Wendel Dietterlin’s Architectura

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While looking through my bookshelves recently for examples of Baroque architecture I was reminded of the eccentric designs of Wendel Dietterlin (c. 1550–1599), a German painter and engraver whose Architectura (1598) is less a guide to architectural form than an excuse to indulge the artist’s fervid imagination. This wasn’t really the reference material I was after—Dietterlin is pre-Baroque—but I’d not seen so much of his work in one place before. Dover Publications have reprinted all of these plates for many years as The Fantastic Engravings Of Wendel Dietterlin but it’s one Dover book I’ve never owned.

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“Fantastic” is an apt description. Where a similar study might present the reader with careful elaborations of Vitruvian principles, Dietterlin offers plate after plate of suggestions for portals, fountains, fireplaces and facades, many of which are festooned with bizarre and grotesque details. Wild animals are a persistent theme. Other artists of the period tended to favour mythological scenes for fountain sculpture; Dietterlin shows a series of large animals being attacked by smaller ones: bear versus dogs, dragon versus men, and so on. Similar groupings may be found on his designs for rustic arches. Ostensibly these are traditional hunting scenes but there’s a fury in Dietterlin’s renderings that pushes the representations away from the decorative towards the pathological.

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In other designs the wildness is transferred to the decoration itself. Examples of the traditionally sober orders of Classical architecture are shown encrusted with decorations added at the whim of the artist; Dietterlin wasn’t the only artist to do this but other artists are seldom this excessive. Strangest of all is the plate that shows a huge elephant standing before (or emerging from) a fireplace. René Passeron included a handful of engraving artists in the precursors section of his Concise Encyclopedia of Surrealism in 1975, but Dietterlin isn’t among them. I’d say that elephant alone is suitable qualification, a forerunner of Magritte’s Time Transfixed, as well as a literal (if inadvertent) representation of “the elephant in the room”.

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The Rejected Sorcerer

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Cover art by Ed Emshwiller.

More Borges. While checking the details of yesterday’s post I discovered this oddity, an American SF magazine that published a two-page Borges story in March 1960, and put the author’s name on the cover even though few of the magazine’s readers would have heard of him at the time. The issue, which turned out to be the final one, lacks an editorial page so there’s no indication as to how the story found its way there. The story itself concerns an encounter in modern-day Spain between two men, one of them an established magician (in the occult sense), the other a neophyte hoping to gain similar powers. The piece is as much a moral fable as a work of fantasy, and as such appears out of place in a magazine with flying-saucer artwork on its exterior and a Virgil Finlay illustration inside (not for the Borges, unfortunately).

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I thought at first that I might not have read this one before, the title wasn’t familiar but the story was one I recognised immediately. I was also surprised to find that I have it in four different collections under different titles, and with two of the printings appearing at first to disguise the author. In Black Water: An Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1983), edited by Alberto Manguel, the story appears as The Wizard Postponed, with the writer given as “Juan Manuel”; in The Book of Fantasy (1988), an updated version of the Antología de la Literatura Fantástica edited in 1940 by Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, the same piece appears as The Wizard Passed Over, with the author credited as “Don Juan Manuel”. The latter turns out to be the original author, a medieval Spanish writer, although “original” here is a debatable term when the story is Manuel’s adaptation of a piece he found in a book of Arabian tales. Borges rewrote this together with several other short reworkings which appear in the Etcetera section at the end of A Universal History of Infamy, its third appearance on my shelves (once again as The Wizard Postponed).

The fourth appearance is in the Collected Fictions (1998), or the cursed volume as I tend to think of it. I often feel bad about traducing the efforts of translator Andrew Hurley every time Borges is mentioned here but this story provides a good example of why his work is so unsatisfying to readers familiar with the stories from older editions. In its original Spanish the story is El brujo postergado, a short title for which The Wizard Postponed or The Wizard Passed Over would seem like reasonable analogues. Hurley expands this to The Wizard That Was Made to Wait, a lumbering, graceless phrase that’s typical of the lumbering gracelessness elsewhere in Collected Fictions. These tin-eared translations are the ones approved by the Borges estate so they’re present in all the reprints of the past 20 years. Fortunately for readers, most of Borges’ books were widely reprinted in English translations that the author approved, and some of which he even assisted with. Reject the conjurations of maladroit sorcerers, that’s my advice.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

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“This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars.”

This is the kind of thing I love to find: a BBC adaptation of a story by Jorge Luis Borges which I didn’t even know existed until this week. The Immortal was written in 1947 and published in the fourth collection of the writer’s fiction, El Aleph, in 1949. Anglophone readers will be more familiar with the story from Labyrinths, the most popular Borges collection, and the book I always recommend to those curious about his work. (And with the usual nagging proviso: avoid the Andrew Hurley translations if you can.)

Borges’ immortal is a Roman soldier during the reign of Diocletian whose life is recounted via a manuscript discovered in 1929 inside a volume of poetry. (The volume is Pope’s translation of The Iliad; Homer is never far away in Borges-land, especially in this story.) Disappointed by his military career, the soldier leaves his legion to go in search of the legendary City of the Immortals which is reputed to lie somewhere in the African desert; he finds the city, of course, and also (inevitably) receives more than he bargained for. Borges’ other fictions are seldom as traditionally fantastic as this, although the story’s philosophical musings are enough to set it apart from similar tales, as is the author’s habit of owning up to his recondite literary borrowings, like a magician revealing the secret of a trick at the end of a performance. Even so, The Immortal was generic enough to turn up in an American paperback collection in 1967, New Worlds of Fantasy edited by Terry Carr, along with stories by Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, JG Ballard and others. The Ballard story, The Lost Leonardo, is an uncharacteristic piece about another immortal character, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, cursed to roam the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Ahasuerus was a popular character in the 19th century, whose legend and predicament was enough to sustain Eugène Sue for 1400 pages in a ten-volume historical saga, Le Juif Errant. Borges alludes to Ahasuerus via the name “Joseph Cartaphilus” although this is one obscure reference that he doesn’t explain for the reader. By contrast with the logorrhoeic Monsieur Sue, Borges requires a mere 15 pages to deal with 2000 years of history.

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Given the challenges of staging a complex historical drama on a TV budget Carlos Pasini’s film is little more than a 22-minute sketch of its source material, but Borges adaptations are scarce enough that there’s a thrill in seeing the material presented at all, as with the brief dramatisations in the Arena documentary, Borges and I. The Immortal was given a single broadcast on 20th November, 1970, as part of a now-forgotten BBC 2 arts programme, Review, where it was intended as an introduction to the author’s writing following the UK publication of The Book of Imaginary Beings. Mark Edwards plays the Roman soldier whose narration is taken verbatim from the story. Borges’ international reputation had reached a plateau of popularity at this time, after growing steadily during the 1960s. 1970 was also the year that Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance was released, a film that quotes verbally and visually Borges’ Personal Anthology while also featuring a photo of the man himself. A year later, Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius collection, The Nature of the Catastrophe, included the dedication “For Borges”; Jerry Cornelius is another immortal (or timeless) character, one of whose progenitors may be “Joseph Cartaphilus”. Pasini’s adaptation can’t compete with these heavyweights but as a taster of Borgesian prose and ideas it serves its purpose. The director has made it available for viewing here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Diamonds

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I’ve finally found time to update the website a little so here are the last two book covers I was working on last year. In the Coils of the Labyrinth by David Annandale is another tale of Lovecraftian horror for Aconyte:

Professor Miranda Ventham is having bad dreams—nothing new in 1920s Arkham—but hers are horrifying glimpses of a dark future. Now seriously ill, she books herself into the new sanatorium, Stroud Home. With luck, the town’s eldritch taint won’t reach her there. And yet the nightmares worsen. Aided by her friend, Agatha Crane, they delve into the background of the sanatorium’s enigmatic director, Donovan Stroud. Plagued by doubts, delusions, and terrifying visions, Christine must unravel the shrouded history of the Strouds before she is trapped in a labyrinthine nightmare. Something sinister lurks at its heart, and it longs to be set free.

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Otzi’s Odyssey by Neil Perry Gordon is a metaphysical drama which posits a fictional life and afterlife for the neolithic iceman whose body was discovered in the Alps:

Ötzi’s Odyssey – The Troubled Soul of a Neolithic Iceman, opens in the year 1991 with the remarkable sighting of a mummified man, half frozen in glacial ice, whom two hikers stumble upon. Along with this profound archeological discovery, the soul of this five-thousand-year-old iceman is awakened.

?Ötzi the iceman’s adventure takes him to the modern era, where his observant soul tries to comprehend why it remains tethered to the frozen mummy, as well as to make sense of a technologically advanced world. The story then returns to 3300 BCE, to the life and times of clan chief Bhark as he lives with his family in a peaceful village upon stilt homes clinging to the shore of the great Lake Neith, located in the shadows of ominous Similaun Mountain.

Both these covers use an elongated diamond shape in their designs, a repetition that I wasn’t intending. I did this first on Otzi’s Odyssey since the story has four infernal realms that the character’s soul travels through. A diamond shape subsequently became necessary for In the Coils of the Labyrinth when a central panel was required that wouldn’t cover too much of the background imagery while also connecting the upper and lower levels and providing a graphic link with my previous covers in this series. There’s a similar shape on my cover for The Voice of the Fire so I should probably avoid doing this for a while…

Still to be announced from last year is an album cover design that I managed to fit in despite several months of serious overwork. This was my first proper album cover for some time (as opposed to the layout I’m usually doing on albums where the artists provide their own art) but the release seems to have been delayed for some reason. More about that one when/if it appears.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Devourer Below
Litany of Dreams
The Last Ritual

Luminous Procuress

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How to describe this one? Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, pt 2? Bargain-basement Satyricon? The latter is probably more apt, Kenneth Anger’s longer films are more formal than Luminous Procuress. Steven Arnold’s only feature film resembles something made by the extras from a Fellini extravaganza after they’ve stayed overnight at Cinecittà; a series of artfully-arranged tableaux (artful arrangement being Arnold’s forte), together with a hardcore sex-scene (hetero) that seems out of place beside the relatively chaste antics elsewhere:

Luminous Procuress is an altogether extraordinary, individualistic phantasmagoria. It was filmed entirely in San Francisco over a two-year period, and describes the adventures of two wandering youths in San Francisco who visit the home of a mysterious woman, the Procuress. She is an elegant emblem of sorcery, her vivid features glowing under bizarre, striking maquillage, and one is not certain who she is or where she intends to lead the protagonists. Although the language she speaks is vaguely Russian, it appears that the Procuress has psychic powers. She discerns a sympathetic response to her on the part of the youths, and by magical means, conducts them through fantastic rooms, on a psychic journey. Through strange passageways, one voyages with the Procuress and her charges, glimpsing hidden nightmares and panoplied chambers of revelry, where celebrants, ornately festooned, dance and make love before unseen gods… (more)

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Arnold’s film follows the low-budget form by being shot without synchronised sound, so the dialogue, such as it is, has been dubbed on later. Rather than try and match words to the improvised scenes Arnold instead gives his characters foreign voices, most of which are mumbling and may not even be saying anything intelligible in their own language. This spares us any Warhol-like amateur theatricals while augmenting the dream-like atmosphere. The music by Warner Jepson is the icing on a very unusual cake. Jepson was a serious electronic composer whose rather abrasive debut album, Totentanz, was included in the Creel Pone catalogue of electronic obscurities in 2005. For the film Jepson provides swathes of synthesizer doodling interspersed with arrangements for keyboards and voices. All this and the Cockettes too. Salvador Dalí loved it.

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