Thursday, November 10, 2011


Living in the past?

So many books seem to be about remembrance - attempting to capture time gone by, so that something or someone won't be lost to us. I've read several such lately, and have come to treasure a genre I think of as The Unclassifiable Book. It's a memoir, it's a poem, it's an art book. It's prose written by a visual artist and it reads like a vast collage. Worlds are contained in many brief statements, and their cumulative effect may well break your heart. Examples of three such books are sitting before me right now.

The first, My Life by Marc Chagall (Orion 1960):

Written by the painter when he was 35 and living in Moscow in 1921-22. I bought this last weekend at a local used bookshop for $6.00 - always on the lookout for memoirs by artists, I thought this would be interesting, although I am not crazy about Chagall's painting. Well, by now I should remember that whenever I am not crazy about something, it's just because I don't know it well enough yet. The fault is mine, and not of the other by any means. So it was with this book, which I read in one sitting a few evenings ago, and loved after the first page. The memoir resembles his paintings - it contains villages and loved ones and animals and love and death and marriage and art, combined in swirling remembrances. He stages scenes of enchantment and of course nostalgia, because he is looking back with great love at that which no longer exists. He gives us word-images of his earliest memories, his family, his awakening to painting and becoming an artist, his education and discovery of the world beyond his village, his travels from Russia to Paris and back. A beautiful autobiography written like a dream, in perfect keeping with his style of painting - part symbolism, part realism, part surrealism - all his own.

Then the second, The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman (Penguin 2007).

I may have mentioned this book here before. Bought a softcover copy at a library sale for $2.00 many months ago and also read in one sitting. Then re-read. Then wanted to give copies to everyone I love best (who reads or not). Another memoir, also about life and death, and full of tender caring for people, places, and objects, and dealing simultaneously with all The Big Questions. Each page is illustrated with one painting or photograph and one hand-lettered sentence or two, or just a fragment of a sentence, all again with a cumulative effect that builds and builds like a huge bittersweet chocolate layer cake. I love books that are truly funny and deeply serious at the very same time and this is a prime example. I recently found a hardcover first edition to keep for myself, so I can give away the softcover. If you like this passage, you will love this book (p.11):

"My brain is exploding. Trying to make sense out of nonsense, trying to tell you everything (everything?) and all the while time is fleeing. And the air around me vibrates with so many images. Which is great because most of them are British."

And lastly, I Remember by Joe Brainard (Granary 2001):

Now, I know I've mentioned this book before, though just in passing. In my own defense, I've re-read it many times. Paul Auster's blurb from the back cover of this reprint ends with " of the few totally original books I have ever read." And it is. Made up of a series of statements - hundreds of them - all beginning with the phrase "I remember" this memoir reads like an epic prose poem written by a shy gay man who takes careful note of every detail of his life. There is no chronology, again, it is everything all at once. Memory after memory from the explicit to the banal and back again. It contains the beautiful and the ugly, religion and pop culture, and evidence of both a rich interior life and an often-difficult exterior life. You may begin by thinking This is pure Americana kitsch, and enjoying it as such, but will soon abandon that limited opinion for the simpler and ultimately more satisfying This is art and it all matters. Good news for Brainard devotees: he will soon be included in The Library of America series. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is due out in early 2012, book saints be praised.

All three of these books bring the past to life, bring all the details to the present day and make them news once again (Ezra Pound's "Literature is news that stays news." leaps to mind). So very specific and yet so relevant to all humanity. They leave me thinking that human beings have such wildly original lives, and so many stories to tell in unusual ways (and not merely to be unusual, but rather because that is their authentic form, the only way they could have been told), and I find myself wishing that we all had it in us to create our own versions of these unique books! I don't know about you, but I want to go begin my own, immediately!

Can't wait to read it (thine own, of course)
Antony, I bet yours would be as bookish as mine. Get busy...!
Thank you, Sarah. I have already ordered 2 of them Kathleen
Nice, Kathleen - let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!
The good used book store still outpaces the Internet. Marc Chagall's book for $6 beats online copies that start at $8.50 plus shipping. Thanks for reminding folks that the used book shop is always a good first choice.
Couldn't agree more, Richard. Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed looking at your blogs, by the way. Such enthusiasm and so much great information on bookshops of all shapes and sizes - simply awesome!
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