A monk, a fox and the King of Dreams

Wednesday, June 18. 2008

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
Neil Gaiman/ Yoshitaka Amano
Vertigo 1999
128 p.

I have a confession to make. Before reading The Sandman: The Dream Hunters I had never read anything by Neil Gaiman. As Fashion so accurately remarked a while ago, it is a shame. I am aware of it and I ought to feel dreadful about it, even more so as my favourite geek owns a copy of many of his books and I would perfectly be able to name most of them. But you know the saying „So many books, so little time“ and so it came that The Dream Hunters, which I purchased in Sweden at my beloved SF Bokhandeln, was my first Gaiman. „But why?“, you probably wonder, dear readers, „didn't you pick the first volume of the Sandman series instead? It would have been more logical, if you really wanted to discover the Sandman-world.“ So true, so true, dear readers, it is a excellent question to which I can provide a simple answer. I'm extremely sensitive to artwork and colours and, as much as I like many mangaka and French or Belgian bande dessinée illustrators, I've always disliked the combination of realistic lines and primary or flashy colours so often encountered by artists of the American comic tradition. Of course, there are exceptions – such as Bill Watterson for instance, whose work I truly love – but the illustrators who worked on The Sandman unfortunately don't belong to them. „And what is so different about The Dream Hunters?“, you probably want to ask next. Well, first it is an illustrated novella rather than a graphic novel, and it is illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, who is Japanese and whose artwork I enjoy very much. And it is a spin-off, which can be read on its own without any further knowledge of the series, and it is inspired by Japanese folktales, which particularly appealed to me.

The Dream Hunters tells the story of a young Buddhist monk living a quiet life on a mountainside until a fox and a badger make a wager and try to make him leave his temple so that either the fox or the badger can take it over. But tricking the monk isn't an easy task and so it sometimes happens that the trickster somehow gets tricked as well. The monk and the fox, who has the ability to metamorphose into a beautiful young woman, thus fall in love with each other and the badger eventually has to give up. But when the fox finds out that a powerful onmyōji, a master of divination and magic, and a prophecy threaten the life of the young monk, she decides to go ask for the King of All Night's Dreaming's help and to sacrifice herself for him. I won't give you any further details about the plot as I wouldn't like to spoil it for you.

Neil Gaiman has written an exquisite and enchanting Kunstmärchen („a literary fairy tale“ as opposed to Volksmärchen „folktale“, which isn't the work of one person in particular but the product of oral tradition) about fear, love, fate, revenge and dreams. In his afterword to The Dream Hunters he claimed that he had retold a Japanese legend but later stated that it actually was a story of his own invention. Be as it may, this novella does blend traditional elements of the folktale such a linear narrative and the three attempts of the fox and and the badger to trick the monk into abandoning his temple with more modern ones like the ambiguous character of the King of All Night's Dreaming and the motivation for the onmyōji's actions. The fox and the badger themselves are two of the most important legendary creatures of Japanese folklore – kitsune and tanuki, actually a raccoon dog rather than a badger –, who often play the role of tricksters, and fox spirits are indeed known to transform into beautiful young women.

But Neil Gaiman isn't the only one who combines traditional and personal elements here, so does Yoshitaka Amano as well. While most of his pictures clearly are influenced by Japanese woodcut prints and brush painting, others reminded me of Gustave Moreau, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac or Gustav Klimt – who themselves have drawn part of their inspiration from Japanese art –, some are quite abstract and gothic fashion seem to have played a important role in the King's design (just like other depictions of Morpheus in the regular Sandman series). His chromatic range varies widely from bright orange and red tones over light blue, green and pink shades to deep browns. He also uses a lot of gold, black and white. As far as the technique is concerned, most illustrations are either watercolour paintings or charcoal drawings, which probably explain why even the most detailed ones remain so fluid. Yoshitaka Amano's artwork is sophisticated, suggestive and gorgeous and he was definitely the ideal artist for such an illustration job.

The tone of the story is a tragic yet strangely calm one and Neil Gaiman's elegant and evocative prose manages to convey all the otherworldliness of the setting without becoming confusing or unsteady. Add to this the enigmatic beauty of Yoshitaka Amano's sumptuous illustrations and you get a timeless and entrancing but sad love story.

I'm well aware of the fact that it probably wasn't a „classical“ introduction to Neil Gaiman's work, but I nonetheless took great pleasure in reading The Dream Hunters and do intend to read further books by this author (Fragile Things, his short-stories collection, could be a good second step).

N.B.: This book is definitely an evening companion and it probably would have been wiser to wait until autumn to enjoy it fully, but oh well, one can't always have everything (I can already schedule a re-reading for september or october though). And I would suggest Tōru Takemitsu's In An Autumn Garden as an appropriate musical accompaniment.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters is published by Vertigo (DC Comics).
Neil Gaiman also has a blog and Yoshitaka Amano a website with lots of pictures of his wonderful art.

Fascinating artwork and sad story: a jewel!

Thursday, December 27. 2007

The Rabbits
Shaun Tan, John Marsden
Simply Read Books, 2003
32 p.

Here it comes, dear readers: my first post-Christmas book review! Today I'd like to tell you about a fabulous picture book, The Rabbits, by Shaun Tan (pictures) and John Marsden (text), which my favourite geek presented me with. Don't get mislead by the label „picture book“, dear readers, for this isn't really children's literature – though the book has been categorized as such; more about it on Shaun Tan's website. The Rabbits deals indeed with a political issue in a sublime and poetic yet hard way and is therefore a most suitable reading for adults.

This book is an allegory of the colonisation of Australia with all the changes and the devastation it involved, the rabbits playing here their own part as well as the white men's. The story is recounted from the point of view of the colonised people, some marsupial species (probably numbats), in a few pages, from the first contact to the final question „Who will save us from the rabbits?“. Both the surrealistic pictures and the minimalistic text explore and show the depth of these creatures' sorrow and how their land methodically gets alienated by the rabbits. This tale is immensely sad but the way it is told is incredibly beautiful.

Shaun Tan's art is amazing, a work of pure sophistication yet never overloaded. To me, it seems like a mixture of Dalí's extravagant and Magritte's more serene surrealism – and de Chirico's pre-surrealism – with some elements rather remembering of Odilon Redon's mysterious symbolism, Edvard Munch's wild expressionism and Tim Burton's dark grotesque and a touch of Asian and Oceanian traditional art. It's a strange yet bewitching and unique art, exquisitely painted and coloured and masterly composed, and I love it!

John Marsden reduced his text to the core, using only short and simple sentences, which creates a interesting contrast with the very detailed pictures. In this book there is however no fight between picture and word; on the contrary, they are closely intertwined with each other. So much indeed that the handwritten and skillfully placed words are parts of the pictures.

I would recommend The Rabbits to anybody, but especially to art lovers and those looking for an original approach of colonisation. Shaun Tan has also made other books, which all seemed to be as beautiful as this one and which I'm eager to discover :-D. For more information on Shaun Tan and his work, check out his wonderfully illustrated website.

The Rabbits is published by Simply Read Books.


Monday, October 15. 2007

A very short post today, just long enough to offer a very unpretentious bibliography (English and German titles) on and of DADA and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven to those of you who would like to read more about it. I hope you'll enjoy it ;-).

Heute nur eine ganz kurze Meldung von mir. Ich habe eine sehr einfache und keinesfalls vollständige Bibliographie (englisch- und deutschsprachige Werke) von und über DADA und Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven für die unter Euch zusammengestellt, die sich für das Thema interessieren und gern mehr darüber lesen möchten. Viel Spaß damit ;-).

Dadagraphy/Dadagraphie (PDF)


Saturday, October 13. 2007

Mein Mund ist lüstern/ I got lusting palate
Dada-Verse von Elsa von Freytag-
Hg. von Irene Gammel
edition ebersbach, 2005
144 p.
Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity - A Cultural Biography.
Irene Gammel
The MIT Press, 2003
(1st ed. 2002)

J'ai écrit il y a quelques jours dans un commentaire à mon précédent billet qu'il faudrait que je me botte un peu le train et que je rédige enfin un article sur mon artiste dada préférée ; alors voilà je m'exécute. Il s'agit d'Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927), poétesse et artiste d'origine allemande expatriée à New York puis à Paris. Elle écrivait en anglais et en allemand et, autant que je sache, il n'existe malheuresement aucune traduction de ses poèmes en français. La suite de ce billet sera donc en anglais plutôt qu'en français ou en allemand, afin de le rendre accessible, je l'espère, à un plus large public.

Dada is often presented as an all-male – and a mostly European – artistic movement, but, thanks to the efforts of some scholars who dare challenge this view of literature and art history, a few publications on the role of women in dada are now available. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven aka The Baroness – she gained her title through her third marriage – was probably one the most important figures of New York dada and definitely the most excentric one, but is generally absent from reference works and anthologies on dada. I stumbled upon her name, quite by chance (I had misunderstood a name and found hers instead of the one I should have been looking up), two years ago and later intended to write a paper about her poetry, which I eventually didn't do for lack of time.

She was born in Germany in 1874 but went to Kentucky with her second husband, the poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (aka Frederick Philip Grove), in 1910 and, after he left her, to Cincinnati and finally New York City in 1913. There she worked as a model, painter, sculptress, poetess and was also a notorious thief. She was radical in her art as well as in her way of life, accusing some of the most prominent – and today best remembered – artists of the time like Marcel Duchamp, with whom she had a very complex relationship, of compromising too easily with established social rules. She also became one of the first performance artists, marching around New York City in very provocative, self-made outfits and declaiming poetry whenever and wherever she felt like. Though admired by some, she lived most of the time in extreme poverty and died in Paris in 1927 (for a more detailed biography, please see the book suggestions and the links at the end of this article).

Her poetry, which was mainly, if ever, published in The Little Review – alongside extracts of Joyce's Ulysses and other milestones of modernistic fiction and poetry –, had been more or less left untouched in the archives of two American Universities (Maryland and Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and in any way unpublished for 80 years until a German scholar, Irene Gammel, took interest in them and decided to edit a bilingual collection of some of these poems.

With this book I discovered Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's poetical work, which ranges from more expressionistic pieces to downright dada nonsense-poems. One of her trademarks is to replace parts of the syntax with mathematical symbols like „=“ or with spaces and lots of dashes and she has in common with other dada poets a sometimes nonlinear organisation of her texts and a use of different fonts and font sizes. Characteristic for her is also the way she creates her own new words when needed or splits those that already exist. Some of her poems are written in English, others in German, some exist in both an English and an German version and she sometimes blends the two languages together. With all this creativity, her language is rich, incredibly powerful, very plastic and rhythmic and often strongly onomatopoeic; her poems really deserve to be read aloud!

But the great force of her poetry comes from the combination of these formal characteristics with serious or controversial subjects like sexuality or consumerism – it really wouldn't be half as fun and interesting if she had written only about flowers and nice landscapes. Thus she wrote in an often straightforward manner about female orgasm – at a time when this was not a subject one could talk about freely –, contraception, masturbation or impotence. And in order to criticize consumerism she took popular advertisements and used them as raw material for her poetry. As an example of this, the beginning of her poem, A Dozen Cocktails Please:

No spinsterlollypop for me – »yes – we have
No bananas« I got lusting palate – I always
Eat them – – – – –
They have dandy celluloid tubes – all sizes –
Tinted diabolically like a bamboon's
Hind complexion.

quoted from Gammel, Irene (ed.): Mein Mund ist lüstern/I got lusting palate. Dada-Verse von Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. edition ebersbach, Berlin 2005.

Irene Gammel has also written a biography of EvFL called Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. A Cultural Biography. published in English by The MIT Press.

Irene Gammels Biographie von Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven ist auf deutsch bei edition ebersbach unter dem Titel Die Dada Baroness. Das wilde Leben der Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. erschienen.

Another collection of EvFL's poems, Subjoyride: Selected Poems, edited by Rudolf Kuenzli is to be released by Green Integer by the end of the year.

Wikipedia has a short article on Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven with very interesting links (short biography, essays about her poetry, selected poems...).

L'Europe des Vikings
Abbaye de Daoulas
192 p.
Astérix et les Normands
Goscinny et Uderzo
Hachette, 1999
(éd. orig. 1967)

Comme je l'ai expliqué à Lou il y a peu, Nieputtcitron! est en quelque sorte mon cri de guerre. „Et pourquoi pousse-t-elle donc son cri précisément maintenant?“, vous demanderez-vous? Eh bien, parce qu'hier j'ai enfin fini et envoyé par mail le mémoire de 20 pages sur lequel je planchais depuis début septembre en marge de mes jobs étudiants et qui ne me laissait absolument plus le temps de lire. Le sujet, La médicalisation de la naissance et de l'obstétrique à la fin du 18e et au début du 19e siècle (pour un cours d'ethnologie européenne, comprenez histoire culturelle), en était très intéressant mais aussi très dérangeant et l'écriture de ce travail s'est révélée franchement épuisante.

Donc voilà, comme ici la fac ne reprend que toute fin octobre voire début novembre selon les cours, je vais à nouveau avoir le temps de lire et compte bien aller dévaliser la librairie demain. Je dois, certes, travailler et j'ai aussi un ou deux projets en cours, dont je vous reparlerai peut-être en temps voulu ;), mais octobre s'annonce tout de même plus livresque que septembre.

Pour ouvrir le bal hier et surtout pour décompresser, j'ai lu Astérix et les Normands. Je présume qu'il est inutile de faire la critique approfondie ou même le résumé d'un tel classique, que vous avez probablement tous lu. Je ne suis pas une inconditionnelle d'Astérix (ma loyauté à toute épreuve en matière de classiques de la bd franco-belge appartient à une certaine jeune femme aux yeux en amandes :-)), mais cette lecture n'en fut pas moins fort réjouissante, surtout pour une scandinaviste telle que moi. Je trouve tout simplement formidable la façon dont cet album mêle les clichés ou erreurs les plus ineptes et les plus répandus (non, les bateaux des vikings n'ont JAMAIS porté le nom de drakkar, ce mot étant une invention du 19e siècle, mais celui de knörr ou langskip selon le type de bateaux) à certains concepts bien réels comme, par exemple, le désir de connaissance du monde des anciens scandinaves. Les anachronismes, surtout culinaires, sont, quant à eux, un régal!

Comme j'en suis à vous parler de Normands et de Vikings, autant en profiter pour vous conseiller un ouvrage absolument merveilleux, à la fois facile d'accès, de par sa présentation notamment, et fort bien documenté: L'Europe des Vikings sous la direction de Claudine Glot et Michel Le Bris, paru chez Hoëbeke (site internet en cours de réalisation). Il s'agit là du catalogue de l'exposition qui eu lieu du 14 mai au 14 novembre 2004 au Centre culturel de l'Abbaye de Daoulas. Y sont présentés, dans des articles indépendants rédigés par une équipe internationale de chercheurs, tous les aspects du phénomène Viking et de la culture scandinave médiévale ainsi que leur réception et leur récupération par les époques ultérieures. Vous y trouverez donc, entre autres choses, des informations sur la littérature scandinave médiévale, le commerce, les bateaux, les terres, plus ou moins lointaines, visitées par les Vikings, Guillaume le Conquérant, les runes, l'art dragon, le Viking tel qu'il fut fantasmé par le romantisme ou encore sa représentation en peinture, bande dessinée ou au cinéma. Ces textes, tous de très bonne qualité, sont, en outre, magnifiquement illustrés (pratiquement tout est en couleur) et le catalogue est, dans son ensemble, de très belle facture. Avis aux amateurs.

Enivrante délicatesse

Tuesday, August 28. 2007

Tessons roses
Ornela Vorpsi
traduit de l'italien par Yann Apperry
Actes Sud, 2007
(éd. orig. 2006)
46 p.

Minuscule ouvrage que Tessons roses d'Ornela Vorpsi, mais quel joyau! Derrière une couverture aux tons nacrés gris-rose (photo de l'auteure, également photographe) se cache une quarantaine de pages de pur délice (texte et photos). Une jeune fille de 17 ans, décédée „par hasard“, nous offre 7 fragments de sa courte existence. Elle revient sur ses premières amours, ses sensations, nous livre ses réflexions sur la vie, la mort et le plaisir. Cela pourrait paraître peu mais il n'en est rien tant la langue est exquise (bravo et merci au traducteur, Yann Apperry, pour ce magnifique travail). Les phrases sont courtes et rythmées, le style est simple et raffiné à la fois, poétique. Ornela Vorpsi crée une ambiance avec trois fois rien, nous émerveille et nous enchante en quelques mots. Son propos est à la fois cru et fin, son ton toujours juste.

Elle maîtrise parfaitement la forme du fragment et révèle ici (site de la Villa Kujoyama au Japon. Cliquez sur "résidents", puis "anciens résidents", puis cherchez "Ornela Vorpsi" dans la liste) avoir une prédilection pour les formes courtes, prenant comme modèle la littérature japonaise (elle admire notamment beaucoup Mishima). Il n'est donc sans doute pas absurde de la comparer à Yoko Ogawa, les deux flirtant sans cesse avec le malaise, explorant les liens qui unissent plaisir et douleur. Tessons roses me fait également penser à Feux de Marguerite Yourcenar, tout comme Buvez du cacao Van Houten! (quel titre :), recueil de nouvelles d'Ornela Vorpsi) avait quelque chose des Nouvelles orientales.

Vert venin et Le pays où l'on ne meurt jamais, deux autres de ses livres parus chez Actes Sud, attendent sagement dans ma bibliothèque. Un jour je les dégusterai, c'est sûr, mais pas tout de suite. Je préfère prendre mon temps.

Un été au Japon
Tsunehiko Kuwabara
Gallimard Loisirs 2005, 93 p.

Le soleil daigne, après des semaines d'absence, à nouveau briller sur la Baltique (pour peu de temps apparemment, la pluie devrait être de retour ce soir ou demain, à temps pour la sortie d'HP 7, comme il se doit ;-)) et cela me donne envie, par une association d'idées fort peu originale j'en conviens, de vous parler d'un recueil d'aquarelles de Tsunehiko Kuwabara intitulé Un été au Japon. Le livre est paru chez Gallimard dans la très belle collection Carnets de voyage et a le format d'un vrai carnet de croquis, c'est à dire plus large que haut. Kuwabara y rend hommage à la péninsule de Bôsô dans la préfecture de Chiba (fait partie de la région du Kantô dans l'est du Honshû, la plus grande île de l'archipel japonais) où il passe tous ses étés.
Dans une courte introduction, l'auteur explique comment se déroule un été japonais avec d'abord sa saison des pluies, puis sa chaleur étouffante, ainsi que ses fêtes et ses coutumes. Vient ensuite le coeur de l'ouvrage, une série de croquis à l`'aquarelle regroupés par thème. Parmi eux la saison des pluie, la baignade, le marché, les fêtes, le kendo, la chasse aux insectes... Chaque nouvelle section est annoncée par une calligraphie et sa traduction française et les dessins sont accompagnés de commentaires manuscrits au crayon.
Les aquarelles sont croquées sur le vif, dans un style volontairement approximatif quoique parfois étonnamment détaillé (surtout les portraits d'individus, les détails végétaux et les animaux) qui rend à merveille l'aspect éphémère des scènes et des phénomènes observés. Parmi les superbes couleurs utilisées, deux dominent: le vert, qu'il s'agisse de celui des rizières, du soja frais et d'autres légumes d'été, du bambou ou encore de certains costumes traditionnels, et le bleu: celui changeant de la mer et du ciel, celui profond des habits des paysans ou d'un kendogi et d'un hakama (vêtements portés lors de la pratique du kendo). L'ensemble est relevé par des taches chatoyantes et jamais criardes de jaune, de rouge, de brun, de violet... que ce soit sous la forme d'un yukata bigarré (kimono d'été en coton), de lampions, de fruits, de fleurs ou de poissons.
En bref, ce très bel album laisse une impression de fraîcheur bienfaisante et de dépaysement. A feuilleter absolument en période de canicule! :-)
Si vous voulez voir des extraits du livre, allez sur le site franco-japonais de Tsunehiko Kuwabara. Vous y trouverez aussi d'autres oeuvres du même artiste.

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