Ed Brubaker's Bad Weekend etc

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Jacob Phillips, Bad Weekend  (Image 2019)
––––––, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (Image 2018)

Scanning my shelves after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (blog post to come when the Book Group meets), I decided to stick with the title and read a couple of the quality comics I was given for Christmas presents (Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend possibly to come).

These two handsome stand-alone books (‘novellas’) are spin-offs from the Criminal series of comics created between 2006 and 2012 by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (art). According to Wikipedia, ‘The series is a meditation on the clichés of the crime genre while remaining realistic and believable. That description is pretty accurate for these two books.

Bad Weekend is set in the world of comic artists. The narrator is charged with being the minder for a cantankerous, sexist, drunken old man who has been invited to a convention to receive a major award – because he is also an artist of genius. The narrator has been the old man’s assistant years earlier, and has been specifically asked for by him on this occasion. It turns out (of course) that the old man is completely uninterested in the award, but wants the young man’s help in finding some priceless original artwork that has been stolen from him. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the art has a slightly surreal noir feel to it (surreal because of the costumed convention-goers, noir because of the dark world of art theft and intrigue). There’s a nice twist at the end, which probably would have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t, like me, just along for the ride. I should add that the ride involves genuine pathos as we discover the causes of the old man’s vileness.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies should surely win a Most Provocative Title award. It turns out that like Bad Weekend this novella has a fairly straightforward plot involving criminal intrigue. A young woman with a heavy drug habit is sent to an expensive rehab clinic, but has no intention of getting clean. She sets her sights on a handsome young man and persuades him to run away with her from the clinic and from the constraints of their lives. She is, as she says, a bad influence. But there are hints that she is much worse than that  – and these hints are realised. It’s pulp.

The present-time narrative, mostly in full colour, is intercut with the young woman’s back story in moody monochrome, in particular the way, after her mother died, possibly of an overdose, she became fascinated by singers and pop stars who were heroin users. For me, the effect was a reinstatement of parts of famous lives that have been quietly erased or glossed over (David Bowie, John Lennon, Jean-Paul Sartre), and an attention to details of lives I knew very little about (Billie Holliday, Gram Parsons). So it’s pulp, but there’s plenty of nutritious stuff there.

Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’; began Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

As promised in my last report, I am now well under way in the third book, English title The Guermantes Way.

The last 60 pages of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs got quite sexy, with our poor narrator being sadly disappointed in what he had thought was going to be a long-yearned-for erotic rendezvous, in a way that not even his ingenious rationalisations could make less humiliating. But he bounced back and finished the book in good spirits.

There’s a scene in that book where an older man visits our narrator’s bedroom at night, lends him a book and paces about as if expecting something. The only way I can make sense of the scene is that the older man is hoping for a sexual encounter but goes away disappointed – to all of which the narrator is oblivious. Since absolutely no sexual overture is explicit it made me wonder how much I miss that goes unsaid elsewhere. And as I type those words I realise that the narrator’s disappointment in Albertine’s bedroom (mentioned in the previous paragraph) becomes even funnier in the light of his own unwitting rejection of the older gentleman. Incidentally, one of the common phrases in the book, is ‘à mon/son insu‘, which I guess translates as ‘unwittingly’.

I had thought that in this monthly report I’d write about whatever I happened to have just read. But what I’ve just read is two pages in which the narrator’s aristocratic army-officer friend Robert de Saint-Loup expands on the idea that there is an aesthetic side to the art of war, so maybe I’ll go back a bit.

On New Year’s Eve, in one of those conversations people who see each other once a year ask each other what we’ve been doing, I said I’m reading Proust. Behold, my interlocutor had read Swann’s Way with his book group, and has a friend who has read the whole of À la recherche in English and is now reading it in French. He quoted that friend as saying that in Proust what is not said matters more than what is said – a paradox, given that so much is said. There’s a marvellous moment in my reading since that conversation that exemplifies the point.

The narrator has gone to visit Robert de Saint-Loup at his garrison in the hope of procuring an introduction to Saint-Loup’s beautiful aunt, the object of the narrator’s stalkerish infatuation, the duchess de Guermantes. As it turns out, de Saint-Loup invites the narrator to stay with him in his quarters at the garrison. Over dinner, the narrator recognises a striking family likeness between his friend and his friend’s aunt. The emotional force of this recognition must have shown in his face because:

Robert, sans en connaître les causes, était touché de mon attendrissement.

https://ebooks-bnr.com/ebooks/html/proust_a_la_recherche_du_temps_perdu_3_cote_guermantes.htm

In English:

Robert, unaware of its cause, was touched by my show of affection.

From http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300411h.html, modified by me.

Things move on from there:

Celui-ci d’ailleurs s’augmentait du bien-être causé par la chaleur du feu et par le vin de Champagne qui faisait perler en même temps des gouttes de sueur à mon front et des larmes à mes yeux ; il arrosait des perdreaux ; je les mangeais avec l’émerveillement d’un profane, de quelque sorte qu’il soit, quand il trouve dans une certaine vie qu’il ne connaissait pas ce qu’il avait cru qu’elle excluait (par exemple d’un libre penseur faisant un dîner exquis dans un presbytère).

In English:

My affection was moreover increased by the comfortable heat of the fire and by the champagne which at the same time brought beads of sweat to my brow and tears to my eyes; it washed down the partridges; I ate mine in a state of wonder like some sort of profane person who finds in a form of life with which he is not familiar what he has supposed that form of life to exclude—the wonder, for instance, of a free-thinker who sits down to an exquisitely cooked dinner in a presbytery.

So far so good: during an extended tête-à-tête in his friend’s room, the narrator looks at his friend with an expression that properly would be directed to the women he is infatuated with. He sees that his friend mistakenly thinks the tender look is meant for him. The narrator is filled with a sense of wellbeing, is experiencing delights such as he had never imagined. What could happen next? Well:

Et le lendemain matin en m’éveillant, j’allai jeter par la fenêtre de Saint-Loup qui, située fort haut, donnait sur tout le pays, un regard de curiosité pour faire la connaissance de ma voisine, la campagne, que je n’avais pas pu apercevoir la veille, parce que j’étais arrivé trop tard, à l’heure où elle dormait déjà dans la nuit. 

In English:

And next morning, when I awoke, I went to cast from Saint-Loup’s window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, a curious look to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to distinguish the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping in the night.

So we’ll never know what happened between all those feelings of growing intimacy and waking up next morning. I won’t quote any more of this passage, as there’s an extended description of the neighbouring hill. But the narrator is filled with a new joy as the day progresses, and begins to visit Saint-Loup in his room regularly, and when Saint-Loup and he dine with Saint-Loup’s friends, they hang on each other’s words shamelessly – and our weedy, literary narrator becomes fascinated with the world of military manoeuvres and military history, the world of Saint-Loup.

What would I have thought of all this if I hadn’t been told that what’s unsaid is more important that what is said, and that this book is a classic queer masterpiece? Pretty much what I make of it now, I expect.

In a month’s time I expect to have finished the première partie of Le côté de Guermantes, and I’ll tell you if our narrator ever does get to meet the duchess … and if he cares.

Audio Books, sadly

When the Emerging Artist and I were much younger, I used to read to her on long car trips. For quite a while now, my voice has given out after an alarmingly short time, and we have turned to other entertainments. Audio books we’ve enjoyed are Magda Szubanski’s reading of her memoir Reckoning, and Bruce Kerr and Helen Morse’s reading of Donald and Myfanwy Horne’s Dying: A Memoir, though we only listened to half of the latter. We couldn’t stand David Tredinnick’s actorly reading of Tim Winton’s Island Home, though we could tell the book itself was interesting.

This blog post reports on two more experiments on Audio books on car drives from Sydney to Aireys Inlet in Victoria.


Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, Saga Land (2017, audible.com 2018)

This is an introduction to the Icelandic sagas embedded in a travel book. It includes Kári Gíslason’s personal story of claiming his Icelandic identity – he was born in Iceland to an Australian mother, but his Icelandic father wasn’t acknowledged on his birth certificate, or at all until he went looking for him as a young adult. It also tells about the friendship between travelling companions Fidler and Gíslason. They wrote alternate chapters and each reads his own chapters in the audio book.

I loved the tellings of the Icelandic sagas – both for their own sakes and for the light they cast on books like Independent People and movies like Rams, and TV shows like Trapped. A year later, my mind has indelibly retained a chilling moment from one of the sagas where a woman exacts revenge for what would now be called an act of domestic violence. And Fidler and Gíslason were excellent company.

Either my ageing ears or our feeble car radio meant that Richard Fidler’s tendency to fade away at the end of sentences made his sections of the book hard to follow at times. But this was a minor blemish compared to readers of other books (see below).

Our car trip, in January last year, ended before the book did, and I didn’t blog about it immediately because I intended to read the rest of it to myself. But as more than a year has now passed, I have to admit that I’ll never get around to it. That is to say, it was a pleasant, instructive read, but not compelling enough to make me go to any trouble to finish it.


Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Bolinda Publishing 2011, read by David Tredinnick)

In spite of my having wanted to throw Evie Wyld’s more recent novel All the Birds, Singing across the room, we’d both enjoyed it enough to expect to enjoy this.

We didn’t. In spite of the pleasures provided to this North Queensland boy by a sugarcane-field setting, we gave up after three of the ten discs, partly because its two narrative strands were going to meet in fairly predictable ways, partly because in one of them the characters felts utterly contrived, especially a weirdly taciturn little girl, and partly because David Tredinnick’s ‘do the police in different voices’, though probably objectively excellent, got on our nerves. For my taste, his reading injects too much actorly interpretation between the writing and me, and I find myself fighting with him over the characters when I’d rather be lost in the story.

We shifted to podcasts – Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and This American Life. Maybe if I go blind I’ll reconcile myself to audio books, and I’m not ruling out getting another one from the library if we do that drive again. But for now, I’m not an audio book fan.

Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking 2019)

This is a sequel to Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I haven’t read that book, but I did see and love Lisa Cholodenko’s 2014 miniseries starring Frances McDormand (my tiny blog post here).

Olive Kitteridge is a retired math(s) teacher in the small Maine town of Crosby. The book’s thirteen chapters form what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative – sometimes Olive is front and centre, so that we see everything through her eyes; sometimes she makes a tiny, almost inconsequential appearance in the lives of other local characters, and we catch glimpses, usually unflattering, of how they see her.

Olive is a large, socially awkward woman who can be shockingly unaware of the needs of other people: when her son and his wife come on a visit from New York City with their four children, including a small baby, she doesn’t think to buy milk and realises only when they are all there that she has only two chairs in her kitchen. The flip side of that quality is that she speaks her truth unsparingly – without malice, but without care for the effect of her words. As trivial example, at a display of work by local artists she loudly proclaims that it’s all crap. She tells a grieving widower that his recently deceased wife once called her a cunt – and Olive is a woman who hates swearing.

Yet amid all the wreckage of her life, she has a wonderful integrity and an ability to learn from painful interactions. To at least some people she’s loveable; to some she’s an inspiration. When she needs home nursing help she bluntly challenges the racism of one carer but wins her affection anyhow, and her similarly blunt interrogation of a Somali-heritage nurse wins her as well.

In the brief Acknowledgments, Elizabeth Strout mentions ‘cultural differences between New York City and Maine’, which makes me think that perhaps Olive is meant as a kind of incarnation of the spirit of Maine – plain-spoken, honest, taciturn as opposed to New York’s sophistication. I do wonder if Olive might be on the spectrum, but really that’s not what matters: she lives on the page as completely her own woman, warts – plenty of warts – and all.

If the book is reaching for anything other than a portrait of a woman (definitely not a lady) who came to Elizabeth Strout fully made, maybe its an approach to life, a philosophy, that’s summed up in a statement made by another character who is dealing with bereavement (there’s a lot of death, suffering and infidelity in this book, as well as love, tolerance and surprising moments of joy):

‘I’ve thought about this a lot. A lot. And here is the – well , the phrase I’ve come up with, I mean just for myself, but this is he phrase that goes through my head. I think our job – maybe even our duty – is to – ‘ Her voice became calm, adultlike. ‘To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.’

(p 115–116)

Very much in her own way, Olive has grace.

John Le Carré's Agent Running in the Field

John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019)

Ever since I saw Richard Burton in The Spy who Came in from the Cold on a double bill with Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death in Cairns in 1966, I’ve been a fan of movies based on John Le Carré’s novels. The novels themselves not so much, though Le Carré’s prose is always lucid, his plots brilliantly intricate, and his characters satisfyingly compromised. My main memory of the last Carré novel I read, The Honourable Schoolboy, was frequently falling asleep over it. All those betrayals and counter-betrayals, the polite British ruthlessness, the tradecraft and codewords, work brilliantly for me on the screen, but on the page require too much labour for too little return.

Then someone gave me Agent Running in the Field as a Christmas present., with the admonition that I need to read something that’s just fun instead of all the heavy stuff that’s been my diet lately (their words not mine).

I enjoyed it. It’s short, and comparatively simple, another spy on the brink of retirement pulled back into active status by chance occurrences and bureaucratic imperatives. Here’s how it starts:

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. we were neither covertly nor aggressively observed.

A challenge to a game of badminton follows, and then the game itself. We know from those first sentences that the game is completely innocent, but that it will not always seem so. Le Carré is brilliant at giving us enough information that we can leap to our own conclusions, which often turn out to be right. He makes his readers feel smart, so long as we don’t lose concentration.

Le Carré is nearly 90 years old, and has given his characters permission to rant about the state of things – Trumpism, Brexit, and to a lesser extent Big Pharma – in gloriously extreme language.

My gift-giver was right. This is perfect for reading on lazy summer days.

Clive James's River in the Sky

Clive James, The River in the Sky (Picador 2018)

This book-length poem is part of the extraordinary wealth of writing published by Clive James between discovering he was terminally ill early in the decade just finished and his death in November last year.*

Though awareness of his impending, even imminent mortality is there in all the bits of this huge output that I’ve read, The River in the Sky sets out to tackle it head on, beginning:

All is not lost, despite the quietness
that comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task

The ancient Egyptians prepared for a journey after death, equipped by their mourning survivors with food and drink and other necessities. But, James says, ‘now we know This is no journey.’ He imagines the room where he lives in his final illness as a tomb lovingly prepared by his wife and daughters, and this poem as the equivalent of a Pharaoh’s journey to the sky. This journey moves in a different different: rather then onwards beyond death, it wanders back over the poet’s life.

That is to say, this is not a systematic autobiography, or a summing up, but it flits from one memory, or dream-like mix-up of memories, to another:

In sunken cities of the memory
Mud-brick, dissolved in time,
Leaves nothing but the carved, cut stones
And scraps of the ceramics.
Time, it is thereby proven, is the sea
Whose artefacts are joined by separateness.

The death of his father in war when James was very young features large. There’s an extended sequence in which he visits Sydney’s Luna Park and various functionaries turn into school teachers and others from his young life. He speaks passionately and appreciatively to his wife and daughters, tells of the death of friends, and recalls moments from his life as a writer and TV personality, as well as bits from movies, music, the history of art, and lovingly realised memories of his native Sydney. The blank verse of the opening pages gives way to less stately verse, but the poetry never loses its sense of decorum.

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which prove now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die.

All the same I was reminded of something a much loved relative of mine said when his death was imminent. His wife told him that he should curb his irritability and stop yelling at his five children because he wouldn’t want to burden them with guilt and resentment in their final memories of him. He may well have followed her advice, but his immediate response was, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ So Clive James, who once presented himself on TV as a balding, overweight would-be Lothario, and was always ready to show off his formidable cultural knowledge and opinionatedness, seems to ask, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ In the shadow of death, he doesn’t take on a bogus solemnity. He name-drops shamelessly, humble-brags, and is slightly sleazy, but then surprises with a wonderful phrase. For example:

On the flight from Singapore
Straight down to Perth
When Elle Macpherson
Crossed the aisle to sit beside me
The impact of her beauty
Was exactly like
A mugging from a naiad.
Fame has its privileges
And most of those are drawbacks
But now and the you get to breathe
The aura of the angel –
Occasionally you're dazzled by
The rising of the sun
In the sulphur crest of the white cockatoo.

(To be clear, it’s not the mugging from a naiad that surprises me.)

It’s a lovely, gracious, sometimes silly, often erudite, in parts passionate, always lucid poem. There’s a Japanese tradition of ‘death poems’ – poems that monks write in the hope that they will die with the brush still in their hands. This isn’t exactly a death poem in that sense, but it’s in the same paddock. Reading it so soon after the poet’s actual death, it’s impossible not to be moved by its vitality, and – odd word to come to mind – it’s cheerfulness.


* According to Wikipedia (as at 31 December 2019), between June 2012 and his death in November 2019, he published: a weekly column for the Guardian, ‘Reports of my Death …’ (until June 2017); five collections of essays, including Play All (my blogpost here) and Poetry Notes 2006–2014 (my blogpost here); two book-length poems, of which The River in the Sky is one; four poetry collections, including the mammoth Collected Poems 1958–2015; his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (my blog posts here, here and here); and seven poems that haven’t been collected. He also continued ‘augmenting’ his website, https://www.clivejames.com

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are once again in Victoria for the New Year, and squeezing in our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We saw about 50 movies this year. It’s an approximate figure because we don’t know if we should count the two we walked out of or the ones we watched on TV. We each gave every film a score out of 5. Four films scored the full 10. Here they are in random order (click on the images for my brief blog reviews):

We each chose one more to make five each:

Of documentaries seen in the cinema we agreed on a top four, all seen at the Sydney Film Festival:

A special award for earliest walk-out of a movie goes to Etan Cohen’s Holmes and Watson. Having seen less than a quarter of an hour of it, our only regret was not leaving earlier.

Theatre (best and worst):

We subscribed to Belvoir Street again and there wasn’t a single dud. As for naming a best, we couldn’t go past Counting and Cracking, written by S Shakthidharan and directed by Eamon Flack in a Sydney Town Hall transformed into a huge Indian fort set. I want to give a special mention for Biggest Disappointment to Paul Capsis reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at the Old Fitz, directed by Dino Dimitriadis which was inexplicably beyond terrible (and cost $50 a seat).

Books:

The Emerging Artist read 35 books in hard copy and roughly 17 on her device. Of the hard copy books, 22 were by women. She has given me a list of her five best books in non-fiction and fiction categories, but couldn’t be induced to dictate any comments. Here they are then, non-fiction first, none of which I’ve read (yet), all of them with explanatory subtitles:

And the fiction (the last two with links to my blog posts, which don’t claim to represent the EA’s opinions):

As for me, I don’t know how to pick best books from my year. Reading À la recherche du temps perdu, the first two novels so far, has been a delight and a fascination. Moments from Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip keep surfacing vividly months after reading it. Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs knocked me back on my heels. Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay Australia Fair changed my understanding of the meaning of elections. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter and Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole make me look at the people around me differently, with greater respect for their unseen struggles and heroism. I’ve read much wonderful poetry, and rediscovered brilliant books for very small children. I’ve done a quick gender breakdown in an earlier post (here).

And that’s it for 2019. Please feel free to name your own Bests in the comments, and may all my readers have a fire-free and climate-change-mitigating New Year!

Simon Leys' Death of Napoleon

Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon, translatd by Patricia Clancy and the author (Black Inc 2006)

This book imagines that Napoleon escaped from exile in St Helena through a brilliantly complex conspiracy, and that the man who died on he island was an impersonator. Napoleon starts out planning to contact his loyal followers and regain power, but – not a spoiler really – that doesn’t happen. So what does a great military strategist and statesman do when deprived of his army and any possibility of rebuilding his power base? What effect does it have on him to take on the identity of a lowly corporal? Can his skills be turned to any other purpose, and what happens if he tries to reveal his true identity? It’s an intriguing and entertaining premise, and it unfolds in precisely realised, sometimes very funny, scenes and crystal-clear language.

This is the only work of fiction by Belgian-Australian scholar Simon Leys (real name Pierre Ryckmans), who is best known, I think, as a learned commentator on Chinese politics and culture. Written in 1967 in his native French it was first published as La mort de Napoléon in 1986. The English translation is copyright 1991, and this edition, which includes a fabulously taciturn Author’s Afterword, was published in 2006.

L’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, of which Ryckmans was a member, comments on its website (link here) that this book ‘seems to have found its true mother tongue in its English translation’. Certainly the cool, ironic yet still respectful narrative voice feels comfortably Australian. Even leaving aside the twist in the title – Napoleon’s death is announced fairly early in the narrative, but our hero, the real Napoleon, lives on – the story has plenty of clever twists and surprises, always justified by character, and the final tragicomic movement should be predictable but wasn’t predicted by me.

I’ve only read one other of Simon Leys’ books – not fiction, but written with a novelist’s attention to the telling detail and the emotional force of events: The Wreck of the Batavia and Prosper (my blog post here). I wonder if we should regret that he didn’t write more fiction.

My copy of The Death of Napoleon is on loan from my Book Club.

Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah's Friday Black

Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Mariner Books 2018)

The Black Lives Matter movement looms large in the warp and weft of this book, especially in the first story, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which features an activity known as Naming – African-Americans brutally kill random white people while shouting the names of the victims of a hideous racist murder –, and in ‘Zimmer Land’, in which a theme park named for Trayvon Martin’s killer caters to white men acting act out fantasies of killing young African-American men.

But it’s a long way from being a political manifesto. This is strong, beautifully crafted fiction, with a weird, fantastic edge to it: the killer in ‘The Finkelstein 5’ dismembered five teenagers in a parking lot with a chainsaw and was still found not guilty because he argued that what he did was for his own children; and the protagonist in ‘Zimmer Land’ wears a hi-tech suit that enables him on the one hand to become hugely threatening to the customers and on the other hand not be killed when they shoot him.

The other stories are less violent – though there is one set in a department store that involves a callous acceptance of the death of many customers in the Black Friday sales. (I was being all complacent about us not having such a barbaric ritual in Australia despite the efforts of Amazon and others to impose it – here Black Friday refers to some terrible bushfires – when I saw a news item about people being crushed in a mall in Parramatta, and the story retrospectvely took on a much more urgent feel.)

The sensibility behind the stories has a lot in common with Jordan Peel’s brilliant, borderline-horror movies, Get Out and Us. As in those movies, the stories are the thing, and the implications trail behind them like the tails of comets, staying in the mind a long time.

My copy was a gift from a friend who bought the book in New York to read on the flight home. He thought that because I enjoy China Miéville I would like these stories. I have no idea if Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah has even heard of China Miéville, but my friend was right about my response to the book.

Gustason & Uberti's Notes from Public Typewriter

Michael Gustafson & Oliver Uberti (editors), Notes from a Public Typewriter (Scribe 2018)

This is a tasteful novelty book, the kind you give someone for a birthday present expecting them to find it pleasantly diverting and maybe even in some way illuminating. I was given it as a birthday present back in March, and if I’m right about the giver’s expectations I can report that they were met.

In 2013 Michael and Hilary Gustafson opened an independent bookstore in the university town of Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA. As an offshoot of an enthusiasm of Michael’s and as a point of difference in the difficult world of independent bookstores (many having closed in Ann Arbor in the years before 2013), they put a typewriter on display with a sheet of paper invitingly inserted. The typewriter on the opening day was a light blue Olivetti Lettera 32, which sounds very like the one I owned in the 1960s on which I typed out the lyrics of every Bob Dylan song I had access to, so I understand the appeal. That typewriter and its successors (a public typewriter can only last so long, and typewriter repairers are hard to find) attracted a steady stream of typists who sat down to pound out witticisms, confessions, comings-out, proposals of marriage, memorials, poems.

The bookshop and its public typewriter became a much loved local institution. The meat of this book is a wealth of things typed there, ranging from, say:

Why does this thing 
have a hashtag symbol?
They didn't have Twitter.
#weird

to:

Dear ––, I love you and I hope
one day we can talk about things
when we are sober.

The typewritten fragments are punctuated and illuminated by short essays by Michael Gustafson. Graphic artist Oliver Uberti who designed a typewriter sign for the shop window is responsible for the book’s elegant design. Beautifully reproduced photographs are scattered throughout.

So yes, the public typewriter is a gimmick, the book is a novelty and a piece of self promotion – effective, because if ever I’m in Ann Arbor I’ll certainly look for the Literati bookshop. But there’s something moving about the image that stands behind it all of an apparently endless stream of people responding to the challenge of a blank sheet of paper, whether it’s to write ‘fart’ five times (and mercifully Gustafson gives us only one of presumable =y many who wrote things of that sort), or to make the typewrite the centrepiece of that peculiarly US ritual of the public marriage proposal. Having been involved in the Sorry Book Project a decade ago, and Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project in recent years, I am in awe of the way people can rise to that challenge and in love with the way a community can manifest itself through devices of this sort.