Notre Dame des Fleurs: Variations on a Genet Classic

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Another week, another book release. Notre Dame des Fleurs is a collection of artistic responses to Jean Genet’s debut novel, compiled and published by Jan van Rijn, for which I contributed three pieces:

Based on the English translation of the unabridged original edition, published in 1949 by Edition Paul Morihien, it is by no means a consistent illustration of the book nor is it a cohesive interpretation in form of a graphic novel. It is a truly personal collection that throws highlights on a beautiful piece of literature, printed in a run of 150 signed and numbered copies. The participating artists in alphabetical order: Michael AmpersantAntoine BernhartWim BeullensSusie Bright – John Coulthart – Lauri ElexsenRinaldo HopfAnja MolendijkBrane MozeticJohn Thomas ParadisoRexApollonia Saintclair Jan van RijnVilela Valentin

Genet’s novel caused a considerable stir when it was first published in France in 1943. Part memoir, part fiction, part masturbation aid, the book was famously written by Genet on sheets of wrapping paper in his Paris prison cell, and is probably the first account of homosexual lives—especially of homosexual erotic lives—lived on their own terms, without any apologies made to straight society or, for that matter, the straight reader. (“Straight” here applies to criminality as much as sexuality.) Antecedents exist, like Teleny Or the Reverse of the Medal, but Teleny is more assertively pornographic, which means it wanders into the fantasy world that porn always creates, a place where desire is everything and introspection doesn’t exist. Genet was writing about the people he knew in Paris before the war, the thieves and pimps and male prostitutes of Montmartre, and doing so in a manner that had to be considered as literature however transgressive the content might be for the literary establishment of the day.

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The unique qualities of the novel present difficulties for an illustrator. Literary fiction tends to look inside its characters much more than genre fiction, summoning thoughts, moods and feelings which resist easy depiction in a visual form. I’d first been asked to consider illustrating Notre Dame des Fleurs several years ago for a Graphic Classics collection of crime fiction, a request to which I agreed then had to turn down after deciding that the task of condensing the book into a few pages was a near impossibility. For Jan’s book, rather than illustrate a scene or two from the novel I opted for a conceptual approach. My three pages are intended to be promotional materials from a parallel universe in which Notre Dame des Fleurs was made into a French feature film some ten years or so after its publication, complete with hardcore sex scenes. The latter may seem unlikely but Genet was in the vanguard of presenting gay sex on the cinema screen in Un Chant d’Amour, the 26-minute silent film he made in 1950. He subsequently disowned the film, as he disowned—or “forgot”—many of his creations in later years, but it remains a pioneering and influential work.

Continue reading “Notre Dame des Fleurs: Variations on a Genet Classic”

The Stormbringer Sessions by James Cawthorn

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One of the books I was designing last year is published next month. The Stormbringer Sessons is a resurrection by John Davey of a sketchbook created by James Cawthorn in the mid-1980s for an Elric graphic novel that Cawthorn was commissioned to adapt and illustrate for Savoy Books. This is a limited edition that’s unlikely to be reprinted so anyone interested is advised to pre-order. (See below.)

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Slipcase decoration.

The original Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock isn’t a novel as such but a collection of the second series of linked novellas about Elric of Melniboné that Moorcock wrote for Science Fantasy from 1961 to 1964. Over the course of ten stories Moorcock introduced a character and a world that acted as a riposte to the Tolkienite school of heroic fantasy, where the divisions between Good and Evil are clear and fixed. Elric is like one of Sergio Leone’s characters: the difference between Clint Eastwood’s “Good” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad” is merely a matter of degree; both men are killers chasing the same hoard of gold coins. (By coincidence, Leone was preparing to the upset the Western genre with A Fistful of Dollars just as Moorcock was finishing the first Elric stories.)

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James Cawthorn was one of Moorcock’s oldest friends, and a frequent collaborator. He not only illustrated the first Elric stories but also co-wrote the fourth one, Kings in Darkness. Despite having created many Elric illustrations Cawthorn always seemed to want to draw comics based on other characters, notably Moorcock’s Dorian Hawkmoon whose adventures have recently been reprinted in three volumes by Titan Books. The Stormbringer commission was a result of the late David Britton’s obsession with Elric in general and the Stormbringer book in particular. Stormbringer begins with Elric having retired from adventuring; his soul-stealing sword is locked away and he’s settled down to married life. The opening scenes parallel (and prefigure) many Hollywood plots: Elric’s wife is abducted for unknown reasons so Elric has to take up his sword and go after her. What follows is a pursuit into a world growing increasingly dark and chaotic, and with it the realisation that the events taking place are a part of a long-foretold apocalypse that will (and does) destroy that world. The progression from a regular sword & sorcery tale to doom-laden widescreen baroque, with a dragon army flying over a churning Boschian hellscape, is one of the enduring attractions of the book.

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Britton had first persuaded Cawthorn to adapt Stormbringer into comic form in 1976 but the work on that occasion was compromised by lack of time. The sketches in The Stormbringer Sessions are Cawthorn’s roughs which were drawn in preparation for the second attempt, with the entire story worked out in panel form over 250 pages, complete with dialogue and captions. Some of the opening pages are rough indeed, but the drawings for the apocalyptic finale, presented in many double-page spreads, are almost finished pieces. The sketches may lack the finesse of Cawthorn’s other comics work but the power of his drawing and his imagination shines through. Nobody seems to know why he abandoned this project despite having a publisher waiting for it, but he was also adapting the third Hawkmoon book at the time, and had already spent the past decade working on the Hawkmoon trilogy.

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My design for this one is fairly straightforward, mostly a matter of framing and typesetting the opening and closing pages, as well as creating graphics for the cover and the slipcase. As with the Elric-themed Hawkwind album, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, I opted for Celtic-style knotwork for the decoration. Elric’s world isn’t our world but knotwork designs are universal (maybe even multiversal) while being satisfyingly antique and abstract. The publication is a co-production between Jayde Design and Savoy Books, with the book being limited to 100 numbered hardbacks in a decorated slipcase. Each copy also contains a colour print of the cover painting. The book may be ordered here. More page samples follow.

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Continue reading “The Stormbringer Sessions by James Cawthorn”

Ghost Box and The Infinity Box

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It’s less of a surprise than it may seem to go searching for the source of a quote only to find yourself immediately faced with one of your own artworks. The posts here go back almost 15 years, and when so many of them cover niche interests any attempt to further explore a particular niche can circle back to something I’ve already posted. The latest example is an unusual one, however. The picture above is the Haeckel collage I created for the Starry Wisdom collection of Lovecraftian fiction in 1994, a piece that was later digitally refashioned for The Haunter of the Dark book. The quote I was pursuing is as follows:

“Inside the infernal box are impossible spaces, dark screens and mirrors, terrible traces of light, calcified thought forms and endless idiot mutterings. The switch is thrown and the magnetic coils begin to generate their obscene flickering images. This contraption might have been conceived by the Old Ones long before it was assembled by human hands.”
—The Infinity Box, Alan Causley & MB Devot

The description appears together with a dialogue extract from Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape on the fourth Ghost Box release, Ouroborindra (2005) by Eric Zann, a one-off album of spooky sample soundscapes created by a pseudonymous Jim Jupp in between his Belbury Poly albums. All the Ghost Box releases feature significant quotes, most of which are genuine extracts from stories, novels, non-fiction works, etc. The description of the Infinity Box raised my suspicion about its authenticity when the only references to either it or Causley and Devot are in listings for the Eric Zann album. My Yuggoth collage appears on this page which further compounds the confusion by making it seem that my art is somehow connected to Causley and Devot and their mysterious box. This isn’t a complaint but it doesn’t help clarify the situation. Alan Causley has no credits anywhere outside the quote but there is another Causley, the celebrated poet, Charles, whose poems are sampled on later Ghost Box releases by The Focus Group, aka Ghost Box co-founder Julian House. Scrutiny of the other Ghost Box albums reminded me that quotes from MB Devot’s writings appear elsewhere on the early releases but I hadn’t bothered to look up the name until now.

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It’s often the case with posts such as this that mild curiosity turns into deeper intrigue. The web of connections becomes more tangled on the first Ghost Box release, Sketches And Spells by The Focus Group, which has a Devot quote from a text with the apt title The Tangled Beams, and a final track with the title Starry Wisdom. Devot is described by reviewers as either a fictional writer or an authentic scholar, the latter designation being supported by a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia may be prone to errors but it isn’t known for fake entries so this was a surprising discovery; Devot is also referenced on the page for parapsychologist TC Lethbridge who happens to be another source of Ghost Box quotes. Suspicion returns when you try to search for any of Devot’s listed publications, none of which turn up in WorldCat or similar catalogues. One of the Wikipedia print sources is an issue of Fortean Times from 1989 but there’s nothing about Devot listed in the contents of that issue. Issue 53 was a crop circle special, however, so it certainly fits the Ghost Box interest in the paranormal as it manifests in the British countryside. We now know that crop circles were man-made, not the product of flying saucers or other phenomena, so this may be fitting as well.

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I would have left the search there but I did find one further Devot connection that I might otherwise have missed. Folklore and Mathematics is the title of a one-off Ghost Box periodical published in 2007 for people subscribed to the label’s mail order service. It’s a typically fine Julian House artefact that complements the Sketches And Spells album in both its title and its graphics. Inside we find “From the archives of MB Devot”, and discover another reference to the Infinity Box. Apparently the black-and-white graphics that cover all the early Ghost Box discs are vibration patterns—”verberations”—created by Devot’s occult apparatus.

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I wrote above that “any attempt to further explore a particular niche can circle back to something I’ve already posted” so I wasn’t too surprised to have all these explorations finding their way back here. In 2009 Julian House exhibited three invented books as part of The New Spirit Happening, an exhibition of Ghost Box-related work at the Architect’s Gallery in Teddington. I posted two of the covers after the exhibition but couldn’t recall who the books were credited to. The authors are—inevitably—”A. Causley” and “MB Devot”, and the volumes feature by-now familiar phrases: “The Tangled Beams”, “The Infinity Box”. Also more Lovecraftian verberations: “Heavens Other Colour”, “The Eye at the Threshold”. So Causley and Devot have been lurking here for the past decade, in which case having my artwork attached to their names no longer seems like an arbitrary association. “Inside the infernal box are impossible spaces, dark screens and mirrors…”. Indeed there are.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Unearthly tones
Owls and flowers
The White People by Arthur Machen
Stone Tapes and Quatermasses
The Ghost Box Study Series
A playlist for Halloween: Hauntology
Forbidden volumes
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Ghost Box

David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Weekend links 550

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Illustration by Moebius for Les Robinsons du Cosmos (1970) by Francis Carsac.

Notre Dame des Fleurs is a collection of art based on or inspired by the Jean Genet novel. The book, which includes some new work of mine, will be published in February. Editor Jan van Rijn has a trailer for it here. It’s limited to 150 copies so anyone interested is advised to pre-order.

• Books that made me: William Gibson‘s influential reading. Good to see him mention Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, an outstanding novel that might be better known if it wasn’t for the gravitational pull of McCarthy’s other works.

• Zagava have announced a paperback reprint of The Art of Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald, a collection of neglected Art Nouveau drawings and designs compiled by Sven Brömsel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Black_Acrylic presents…He Stood In The Bath And He Stamped On The Floor: A Joe Meek Day.

• More yearly roundups: Our Haunted Year 2020 by Swan River Press, and The Year That Never Was by blissblog.

• New music: Spaceman Mystery Of The Terror Triangle by The Night Monitor.

Ralph Steadman’s guided tour through six decades of irrepressible art.

• At Greydogtales: Valentine Dyall: Mystery and Mesmerism.

• At Wormwoodiana: The Esoteric in Britain, 1921.

• At Strange Flowers: Marie Menken’s Lights.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974) by Richard and Linda Thompson | Neon Lights (1978) by Kraftwerk | Lights (1980) by Metabolist