Saturday, January 30, 2010

 

Two months, a million words

Actually - 1,250,000 words, give or take. I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night. Let me say that again, it feels really good - I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night.

I burned through the second half of Volume IX because it's wildly riveting, justly famous as it is for its chronicle of the major crisis in Pepys's marriage, caused by his dalliance with his wife's hired girl companion. One fine day his wife walks in on them. Weeks of recrimination follow, which Pepys knows he well deserves, and he works to change his ways (with a few notable exceptions, of course, when he is fairly certain he won't be caught). He has other troubles, too - he believes he's going blind from overwork (much of it done by candlelight). He consults medical men and takes various courses of physic, but eventually stops writing the Diary because he feels he can no longer write it out himself, privately, because his eyes are in such pain. He can in fact no longer read and write for any length of time - his clerks take dictation, and his wife and servants read aloud to him. Oh, and besides those things (as if they weren't enough), he's also been asked by the King's brother, the Duke of York (the future King James II), to write a long letter recommending a complete restructuring of his own administrative offices of the Navy. Pepys does this, essentially sandbagging his scurrilous colleagues while thinking he is taking himself down with them at the same time. He writes repeatedly that he is perfectly content with this, feeling it is absolutely the right thing to do to have a clear conscience, which was apparently much more important to him in this matter than remaining employed. What a hell of a year.

He ends the Diary after asking for a few months of leave, to see if his eyes will heal away from all work, and he makes plans to travel the continent for a few months with his wife. What he doesn't know at this point is that his wife has less than a year to live. She will contract a fever on their return trip and die a few days after coming home to England.

All this drama is quite shocking and immediate on the page in stark black and white. People's lives are so fraught! With everything! All the time! A few weeks ago I took a Pepys-break to read An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms (Larson 1988), and when I finished the Diary yesterday I had to return to the Joseph Campbell book and search up a passage that was stuck in my mind. Campbell says:

"There's a wonderful paper by Schopenhauer, called 'An Apparent Intention of the Fate of the Individual,' in which he points out that when you are at a certain age... and look back over your life, it seems to be almost as orderly as a composed novel. And just as in Dickens' novels, little accidental meetings and so forth turn out to be main features in the plot, so in your life. And what seem to have been mistakes at the time, turn out to be directive crises. And then he asks: 'Who wrote this novel?'" (p.24)

Directive crises indeed. Pepys's life seems like it was nothing but (plague, fire, war, loss, infidelity, infirmity). And yet. What a lot of joy he got out of it, what delight in music and books and theatre and loving, and in orderly hard work, and in pride at his rising station in life and his general good fortune. The thing that surprised me most about finishing the Diary was how greatly I didn't want this particular story to end. I wanted to keep on reading - about his trip to Europe, his wife's death, how he felt about it, and what he did next. Instead, the narrative just... stops. And I walked around all day today thinking about someone who's been dead for over three hundred years, and the grand autobiographical novel of his life.

I'll end with that thought, for now. I think I must make some observations about his life-long book-love, and I don't want to merely tack them on here, all willy-nilly. So, more on Pepys at a later date. But first, may I say it one more time? Humor me, please. I finished reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys last night.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

 

Easy reading?

A milestone of sorts, reached last night - I began to read Volume IX of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. The last volume of the Diary. I am just now beginning to wonder what in the world I will read next, when his prose is no longer breaking over me in great waves every evening. Volume VIII was tough to swim through, to extend the metaphor a bit - six hundred pages, much of it closely-written court gossip and parliamentary problems concerning the dismal conduct of the Navy officials during the late war with the Dutch (which was by all accounts a total freaking shambles, excluding, of course, the behaviour of our relatively honest diarist, who did the best he could under the circumstances). Some paragraphs (most paragraphs) were demanding, with his run-on sentences covering multiple complex topics, rife with seventeenth-century usage and vocabulary, and I had to literally stop and re-read some paragraphs (most paragraphs) as I went along. This stretched out the six hundred pages somewhat.

I suspect that whatever I read next is going to seem ridiculously simple and easy to navigate, by comparison. I'm not used to this level of intellectual rigor. Which reminds me of finishing Montaigne's Essays - I felt just the same way, and had to let some time pass before I could pick up another book. But first, Volume IX, another six hundred pages. Full Pepys report soon, as I mull over what being immersed in this man's life has meant to me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

 

Pleased To Meet You

Long before I had my own bookshop, I became enamored of someone else's: a tough little cookie of a lady on the road to Castine, Maine had a small shop in the ell between her house and barn. The books were relatively few but of high quality, and reflected a knowledge of books and book-people that I had seldom encountered at that time in my life. Which is to say, she liked the kinds of books that I liked, and stocked them, so I naturally thought she had fabulous taste. Over a few years I visited and always bought, and when she aged to the point where she no longer kept her shop open, I counted myself lucky to receive a note from her now and then, saying that she had a few books I might like to look at, if I would like to come by on a given day. Then the notes stopped coming, and it appeared that her house was sold. I lost track of her. Now friends tell me she lived elsewhere in Castine for a few years, and then finally moved to a nursing home, and then, a few days ago, I read her obituary in the local paper.

So, a few memories today of one of my very favorite book people ever, Barbara Falk. I spent some time this weekend looking through my bookshelves at the books she sold me. As most dealers do, she had a distinctive manner of pricing her books, and her books were of a certain quality, so most were easy to spot. And I found a lot. Including ten signed Christopher Morley books (and I suspect there are more). Barbara was a bookseller on Long Island before moving to Maine, and I remember her telling me that when she was a young woman she attended a book talk he gave, I think in the 1940s in Roslyn, his home. At this time, I was heavily into Morley-hunting, and she was delighted to hear that someone still cared about him and his books. I was also reading in the letters of Horace Walpole, and wanted books by the indefatigable Walpole collector Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis. When I asked Barbara, she exclaimed "Oh, Lefty Lewis!" and subsequently showed me most of the series edited by Lewis and printed by the Yale University Press, entitled "Miscellaneous Antiquities, or, A Collection of Curious Papers...," items of interest to people who care about eighteenth century antiquarian gossip and fine press printing (us). The books she sold me in this series were from her own collection, in the house. What she didn't sell me, and which I still think about late at night, was her complete run of the bibliophile periodical The Colophon - she had Lefty Lewis's personal set. She said she'd let me know what she decided to do with them, when the time came. *Sigh.*

She also sold me many charming little bibelots - fine press books, printing trade items, some Bruce Rogers titles, a few fine bindings (always attached to books I still would have wanted otherwise). Sometimes I think she only sold me the things she knew I would want to keep in my personal collection, and never resell. She herself had had them for so long, you see, in her personal collection. She was the bibliophile who first told me to read Dukedom Large Enough, by David A. Randall (but she wouldn't sell me her own copy of that).

I know I can't have visited her shop more than ten times, and if I look back through all of my book receipts I could count up those visits and it wouldn't seem like much, but I must say that she had a profound effect on me - it was a case of just the right kind of enthusiasm at just the right time. A real bookwoman - I knew she was who I wanted to be when I was her age, god willing.

One more item she sold me was the Maine novel Small Potatoes by painter/writer/architect Emily Muir, who lived on nearby Deer Isle. Barbara did sell me her personal copy of this book, a very nice first edition in dust jacket, inscribed by Emily to her. Now it's an association copy that means a lot to me:

One thing I could not find, in my bookshelf scavenger hunt, was a book with a small note inside the front cover - Barbara often wrote in soft pencil anything of note about the book in question - a limited edition, signed, how many copies, etc. - and in this particular one she drew an arrow to an old number written in blue grease pencil on the front pastedown. This number, she noted, was from Leary's, in Philadelphia. She had loved Leary's, and she was the kind of person who didn't want that little bit of bookish information to be forgotten. She knew what that mark was. And now I know. And when I find that book again - someday there it will be, in my hand - I will get a pencil and make a note that Barbara Falk, Bookseller, wrote this.

It seems like a long time ago. Barbara must have been about 80 when I met her. I found her to be a sparky, enthusiastic, ascerbic, canny, witty, delightful person. Now I'm settled just across Penobscot Bay from where Barbara had her shop. She ended her long life in the nursing home immediately next door to my childhood home. I think I still want to be like her, when I'm 94... I will end this elegy with the phrase I began it with, a book I bought from her and still own, the title of a novel by Christopher Morley. Barbara, I was so Pleased To Meet You; Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York 1927; hardcover first edition in near fine condition, in a very good dust jacket with a bit of edgewear; $25; discount to the trade.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

 

The seven habits of highly ineffective people

I really try to keep the complaining to a minimum, here. I find complaining unattractive. I also find snarkiness unattractive. None of that ever gets anyone anywhere. And yet today here I am feeling snarky, unattractive, and full of complaints. A painting I'm working on, which was full of promise, has turned out to be something other than full of promise. I attended a funeral yesterday and now am feeling very bitter about the fact that we all will lose everything we love - all of us, all of everything. I'm cold and it's only January, and it's going to snow tomorrow for the first day in ages, when I actually had a tiny bit of fun planned, which will probably now be cancelled. I have paintings and books piled high all over the house and since I have nowhere to put them they are driving me bats. I can't bear what's happened in Haiti. Arg. A day of Dark Thoughts, about issues large and small. I wonder what the *other* seven dwarves were called - Snarky, Twitchy, Fussy...

OKAY. Time to bake some cookies, hug the cat, bundle up and go for a walk, look at the ocean. Continue reading Volume VIII of the Diary of Pepys (which finally arrived). Think about the next painting. Hope for long lives with the ones we love.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

 

Lost in the stacks

A very short post today, since the last was overly long.

One of the art blogs I keep a weather eye on is Sharon Butler's Two Coats of Paint. She recently posted a few images by painter Xiaoze Xie. I'd like to see these in person. Reviwer Kenneth Baker writes, "We might take the claustrophobic atmosphere of Xie's pictures as elegiac, a silent lament for the passing of the non e-book." Or we might not. (That phrase, "the non e-book" - ugh and double ugh.) The review continues, though, "Or we might see him forming an equation between paintings and books as treasuries of silent meaning." (Full review here.) Now that's more like it.

My last entry was blog post number five hundred. Still here. Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 08, 2010

 

Anatomy of a painting

Today's posts should be read in numerical order. I realized after I posted them all that the last comes first. Etc. Etc. Sigh. So please scroll down. Thanks.

 

Anatomy of a painting 7

The next morning (that is, this morning) we were up before sunrise, some difficult family issues keeping us both from sleeping very well. So once we were awake, there was no going back. But, this morning I was happy to be up early, waiting for the sun to rise, so I could get back to work on the painting. I really couldn't wait.

After being away from it for a while, the first look is important - I immediately see what needs to happen next. Variations in the clouds, some of the whites softened, the ocean finished, and those odd little tiny areas that need a bit more attention before the whole thing feels balanced and right. The clouds de-anthropomorphized just a bit. At this point I am no longer referring to any visual aids. I haven't for some time. It's now all about what the painting itself needs. Because the painting is not, after all, the scene itself. It's an object I've constructed, showing something about how I feel about a place, and I can make any changes I wish, to enhance that feeling. A liberating thing.

I removed a few small marks in the water that kept catching my attention, not in a good way. And I took a big brush and softened things up a bit around the edges. And made some other very minor adjustments. I had lunch and came back again to look one more time. And changed one more tiny thing. Then, done.

All told, it took about six hours yesterday and three today, not counting the time getting situated and arranging my palette and actually doing every other little thing I suddenly had to do before I just picked up a brush and just started already, for god's sake.

I'm happy with this one. It feels the way I felt when I was there. I took a break - went to the post office to mail a book (an Amazon sale), checked the mailbox again (no book). Then, since my paint was all out anyway, and I had a lot on my palette still - don't want to waste it - I started the next one. I only got in the underdrawing and a few basic colors before dark, so it's still pretty rough. But it has some life to it. Tomorrow will be good, no matter what the day brings.

 

Anatomy of a painting 6

But before I quit for the day, I get paint all over the rest of the canvas. A base gray into the clouds, kind of a purply-gray, and also into the water. A bit of the gray gesso shows through and I like it, another warm gray to add to the depth of the clouds. But then I start to worry that the clouds are anthropomorphic something-or-others. Not what I want.

I'm making this painting indoors, from a series of photographs I took in September when I was there. So some things in this painting are fixed and static, and I know how I want them to appear (and I remember very well how I felt when I was there in person, and I want that feeling in the painting). But, I can still go outside and look at the clouds, any time. So I did that before it got dark. Real clouds are a lot softer then these painted ones. More varied, more infinite. It's tough, this painting thing...

Then I had tea and blueberry muffins with Suzanne, along with some good conversation. Books did come up, from time to time.

When Ryan came home from work I said, "Close your eyes..." and I showed him the work-in-progress.


 

Anatomy of a painting 5

I've got some of the darker blues in there now. The sky (behind the clouds) is finished. And I'm getting worried that I won't finish the painting today because the sunlight ends so early this time of year, and my friend Suzanne is coming over for tea right around dusk.

I prefer sunlight to paint by. I have clip-lights with full-spectrum bulbs, but it just isn't the same.

Once these outside thoughts start to stick in my mind, I need to wrap it up for the day, and go do something else for a while. Like check the mailbox. Again.

 

Anatomy of a painting 4

Right about now I realize a few things. The primary one being - why does this painting have almost NO COLOR in it? Where is that brilliant blue day I loved? And how can I get it on my canvas NOW? So I start in, and all of a sudden it seems as if there is some real air around the island, and something watery happening in the ocean.

I also realize that I've been working and concentrating for a long time and I really need a snack and a bathroom. Quickly. But the painting comes first, so I get some color in there and then stop for a bit to get my bearings and regroup.

Did I say the painting is five feet high? About 60" x 20". That's big, for me.

I'm trying not to look at it too much, until I get some more paint on there. All that gray still showing is still bare gesso.

And I'm thinking that I'd better do something pretty damn quick to make myself fall in love with this painting. So I can sustain the momentum to finish it. I always do this - one major lesson I've learned as a painter is that you can't be afraid of making something ugly - just block it out and lay it in, then work on color and light and, if you want, beauty.

 

Anatomy of a painting 3

I've worked out the details of the rocks and trees, and seaweed, and then I start thinking (not that I'm thinking, mind you, but rather making intuitive decisions without really thinking) about light and space and atmosphere, so I start laying in light - in the sky and on the water.

I like working all over, all at once, with a largeish brush. I think it was the painter Robert Henri who told his students to stick to the large masses for as long as possible, before you went in to do any detail work. I try to remember that - my instinct is to start with a large brush but then I find myself going smaller and smaller the nearer the painting gets to completion.

At the very end, I try to go back with a bigger brush and get rid of some of those fussy details I liked so much.

This is when I start feeling very happy, because I'm right in the middle of the painting and it feels great. There's just nothing like making something with your own hands, out of sticks of wood and canvas and paint. This is also when the image in my head, of the painting I wanted to make, starts to conflict a bit with the painting I am, in fact, actually making.


 

Anatomy of a painting 2

The next thing I always do after the initial sketch is to lay in all the darks. Get some form in there, and mass. In this case, spruce trees and the rocks on the island, and this strange reflection which is the major reason I wanted to make this painting in the first place. So I get it in there immediately, and build the rest of the painting around it.

I love this early stage of a painting - I can see it coming to life under my hands, and I'm completely out of my mind, in a good way, concentrating and forgetting everything that doesn't have to do with this specific task.

It's a lot like meditation.

By the way, please excuse the variations in light in these photos - the sunlight was moving around the room as I worked all day.

 

Anatomy of a painting 1

I am trying not to watch the mailbox for Volume VIII of the Diary. Really, it should be here any day now. Right? Arg...

So, since I'm not reading Pepys, I returned to painting after a bit of a break over the holidays. Yesterday and today I made my first painting of 2010, and I thought I'd celebrate by doing something a bit different here. I photographed the painting while I was working on it, so here is a work-in-progress for you.

For the past few years I've been rather obsessed with certain islands off the coast of Maine, most of them located in Penobscot Bay. The subject of this new painting is a small island called Thrumbcap, which you can see from my friend's dock on Islesboro. I've painted it many times, in many different ways, and this painting is one I've had on my mind since fall. So I'm glad I finally decided to get on with it.

I knew I wanted to make a large (for me) painting, with the island slightly off-center and reflected in the ocean, with a big sky overhead. This is how I saw it in September when I was last there in person.

Step one: an undersketch in burnt sienna on the gray gesso I always use as a painting ground on my canvases and panels. I stretched this canvas back in December, the last time I prepared a big batch of them.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

 

An age of uncertainty

I continue to read in Pepys's Diary, with occasional forays into other autobiographical writing, for leavening purposes. Volumes VI and VII proved fearsome and heartbreaking, the former because of its chronicle of the Great Plague (in 1665 roughly a quarter of everyone in London died - these mostly poor people, since the Court and anyone who had money enough fled for the country) and the latter with Pepys's eyewitness account of the Great Fire (in early September of 1666 fire broke out in a bakery, and over the next four days destroyed much of the city). During the plague year, Pepys made his will and then made hay while the sun shone, both by making money as quickly as he could and also by increasing the frequency of his various amorous associations. The following year, the English were at war with the Dutch and Pepys's office was suffering from a plague of a different nature - a desperate lack of funds with which to victual the Navy - and he had to defend himself and his colleagues before the King and various angry naval commanders, with account books at hand. Then, at the height of uncertainty about the course of the war, the Great Fire broke out. Pepys evacuated his goods and people safely and then found that Seething Lane, where he lived and worked for the Navy, was spared, because firebreaks were created by blowing up adjacent buildings with gunpowder.

The fire was a shocking spectacle. Pepys's diary entries for the next month tell of his nightmares: "...much terrified in the nights nowadays, with dreams of fire and falling down of houses." (Volume VII p.287) He mentioned these dreams several more times, and he also dreamed of some of his books which went missing in the evacuation and return home. He seemed more sanguine about the plague - being careful in his daily actions but also accepting it, and preparing for it, should it come his way: "...how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away - which God dispose of to his own glory." (Volume VI p.125)

Not surprisingly, the whole Diary has become more and more engrossing the further into it I read. The cast of characters become distinct personalities and we know what to expect from them, in Pepys's opinion, when their names appear in his pages. And we come to know what to expect from Pepys himself. To be honest, one thing I've struggled with in reading this, is whether or not I even like Pepys, as a person. In some ways he is very delightful, honest and hard-working, a good servant to the King and his country, known for his plain dealing, a true book lover, a musician. I read about this, and I come to admire him. Then during an argument he gives his wife a black eye. And later beats an unruly servant until his own arm hurts. And dallies with numerous women not his wife, often several times in one day. And yet. He constantly tries to hold himself accountable to himself (and presumably to God), by writing his code of conduct down and mostly keeping to it. He knows when he has done wrong, by his own moral standards and the standards of the day. Which, granted, were fairly corrupt. He transcribed a colleague's view of life at the Court of Charles II, at this time: "...of all places, if there be hell, it is here - no faith, no truth, no love, nor any agreement between man and wife, nor friends." (Volume VII p.228-229) I've been browsing in the contemporary account of the Court, the Memoirs of the Life of Count de Gramont, and it's one long gossipy back-stabbing rogue's tale. How to be good, in this atmosphere, with these examples before you?

I am not required to like Pepys, I know. And he was not required to be good. I also know that most people are a strange combination of the despicable and the admirable - and they often choose what side to show the world, while hiding the other. Pepys didn't have to write any of these terrible things down. I wonder why he did. Do most diarists do so? Perhaps this is one of the major points of the diary - he presents himself entire.

Not to change the subject, and actually I'm not, but in Ronald Blythe's column this week, he speaks of diaries and their writers, himself among them. And he quotes Reverend James Hervey, who told himself: "Compile a secret history of your heart and conduct." The good, the bad, and the ugly. 350 years ago this week Pepy's began his diary. And by reading it now, all these years later, I am realizing anew how little human nature changes, come plague and fire.

I'll end this overly-long post by saying that I've finally located a decent copy of Volume VIII, and the check is in the mail, as the saying goes. Until such time as it arrives, I am keeping myself busy with Volume X, the Companion, a book-length encyclopaedia of all things mentioned in the Diary, sort of extended footnotes. And also a book I found on my own shelves with the wonderful title Samuel Pepys' Penny Merriments: Being a Collection of Chapbooks, full of Histories, Jests, Magic, Amorous Tales of Courtship, Marriage and Infidelity, Accounts of Rogues and Fools, together with Comments on the Times, selected and edited by Roger Thompson (Columbia 1977), a collection of 80 extracts from the 115 street-corner chapbooks Pepys collected and had bound together in a volume in his library.

That long subtitle could be for the Diary itself, it sums it up so well.

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