A great source for the random detritus of urban life is the varied scraps of paper readers grab impulsively for bookmarks, which the books can inadvertently preserve for decades.
By Mark Fenton
Published June 05, 2009
In 1966, Tony Conrad, an experimental musician based in New York, was walking though the Bowery when he discovered an abandoned pop-psychology paperback. He showed it to his friend Lou Reed who at that time was searching for a band name.
I reproduce the book here, not just because it depicts footwear that would make a podiatrist wince,
but also because it interests me that the band endured well beyond Mr. Leigh's study of sado-masochism. Despite jacket copy proclaiming it a "must for every thinking adult," the book is long out of print. The band isn't.
I recount this anecdote because I like the revelations found in the random detritus of urban life. My first drafts are plagued by unrelated sections with big gaps between them and I like to fill those gaps with stuff I find by accident.
A great source of this stuff is the varied scraps of paper readers grab impulsively for bookmarks, which the books can inadvertently preserve for decades. Used booksellers are golden for these items. And I will confess that I sometimes transfer found material from a book I have no intention of buying into a book I am buying.
Last week I visited Talize on Upper James Street. Talize is mostly a used clothing outlet, but as my daughters trawled the garment aisles for costume material, I explored the book section. It was more upmarket than I'd expected and I literally tore the place apart. When we left I'd stuck four found bookmarks into The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was the one book I bought. Amazingly there were two copies of TMOC at Talize that morning and both of them held unreclaimed bookmarks, which suggests to me that TMOC has a high reader-abandonment quotient.
I think the easiest way to handle the material I found is to treat the bookmarks as numbered exhibits.
Reindeer on hind legs. Discovered in The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie.
Like the pigs at the end of Animal Farm, the reindeer has only recently made the evolutionary leap to standing erect and will presumably give homo sapiens a run for their money somewhere down the road. Can't you see it? Our assault on the environment favours them over us and we become the feeble, terrified slaves of deer.
The subservient grin, the hands presented for cuffing and the humiliating collar suggests that the deer is in the habbit of being shackled, which is exactly the kind of thing I expect humans would do to deer if they threatened to evolve to our level. It's also an appropriate metaphor for how Salman Rushdie must have felt through most of the '90s. The uneasy biped posture is strikingly similar to the decapitated giraffe I'll be talking about further down so don't click exit just yet.
Postcard of Hungarian Coronation Regalia. Discovered in Penguin edition of The Trial by Franz Kafka.
The postcard is in mint condition. If I sent it to you today you'd think I was still in Budapest. The back of the postcard is virgin so here's where I have to start filling in the blanks myself. Sonja, a comparative literature student, has told Jason, her boyfriend since grade 11, that nothing will change between them but that East Europe is something she has to do on her own and when she returns she'll be his forever. He'd thought he'd be alright for the three months she was gone but as soon as they kissed good-bye at the airport it was awful. The dead weight in the pit of his stomach felt like the headless remains of the deer he passed driving back to Oakville in the rain.
She sent him a postcard everyday. Until Prague. That's where she met Milos, at the Franz Kafka museum. After a dinner where she learned that Milos's strong, hirsuit hands used to take the heads off chickens on the family farm, that Milos had just been accepted to law school, and that the word "robot" was Czech for "worker," it was too foggy and damp to think of going back to the hostel. Three days later to the hour she unentwined herself from his embrace. "I need some time to sort things out," she said, although Milos was just starting to snore and didn't respond. She doesn't know how long she stood on the Charles Bridge staring down at the Vltava but not seeing it.
It's no surprise, Sonja thought, that medieval Prague was a labyrinth from which Kafka could never free himself. All certainties are challenged in a place like this. She didn't know if she loved Milos--she didn't know anything for sure any more--but she felt she had to say something to Jason and the easiest thing would be to send it on the postcard of Hungarian Coronation Regalia that had been in her purse since Budapest. But in the end there was nothing to say and she stuffed the postcard back into her copy of the Trial and forgot about it. What she had with Milos was too beautiful to be real and lasting and she returned to Oakville and married Jason just like she'd promised. They're happy enough, I suppose.
Before I found this postcard if you'd asked me if such a thing as Hungarian Coronation Regalia existed I'd have said, "Uh...sure, I guess it must." But the fact of it had never crossed my mind. Now that I have the postcard in my possession I can't imagine how I ever lived without it. I'm almost terrified to move it from place to place because I know that if I lose it I will never be able to replace it, and there will by a gaping hole in the inventory of all the stuff I have and the more of these holes in the inventory of all the stuff I have I have the more I feel the bedrock of my identity crumbling, until finally what I can't even call "me" anymore falls screaming into an abyss. When I took the photo I had the flash on by accident and it reflected off the postcard's lamination which makes it look like the jewels are so glittery as to be almost blinding. Nice.
Torn paper with cartoon of man ejecting from a fighter plane. Discovered in The Mayor of Casterbridge (Old Hardbound edition.)
Oboy I'd love to get some carbon dating on this drawing! The speech balloon reads "Hey Teach, what's this here button for!" Best guess is that the artist is sitting in a university English lecture on TMOC and the professor is a crashing bore and this is a kind of death wish on the teacher. My friend Duncan and I used to contrive Viet Cong bamboo traps for Dr. L. - when his lectures on Bertrand Russell's Lectures on Logical Atomism devolved into an orgy of "if p then q" formulations. Although I would feel awful if Dr. L - actually got skewered by bamboo one day, like we'd laid some bad voodoo on him.
The picture is redolent of the camp comic violence you see in Roy Lichtenstein canvases,
so I'd put this artifact somewhere in the mid-60s. It also could be something sketched in a Flight Safety class, because the pilots I work with tell me you learn the same stuff at Recurrent Training every six months and so you don't really listen, you just doodle. If I showed the drawing to them - which I may or may not decide to do - they could potentially identify the aircraft type for me.
Photo Booth pictures. Discovered in The Mayor of Casterbridge (recent Penguin edition)
Two scenarios occurred to me simultaneously. I will treat them separately.
They are studying at different universities and she sends him a current picture to remind him of her. Obviously in an age of camera phones and web cams she could have gotten a friend to take one or even done it on her own computer. But I think she needed to do it away from campus in the solitude of a mall. A dorm picture would have reminded him of the hotbox of residence life, with its romantic entanglements, substance abuse and sexual abandon. The photobooth is timeless, anonymous, and stands outside of cultural specificity. (I'm sure they have these booths in Mumbai and Nairobi too.) It is a place to return to basics. More revealing of the self than our face in the mirror.
I'm less optimistic about this relationship than the one that teetered on the unsent postcard of Hungarian Coronation Regalia. I see the face of a woman finding her autonomy. She may not even be aware of this herself as she mails it, but he is, and in despair he leaves it in his copy of TMOC and goes on a two day bender with his friends on the wrestling team. I discovered the photos near the beginning of the book, which, if you've never read it, begins with a man, youthful and dissolute, selling his wife to a passing stranger. (According to the dry notes in most editions of TMOC wife selling was a common enough practice in 19th century Wessex [?!]) Our undergraduate has done nothing like this, but he convinces himself that he is yet another player in the centuries old drama of men treating women as commodities. This thought makes him desolate. He never finishes the book.
One of the standard distinctions between sacred and secular art in any tradition is the tendency for religious art to be frontal.
Secular portraits are far more likely to approach the subject obliquely in order to highlight sensual lines,
and sculpture in the round,
in the west at least, is largely post-renaissance, the renaissance bringing with it licence for art to move away from sacred reverence, and approach the human body from all angles and with a multiplicity of expressive postures.
I am perhaps overstating the case to call the photo booth portrait a religious experience but the extreme frontal poses that communicate with us eye to eye, give the subject (who incidentally is also creator of the portrait) both an inherent vulnerability and an inherent dignity. Generally these photos come in sets of four, and it irks me that in the case of my TMOC strip the last two have been separated and probably sent off with an application to a sorority or to flight attendant school. Note that between the first
the smile has relaxed and the gaze has softened and moved upward. I don't want to sound too sure of the progression but I'm guessing by Image Four the expression would look more like this.
This scenario feels like a tale the Portugese novelist Josï¿½ Saramago has yet to write. The photos are discovered by a librarian in Lisbon in an English language copy of TMOC. The librarian is overwhelmed by the doubled image of the woman. It is not sensual beauty so much--though there is that aplenty-- but rather her sheer radiance that transfixes him. But what interest could she have in a middle-aged loner who lives in one room with his cat?
He ponders the pictures for days, even pausing at the photo booth in the pharmacy down the street which he is certain is the one she used. He verifies the paper quality by going into the booth and taking his own photo. When he looks at the result, with his burst blood-vessels and wispy comb-over, he wants to cut his head off, the images so depress him. In disgust he drops the photostrip on the floor of the booth and leaves quickly.
By the end of the week obsession gets the better of good sense. When he checks the circulation history of this copy he gets lucky. There is little demand for English language editions of TMOC, and in the last twenty years only one borrower has been female and she, it turns out, has renewed it consecutively for half a year, her last stint with the volume ending the middle of last December. (Somehow our librarian is certain that the woman herself used the photos for a bookmark; that they were not the possession of a lover or family member.)
Consecutive borrowings of this duration can only be done with special permission, so she is obviously a reader with some credentials. He finds her number in the library data base and dials it quickly before his better judgement tells him not to. She answers on the first ring and identifies herself. He tells her he believes she might have left some photos in a copy of TMOC. She tells him she doesn't need them. That they are not important. She hangs up.
The next day his supervisor calls him into her office. There is something that needs to be cleared up. Sitting in the supervisor's office is the woman in the photograph and she is more lovely than any photo could do justice to. She is casually but exquisitely dressed, like someone who works out of the home, but who might sometimes venture out to a professional meeting. It would seem she had second thoughts about the photos. She wouldn't mind having them back. The supervisor is puzzled by all this. It is not library policy to call someone at home about so small an item. Usually such an item would just be placed in the lost and found, as to do more would contravene 'right to privacy' laws. As she says the words "right to privacy" the supervisor is looking directly into our hero's eyes and the look is not friendly.
Not at all, the translator says. Really, the photo strip was placed in there absently, as a bookmark, when she was working on a contract for a new Portugese translation of TMOC. When her manuscript was finally done she was so exhausted by the project that she didn't want to think about anything to do with TMOC and returned it without checking the pages for anything she might have left in it. It wasn't the happiest time of her life, she says, which is of course getting off topic, but having the photo back might be... a way of seeing where she has come since then.
With superhuman effort our librarian regains what little poise he's equal to and reenters the conversation. Indeed the waves of fortune are something no amount of self-discipline can ever fully tame, he says. Perhaps no other Thomas Hardy novel so vividly explores the undulations of chance on which our lives float helplessly. That is eloquent, the translator says, I should have consulted with you vis-ï¿½-vis some agonizing stuggles I had rendering English metaphors into our own tongue. She looks away quickly, as though drawn in a direction she shouldn't be.
Anyway, the pictures - they are merely my head, disembodied and multiplied by two, but there's no need to litter the library with them. There is, the librarian thinks, no possible way she could find me appealing. She is simply a kind young woman, generously saving me from a tongue-ashing by my supervisor. As the translator thanks them both again and leaves with her photos it takes all the restraint our hero possesses not to let his eyes follow her out of the room, though he's certain her movements have the grace of seraphim. And after she's gone the manger does indeed give him a harsh reprimand. This was a flagrant abuse of power. Should the translator, or any other borrower, be so harassed in the future, his tenure with the library will have to be reconsidered.
There's little he can do. It is spring. The streets of Lisbon are full of young lovers as well as older couples walking happily down the long walk of their vows. Alone, our librarian sits by the window drinking tea, his cat his only companion. It is his favourite time of day, this hour before sunset. The phone rings. It is the translator. But how... he starts. Please forgive me, she says. I remembered your first name. I called the library pretending to be a cousin from England. My English accent is surprisingly convincing. They gave me your home phone. I wanted to apologize. I hope I didn't cause you any trouble. Things...well...my domestic life is complicated at the moment. I hate that it makes me act... erratically. Please...it was no trouble at all, he says, it's I who should -.
There's another thing, she interrupts, I'm...oh this is so strange and embarrassing. I am in the habit of photographing myself weekly in the photo booth down the street from the library. It is a kind of barometer of my emotional state. I was doing just that when I saw the corner of a strip of photos poking out from under the curtains in the booth. I retrieved it. It was a picture of yourself. Oh good heavens, he says, I'm so--how do I even begin to explain? There's no need for you to do anything but throw it away. But really, she says. It's quite...There's a striking intentness to your appearance. I'd be happier to give it back to you if I could. One's body is never at peace, separated from one's head, don't you think? He laughs at that. And, she continues, I'm curious to hear more of your thoughts on Thomas Hardy. Would...would you be available to meet for coffee?...
I'm not going to write out the whole scenario. It would be much more fun if you finished it yourself. I've given it, I think, an adequate jumpstart.
This completes my analysis of exhibits I scored in the books section of Talize. I've tried to be as scientific as possible with them.
After I'd collected them I took all my found bookmarks, stuffed them in the paperback of TMOC and went to the cash. But before I could pay, my eldest daughter ran up to me with a model of an anthropomorphic giraffe. Designed to sit on a ledge, it is inherently frontal and thus satisfies my earlier description of religious art.
It lacks a face now, or rather it has been given an all-defining face, as one sees in some modernist renderings of religious figures,
who by bearing no expression, express nothing and everything.
Or sometimes when I look at it the giraffe it is not so much all face as all mouth, screaming, like the iconic image of expressionism, whose head and body radiate like ripples from an absurdly elongated mouth.
I had to have the giraffe. But not without haggling it down from the $1.99 label price.
I asked the sales clerk what she could do for me, given that the item was clearly damaged, and I presumed the pricing was done when it was still capitated. A shrewd clerk would have made an argument something like this:
Shrewd Clerk: um...you're aware, aren't you, that this carving is a Undugu original. We had it priced at $149.99 before a customer dropped it.
Me: Ha...You think I was born yesterday! You expect me to believe that this is a Undugu original and yet you made no attempt to reattach the head with wood epoxy or whatever adhesive is art-restoration approved?
SC: We...um...never found the head. I felt so stupid...just setting it out there on a display table so it could get broken... and now it's basically worthless. [looking around to see if her manager is near. She is almost in tears.]
Me: Oh...I see. Listen, it still retains its essence. Venus de Milo has, let's not forget, no arms, someone having forgotten to remove her from the reception hall during a particularly lively Greek wedding.
Some would argue the body is more unified for the accidental cropping, and I'm sure the statue still commands a fair price. Here's $25.00. It's all I have. I promise to take good care of the giraffe. [She is now sobbing profusely in some conflicted state of plummeting self-esteem and extreme gratitude. We hug. I leave quickly. I'm guessing the staff have a good laugh once I'm out of the parking lot.]
But it didn't go down like that. Instead, rather than making the executive decision, the clerk fetched her manager who reduced the price of the artifact to $0.49+tax, because "that's the lowest price our system can accept..." So the fractured giraffe was mine. A different vendor might have thrown the item in for free with the other purchases as it's completely without interest to anyone but a "special" customer like myself. (I would have done that just get me out of the store).
It sits up on our plate rail as I write.
There is, I'm told, a primal fear of decapitation. A fear that in the last moments of awareness after the guillotine falls, our head sees our headless body jerking itself out of life. But my headless giraffe makes me think of these lines from a song off The Velvet Underground's self-titled album, which reverses the process as though, amidst the fountaining gore, the neck sprouted eyes and saw the face of the severed head.
I saw my head laughing
rolling on the ground
I'm set free
I'll never know if the giraffe's head is laughing, because it can't be found. Which reminds me that there are limits to what I can know. Which I find comforting.