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Book Groups Beware

It will, of course, be no surprise to textual scholars and members of the Material Texts Network that textual variance is rife in works of contemporary fiction. However, for a number of reasons – pertaining to copyright, digitisation, and an assumption among many hermeneutic/theoretical critics that texts published around the world are self-identical – textual variance remains an under-studied phenomenon for those working on novels that are fresh off the (digital) press.

When I was recently working on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas [2004], however, I found a range of variants that exceeded my usual expectations of accidentals by quite some range. One of the chapters (‘An Orison of Sonmi ~451’) was almost totally rewritten in US and electronic editions of the text. I decided to investigate this further, even wondering whether the author had deliberately submitted different manuscripts to different publishers in an attempt to play a trans-textual game (the chapter in question does, after all, focus on storing the words of a death-penalty convict within a state archive for preservation and stability).

It turns out, as ever, that the differences are due to a social flaw in the editing process and not due to any technological aspect. Indeed, in 2003, David Mitchell’s editorial contact at the US branch of Random House moved from the publisher, leaving the American edition of Cloud Atlas without an editor for approximately three months. Meanwhile, the UK edition of the manuscript was undergoing a series of editorial changes and rewrites that were never synchronised back into the US edition of the text. When the process was resumed at Random House under the editorial guidance of David Ebershoff, changes from New York were likewise not imported back into the UK edition. In the section entitled ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451’ these desynchronised rewritings are nearly total at the level of linguistic expression between UK and US paperbacks/electronic editions and there are a range of sub-episodes that only feature in one or other of the published editions.

What I really wanted to know here, though, was what these edits actually did to the text. How would close reading be affected by these changes? What was actually different, and where? Since the extent of linguistic changes would be drastic, I compared functional questions and responses in this chapter (which takes the form of an interview). In other words, if, in terms of plot development, a Q&A was doing the same job in both editions, then I marked the sections as identical. I then modified the D3.js Sankey chart software to allow unlinked nodes and… hey presto, we can roughly visualize the changes to the syuzhet introduced through the editorial process.


Reading from top to bottom of this diagram on both sides allows us to see clearly reorderings and omissions between editions.

But… so what? “We” know that texts vary and that this is likely to be the case in the contemporary as much as in medieval studies. But that’s not the case for everyone. Indeed, as James F. English has noted, the canon of contemporary fiction in the academy is broadly determined by the literary prize culture circuit. Yet, with such variance, who can even be sure that all members of an international jury are reading the same text? What about online international book groups? What about local book groups where some readers are using a digital edition? What about the mass of academic criticism that has conducted close reading of one or other versions but never noticed these differences?




So much for close reading…






The full version of the article is available to read at: Eve, Martin Paul, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’, Open Library of Humanities, 2 (2016) <http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/olh.82>


Tales of the Unexpected

What is a full page image of the Virgin Mary doing in one of the most defining books of the English Reformation?

Virgin Mary with signs and symbols from Canticles from 1552 'Book of Common Prayer'
Virgin Mary with signs and symbols from Canticles from 1552 ‘Book of Common Prayer’

Bizarrely, some copies of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer (STC 16280-16280.5) contain a woodcut of the Virgin, with her symbols and names from Canticles in banderols, on one of the final leaves. In his bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, David N. Griffiths has described the Virgin’s appearance as ‘unexpected’, although offers no further comment or theory as to how this page can have materialised in the book (p. 66). How did this woodcut get there and what does it tell us?

This woodcut is similar to others which make a regular appearance in printed primers made in both France and England for the English market.

The Virgin Mary in 'Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis', T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931
The Virgin Mary in ‘Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis’, T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931

The first printed primers, like manuscript books of hours before them, had a distinct emphasis upon devotion to Mary; Eamon Duffy writes, ‘the whole primer was in some sense a Marian prayerbook’, based on the Little Hours of the Blessed Virgin (p. 256). That being the case, Reformed English primers were produced which moved to supplant these ‘traditional’ Latin ones, recognising a popular desire and need for devotional books but supplying, in their place, English ones whose devotions were heavily revised to shape and fit the expectations of Protestant readers.

For example, a ‘Goodly Prymer’ printed by John Byddell for William Marshall in 1535 (STC 15988), whose character Mary C. Erler has described as ‘unequivocally reforming’ (p. 240), was prefaced by an ‘admonition’ to the reader inveighing against Marian prayers, such as the Obsecro te which had had such a prominent place in the medieval book of hours, as idolatrous:

What vanity is promised in the superscription or title before Obsecro te, Domina Sancta Maria? where it is written, that whosoever saith that prayer daily before the image, called the image of our Lady of Pity, shall see the visage of our most blessed Lady, and be warned both of the day, and also of the hour of his death, before he depart out of this world. I pray you, what fondness, or rather madness, is this? (‘A Goodly Prymer’, p. 2).

In her discussion of Byddell’s primer, Christine Peters has argued that Reformed primers urged respect for, even as they rejected devotion to the Virgin Mary; ‘it seems too simplistic,’ she writes, ‘when drawing up a balance sheet of the effects of the Reformation, to assume the ‘loss’ of the Virgin Mary’ (pp. 208 and 215-16).

Yet, the appearance of the woodcut of Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer goes further than the respect Peters finds for the Virgin in this reformed primer. Jayne Wackett, in her study of the counterintuitive cross-over between the image cultures of prayer books from the times of Edward VI and Mary Tudor, has demonstrated that the ‘unexpected’ is remarkably common in mid-sixteenth-century prayer books (pp. 257-8). Yet this full-page devotional image in the Book of Common Prayer is more unexpected even than the illustrated initials she compares. Not only are the Virgin’s names in Latin, rather than English, they also invoke the forms of address in the Obsecro te and other petitionary hymns in the Horae, whose misuse the ‘Goodly Prymer’ attacks.

Curiously, this impression of The Book of Common Prayer with its renegade woodcut was put out by Edward Whitchurche under the Sign of the Sun, an establishment which was inherited from John Byddell: the same printing outfit which had put out the 1535 ‘Goodly Prymer’ (Atkin and Edwards, p. 33). The woodcut may have slipped in, in place of a printer’s emblem, through Whitchurche and Grafton’s previous association with François Regnault; a similar woodcut appears, for example, in Regnault’s English ‘Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, printed in Paris in 1531.

Image of the Virgin Mary from 'Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, with Robert Copland, printed in Paris in 1531.
Image of the Virgin Mary from ‘Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, with Robert Copland, printed in Paris in 1531.
Grafton and Whitchurche had collaborated with Regnault in Paris in 1538 on the printing of the Great Bible, an endeavour which was disrupted by the seizure of the pages by Francis I’s Inquisitors of the Faith (Atkin and Edwards, p. 38).

Later, according to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Grafton and Whitchurche returned to Paris to get ‘the presses, letters, and servants of the aforesaid printer, and brought them to London’, setting up as printers themselves to produce the Bible they had begun with Regnault (cited in David Scott Kastan, p. 93). Regnault was one of the leading printers of primers for the English market packaging them into ‘lines’ that catered for established as well as emerging religious and readerly tastes (Erler, p. 230). Similarly, and oddly given his energetic involvement in the production of reformed literature in English, in 1536 Byddell produced a Latin primer (STC 15991) in a small sextodecimo format with a distinctly Marian cast.

For Erler, consumer demand led printers like Regnault and Byddell to produce books for people across sectarian lines and a mixed market for devotional books meant that they both produced English and Latin primers (p. 240). The new prayer book replaced books for liturgical use within churches, of course, but also aspired to supplant primers (Duffy, p. 213). Indeed, across the course of 1552 and into the following year, new quarto and octavo editions of the Book of Common Prayer were produced, often bound with the psalter as the primer was, suggesting a targeting of that lay market and an attempt to attach the volume to people, as well as institutions. The woodcut, then, reminds us that, although the prayer book was a product and a driver of hardening sectarian lines, it emerged into a literary market which was driven as much by lay devotional tastes in all their variety as official ecclesiastical need, a need which was more easily directed from the top.

Once a book had reached that lay market, furthermore, it was difficult to govern its use. Consider, for example, the British Library copy of the 1552 prayer book which carries numerous manuscript erasures of King Edward in favour of Queen Mary; the pronouns are also accordingly changed from masculine to feminine (C.25.l.3; STC 16285). Another copy (C.24.a.2) replaces Edward with James, despite its being superseded by an Elizabethan edition. Neither of these readers seems fazed by the obsolecence of their Book. Readers, as well as printers, then, failed to keep books in their true places and, whilst the ‘Goodly Prymer’ complains about the misuse of Catholic prayers in the old primers, misuse was a problem which potentially affected all books however ‘correct’ and whatever their reformed credentials.

The Virgin Mary in the context of '1552 Book of Common Prayer.'
The Virgin Mary in the ‘1552 Book of Common Prayer.’

It is easy to think about the mid-sixteenth century as a time of clear sectarian lines, when books, their owners and makers took up sides. This unexpected woodcut, a hang-over from a supposedly supplanted age, shows us how hard it was to hold those lines in book production. Print, for all its technological modernity, was still set and pressed by hand and the larger scale of text production amplified the quirks that work by hand admitted. The image of the Virgin Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer is, then, ‘unexpected’ but also typical of a culture which, for all the violence of its religious revolution, sometimes unwittingly readmitted what it sought to delete.


If you liked this, you may also be interested in a related article on the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and the so-called Black Rubric, in Textual Practice, 30:7 (2016). If you don’t have institutional access but would like a copy of this, email me and I will send you a free link (i.davis@bbk.ac.uk)

‘A Goodly Prymer’, in Three Primers put forth in the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. Edward Burton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1834).
Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis, T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931.
The boke of common prayer, and administracion of the sacramentes, and other rites and ceremonies in the Churche of Englande (Londini: Edvvardi Whytchurche, 1552); STC 16280.5.
Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use, (François Regnault with Robert Copland: Paris,1531); STC 15974.

Secondary references:
Atkin, Tamara and Edwards, A.S.G., ‘Printers, Publishers and Promoters to 1558’, in A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558, ed. Vincent Gillespie and Susan Powell (D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2014), 27-44.
Duffy, Eamon The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale, 1992).
Erler, Mary C., ‘The Maner to Lyue Well and the Coming of English in François Regnault’s Primers of the 1520s and 1530s, The Library, s6-VI (1984): 229-43.
Griffiths, David N. The Bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, 1549-1999 (London: British Library, 2002).
Kastan, David Scott, ‘Print, Literary Culture and the Book Trade’, in The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature, ed. David Loewenstein, Janel Mueller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 81-116.
Peters, Christine, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Wackett, Jayne, ‘Examining the Unexpected: Printed Images in the Prayer Books of Edward VI and the Primers of Mary Tudor’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte – Archive for Reformation History, 105 (2014), 257-83.


Blankness and the medieval page

A “blank” page. British Library, Royal MS 2A xviii, fol.1r. ©British Library Board
A “blank” page. British Library, Royal MS 2A xviii, fol.1r. ©British Library Board

The page above seems unremarkable: devoid of textual content, described as “blank” in the accompanying British Library description, it appears to have been written only by the unguided hands of time and decay. The stains and other marks attest to the use of this parchment folio as a flyleaf, the first of two at the start of a fifteenth-century manuscript. Flyleaves were often left at the beginning and end of a manuscript to protect the rest of the text from damage; while many remain blank, others became a prime location for ownership inscriptions, rough drawings, and other doodles (manuscript scholar Erik Kwakkel has recently blogged about flyleaves here).

At some point in this folio’s early history it was prepared for text; rulings for a text block in red crayon are faintly visible at the top of the folio and towards the bottom right corner. While this text block remains unfilled, the writing on the verso side of the folio shows through on the recto, its spectral presence emphasising the enduring absence of text on this side of the folio. More recently, a British Museum stamp has been added close to the centre of the page, a mark of the manuscript’s final resting place and, by extension, its incorporation into modern schemes of foliation, description and cataloguing. Despite its designation as “blank” in the online catalogue then, it would seem that there are still things to say about pages like that of fol.1r of British Library, Royal MS 2A xviii.

“Ecological Remainders”

The page above has been something of a departure point for work I have been doing recently on the blankness of medieval writing surfaces, particularly in fifteenth-century English manuscripts. While it is not uncommon for manuscripts to include “blank” leaves, I have come to think that what such leaves show is that the space of manuscripts is not, in fact, absolutely blank, at least not in the sense that that word has come predominantly to occupy. That is, the blankness of medieval manuscripts is of a different order to the chemically-induced whiteness of a modern sheet of A4 paper, or the pristine virtual whiteness of a word processing document on a computer screen.

As well as tracing the etymology of “blank” and its overlap with “white” then, I have been considering just how blank the leaves of manuscripts really are. The parchment and paper used in fourteenth and fifteenth-century manuscripts preserve numerous instances of what Joshua Calhoun has recently called “ecological remainders” (“The Word Made Flax”, PMLA vol.126 no.3). Calhoun’s focus is on sixteenth and seventeenth-century printed Bibles, but the manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth century arguably provide an even richer record of the ways in which the page might reappear as something more than the unmarked substrate of inscription. The labour-intensive, time-consuming practices required to produce medieval folios resulted not in pristinely white pages, but rather multihued surfaces that, before the addition of any textual content or evidence of their passage between scribes and future readers, preserved the memory of their previous existence as animal skin or plant matter.

To produce parchment, skins were washed, soaked in lime (calcium oxide, obtained by heating limestone and combining the remnants with water), washed a second time, dried under tension, and then de-haired. The occurrence of scar tissue or holes in the page as a result of pre-existing injuries to the animal often required scribes to curve or separate their writing. Such holes could also be the result of parchment makers pushing too hard with their tools while removing hair, a reminder of the labour-intensive processes required to turn animal skin into a surface receptive of crayon, ink and gold leaf.

On fol.7r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 101, a manuscript of travel narrative The Book of Sir John Mandeville, a hole equivalent in height to around three and a half lines of writing has been incorporated into the scribe’s copying of the text. On fol.7v though, the scribe was forced to split the word ‘relykes’ [relics] around this hole in the page, ‘re’ on the left side and ‘lykes’ on the right. This flaw in the page results in a fortuitous yet apposite combination of text and manuscript materiality: in a section of the Book of Mandeville that ironically details the multiplicity and brokenness of medieval relics and the competing claims of veracity attendant on them, the word ‘relics’ has itself been cleaved in two.

Medieval paper was made from cellulose; flax, commonly in the form of linen, was obtained as cloth rags. Linen was itself difficult and time-consuming to prepare: before the process of spinning could begin, the flax was rhetted (soaked in water or dew in order to separate the fibre from the stalk); broken (beaten with wooden mallets); and then drawn through a hackle (a device resembling a bed of nails). Before it could become a writing surface, linen had already undergone a lengthy process of production and an even lengthier period of inhabitation or use.

To make paper, the collected cloth rags were fermented in vats for six to eight weeks, in order to weaken the fibres. This material was then beaten to a pulp before being cleaned. A screen tray papermould constructed of vertical and horizontal wires (chain-lines and laid-lines respectively) was then covered in a layer of pulp; this wire screen at the bottom of the mould retained the pulp but enabled excess water to pass through. A removable rim known as a deckle set the size of the sheet. Once set, the sheet was added to a pile and then pressed to remove as much remaining water as possible. After repeated stacking and drying, the sheets would be coated in size, a substance made from boiled fragments of parchment and leather.

The slightly brown or yellow hue of many paper folios is evidence not of the discolouration of a whiter original condition over time, but rather of the retention of these colours from the process of production itself: the paper produced at mills alongside particularly muddy rivers, or during the wet spring months, would preserve this fact in their hue. Further, on occasion fragments of organic matter that had made it through the paperman’s vat and mould resurface in the page; small knots of flax or single hairs can be found in medieval and early modern paper books.

The use of fragments of parchment to produce size is one instance of what might be thought of as the circling or looping nature of the ecology of textual production and consumption from the medieval into the early modern age. Just as fragments of parchment might be recycled in a variety of ways, paper was only one form flax could take in an extended series of use and reuse: flax became clothing or canvas which, when worn out, might then be used to produce paper. In turn, books might be read to rags, which could be added again to the vat to produce new paper, or could be further broken down and used as fertiliser for growing more flax plants.

Blank leaves & blank spaces

Even without text then, the leaves of manuscripts are legible in a certain sense. Once a medieval scribe had added text to these leaves though, it was not uncommon for them still to include “blank” (i.e unwritten) spaces. Manuscript digitisation projects have tended, initially at least, to focus on illuminated pages that are well planned and laid out, richly arrayed, and complete. However, for all such pages, many more survive that are somehow incomplete or fragmentary. In an oft-quoted passage, manuscript scholar Ralph Hanna argues that vernacular manuscripts should primarily be thought of as ‘fluid and developing entities’; rarely planned in advance, their contents often contingent on the availability of exemplars for scribes to copy, these manuscripts frequently contain blank spaces between, and even within, texts. In this context, blankness in manuscripts seems always to be a potential space for further writing. Opening the manuscript to the future, blank leaves and spaces are potential points of transition in a manuscript’s evolving history.

The “Glastonbury Miscellany” is a particularly good example of a manuscript in which blank spaces became the site of further additions. These additions traverse the “great divide” between medieval and early modern periods; while taking the manuscript far from its original context of production, they attest to the ways in which tracing the lived existence of manuscripts might enable the broader project of rethinking periodization. Work began on the manuscript in the middle of the fifteenth century, with the Miscellany originally intended to be an account book for Glastonbury abbey: fol.1v includes a list of accounts, now largely illegible due to water damage sustained in the second half of the sixteenth century. This purpose appears to have soon changed as a number of more literary texts were added, including many that relate to the abbey’s abbots and monks, as well as its legendary founder Joseph of Arimethea.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Glastonbury abbey and the Glastonbury Miscellany experienced differing fortunes. On the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the abbey was visited by agents Richard Layton, Richard Pollard, and Thomas Moyle in September 1539. Stripped of its valuables and its abbot Richard Whyting brutally executed as a traitor in November of that year, Glastonbury abbey began its slow decline: masonry was removed from the abandoned buildings as they passed between private owners and by the first decades of the eighteenth century the site was already being described as a ruin. Around forty manuscripts survived the breaking up of the abbey’s library though, including the manuscript now know as the Glastonbury Miscellany.

As the place of its production and the impetus for so much of its original contents began to crumble, the Glastonbury Miscellany itself continued to invite further additions and emendations. The Miscellany was still being added to in the 1560s, both in the spaces between and alongside those texts originally copied and, most extensively, in a number of folios later in the manuscript that remained blank after the efforts of the original scribe in the fifteenth century. One later reader in particular was responsible for much of the additional material incorporated into the manuscript in the decades after its removal from the abbey, adding seventeen further items of varying lengths, including (but not limited to) an acrostic poem, proverbial verses, and a short verse on the symbolism of colours.

The last datable entry by this later reader was on the fourth of June 1561, a short note on a fire at St Paul’s Cathedral squeezed into a small space at the foot of fol.88r. The text above the note on St. Paul’s is a topical verse in two sections in the same hand. The first verse is an attack on Sir Richard Gresham, a mercer and former sheriff, alderman, and mayor of London and Member of Parliament who died in 1549. The second verse is a reply by author and schoolteacher Richard Sherry. These additions suggest a new urban environment for the manuscript: transferred to London, the manuscript had apparently become part of a new network of reading and use through which urban events and the fallout of political manoeuvrings co-exist alongside the monastic setting of the manuscript’s original composition.

A short note (headed ‘Powles’) on the burning of St. Paul’s, London, in June 1561, beneath two topical verses on former mayor of London Sir Richard Gresham. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.88r. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online
A short note (headed ‘Powles’) on the burning of St. Paul’s, London, in June 1561, beneath two topical verses on former mayor of London Sir Richard Gresham. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.88r. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online

On other pages the earlier monastic and later urban locales occupy the same space. On fol.79v a note on English and French currency, specifically dated to ‘The Tenthe day of October Ao 2o Eliz[abeth]’ has been copied by the later reader/scribe in a small space at the foot of the page. This note has been squeezed into a space beneath a reproduction of a letter by Nicholas Frome, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1420 to 1456 and a short prayer, both copied by the original scribe in the fifteenth century. While this letter occupies a greater proportion of page, the later note gets the last word on the folio, both sequentially and temporally.

A note on English and French currency beneath a reproduction of a letter by Nicholas Frome, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1420 to 1456 and a short prayer. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.79v. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online
A note on English and French currency beneath a reproduction of a letter by Nicholas Frome, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1420 to 1456 and a short prayer. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.79v. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online

Attesting to the inevitability of the future, these varied additions became part of the manuscript’s evolving contents. It would be overly simplistic though to read these later additions as a symbol of a monastic, inward-looking Middle Ages yielding to an increasingly urban(e) early modern world. Though predominantly focusing on the immediate context of the manuscript’s production, the original scribe did include a small number of texts concerned with detailing urban locales, including The Stores of the City, a description of seven English cities beginning with London that mixes Latin and Middle English. In turn, the later readers did not only add new texts in the blank leaves and spaces, but also historicised those texts copied by the original scribe, adding marginal comments in the form of proverbs and other notes and titles and attributions of authorship where they were absent. While the numerous later additions attest to the openness of blank leaves to further writing, these notes and titles attest to a simultaneous desire on the part of the manuscript’s sixteenth-century readers to interact with and codify its earlier contents. Far from simply attempting to wrench the manuscript from its original context of production, its later readers seem to have been conscious of their position writing in the pages of a manuscript of such varied content, caught in the midst of a recent past and an uncertain future.

I would like to close by briefly noting a form of blank space in the manuscript as it now survives that (in all likelihood) will not be the location for any further writing: those blank leaves added to the manuscript more recently to ameliorate the damage it sustained in the second half of the sixteenth century and at later points in its history. This damage makes it difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of additions made by the numerous hands that followed the original scribe in the pages of the manuscript. It is unclear how many other texts have been lost, texts that may have given us an even fuller understanding of the interactions, contrasts and tensions between the manuscript’s original contents and those later additions in the inviting blank spaces that remained after its initial production phase. For all the Glastonbury Miscellany tells us about how medieval manuscripts continued to be read and added to in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the blankness of those modern leaves on which particularly badly damaged folios have been mounted during its restoration is a small reminder of all that we have lost from our period of study.

Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.89v. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online
Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38, fol.89v. Image via Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online


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.