A wild slim alien

The Gift of All Travel – Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey

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Pick up a copy of Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey, and open the book at any page. There, in lines both broad and fine, lines originally gauged, carved or chiselled into pearwood with a selection of woodcutting tools, are two of 165 striking images of a man in both everyday and red-letter day situations. At first he is fresh-faced, but later he bears the marks of life’s excesses and disappointments, of time’s inexorable march. Each scene is both a story in its own right, and a continuation of the man’s overarching tale, from his arrival in a great city, to his death and indeed his afterlife. So we see him lost in a crowd; looking down into the water of a canal, his head in his hands; visiting an art gallery; making love to a married woman, then walking the streets, his face lit up with euphoria; gathering a flock of birds about him; ice-skating on a river; buying fresh produce from the fruit and vegetable market; climbing up a pole to hang joints of meat from the top of it, then (back on the ground) aiming an arrow at them; reading under a tree, and later in a library; attending a political meeting and speaking to a rally; fallen grief-stricken over the deathbed of a young woman; and travelling widely, visiting as many destinations as a travel writer might, learning about other cultures as he goes, and perhaps concluding on his return to the city that wherever you are in the world, people are not so very different from each other.

Save for a couple of epigraphs and a further quotation after the final woodcut, there are no words. Originally published as Mon Livre d’heures (My Book of Hours) in Geneva one hundred years ago this year, Passionate Journey is one of the earliest examples – possibly the first, preceded only by Masereel’s own much shorter work, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion – of the wordless novel, and as such is widely recognised as being pivotal in the development of what would later come to be known as the graphic novel.

Lauded by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, a friend of and illustrator for the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and an admired confidante of the poet Rilke, among others, Belgian artist Frans Masereel’s achievements in his favoured medium of the woodcut would be impressive even without what has come to be his best known work. He went on to carve many other wordless works, including (from the subsequent decade alone) The Sun, The Idea, Story Without Words, The Work, and The City, all but one available in inexpensive editions from Dover Publications. (The City was also the focus of an exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2017.)

In the medieval sense, a book of hours was an illuminated manuscript containing devotional texts, prayers, and psalms. Some had decoration and colour lavished upon them; others restricted this to initial letters at the head of a page. While they were usually written in Latin, many were rendered in the vernacular, especially in Holland. Born and raised in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Masereel must have been well aware of these works, and alongside them Paupers’ Bibles, in which illustration was central, with little or no supporting text. Perhaps a book of hours or an illustrated bible had even been passed down within his family, a seed of inspiration for the artist he would become.

In his memoir The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig recalls the first evening he spent in Geneva, when he met a small group of predominantly French-speaking artists and writers with whom he instantly became firm friends, in spite of the clash of nations being played out by the First World War. ‘Among them was Frans Masereel, carving an enduring graphic monument of protest against the horrors of war before our eyes in his woodcuts, haunting images in black and white that, in their forceful anger, are equal even to Goya’s Desastres de la guerre. Day and night, he worked tirelessly cutting new scenes and figures out of the silent wood, his small room and his kitchen were both full of his woodcut blocks, and every morning La Feuille printed another of his graphic accusations.’

Masereel was indeed a pacifist and political activist, contributing his art to radical publications with limited circulation, so it should be no surprise that the life of the hero of Passionate Journey is very much a political one, and it’s for this reason that the book has long been a favourite in left-wing and anarchist circles. I first came across it at about the same age as is the protagonist at the start of the book. From either a radical bookshop (Compendium in Camden or Housmans in King’s Cross, the former gone, the latter happily still in business) or possibly from a stall at the Anarchist Book Fair held at Conway Hall in Holborn, I bought a cheap A6-sized version of the work, published by an underground Spanish publisher. The no doubt pirated images were badly reproduced, as if they were photocopies of photocopies, but Masereel’s captivating art and storytelling nevertheless shone through, moving beyond the merely political to encompass all of life. The appeal to Masereel of the woodcut form and its resultant starkly beautiful black and white images was precisely its reproducibility; he saw that it meant his art might be widely and cheaply circulated, and this is exactly what happened, initially in Germany in the 1920s (until Passionate Journey and Masereel’s other early wordless novels were banned as degenerate by the Nazis), and then in the late 1940s in the United States.

After the publication of My Book of Hours, Rilke wrote, ‘How happy has this lush collection of images made me! From one to the other I was surprised by its inexhaustible fertility of life and imagination.’ Rilke would have been aware that Masereel must have been indebted to his own 1905 collection, My Book of Hours. With sections entitled Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage, and The Book of Poverty and Death, Rilke’s work could even be seen as an underlying structure for the life of Masereel’s far more secular hero, who – as he passes through those very stages of life – is shown to be both earnest and carefree, hopeful and despairing, weary and defiant, domesticated and adventurous. As one of the epigraphs (by Masereel’s friend, the French Nobel laureate and writer Romain Rolland) also indicates, the woodcuts are filled with ‘joy and sorrow, spite and good-humour, wisdom and folly, hay and straw, figs and grapes, fruit ripe and unripe, roses and haws — what I have seen, felt and known, owned and lived.’ (Rolland it was who encouraged Masereel to tell ‘simple stories of humble everyday life’.) It’s all there within Masereel’s portrayal of a young man trying to make his way, and do his best, until perhaps he realises his best is not enough. If he is ever shown working, it is at some kind of basic labour, and the job never seems to be held for long. A later scene, however, includes an artist’s easel, suggesting that this might be both how our hero has been able to pay his way and what has enabled him to sidestep the straightjacket of class.

In his introduction to the 1926 German edition of My Book of Hours, Thomas Mann wrote expansively but somewhat idealistically and archaically about this aspect of the hero’s character: ‘For only the artist is classless, declassed from birth. If he is born a worker, his intellect and noblesse bring him close to the middle class. If, as almost all artists today, he is a product of the middle class, again his intellect, freeing him of social ties, alienates him from his class, makes him suspicious of middle-class interests, and carries him much closer in spirit to the worker, even though he is likewise mistrustful of the latter’s class interest. His classlessness is not utopian; it is a natural result of fate and genuine at all times. It is this that surrounds him with an aura of purity, strangeness, detachment, something which in former times would have been called ‘saintliness’; and it is this too which, in a world shattered and torn asunder by implacable class conflicts, makes him, the outsider, the uninterested, the pure guest, the only one secretly enjoying the confidence of humanity, despite all the suspicions the ‘practical’ man inevitably feels toward the intellectual and imaginative man.’

In terms of love, the hero’s luck appears to be almost as transient as his attitude to work; he has his heart broken at least once, but there is enough in the unfolding of his passionate journey to suggest that he in turn might unwittingly or otherwise have broken a heart or two himself along the way. He remains a loner, happy to travel the world, to be always moving on. And so he dies how he has lived – alone. In her piece celebrating My Book of Hours, Stefany Anne Golberg writes, ‘The primary tension in Frans Masereel’s work is that of an artist caught between the roles of participant and observer. He is like Tu Fu or Baudelaire, artists on the fringes of society. How, asked Masereel, can one – should one – participate peacefully in a world that is, essentially, destroying itself? All throughout the book, the protagonist struggles to belong, to feel a part of the world. He loves, fights, travels, wanders, rescues. But when is he actually participating and when is he playing a part? It is only at the end, when the man is about to die, when he has stopped struggling, and is silent, that he seems to find real peace.’

As well as a work of imaginative travel (clearly, in the age before mass market flights, Masereel simply could not have visited all of the many countries he depicts), Passionate Journey is also a portrait of a city which echoes the contrasts in the hero’s own personality, being by turns friendly and isolating, caring and uncaring, ugly and beautiful, and squalid and touching. Nothing definitively gives away which city Masereel had in mind, if any; most likely it is an amalgam of the European capitals he knew – Brussels, Paris, and Geneva. The city is populated by beggars and top hat-wearing fat cats, and every gradation of status in between. Our hero is clearly on the side of the poor and the downtrodden, and takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at the rich. That the divisions seem starker than they are today is mostly down to differences in dress, but otherwise the images might stand for any point in time in the hundred years since, and certainly remain relevant to us in the current year and century.

Passionate Journey was the work of a relatively young man; 1919 was the year Masereel turned thirty. While he does a fair job of making his character age, perhaps inevitably he makes his ‘everyman’ hero atypical in not settling down or becoming more moderate as he does so. The hero’s experiences were a blend of Masereel’s own and those of Henri Guilbeaux, a French Marxist and advocate for pacifism who wrote a biography of (and was befriended by) Lenin, and who, in a time of war, was as fearlessly outrageous as the hero of Passionate Journey becomes. In his portrayal of the young men of Masereel’s group whom he met in Geneva, Stefan Zweig writes, ‘From the psychological and historical – though not the artistic – point of view the most remarkable figure in this group was Henri Guilbeaux; in him, more than anyone else, I saw affirmation of the irrefutable law of history that in times of abrupt political upheaval, particularly during war or revolution, courage and daring will do more in the short term than steadiness of character.’ Sure enough, the composite character invented by Masereel for Passionate Journey veers from a life of contemplation to one of impulsive activism. At times, outraged by injustice and unfairness, Passionate Journey’s hero is rather like a later character graphically rendered by a Belgian, Tintin, missing only the foil of a Captain Haddock. Perhaps, in a sense, he is both at once – idealistic, never-say-die Tintin before his travels, and jaded, cantankerous Haddock after them.

Speaking of himself, and quoted by Stefany Anne Golberg, Masereel said, ‘If someone were to wish to sum up my work in a few words, he could say that it is dedicated to the tormented, directed against tormentors in all areas of social and spiritual life, it speaks out for the fraternity of humanity, turns against all whose aim is to set people at odds with each other or incite conflict, it is addressed to those who desire peace and despise warmongers.’ His art would go on to become cleaner and more finessed and sophisticated than it is in the raw and passionate pages of My Book of Hours; 1925’s The City shows a fully realised ability both to caricature, and to depict a city with far greater precision and detail than in the broad brush strokes used for his earlier city-celebrating work. But what makes Passionate Journey the more striking of the two works is the thread of the single life that it follows, in contrast to The City, which in the style of Under Milk Wood ranges across a selection of the intersecting lives to be found in a metropolis, settling briefly on a scene, then lifting away the camera (as opposed to the microphone) to focus in on another tableaux on the opposite side of town. Thomas Mann was in no doubt about the qualities of My Book of Hours, declaring it – in the age of silent film – his favourite movie:

‘Darken the room! Sit down with this book next to your reading lamp and concentrate on its pictures as you turn page after page. Don’t deliberate too long! It is no tragedy if you fail to grasp every picture at once, just as it does not matter if you miss one or two shots in a movie. Look at these powerful black-and-white figures, their features etched in light and shadow. You will be captivated from beginning to end: from the first picture showing the train plunging through dense smoke and bearing the hero toward life, to the very last picture showing the skeleton-faced figure wandering among the stars. And where are you? Has not this passionate journey had an incomparably deeper and purer impact on you than you have ever felt before?’

In his survey of the original graphic novels, Wordless Books, David A. Beronä, the historian and librarian who did so much to renew interest in Masereel (and indeed in early wordless books generally) in the Anglophone world before his death in 2015, writes, ‘In a sense, these silent narratives offer readers a dual reward – the author’s narrative, and more closely, the reader’s own unique interpretation.’ There are as many different versions of Passionate Journey as there are readers, and because of that, as many different heroes.

Interest in Masereel has waxed and waned over the decades, and while there has been Masereel-related activity in Europe in the last couple of years, it remains to be seen how widely Passionate Journey will be celebrated in its centenary year. My own contribution to celebrating Masereel’s artistic and narrative achievements is not only to have penned this piece, but also a novel inspired by Passionate Journey, as well as by Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor’s legendary walk across Europe in the early 1930s, immortalised in A Time of Gifts and two further books. It’s called The Gift of All Travel, and it attempts to recast Masereel’s introspection, and Guilbeaux’s and Paddy’s extroversion, in the form of an immigrant hero arriving in the capital city of a country which alternates between welcoming him with open arms, and giving him the cold shoulder. It’s my interpretation, my telling, with the lead character’s story invented afresh at every turn, but what I hope it has in common with Masereel’s ‘novel in pictures’ is that it too is both a contemplative book of hours and a fiercely passionate journey.

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Author: awildslimalien

Writing on music at A jumped-up pantry boy (https://pantry.wordpress.com/). Just writing at A wild slim alien (https://awildslimalien.wordpress.com/).

2 thoughts on “The Gift of All Travel – Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for this, Dan. I’ve always been drawn to woodcuts and Masereel’s are particularly compelling. And what an intriguing premise for a novel! I look forward to hearing more about that.

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