Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Traveling Sketchbook, or Serendipity

The Girlfriends gather once a year in South Haven for a weekend of getting-away-from-it-all which includes laughs, adult beverages, and a white elephant gift exchange. We enjoyed this annual event so much this year in January that we decided to make it a semi-annual event and do it again in September. 

We opened white elephant gifts while wearing fake facial hair, which made every gift and every conversation exponentially more hilarious. The gift exchange produced a collapsible, portable camping toilet; an awful "get-in-touch-with-your-feelings" card game from the 1950s, targeted to socially-challenged adolescents; and a sexy black lace dress with plunging neckline, which the recipient modeled. We photographed her and immediately sent the image to the husband in question. 

The most interesting gift of the night was an old sketchbook that Girlfriend Y-Tee had found decades earlier in an alternative school on Chicago's north side. No one claimed them or knew where they had come from, so she called dibs and brought them home. They had been sitting in a storage box in her basement for thirty years--and now one of them became part of Girlfriend Tradition. We wondered about the artist, and whether his career had taken an artistic trajectory.

"Let's try to find him!" we agreed, and I whipped out the trusty Internet. The name on the front cover of the sketchbook was David Enblom, so I googled "David Enblom artist." I got almost 40,000 results--but the first page of links was all our guy. The link led us to a website called MNArtists.org, and Mr. Enblom's homepage on that site listed his own website, which we quickly checked out. 

Mr. Enblom, it turns out, is a talented photographer, although his website was designed for minimum aesthetic appeal and maximum randomness. His landing page includes links to his photographs, his Facebook page, Beatles songs and lyrics, and a playable list of the Billboard #1 Pop Hits from 1941 to 1976. Glen Miller's Song of the Volga Boatmen is playing in the background at this very moment. 

I took photos of several sketches, attached them to an email, wrote "Found these in a sketchbook with your name on it. Are they yours?", and hit send. Thirteen hours later, Mr. Enblom replied enthusiastically, "Yes they are! Would love to see more!" 
 So we sent four more images, and told him that our friend had found his sketchbooks in an alternative high school in Chicago in the '80s. This launched a dialogue with Mr. Enblom, who thought his mom had tossed all of the sketchbooks in the trash. He asked to "borrow" them so he could copy the images, but G.YT was happy to reunite them with their creator. Mr. Enblom--can I call him David? I feel like he's practically one of the girlfriends by now--David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has never lived in Chicago; so how did his sketchbooks end up in a north side high school? David started filling sketchbooks when he was in his early 20s, in 1971. He had switched from studying pre-med to art; you can see the influence of pre-med in his anatomy drawings. "I fell in love with art," David told me, "Dada, surrealism, fluxus." He believes that his girlfriend at the time brought the books to Chicago. She later married a guy who was involved in starting the Prologue school where the books eventually ended up, and where Y-Tee found them many years later.It was a big thrill, David said, when the sketchbooks arrived in the mail. He had assumed that they had all been thrown out and that he'd never see any of them again. Getting the books back "was like finding out you have a brother that you were separated from. I'm getting to know a part of myself--how many memories do you have from 40 years ago?"Many gifts came out of this little adventure. One of them is that David introduced us to The Sketchbook Project, which is a "global, crowd-sourced art project and interactive traveling exhibition of handmade books." There are already more than 28,000 sketchbooks in the exhibit--and you can join the fun. Order your very own sketchbook here for only $25--or check out the digital library of sketchbooks on the website.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading Les Miserables in Chicago

I finally finished reading Les Miserables (an English translation, obvs) this month--more than three years after I started it.

I had such high hopes when I first ordered the free Kindle version. It's only 959 pages, I thought to myself. I can handle that. After all, I'd already plodded through Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame--all 550 pages--including an entire novel's worth of narrative about the history and architecture of the cathedral; and 750 pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick--including 30,000 words about whale blubber. That is not a lie.

The difference between the reading of those two novels and the latest novel is that I read with others in a reading group, with a deadline. I read Les Mis on my own, with no time constraints; and during the duration of my reading of I Am Miserables, I read 49 other books (according to my LibraryThing book tags), one of which, Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, was almost as unreadable as I'm Still Miserables

OK, that's a bit harsh. It's just that I'm a simple person, with lofty intentions but with the attention span of a toddler hopped up on Twix at Halloween. So when I encountered the 19-page table of contents (again, not a lie), I thought to myself, "Oh, crap." 

You know you're in trouble when some of the chapter titles are longer than entire chapters of some books. For example: Volume II, Book Second, Chapter II: In Which the Reader Will Peruse Two Verses, Which Are of the Devil's Composition, Possibly, and also Chapter III: The Ankle-Chain Must Have Undergone a Certain Preparatory Manipulation to be Thus Broken With a Blow from a Hammer.

You also know you're in trouble when you don't understand a single word in some of the lengthy chapter titles, as in Volume III, Book Eighth, Chapter XIII: Solus Cum Solo, In Loco Remoto, Non Cogitabuntur Orare. Apparently, they only had a budget for for French-to-English, not Latin-to-English.

Barnes and Noble claims that Les Miserables is the home of the longest sentence ever written, clocking in at 823 words. But the Victor Hugo Internet Hub debunks this risible impertinence, citing five novels with longer sentences. I remember that sentence, however; it caused my undiagnosed aneurysm to throb.

The beautiful thing about reading on the Kindle is that you can look up words you don't know as you go along, without having to stop and pick up your unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. This is fortunate, because Victor Hugo is a vocabulary beast -- I encountered unknown lexical combinations on virtually every page. I am determined to find many opportunities to use recrudescence and fulgurating and matutinal in everyday conversation.

It was disconcerting, however, that many of the words I highlighted did not have definitions in the Kindle dictionary--such as pterigybranche, poignarded, emphyteuses, and arondissement. As it turns out, Hugo's narrator does not hide his linguistic snobbery, and his disdain for anything but the most precise and standard vocabulary and usage. He refers to 

...that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that  
pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the the night which has just been torn from its cesspool...what is slang, properly speaking? It is the language of wretchedness. 


Victor Hugo's middle name is digression. He admits this in the third sentence, after introducing the character Myriel, Bishop of D--: "Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous...to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him..." Hugo then spends the next 63 pages introducing the Bishop, who plays a key role in Jean Valjean's life even though he only appears briefly in the book. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean valuable silver, and urges him to use it to become an honest man; and after this encounter, the Bishop never returns to the story. 

The trick with reading Hugo or any prolix classic author is to figure out which digressions you can skim over without losing track of the main characters and plot lines, and which digressions contain indispensable facts and connections. I failed miserably at this task, which is why it took me three years to finish the book. I probably could have flipped past the entire Volume I, Book Third, or at the very least the first chapter of said Book entitled The Year 1817, which is a single seven-page paragraph name-drop. I could have spurned the entire Book First, Volume II, which comprises 19 chapters (47 pages) about the Battle of Waterloo--which the title of Chapter V refers to as The Quid Obscurum of Battles. (I googled quid obscurum. It means something like what darkness. It's also the name of a famous thoroughbred horse.)

Hugo wrote six chapters about the sewers of Paris in Volume V, Book Second. The Intestine of the Leviathan describes in torturous detail the history, construction, geography, and putrescent contents of the French sewer system. There's some interesting, even quotable, material in there--such as the passage that describes the sewer as "the conscience of the city:"

All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end...All which was formerly rouged, is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.

But if I had neglected this section, it would not have diminished my understanding of the story.

Some of the excursus distracted from the heroic storyline but proved germane to contemporary social and political discussions--such as the analysis of the political stage in France in the early 1830s, described in Volume IV, Book First, Chapters I - IV. These are the kinds of passages that get books banned in the red states:

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy,and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

So. I finished reading Les Miserables. I'm glad I read it, in the same way I'm glad I ran a marathon back in the '80s when I was young, energetic, child-free, and motivated by sibling competition. I have earned my bragging rights, but thankthelittlebabyjesus, I will never have to do it again.

What ridiculous book are you laboring to finish?