13 January, 2006


I spotted her across a smoky dormitory kitchen filled with twittering idiots. When I first approached the woman who would become my wife, my natural impulse was of course to draw out her interests and engage with her on them: a social gambit that had worked much less well in the past than might have been expected. I don't remember how we broached the topic of Victorian book-illustration, but we did, and I soon managed to impress her by dropping a few names: Dulac, Russell Flint, Tenniel, Doré, and so forth. I wanted to show her two treasures in my room, namely a beloved Navarre Society edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, illustrated by Heath Robinson, and even better, still the most beautiful illustrated book in my collection, a near-fine, full-colour reprint, in quarter-leather with marbled boards and slipcase, of J. J. Grandville's 1844 Un Autre Monde. She was never as taken as I with this volume; in fact I've never really convinced anyone of its zenzizenzizenzic wealth.

And perhaps it's hard fully to love Grandville's engravings and fabular vignettes without having discovered them through Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk, which by context invests his images so pregnantly with meaning and feeling—rich, urbane, authentic bourgeois feeling—as to make them irresistible to the eye and to the heart.

Grandville, like all the best illustrators, retains an ideal detachment from his subject; his line, hard and precise, anticipates Tenniel's Alice. He lacks the floridly erotic curve of Beardsley, Rackham's mastery of colour (indeed when Grandville hues, the results are pallid and awkward), the grandes thèmes of Doré and the banality of late Symbolist sentiment; he has, rather, a Surrealist unheimlich, the cartoonist's touch, constantly between gaiety and irony, and most of all, he always knows which elements to sketch, and which to develop.

My friend M. is against book-illustration; he regards the relationship between the words and the images as superfluous, and prefers the diagram, especially when fleshed out by the likes of Kircher and Fludd. I share his taste for fine diagrams, but illustration has its own pleasures. It lends a richness of spirit to the unutterable chore of reading even fiction; it stimulates the eye, fatigued by rows of monotonous letters; far from obviating the imagination, a well-drawn image tells us the disposition, the mood, the aesthetic sensibility of another mind, and licenses our own phantasy to create and develop at will. Grandville's Eclipse, above, the smooch of a male sun and his consort moon, still talks to me of the joy, insouciant, serene, always irrefragably intimate, but always a little strange also, of the love and company of my dear wife.


peacay said...

Perhaps we are destined to break bread over Grandville.

2 things..

As much as I love illustrations, in most instances of serious reading, I would rather not have my imagination prejudiced during the process. Afterwards or on second read, by all means see any and all available illustrations of the work - in which case it becomes a comparative enjoyment against one's own mind's eye development through the work, rather than a restrictive or defining feature at the beginning.

But the real reason I'm dropping this comment in here has to do with Pantagruel (I'm very sorry to admit that I have not yet! had the pleasure of reading more than a snatch or two of Rabelais).

Pantagruel and illustration in fact. Have you seen this series released the decade following Rabelais' death?

They are definitely one of my favourite series of all illustrations and one of the great finds I've been privileged to stumble across while I've been doing this little obsession, Bib.

Conrad H. Roth said...

PK, I have seen the Songes, and in fact I own the Dover edition of them. I do recommend, of course, that you spend a little time with Rabelais himself; it will be time richly rewarded.

John Cowan said...

Some works are indissolubly interwoven with their illustrations: I think particularly of Winnie-the-Pooh (all four of them), Alice (both of them), The Wind in the Willows, and "Farmer Giles of Ham".