent Thomas an advance copy of his much-loved “The Road Not Taken.” Thomas did not receive this poem positively, perhaps, and it is said that the work was responsible for his decision to enlist for service in World War I. Thomas would be killed on the front in the Battle of Arras two years later. Amazingly, many of the poems were written and published in these final years of Thomas’s life. Matthew Hollis has written a wonderful biography on this part of Thomas’s life, which includes many of his poems.

 

Soon after this I began my search for a vintage Thomas book (it somehow seemed appropriate to find a used and “charming” copy, which of course would include much traipsing and searching, in the Thomas spirit). I was lucky to find this rather worn copy, issued by Faber and Faber, 1941. The salmon colored, paper jacket is a bit spine-sunned, but the text is still sharp. I couldn’t believe it, found in the western expanse of Colorado! Any yet, it gets even better. This modest little volume carries some interesting associations. Pasted to the verso facing the title page, someone affixed a tribute poem to Edward Thomas, uncredited. Flipping further through the book, someone also wrote in ink Robert Frost’s tribute poem “To E.T.” There are also scattered pencil checks throughout the text. I was lucky enough to find a book that a previous reader embodied with the same fascination I had taken to this small poetry narrative.

Now, much, much later, and just recently, I was out scouting for material, and in a general stock bookcase, stuffed full of vintage material, I found this sweet little book, the second, by W.H. Davies. New Poems, published in 1907. Through the Hollis biography I was aware of Davies’s friendship to Thomas, so I plucked the thin, six-inch, green cloth volume.

 

I was amazed to see the dedication page states: To Helen and Edward Thomas. So now my small, noncollectable, and merely only associative collection of Thomas-iana has grown. My point with this short tale, is that collecting books can have many elements, beyond just runs of favorite authors or “pre-fab” lists of the “best” material. I urge you to seek out the interesting, the small; I would encourage you to build relationships between your books, and to cultivate a personal constellation of material and items.