All posts by Dennis Duncan

Dennis directs the MA in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, teaching modules on T. S. Eliot, Henry James, English Literary Modernism, and Contemporary US Fiction. His primary research interests are in late modernism, literary translation, and the European avant-garde. He is currently writing a history of the book index.

Oh, those Ruffians!

Last year I went to a conference on Error and Print Culture, where I was very taken with a certain type of early modern print error. If the type isn’t set tightly enough then, when it comes to inking, the sticky ink on the inking balls can pull a letter up out of the galleys and spill it onto the floor. And sometimes the hurried pressman, reinserting the letter without looking too closely at the context, might replace it upside-down by mistake. So what was supposed to be a u might appear as an n: the word love (or loue), for example, might become lone; or a p might become d (map becomes mad), and so on. Thus, Shakespeare editors face the challenge of deciding whether Othello casts his pearl away like the base Indean or the base Judean. So with my Oulipo head on, I wanted to see just how much of an editorial problem this might be: what would be the implications if we found ourselves in a state of radical doubt about the printers’ ability to get letters the right way up?

This was the plan: first I went online and found a dictionary – in this case a Shakespeare wordlist which runs to 20,000 or so items; then I wrote a computer program which takes each of these words and tries flipping its letters upside-down to see if you end up with another valid word from the same dictionary. You can set which flippable pairs you want to allow each time you run the program, but the options I coded for were p and d, b and q, u and n, a and e, and f and s (the long s shape in early printing can easily by mistaken for an f at the compositing stage). If you allow for all of these, you get a surprisingly large number of potentially ambiguous words: about 600 of them. A lot of them are only ambiguous within quite a narrow semantic field: Kentishman vs Kentishmen, for example. But some are more fun: fancy vs saucy, or the ultra-slippery pan, pen, peu, dan, den.

The last thing to do was to try to write something that used as many of these upside-down words as possible in order to be maximally ambiguous. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: a pair of poems. They’re called ‘Sweat Themes’, after Spencer’s famous line (often incorrectly set as ‘Sweet Thames’), but also because there seems to be a lot of sweating going on in both of them.

Here’s one version. This one looks like it’s set in a print shop.Sweat themes 1But that is not what I meant at all! Here, of course, is the correct version:Sweat themes 2
This barely scratches the surface of the corpus of flippable words. What about pigs and digs; dies vs pies; the wise wife who’s weeping or possibly weeding because she’s dowerless or maybe powerless. There are fishy terms: carp (card), fin (sin), sole (sola), dace (pace), bass (bess), battered (bettered); boozy ones – fancy ales like becks become saucy, alas, like backs; and semantic leaps from common to proper nouns: orphans to orpheus; are you in denial or in daniel? For the radical doubter, even quite a straightforward document opens onto a world of instability, all Surrealist imagery and Modernist grammar. And all because of carelessness in the printshop: too-casual typesetting or getting too heavy-handed with the ink dabber. As Boney M so memorably meant to say, Oh, those ruffians!



Postcards, Bookmarks, Unfinished Books

Yesterday, under the #bookadayuk hashtag, Twitterers were invited to name a book they’d started but never finished. For me, I barely know where to begin with this question. Many, many books I read for pleasure get interrupted by books I read for work, and so on. But it did make me think about books which other people started but didn’t finish, and more specifically about the bookmarks we often find in secondhand books, which tell us how far the previous owner got before they gave up, or before something interrupted their reading and they never came back.

Last summer I was browsing in the boxes outside Collinge & Clark (the secondhand bookshop that was the model for Black Books) when I came across Marcel Aymé’s Les Contes du chat perché. AStatue of Marcel Ayméymé is someone I’d been meaning to try for a while – he’s probably best known in this country as the writer whose Man who Walked through Walls is commemorated by a statue in Montmarte – and this book looked pleasingly duffed-up in its yellowing Gallimard covers. Picking it up and leafing through, the pages fell open at a particular place, and there inside was a postcard addressed to Mrs Barbara Wright of Frognal, London.

This was quite a surprise: Wright’s was a name I knew very well. One of the great translators of the French avant-garde, she was someone I admired immensely. She had also been the best friend of Stanley Chapman, for a long time the only English member of the Oulipo, whom I had known towards the end of his life. To make things even stranger, I had just that week written a review of her reissued masterpiece – the English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style.

ayme bookAll in all then quite a coincidence. But other things struck me too. Firstly, the postcard-as-placeholder, jammed in at page 56: it was heartening to think that even such an estimable reader as Wright sometimes didn’t get any further.

Then there’s the things we use as bookmarks. From a quick straw poll among my colleagues, only one of them ever uses an actual bookmark, something purchased for the express purpose of keeping their page. Most of us, I think, use whatever we have to hand, or in our pockets: bus tickets, leaflets, postcards. We keep books for life, but they act then as time machines for the everyday materials we use to hold our place. Most of the time we only want a bookmark to keep our page till the next read – the tube ride home; bedtime tomorrow – but when we abandon a book, these ephemera get caught up in a different order of time, like mayflies frozen in amber.

postcard imageI love the naffness of my Barbara Wright postcard with its skier and its “expressively” idiosyncratic typography. It’s so identifiably 1980s, smuggled into the twenty-first century between Gallimard’s resolutely anti-periodic covers. And yet the message on the card, written in a variety of codes, aping the methods of Exercices de style, bemoans the latest strike on the métro: even on bookmarks, some things are timeless.

Jane Wildgoose: ‘A Visit to the Archive’

The artist Jane Wildgoose describes her remarkable, ever-evolving Wildgoose Memorial Library as having developed out of ‘an informal collection of objects and books relating to [her] enduring fascination with the interest of the dead to the living’. Certainly, the library, with its cabinets teeming with skulls, death masks, locks of hair, stuffed animals, jewellery and fading daguerrotypes, is an extraordinary essay on the variety of the memento mori. But it is clear also that its presentation – the cabinets and glass cases, the clear sense of order underpinning the excess, the attention to lighting – is as integral to the work than the curios themselves, more so indeed than any single artefact. As well as being a work about death, it is a work about the process of curation – of collecting and exhibiting – and the importance of these in determining the emotional effect of the objects themselves.

It seems natural then that in her essay ‘A Visit to the Archive’ Wildgoose should be concerned with the affective power of the book-as-object, the physical form containing and organising the text we read. She frames this step from her home territory of the funerary object to the book by means of an epigraph from Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall, perhaps the most celebrated of English meditations on mortality: the aged, rarely-consulted volume, delivered up from the darkness of the archive, mirroring the ancient sepulchral urns whose disinterment catalysed Browne’s ruminations.

Wildgoose recounts a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons Library at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She is there to see the correspondence of William Henry Flower, who was Conservator of the Hunterian Museum in the late nineteenth century and, most pertinently for Wildgoose, was a collector of skulls ‘in quite extraordinary numbers – from graves in Empire’s remotest corners’. The dematerialised form of the library’s online index ‘miraculously transmigrate[s]’ into the substantial when the desired volume arrives, as Wildgoose puts it ‘in the flesh’. Death’s presence is threefold: the letters are ‘accounts of the business of the dead’ (the accumulation of human skulls for Flowers’s craniological research), sent by ‘men long deceased’ and now ‘bound in the skin of some long dead animal’.

Wildgoose’s writing is carefully resonant. The short essay is organised around quietly suggested parallels. The digital index of the archive’s catalogue is set alongside the evocative power of the book which ‘calls up’ the memory of Wildgoose’s father’s death three decades before. It is the material sensations of the archive – the ‘faint dry smell’ released when turning the pages of her volume of letters – which transport her to the Sussex of her childhood. As with the cabinets of the Memorial Library, the concern here is with the relationship between framing and emotional response. The book’s contents are shot through with death, but it is their physical form – the scent of the book – that shapes this theme into a personal, affective reaction.

RoelofBakkerStrongRoom5The essay accompanies a series of photographs by Roelof Bakker taken inside Hornsey Town Hall. The town hall in north London, one of the earliest Modernist municipal buildings in the UK, was vacated in the 1980s when the borough of Hornsey was incorporated into Haringey, its furniture and fittings left behind in the move. In Bakker’s photographs, we see the contents of the town hall’s strongroom, a trove of dossiers and architectural plans, once important enough to warrant the security of a locked vault, now unwanted, an abandoned archive beneath three decades of dust.

Strong Room, by Roelof Bakker and Jane Wildgoose, is published by Negative Press, £11.99, ISBN 978-0-9573828-1-7

Raymond Roussel’s Portable Peepshow

‘Knew when to stop too – didn’t cut the pages.’
-The Great Gatsby

 Zo: Solitary ReaderHere’s one of the illustrations to Raymond Roussel’s poem Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), one of fifty-nine engravings which Roussel commissioned for the work from the artist Henri-A. Zo. To Zo’s frustration, Roussel had engaged his services anonymously via the intermediary of a detective agency, Agence Goron, supplying Zo not with the whole poem, but with a series of discrete one-sentence descriptions of what was required in each image. The result is a set of images which, as one might expect, often seem somewhat uncanny, at a slight remove in their relation to the poem itself.

Zo’s brief for this particular drawing was: ‘A man seated at a table on which a book is placed vertically; he is parting two of its uncut leaves so as to read a passage.’ It’s certainly an unusual mode of reading, and in Zo’s representation we can surely get a sense of a curious eroticism at work: it’s there in the setting – a man alone in his study, a space cleared on the desk for his special book; in the tactility with which he holds the pages spread with his fingers; and in the glazed passivity of his expression – the pornographic gaze: a rictus half-smile masking absorption: the interior pleasure of the solitary viewer. This is a mode of reading which acts out Roland Barthes’s famous rhetorical question: ‘Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?’ Barthes answers his own question with some examples:

The intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.

In Zo’s image, the pleasure of the text is indeed in its intermittence: the between-two-edges of a passage obscured by the very paper on which it’s printed.

The lines which Roussel intended Zo’s image to illustrate come from one of the poem’s long list sections, in this case a list of correspondences, where something large and something small share a certain characteristic. Here, Roussel is likening the reader who peers between the uncut leaves of a book to a mother who peeks between the curtains of a cradle:

 …lorsqu’une mere, oseuse,
Ouvre un berceau, les blancs rideaux, pour deux feuillets
Non coupés qu’on disjoint.

[ …when a mother daringly
Opens a cradle, its white curtains, for two leaves
In an uncut book one prises apart.] (Mark Ford)

Daringly is a striking word here, even if we didn’t know about Roussel’s extraordinary mother-relationship: it sexualises the scene, accusing the mother of bringing a brazenness to her Fort-Da play with the child. The nominal formulation in the French is even more suggestive: oseuse, from oser, to dare: thus, a woman who dares (just as poseur, from poser, is a man who poses). Her twin roles then are listed side-by-side: ‘mère, oseur’: ‘mother, darer’. Barthes’s sense of the erotic as the ‘staging of an appearance-as-disappearance’ could hardly more explicitly represented: in Roussel’s table of comparisons the appearance-disappearance game of the brazen mother, using the curtains of the crib as theatrical props, becomes the writ-large equivalent of the book as portable peep-show.

To make things even stranger, Roussel’s lines and Zo’s illustration appear to be self-reflexive: the book best-suited for this model of reading-as-peering is Nouvelles Impressions dAfrique itself. Roussel’s poem is a long one by any measure, yet after fifteen years of creative effort, at fifty-nine pages long it still fell somewhat short of the book-length work its author had envisaged. Commissioning a set of illustrations, then, offered a way to pad the text out, and to redouble the effect Roussel took the unusual step of leaving all left-hand pages blank, while on the recto side the poem and the illustrations appeared on alternate pages. The fifty-nine page poem thus becomes a work of two hundred and thirty-six pages, and since the top edge of the paper was uncut, if one wanted to see any of the illustrations one would either have to cut the pages, or to hold the sheets open and peek between them in the manner described. When we look at image #28 then, holding the pages open to watch our man holding the pages open, perhaps he too is peering at another reader, a smaller man, peeping through a tiny Nouvelles Impressions dAfrique in an infinite regress. (And yet – this slight disconnect between image and text again – in Zo’s illustration we can tell that this is not the book which the man is reading: there is writing on the verso sheet, and besides Roussel’s brief for the artist explicitly states that the man is peering between the uncut pages not to view an illustration but ‘so as to read a passage’ [‘pour y lire un passage’].)

There are, to my knowledge, three English translations of Roussel’s long poem (one is really a composite: Ken Koch’s mid-sixties translation of Canto III was supplemented in the late-nineties by Andrew Hugill’s working of Cantos I, II and IV). Of these, Mark Ford’s, which eschews the rhyme and metre of the original for greater fidelity to the sense, is the most satisfying both as a poem and as a translation. And yet, in its presentation it comes as a straightforward octavo edition with its edges pre-cut and the verso pages used for explanatory notes and the original French text. Alongside it, then, textual materialists will need a copy of Ian Monk’s version, published by Atlas Press, which comes as the original 1932 Lemerre edition original would have, with its top edges uncut, so that we might, if the mood takes us and there’s no-one around, find a quiet space to set the book upright on the table and, holding the pages gingerly open, peep through at Zo’s uncanny illustrations.