An edited (less long-winded!) version of my piece celebrating the centenary of Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey is now up at Caught by the River. Originally titled My Book of Hours, it comprises 165 woodcut images telling the story of a man’s life and death, and is widely recognised as a key work in the development of the graphic novel. The book is still available in an inexpensive edition from Dover Publications.
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.
‘Everything depends on what we are and, in the diversity of time, how those who come after us perceive the world will depend on how intensely we have imagined it, that is, on how intensely we, fantasy and flesh made one, have truly been it. … We are all novelists and we narrate what we see because, like everything else, seeing is a complex matter.’
Sometimes it requires many more people than the author to make a book. Take the Serpent’s Tail edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The book of disquiet. It’s a version of the text edited by Maria José de Lancastre and translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Three earlier Pessoa scholars undertook the original work of deciphering the handwritten notebooks and scraps of paper from which the text was derived and put into some sort of order. Then there’s the infrastructure a publisher requires to put a book in the line of sight of potential readers – the commissioning and copy editors, the marketing and administrative staff, not to mention those responsible for its look and feel, like the graphic designer. And (assuming we are not talking about a solely virtual edition) let’s not forget the printer, who brings the book into physical being. It’s not often that we think of these last two roles as having an equivalence to the intellectual effort of editor or translator. But with the Half Pint Press’ boxed, letterpress edition of The book of disquiet, I think it’s only fair that we elevate Tim Hopkins to the level of de Lancastre and Jull Costa, despite (knowing Tim) his inevitable protestations as we try to do so.
Pessoa began writing what has come to be known as The book of disquiet in 1912, and continued adding to it fragment by fragment until his death in 1935. Tim has spent very nearly as long bringing his singular vision and version of the text into being, printing a selection of the individual portions of Pessoa’s words on paper ephemera – a roll of bus tickets, a portion of a map, a menu, pages from a ledger, gift tags, raffle tickets, a playing card, a postage stamp – but also on a variety of other materials which can take ink – a photographic slide, a book of matches, a wooden tongue depressor, a drinks mat, pieces of cloth and jigsaw puzzle, and even along the sides of a pencil. It’s been a labour of love, in the truest sense, just as Pessoa’s writing of his texts was in the first place, seemingly without hope of them ever being published. This artful and soulful recreation of the trunk in which the fragments of writing that form The book of disquiet were found brings alive both the ordinariness of the imagined life lived by Bernardo Soares, and Pessoa’s extraordinary rendering of his interior. If you add to this the extensive ferreting about which has taken place to source materials in sufficient quantities; the sheer variety of those materials; the ingenuity with which the individual printing challenges have been met; and the bloody-minded determination to keep going, strike by laborious strike of the manual press – I am as in awe of it as I am of Pessoa’s sentences. And what Tim’s efforts inevitably lead us back to are those.
In one of the several hundred fragments of which The book of disquiet is comprised, Pessoa, writing in the guise of Soares, compares life to an inn in which he must stay until ‘the carriage from the abyss’ comes to pick him up. Soares says:
‘If what I leave written in the visitors’ book is one day read by others and entertains them on their journey, that’s fine. If no-one reads it or is entertained by it, that’s fine too.’
Any writer who is not widely read during the course of his or her lifetime might well need to think like this to be able to continue to believe in the effort of writing without a sense of the futility of that effort overwhelming and undoing them. But Pessoa’s subject was so often the futility of effort of any kind, and his writing about it so tenacious, that it becomes hard to believe it of him. Certain fragments towards the end of the Serpent’s Tail edition of The book of disquiet reveal that he was shrewd enough to guess that the trunk of texts and poems left behind when he finally caught the carriage to the abyss would sooner or later be discovered and disseminated. The visitors’ book was in fact a treasure chest of untold, unparalleled, gem-like literary fragments, and perhaps it was enough for Pessoa while he lived to know in both his heart, and in his astutely philosophical mind, that he was ahead of his time.
The translation by Margaret Jull Costa, one of at least four there have been into English, follows the thematic selection edited by Maria José de Lancastre, which while it promotes an element of repetition, makes the whole less random and unstructured. (Tim’s boxed version of the book reverses this process, which arguably makes it truer to what Pessoa had in mind himself: ‘I re-read some of the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions. And there rises from them, like a familiar smell, an arid sense of monotony.’) Themes – such as tedium, weariness, office life, solitude, dreams, love, writing – do recur and overlap, but there is more of a sense of accumulation than repetition as over the years Pessoa/Soares writes his way into and through these themes from ever-varying angles.
If you gauge a book by a desire to annotate the text or capture and save quotes from it, then The book of disquiet has few equals. When I read it, I find that the quotableness varies only according to my own receptivity and sensitivity. On a day when my mind has a greater or lesser number of cares which are distracting it, then Pessoa’s sentences can drift by me as light and free – or as insubstantial – as blown bubbles, evaporating with a silent pop almost before I’ve finished reading them. But on a day when I am, say, luxuriating in the bath, and the doors and windows of the inner apartment of my relaxed mind are fully open, then the words I read in my well-thumbed and wrinkled copy of The book of disquiet blow through that apartment like a freshening breeze, and I find myself wanting to capture between quote marks nearly every sentence he writes. Here are just a few of those:
‘Each of us is intoxicated by different things. There’s intoxication enough for me in just living. Drunk on feeling I drift but never stray. If it’s time to go back to work, I go to the office just like everyone else. If not, I go down to the river to stare at the waters, again just like everyone else. I’m just the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and therein create my own infinity.’
‘Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.’
‘One should abandon all duties, even those not demanded of us, reject all cosy hearths, even those that are not our own, live on what is vague and vestigial, amongst the extravagant purples of madness and the false lace of imagined majesties… To be something that does not feel the weight of the rain outside, or the pain of inner emptiness… To wander with no soul, no thoughts, just pure impersonal sensation, along winding mountain roads, through valleys hidden amongst steep hills, distant, absorbed, ill-fated… To lose oneself in landscapes like paintings. To be nothing in distance and in colours…’
‘The sentence was the only truth. Once the sentence was formed everything was done; the rest was the sand it always had been.’
‘I’m like a being from another existence who passes, endlessly curious, through this one to which I am in every way alien. A sheet of glass stands between it and me. I always try to keep that glass as clean as possible so I can examine this other existence without smudges or smears spoiling my view; but I choose to keep that glass between us.’
‘What is there in all this but myself? Ah, but in that and only that lies tedium. It’s the fact that in all this – sky, earth, world – there is never anything but myself!’
Sometimes when you read a fragment, it is true that you feel yourself succumbing to the same kind of tedium that Pessoa/Soares is describing – but then he hits you with a turn of phrase so beautifully crafted and so lucid in its perceptiveness that it leaves you as stunned as if the sun had suddenly penetrated a thick blanket of grey-white cloud.
I suspect many writers feel the way that Bernardo Soares feels. The difference may be that they are waiting with a greater or lesser degree of confidence for the torpor to pass, or for the muse to sing, and the story to emerge from the song; from what is initially a fog of shapeless forms within their minds. Pessoa remains or chooses to remain in that foggy state, and makes the tedium, torpor and solitariness the story. In so doing, ‘using my soul as ink’, he performs the alchemical transformation of which Soares believes himself incapable.
‘These pages are the doodles of my intellectual unconsciousness of myself,’ he writes. If so, why should we bother to be interested? Because the end results are not mere doodles, they are finely wrought and rendered fragments of Pessoa’s thought, passed through the medium of Soares, and sitting on top of a bed of submerged feelings and dreams. The fragments are ahead of time reports on the state of our twenty-first century minds and souls, full of acuity and insight about our atomisation and the relationship we have with our own selves. By some hundred years, and through his use of heteronyms, of which Bernardo Soares is but one of seventy or eighty Pessoa used during the course of his writing life, he anticipates the taking of multiple online identities in order to present facets of one’s self to the world. Perhaps inevitably this comes at a cost; from Soares himself, we hear the plaintive cry of someone within whom multiple personalities have run wild:
‘Who is this person I attend on? How many people am I? Who is me? What is this gap that exists between me and myself?’
Some writers – the best perhaps, though that’s not always recognised in their own time – are the advanced guard in terms of the evolution of how human beings think and feel. They report to us how they perceive the world, and allow those ways of perceiving to develop and take hold, until what once was strange and solitary becomes understood, a part of the collective consciousness. It pulls you up short when Pessoa himself addresses this notion directly. It’s as though he is present in the (bath)room with you in some ghostly way, beyond what has normally been the case as you read him:
‘One day, perhaps, they will understand that I carried out, as did no other, my inborn duty as interpreter of one particular period of our century; and when they do, they will write that I was misunderstood in my own time; they will write that, sadly, I lived surrounded by coldness and indifference, and that it is a pity it should have been so. And the person writing, in whatever future epoch he or she may live, will be as mystified by my equivalent in that future time as are those around me now.’
In writing about The book of disquiet, I’ve come to realise that it is next to impossible to sum it up concisely, in any satisfactory, meaningful way. There is too much going on in the Bernardo Soares compartment of Fernando Pessoa’s mind; it would require a book of similar length to the book itself to do it justice. And you would surely only want to read such a book after you have read Pessoa himself, and have had the chance to make up your own mind. Because your book of disquiet will not be my book of disquiet, or indeed, Tim Hopkins’, de Lancastre’s or Jull Costa’s. Any one reader will navigate through its mosaic of thoughts, feelings, ideas and dreams using a different route, and be struck along the way by differing sentences and paragraphs within those fragments. And yet at the end of the book, all those readers who have been beguiled into investing themselves in his sentences will have a strong, perhaps even fraternal sense of Fernando Pessoa; all will have discovered the Bernardo Soares in themselves.
‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.’ – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The shadow of the wind
For a time I worked in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Founded between the wars, it was housed in a skylit attic room of a central library in one of this country’s smaller cities. From the outside, with its sheer cliffs of ashlar and aggressively jutting bow-oriels, the building was one which managed the trick of looking both ancient and modern. Its interior was more a mix of the ancient and the institutional.
There were no books in this part of the library, this Cemetery of Forgotten Books, at least not in the traditional sense. Just shelves and shelves of ancient, fat, stubby folders containing reams of bibliographic detail, together with the numerically coded location (or ‘loc’ in the verbal shorthand used by the cemetery’s staff) of where the book recorded on each slip was held in the region. We put readers in touch with the rare or obscure or forgotten books of previous centuries, and the unsuccessful novels and esoteric researches of the 20th. Like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The shadow of the wind, it was exactly the kind of repository which might have had – or at least have led you to – the single extant copy of each of Julián Carax’s lost novels.
The chief librarian was a tall, elegant woman who may secretly have felt that the attic in which she had ended up was a career cul-de-sac; both a metaphorical and a literal glass ceiling. With her feather-cut hair and tailored jackets in light or pastel shades, she certainly seemed out of place, never quite right for the role. The other librarians were more suited to the Cemetery, more in keeping with my notion that this clearing house for books ought actually to be presided over by some kind of patron saint of lost causes. One was a giggly sort of stoic, always making a joke (if not the best) of what she felt was a perennially bad lot. Another was bird-like, a wizened old raven with a pecking motion to her head and deep black rings around her eyes from a lack of sleep. I was little more than a boy and she took me under her wing, guiding me through the bibliographic and procedural maze that was the Cemetery. Perhaps she recognised something of herself in me; perhaps, undeclared, she was a writer too, dedicated to puncturing life’s absurdities, and the rings around her eyes came from late nights or early mornings trying to forge a work which would itself one day make its way into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
It seemed to me that a book had a life outside of itself, if it was recorded in one of those ancient folders, that it could be pulled back from shelved obscurity or even extinction, to be given into the hands of its next reader. I was one of the mediums who brought the soul of the book and the psyche of the reader together. I wish I could have just one of the old folders in my hands again, so that I could quote at random a few of the titles of those forgotten books, but I feel certain that filed under ‘Bo-’ would have been this work, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand, 1778: The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.
Or perhaps a reader might have been after The life and adventures of Harvey Teasdale, the converted clown and man monkey. With his remarkable conversion in Wakefield prison published in Sheffield by the General Printing and Publishing Company, Limited, 1875.
Most likely it was more serious fare that was required, the encapsulation in book form of a lifetime’s study, the foundations of knowledge in a certain narrow corner of the Dewey Decimal classification, upon which all developments and adjustments in that field would subsequently be built. A book wanted sufficiently by a reader that he or she was prepared to fill out a form and pay a small fee to request it. And when we found the details of that very book printed upon one of the slithers of paper waiting for us in the folders, with a loc or locs pencilled at the foot of the slip, there was a small but not insignificant feeling of satisfaction that we were doing a good thing in bringing reader and book together.
By now the typewritten relics which together made up the index of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will long since have been digitised. Rendered obsolete by new technology, the ancient folders will surely have been thrown away and the wafer-thin slips of paper they housed recycled. I moved on well before the Cemetery got to the point that it was obliged to close its doors, but I like to think that the giggly stoic and the old raven – if not the chief librarian – will have smuggled out a folder each, which every now and again they take down in order to flick through its musty pages, the smell and the printed slips conjuring for a few moments the days of their working lives.
Perhaps I am guilty of judging a work by its cover, but no, the tall, elegant woman with the feather-cut hair was never quite right for the role of chief librarian in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Of late, thinking of Isaac Montfort, the aquiline custodian of the same in Zafón’s beautifully crafted novel, I’ve been imagining that it should have been someone rather like him; someone rather like the man I have since become.
Photograph of Shakespeare and Company – source unknown.
Shake hands all round, collect the money. Bemoan your own shooting, congratulate someone else on theirs. Walk to the car, assessing joints for aches beyond your usual level of tolerance, calves for the likely onset of cramp, and the whole of your body for bruises. Put the balls in the boot. Get in the car, take out your lenses and replace them with your glasses so you can better see where you’re going. Put on some music, most likely something softly introspective after all that hard running, Sandy Denny or Gene Clark, say; the Ramones were for psyching you up on the outward journey. Turn right out of the car park onto the road into the centre of the village. Take a sharp left at the first of the double roundabouts, trying not to kerb the tyres as you usually do. Pass the village hall and the social club on your right, the more unlikely pairing of the art supplies and fish and chip shops on your left, then further on, the castellated Catholic church with its white marble statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a crenellated platform. All the while, review the game in your head – what you could have done better than you did (plenty), and how you could have avoided that haze of red mist (deep breaths, and count. To. Fucking. Ten next time). Settle for longer than perhaps is healthy on your one moment of glory, a sweetly-struck shot from distance that bent into the top right-hand corner of the goal. Mentally opine that even Paul Scholes might have proud of that one.
Go over the bridge that crosses the dual carriageway, looking to the left and into the far distance for the progress of the setting sun, incidentally taking in how thick the traffic is on the road to which you have lost more hours of your life than you would like. Slow for the right turn which takes you into the narrow lanes of the cross-country way home – what your daughter used to call ‘the den-y way’. Now you are into the thick of greenery which rises from each side of the road like a wall, until a grassy meadow opens out on the left-hand side. It’s dotted with trees, and at times during the year, cows. Through it runs a stream, swift and shallow and gurgling. Stream and road meet at the bare minimum of a stone bridge, where once, before Tarmacadam, there would have been a ford. Look to your left here, to take in that gurgling stream, and the way it leads the eye through the trees and into the meadow, suggesting summer picnics, or at least that you stop and lie in the bosom of its long grass and soft turf to daydream for a while.
Just after the bridge, pass a couple walking their two dogs – whippets, by the look of them. The woman has auburn hair; the man’s sandy wisps inevitably seem somewhat nondescript in comparison. Slow, so as to be ready for any sudden movement of the dogs. Let the couple linger in your mind as you drive on, imagining the life they might lead together. The road bends this way and that, following the course of the stream, so do not go above 30 mph in case you need to brake suddenly, either for cars coming the other way, or – unusually – for frogs, since on this stretch of road, there is the only red-bordered triangular caution sign for amphibians that you have ever come across. But you have never spotted nor knowingly squashed one.
Slow down again to pass the narrow house which sits alone on its own triangular island in the middle of a junction, and keep at the same speed for the row of houses whose doors open out onto the narrow road. Watch for the white cowls of a pair of oast houses over the top of the hedge on the right, before entering the first of the high-banked ancient holloways. Notice again how the roots of the beech trees break out of the bank much as reanimated skeletons might out of the rotting wood of coffins, and how their ivy-covered limbs rise close together to create the sense of enclosure; shelter or captivity depending on your mood.
Emerge from the darkness to pass the beautiful farmhouse, the stream acting as its moat. Where the way forks, keep high and right as the other alternative drops away to the left, the wending river visible between the two roads. Feel the motion and blur of glinting water and sun-dappled greenery hit your retinas. Imagine how many millions of individual leaves you are passing, and let the cow parsley which crowds the verges take you back to cycling the country roads of your childhood.
Pass the entrance to a larger working farm on your right. A little further along, a bungalow stands on the left-hand side, with pasture for horses opposite. Then once again it’s back into holloway darkness, the old way-turned-road running roughly straight, but veering and weaving as once the trees will have dictated that countless generations of walkers and riders should. Walkers and riders who had a purpose to their walking and riding.
And now here again the road emerges from the enclosing trees; over the top of a five bar gate, the sky opens out above the fields like a fanfare or a crescendo. Slow to take in the colours of the sunset, and if they are at all out of the ordinary, stop to take a photo. See the disturbed rabbits scamper away as you get out of the car. Sheep are grazing in the field; all but the closest to you pay you no mind. Climb a couple of rungs of the gate and brace yourself against it. Depress the touch-screen button on your phone and hope that you’ve caught even half of the sky’s resplendence.
Drive on, continuing straight for a few hundred metres, then remember to slow for the hidden-from-view right turn; it’s easy to overshoot. After the farm on the left, it’s time to enter the deepest, darkest, sleepiest sleepy hollow of holloway, where you hope not to encounter a car coming the other way, for after a moment of face-off, one of you will be forced to back up, often for some distance before being able to reverse-sidle into a passing place dug out of the banked earth. Startled birds break cover and dart from one side of the hollow to the other, too quick to distinguish their species, and always making the other side before the car passes. On the canopied tunnel goes, a ridge of hardened mud formed during the winter lining the centre of the road, until coming to a sharp left-hand bend, you must necessarily slow to nothing much at all; once around it, accelerate to compensate for the rising plane of the road. At the top of the rise, a driveway opens out on the left; the entrance to the grounds of a nursing home. The break in the trees allows you a quick glance at the view that the residents enjoy at their leisure, across the gentle slopes of the valley through which runs the little stream you were following earlier. It’s an archetypally glorious green and pleasant view and invariably when you catch a glimpse of it, you remember the time you ignored the ‘PRIVATE’ signs, turned in and parked up to try and surreptitiously capture it, though in your hurry you did not manage to do the view justice.
Now it’s the downhill run, your car a bobsleigh through the ice of the close-pressing trees. If the way is clear, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to take it a little faster than you ought, the ghost of Marc Bolan always a caution at your shoulder. At other times of day, it has to be taken slowly, for invariably then you will meet and need to stop for horses, their stables marking the end of the bobsleigh run. At which point, a left turn would take you past the stately pile where a classic rock song and its host album were recorded, but you swing slowly round the blind corner to the right and begin to make a slight ascent, taking care to avoid losing your front left-hand wheel to the worst pothole in the whole of the county, if not the country. Now there’s another downhill run, but this time of two cars’ width, so you can take it at greater speed than the rest of the journey has allowed. Pass the wooden chalet-style house with its summer evening porch, and the driveways leading up the hillside to what you imagine may well be similar woodland-style lodges. Slow for the junction by what in winter is a dank, murky, uninviting swamp of a pond, but which in the last of the light on a summer’s day is transformed into a haven of burnished reeds and a fitting home for a pair of swans. Turn right onto the main road, and accelerate into another ascent, notable less for its housing and more for the beautiful copper beech which gives the road its name. Try as you might not to set off the electronic speed limit reprimand, despite the incline, you will most likely fail.
Turn right at the mini-roundabout by which the garage stands and from which the one-stop shop is visible, and drive along the straight perimeter of the enclave of roads in which your house is set till you get to the pair of bus stops, one on either side of the road; signal right. Turn the right-angle right, and head down the dip, at the bottom of which is another right-angle right into your short, narrow road. No need to signal here at this time of night. Drive slowly up its crest to the end, park up under the shade of the sweet chestnut and oak trees, and turn off the engine. Wait for whichever song of Sandy’s or Gene’s is playing to end, and allow its associations to settle back into the sediment of your mind. Gather yourself and your bag together. Open and close the wrought-iron gate, taking the key to the front door from your bag. The lights are on and you are home.
Words are explosive. Wear protective clothing at all times. Consider the location and the timing of the detonation. Plan your words in advance. Do not approach words after they have been lit in an attempt to discover whether or not they are going to go off. Boys are particularly cautioned not to experiment by opening sentences and mixing their constituent parts. High winds will affect the quality of your words and may create a hazard. Do not launch your words in excessively windy conditions. Keep a pail of water handy and be sure to dispose of left-over words with care. Do not smoke on the forecourt of your words. Caution: do not mix your metaphors – the results can be extremely volatile. Do not drink and write. Keep your words in safe, dry, well-ventilated storage facilities with 24 hour CCTV monitoring.
Words are spiritual. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. But that was just the beginning. The inquisitorial ferocity of Jesuitical words is unmatched, especially when combined with the rack. Hellfire sermons are likely to leave the impressionable vulnerable to night-time fear and daytime paranoia. Atheists will burn, before or after their deaths. Or not, as the case may be. Prayers are words, and words are prayers, but can you ever really be sure that anyone is listening? Except in exceptional circumstances, resist the desire to self-immolate in the flare and burn of your own words.
Words are a legal minefield. Do not confuse tort with torte; the results can be embarrassing, and you may be left with egg on your face. Voicing words without forethought can bring out the litigious side in people. Malice aforethought’s not much better. Oaths can be sworn to whichever god anyone follows. Or not, as the case may be. Jurisprudence is no guarantee of prudent juries. As we have seen, in some parts of the world, words are inquisitorial, while in others they are adversarial. Defendants may find that they prefer the latter, though it is wise to try to avoid appearing before a hanging judge.
Words are seductive. Beware those possessing silver tongues yet no gold in their heart. Make sure your linguistic inoculations are up-to-date and mind your Ps, Qs and apostrophes. Careless reading can leave your mind open to suggestion, your heart aflame, and may cost lives in times of war. Always use a prophylactic. Squeeze the tip, then unroll along the length of your sentence. Withdraw before it goes flaccid. Do not panic when you can no longer find the words. There may be many reasons – the vast majority temporary – as to why you cannot achieve a successful sentence construction. The condition usually responds well to a combination of lifestyle changes, drug treatment and erotic poetry.