Wednesday, June 30, 2010

recommendation: "Fables: Legends in Exile" (2002 graphic novel)

Fables is an ongoing urban fantasy comic book series written by Bill Willingham. Legends in Exile is volume one (the collected issues one to five), with art pencilled by Lan Medina.

The stories follow the lives of refugee Fables who settle in modern-day New York City after the mysterious Adversary drives them from their Homelands. Fables are fairytale people and creatures of every sort, and as you might imagine, they find life in New York isn't easy. It's especially hard for Snow White, who's acting as mayor of the Fable community. She says,

"We barely have enough money and manpower to run the most basic of underground government services. ... The Mundanes may look to their government to solve their problems, but in the Fable community, we expect you to be able to run your own lives.

"Our only concern is that ... no fable shall, by action or inaction, cause our magical nature to become known to the Mundane world. If you can't maintain a normal human appearance or purchase a concealing glamour from one of our witches--our rules mandate that you be relocated upstate to the Farm, where all the other nonhuman Fables live." (p. 9)

This law certainly poses difficulties for the shapeshifting sorts--like the Beast, who's having trouble maintaining human form due to marital difficulties with Beauty. The others aren't doing particularly well in their personal lives, either: Snow White and Prince Charming have divorced, thanks to Charming's womanizing. The characters are all written this way--fondly and cleverly, with a lot of wicked sarcasm.

Things go even more sour when Snow White's hard-partying sister, Rose Red, disappears. The Big Bad Wolf ("Bigby," please, who's not bad; he lets the Three Little Pigs crash at his place) investigates, and the clues point to murder. Suspicion falls on Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Rose's hapless boyfriend, and Mister Bluebeard, who's somehow managed to remain fantastically wealthy.

And there's the matter of the phrase "No More Happily Ever After" written in blood on Rose Red's living room wall....

The art is just as fantastic as the story. It's a very sharp-and-clean American-superhero style--no manga influence (and though I love manga, the art absolutely suits this tale). The Mundane world is harsh and dirty, whereas scenes in Fabletown and memories of the Homelands overflow with fantastical detail. Flashbacks bear baroque frames, and lovely, ornate scrolls open each chapter/issue. The original cover of each issue is reprinted in this collection, and each one is beautiful, done in dreamy pastels (my favourites are chapters two and four).

Legends in Exile is the only volume I've yet read, but I can't wait to read more (the series is up to twelve volumes now). The Fables are adaptable folk, but not so smart that they can stay out of trouble for long.

Says the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: "Fables is a must-read for any aficionado of fantasy in a contemporary setting." Indeed!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

inspiration: "Phaethon" by Gustave Moreau


see high-res image here at the Art Renewal Center

-- Gustave Moreau (1878)
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

Friday, June 25, 2010

ramble: the Mabinogi, or the beautiful maze of Welsh myth

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (in Middle Welsh, Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi) are the four classic tales of medieval Welsh mythology, more commonly known as the Mabinogion (which is actually a scribal misspelling in one of the sources [image above], but has become basically accepted). They are recorded in two main manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both dating to mid/late-thirteenth-century Wales. However, the tales themselves are much older, having been preserved piecemeal in various other earlier manuscripts (and no doubt passed down orally long before even that).

The Mabinogi were first translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-nineteenth century. In her edition she included eight other related mythological tales from the manuscripts (Arthurian stories and romances whose plots also show up in the works of Chrétien de Troyes), but the Mabinogi proper are only the Four Branches. Lady Guest's translation leaves out all the good (naughty and gory) parts, so if you're inclined to read the tales for yourself, do choose another version. I highly recommend the online translation by Will Parker linked at the bottom of this post; it's the one we used for study in my (badass) Celtic literature class.

The Four Branches are an interconnected series of stories in which the pseudo-hero Pryderi is the recurring character (though not always the main character). I don't want to totally spoil the tales, but I will try to whet your appetite.

The First Branch: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

We meet Pryderi's parents (his father Pwyll, exchanges places with Arawn, the Lord of the Otherworld, for a year, then meets the mysterious Rhiannon on her unearthly-fast horse) and are given the story of his birth and baby-napping. Affairs include a magic bag, a monster, and a case of mistaken identity including the giving of the fabulous pseudonym Gwri Golden-Hair. [read the First Branch here]

The Second Branch: Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr

This story is barely Pryderi-related, but rather a story of British-Irish conflict. British Branwen is mistreated by her Irish husband Matholwch, partly because her brother Efnisien was a poor sport and took out his displeasure over the marriage on Matholwch's horses. The giant Bendigeidfrân, king of Britain, takes vengeance for Branwen. Pryderi fights with the British in the battle, which involves a revivifying cauldron and a lot of head-crushing. Bendigeidfrân's enormous head, however, lives on in Britain, which is gross and awesome. [read the Second Branch here]

The Third Branch: Manawydan, Son of Llŷr

Back in a curiously depopulated and mist-beset Dyfed, we follow Pryderi, his wife Cigfa, his mother Rhiannon, and his stepfather Manawydan on a quest to restore the realm. Pryderi and Rhiannon both act like fools and fall for a trap; Manawydan and Cigfa have to solve riddles to save them (which is a pretty sweet reversal, and also why it's hard to see Pryderi as a hero). [read the Third Branch here]

The Fourth Branch: Math, Son of Mathonwy

The fourth branch is my favourite, so I'll go into a little more detail. It takes place during Pryderi's reign in Dyfed (southern Wales) but is set in Gwynedd (northern Wales), where Math is king. Math has issues: he requires his feet to be held by a virgin at all times. His nephews, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, rape the current footholder. Math is furious, marries the girl, and curses the brothers with the best punishment ever. They become a male/female pair of deer in the first year, a pair of pigs in the second, and a pair of wolves in the third--and they breed with each other. Twisted and fantastic! This branch is a long and convoluted one. After Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are thoroughly schooled, the story goes on to tell of the search for a new virgin footholder, the testing of the brothers' clever sister Aranrhod, the birth of a new hero called Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and the creation of Blodeuwedd, Lady of the Flowers. [read the Fourth Branch here]

As is no doubt obvious, there are fascinating things happening in the Mabinogi with regard to family dynamics, sexual relationships, and gender roles. The magic items and curses are woven seamlessly into the tales. This is a medieval Wales heaving with wonders so rich they're almost banal again; strange events are everyday, and the everyday, in our terms, is nonexistent. The characters are vivid and changeable, passing in and out of hero/villain status. The Mabinogi are incredibly rewarding to study, but they're also purely vibrant storytelling, beautiful in their labyrinthine twists, made to tell around a bright fire.

- The illustration at the beginning of the First Branch in the 1877 edition of Lady Guest's translation [via Sacred Texts at link]

- The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, trans. Will Parker [full text available at link]
- The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, trans. Patrick K. Ford [Amazon link]
- The Mabinogion, trans. Lady Charlotte Guest [full text available at Sacred Texts: link]
- What is the Mabinogion? (an introduction plus recommended editions) [link]
- A brief introduction to medieval Welsh prose via UBC [link]
- [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

recommendation: "The Assassin's Cloak" (2001 book)

"A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen." -- William Soutar

I've never kept a diary. I'm not sure why, but I'm more interested in writing about things I've learned, enjoy, or dream about than about my life directly (as this blog no doubt indicates).* But I love reading others' journals. I'm shamelessly seduced by the voyeuristic thrill of reading something personal and private--or even something meant for publication that only plays at secrecy (or those that don't even pretend, like blogs!). Whether it's hidden with the author's knickers or aired out for all to see, there isn't anything closer to brain-on-paper than a diary.

The Assassin's Cloak, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor (the edition I have is the giant, wrist-snapping hardcover published by Canongate Books in 2001), is a day-by-day anthology of the diaries of writers, artists, politicians, and other famous folks--admirable, reprehensible, most just in between. We are given glimpses into the lives of people like Lord Byron, Beatrix Potter, Franz Kafka, Noël Coward, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh (to name just a few of the 170 writers whom I found most fascinating). The entries are generally post-seventeenth-century and mostly English-language, but some are in translation. From the jacket:
"Along the way we meet cads and charmers, sailors and psychopaths, rock stars and prima ballerinas, gossips, drunks, snobs, lechers and lovers. There is humour and tragedy, history and the humdrum, often recorded on the same day or in the same entry."
This emotional clash is what makes the anthology so attractive: the switchbacking path it takes you down is weird and conflicting, yet never jarring, and always enthralling.

There are several excerpts per day, so that you can see what was happening in the minds and worlds of people centuries and countries apart. You can't really follow the day-to-day activities of any one person, as his or her journal might be excerpted only a handful of times over the course of the year. But it's amazing when a familiar pen does crop up again and you get a look at the author's life in a different year, a different place, a wholly different emotional state. The author's name isn't given until the end of the entry, which adds to the fun: you become familiar with the voices, friends (or enemies), and events belonging to each person and can often identify who's writing before you reach the end.

The Assassin's Cloak is an inspiring daily journey, one that provides introductions to people you never thought you'd meet.

"No doubt diary-keeping is also a kind of vanity. One has the sauce to believe that every thought which comes into one's head merits recording."** -- James Lees-Milne (June 23, 1973)

* However, I love Twitter. There's something about as-it-happens commentary, rather than end-of-day recapping, that totally seduces me into participation. You will pry my Twitter from me only if you wish to contend with my bared fangs. How I wish all of these diarists had had Twitter!
** Which--unsurprisingly, considering my affection for Twitter--I absolutely agree with. Writing is the alchemical process that turns raw thoughts into precious things; we don't know what is precious until we've created it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

ramble: the art of a good book cover

I'm a visual person. My initial attraction to something (or, romantically speaking, someone*) is based on its exterior. I love beautiful things (and I don't mean beautiful by objective or traditional standards, but personal ones). Beautiful music turns into visuals in my head. So do beautiful words--they run past me like a film. This visuality does not make me shallow** or biologically male***--it's just part of who I am as an artist and a writer, someone heavily reliant on sight not just for daily functioning, but for inspiration, for emotion, for connection.

This applies to my book purchasing, of course. I like to browse in bookstores, and what makes me pick something up? A pretty cover combined with specific keywords (demon! vampire! queen! masquerade! dandy! magic! courtesan! poison! any overly wordy phrase! etc). I want a book that appeals to me visually, and then delivers on that visual promise when read. I often buy knowing nothing of the book beyond its cover, its title, and its back cover copy. Most of the time, I don't even read the first page.

Here are four books I bought without any knowledge of the author, purely because their covers seduced me into the reading the back. Those blurbs lived up to the covers' promise, so now the books are sitting on my shelves.+ I haven't read any of them yet, but based on what I've seen so far, I have high hopes.

by Wesley Stace
cover design by Susan Koski Zucker & illustration by Kathleen Bartoletti

I love this juxtaposition of romantic painting with stark, graphic layout. I love the painting itself: according to the cover flap, it's Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb--one of Lord Byron's lovers--by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845). I adore the delicate little drawn-on mustache. It's so graceful and almost textual, like the little flourish you might see in ink below someone's signature. I don't even like yellow, but this deep mustard colour suits the title perfectly--ironically happy? Or jaundiced?

by Lane Robins
cover design by David Stevenson, based on photographs by Nigel Silcock & Peter Mason

I love masks. This is a photograph that looks like a painting. The white skin and red lips are an aesthetic I adore. The mass of feathers makes me think of fairy-creatures or plumage to go with some fantastical costume just out of sight. The blank, empty eyes are both frightening and serene. Is this a person or just a mannequin?

Whitechapel Gods
by S. M. Peters
no cover artist credited++

Jack the Ripper back from Hell, I presume? Love the evil steampunk vibe, the blazing fires behind his stark ribs, the gears crawling up over them. Is he being consumed or just running on his usual fuel? The tip of his hat is probably not a good sign. And the spider is just nasty. Awesome.

Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino
no cover artist credited+++

I like this kind of clearly-defined semi-stylized semi-realistic business. And, um, rockstar sidhe. I could stop right there. Her robes are gorgeous--her cloak even has a Celtic pin. Her long, red hair is glorious. And her electric guitar is incredible. The warped wood looks almost alive. Look at her raised brow, her milky eyes, her little smirk! I want to be her.

* This has been and continues to be problematic.
** I require substance to follow, or I will be off fawning over the next pretty thing.
*** As numerous bullshit studies would have us believe.
+ Interestingly, these titles don't contain any of my pickituprightnow keywords. But I also like non sequiturs and words that start with M.
++ This is maddening. Credit your artists!
+++ Likewise.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

recommendation: "True Blood" (2008-present TV series)

I was thrilled two years ago when I heard True Blood was to become an HBO series--not because I'd read the books, but because I adore vampires, the bloodier and lustier the better. And True Blood promised to the bloodiest and lustiest of all. I still haven't read the books (by Charlaine Harris; I've bought the first few, and still haven't gotten around to reading them*), but I've been watching the show with glee. Because that gory, delicious, cravingly hawt glory it promised? It delivered. Splat.

My love for vampires started in high school, as it (so I hear...) frequently does, thanks to my wicked-badass friend (HELLO!) encouraging me to read Anne Rice. My obsession has only grown since, and I doubt I'll ever outgrow it; indeed, I want even messier, swampier, sexier versions of beautiful Louis and smirking Lestat. Is such a thing even possible? True Blood, set in the modern-day American South, fulfills my every wish and is set to continue fulfilling--the third season has just started, and its popularity only seems to be growing, making me very relieved. I need my V!

The story follows Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress at a bar owned by Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell). In this altered-reality Louisiana (and indeed, world) vampires have come out of the coffin, as they say, and live among humankind. Sookie falls for 160-year-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer)--but this is no happily-forever-after, especially once 1000-year-old Eric (Alexander Skarsgård), owner of the club Fangtasia, swaggers in. Sookie is no whimpering damsel, Bill is no flawless saviour, and Eric is... really hot** (I shut down and start gibbering when confronted by Eric). Disasters ensue. Mess follows mess. Our hazy-grey, tenuously-admirable anti-heroes and anti-villains take every opportunity to feed on, savage, murder, double-cross, lie to, and, most often, seduce each other, leading to ever more tangled plots, disgusting bloodsplosions, and violently sexy encounters.

True Blood is also clever. Its commentary on fundamentalist religion, homophobia, and racial prejudice is delightfully unsubtle. It rubs its message, like everything else, in your face. The mocking jabs at bigots and hypocrites always have me hissing hell yes, tell 'em, bitches! at the screen. True Blood has no inhibitions--not about exploring the dirtier, grittier, sweatier, juicier side of life, nor about calling out those who would hide their own dirt behind fake moral veneers.

This show is exactly the kind of thing I love: it lays itself bare, isn't afraid to go there, and then sasses you behind your back. Leave your conscience in the dirt, because True Blood will suck your heart out, turn your stomach, and casually maul whatever delicate sensibilities you might still be clinging to.

Have my favourite song from the soundtrack; it perfectly sums up the show--

* But even if I had, I'd be recommending the TV show on its own merits anyhow. As I've said before, I don't mind when a version of a story told in a different medium departs from its source material as long as it's executed with style and sincerity.
** "Is there blood in my hair?"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

ramble: the Lady of Shalott in literature, art, and music

I am half-sick of shadows...

The Lady of Shalott and her longing for Sir Lancelot summon up images of Arthurian legend, of Victorian romance, of tragic fantasy. She is a paradoxical figure of love unrequited, beauty idolized, innocent voyeurism, thankless sacrifice, forced passivity, and fate confronted. Who is the victim, who the pursuer? Who is the beloved, who the lover? The Lady's femininity and elusive power is perplexing and enthralling.

The Lady is Elaine of Astolat (or Elaine the Fair), part of medieval Italian and French Arthurian legend cycles of the 13th-15th centuries, including Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Elaine loved Lancelot from afar; in Malory's version (an episode in Book 18 of Caxton's 1485 edition), she persuades him to carry her token in a jousting tournament, but he refuses to engage further with her, and she dies broken-hearted.

She is best known, however, in her altered Victorian form--she made frequent appearances in 19th-century literature. She is known especially via Alfred Tennyson's 1833 poem (revised in 1842); she also appears in Tennyson's 1859 The Idylls of the King.

In the poem, she does not meet Lancelot while she lives, for she is cursed to remain in an island-castle prison, viewing the world only through a mirror. It is in this mirror that she sees Lancelot. Pierced by his beauty, she defies the curse, dares to venture into the world, and so discovers her end before her love.

The three paintings here are all versions of her by John William Waterhouse (1888, 1915, and 1894, respectively), but Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, and many other Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists drew and painted their impressions of her.

She has also been referenced in song. Emilie Autumn tells the story in her own words, accompanied by a harpsichord that captures an aching mix of hope, anger, and despair:

And Loreena McKennitt's beautiful adaptation of Tennyson's poem has never yet failed to break my heart and bring me to tears. Here is a live version:

I first discovered the Lady through Anne of Green Gables: Anne, in love with the poem, attempts to recreate the Lady's dying journey down the river, an adventure which of course goes terribly awry. Oh, how I longed to have a suitable river and boat in which to try it for myself! The Lady will always fascinate me, for as she watched piecemeal reflections of the world and spun them into dreams, I, dreaming, see parts of myself reflected in her.

Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott."

- All via Wikisource [link] [link] [link]
- Some further images can be found at the Camelot Project [link]

- Elaine of Astolat/The Lady of Shalott at the Camelot Project [link]
- Summary of Book 18 of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur [link]
- Full text of Caxton's edition of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (link starts you at the Astolat episode of Book 18) [link]
- Full text of both versions of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" [link] or [link]
- Full text of "Lancelot and Elaine" in Tennyson's The Idylls of the King [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

recommendation: "Quills" (2000 movie)

Quills is the story of the Marquis de Sade, scandalous author of erotica (or pornography? that is another debate altogether) in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century France. He is confined to an insane asylum, but continues to write, to the dismay and delight of his public.

"You're not the Antichrist. You're nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell!"

At least, this is the tale the movie promises us, but much like the Marquis' own work, it delivers something entirely different underneath the lewd veneer. Just as de Sade explored philosophy through perversion (or normalcy? that, too, is another debate), Quills explores philosophy through the man himself. The movie is a meditation on writing, reading, and the power inherent in both.

"It's not even a proper novel! It's nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions!"

Quills' exquisite cast plays out a four-part character dynamic in all its painful nuance. De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is the writer, Maddy (Kate Winslet) the reader, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) the healer, Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) the corrector. Who are our heroes and who are our villains? The Abbé is the hero--or is he? Is naivety and goodwill enough to form a hero, or are they seeds that will blossom into unspeakable maturity? Maddy is our heroine, is she not? But is she so desperate for personal realization that she will walk over others to attain it?

"The price, my coquette, is every bit as firm as I am."

The Doctor is a bleak villain, convinced of his principles: in his mind, he is the hero, and our reactions to him depend on this. "I had no time to write," he says to his prepubescent bride. In the context of the movie, his failure to touch the quill signals to us the depth of his malignancy, but once we have seen the horrors other quills have wrought, can we be entirely comfortable with our own judgement? Yet his bride's chance to lift his cruel hand comes through de Sade's words, the very words that precipitate others' fall.

And the Marquis himself--ah.

"I'll die of loneliness. I've no company but the characters I create."

De Sade is perhaps the most complicated figure of all, and yet his desire is so simple: to write the world that is in his head. It is only because he himself is so aware of his mighty contradictions and the turmoil that thrusts his hand to the quill and the quill to the page that he appears to us with such bleak force and engages both our revulsion and our compassion.

"And then they started burning it!" "That's the peril of composing such incendiary prose."

Quills shows us just how much agency rests in the apparently inert object of the book. Books are nothing without their writers and their readers, and yet they harbor ideas just like the humans that cradle them. Books are born, persist, survive, remain, perish. Books burn. Books set fires. Books are flammable beings, just like we are.

"My writing LIVES!"

Through the course of the movie, we see it happen. Words grow from ink on paper to wine on bedsheets to blood on clothing to sounds passed from lips to ears to, finally, shit smeared on prison walls. Words are images, sustenance, coverings, conversation, excrescence. Words flourish and words die. What do their makers and their recipients do? And how greatly do they influence each other?

"I've all the demons of Hell in my head. My only salvation is to vent them on paper."

The Marquis believes his salvation lies in writing, but is he saved? And Maddy says, "Reading's my salvation," and yet her voracious desire for stories leads her, too, into destruction. Is writing ever more than a breath away from someone's destruction--do we destroy in the very act of creation? What do we destroy when we create? Can one put words in, yet take only words out, or do words become actions the moment they pass our lips, our pens, our keyboards? Quills begins with wit and fun, sex and sly glances, but devolves into pure, choking horror. Such a perfect descent does not assure us of anything.

"How easily, dear reader, does one turn from predator to prey."

Quills is one of my favourite movies. It asks us to read between the lines as we consider pleasure and pain, truth and fiction, morality and immorality, gift and curse, grace and annihilation. These things thrive in symbiosis, and our words can make all the difference. Do we, too, swallow the rosary, or do we continue to scrawl through feverish despair in the hope that someone out there is listening?

What do we do if someone is?

Monday, June 7, 2010

inspiration: "Flirt" by Alphonse Mucha


see high-res image here at the Art Renewal Center

-- Alphonse Maria Mucha (1899)
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

Friday, June 4, 2010

ramble: absinthe, or that accursed green fairy

"The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things." -- Oscar Wilde (as told to John Fothergill, and quoted in Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III, pp. viii-ix)

Absinthe: the spirit that was the darling of the nineteenth-century bohemian world, from France to America, she who was la fée verte, the "green fairy" (memorably personified in Moulin Rouge! by an adorable Kylie Minogue). Many fell under its spell, for a spell it seemed to them to be: just read Ernest Dowson's 1899 poem "Absinthia Taetra" [link] or Raoul Ponchon's 1886 poem "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]. Absinthe is one of the, if not the most, romantic and deliciously forbidden drinks--even today, it retains its mystique and the misconception that it is hallucinogenic, poisonous, and possibly fatal lingers.

Absinthe is a pale green spirit that tastes of anise (licorice), first created in 1792 by a Frenchman in Switzerland. It is distilled from a variety of herbs, including hyssop, mint, coriander, and chamomile.

The most notable ingredient is, however, wormwood: a psychoactive chemical, thujone, comes from this plant. However, there is relatively very little thujone present in absinthe, certainly not enough to cause the kind of hallucinations and mental disturbances attributed to it. Rather, it is likely absinthe's high alcohol content (up to 72-74%) that is the foremost danger; one would be dead of alcohol poisoning before one had consumed enough wormwood to poison oneself (Conrad, p. 154).

However, this, too, is no danger for the casual absinthe-drinker: the spirit is traditionally "louched," that is, taken diluted with water poured over a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon across the lip of the glass (the sugar provides a counterpoint to the bitter anise flavour).*

But not all absintheurs were casual. Despite its logically innocent composition, abinsthe inspired, enraged, maddened, and destroyed a great many men and women on both sides of the year 1900 (it was eventually banned in 1914).** It was both a mark of bohemian society and its curse, each magnifying the other's supposed corruption to onlookers only too ready to condemn them both.

Artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Monticelli, and poets Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and, of course, Wilde, are some of the notable bohemians who were partial to absinthe. Partial might not be the word to describe Verlaine and Rimbaud's allegiance to the spirit:
"By most accounts, Verlaine and Rimbaud were besotted on a nearly full-time basis. For Rimbaud, drinking was not a pleasure but a necessary form of flagellation to make the nerves sing like harp wires. Verlaine had a different temperament. When absinthe percolated through his system, he behaved with loathsome brutality, taking out a deep-seated anger on his passive wife Mathilde. He beat her, set fire to her hair and clothes, and even slashed her with a knife. Rimbaud urged Verlaine on...." (Conrad, p. 26)
Absinthe: the symptom and the excuse, not the cause, of the behaviour of young bohemians like this pair--who were the ones to give all the rest, and their drink of choice, such a bad name. Absinthe: the outlet of frustrated dreamers whose wickedness and promise of sweet transport came from the drinker, not the drink. The green fairy holds up a mirror, and the reflection can be lovely--or terrible.

* I confess, I have never tried absinthe. I would love to, but it's hard to find--especially a good, faithfully crafted variety, not one of the many imitators.
** Production resumed in fits and starts in the late twentieth century. Today, in most countries the drink is, finally, legal once more.

- 1896 poster advertising Absinthe Robette, by T. Privat-Livemont [via link] (I have this on my wall)
- The preparation of absinthe [via link]
- La Muse Verte by Albert Maignan (1895) [via link]

- Raoul Ponchon, "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]
- Ernest Dowson, "Absinthia Taetra" [link]
- Conrad, Barnaby III. Absinthe: History in a Bottle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.
- Wikipedia [link]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

recommendation: "The Golden Age of Erotica" (1965 book)

The Golden Age of Erotica by Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1965; though I am here using and quoting from the 1969 paperback reprint by Tandem) is still my favourite sourcebook for the rowdy and raunchy side of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries*--though I suppose it is considered rather dated (to which I say pshaw). From the back:

Painstakingly culled from yellowed manuscripts and the vaults of collectors, the erotic excerpts presented in this unique volume reveal a ribald, bawdy and lusty era that connoisseurs of more up-to-date erotic literature will relish. THE GOLDEN AGE OF EROTICA so vividly brought to light by this book includes the 17th and 18th centuries--the age of FANNY HILL,** TOM JONES, rakish monks and dissolute royalty. In England, France and the new world of America, sin, corruption and immorality ran rampant, making this period one of the most delightfully garish, joyously gaudy and outrageously sexual epochs in history.***

Hurwood tackles this vast subject (and as he notes in his preface, "[p]aradoxically, there was so much erotica produced between the 1660s and the 1890s, that most of it passed into obscurity") from both historical and literary perspectives. He examines a wide variety of erotic art--novels, poetry, drama, paintings--and real-life sexual practices like flagellation and the fad (really) of adultery. He begins with "Poets, Pranksters and Rakehells," which is, I feel, the way one could approach anything and have it immediately become ten times better. Here are some choice quotations from the following chapters (I will not quote from the sources directly, to spare your blushes).

On satire: the infamous Lord Rochester's play Sodom, or, The Quintessence of Debauchery--"[I]n its own peculiar way Sodom contains a reverse morality-in-profanity, for it illustrates with sickening clarity the consequences of perversion, anarchy, and unbridled licentiousness" (p. 23).

On periodicals: the notorious Rambler--"Interested parties could find informative do-it-yourself articles on sexual techniques, health, and flagellation, as well as intimate memoirs, the latest, hottest, Crim. Con. [adultery] cases, and spicy fiction galore" (p. 61).

On flagellation: "Indeed, [though] there is much to be said for those who assert that de Sade's influence accelerated the growth of flagellant literature ... it is beyond doubt that the predilection for flogging long ante-dated the arch-sadist of letters. ... [And] there is no question that the greatest quantity of this specialized erotica is peculiar to the English language ... Perhaps it was the cold climate which originally aroused in Englishmen a desire for whipping" (p. 105).

On hermaphroditism (a subject I'm very interested in): "It greatly appealed to jaded individuals who were uncertain about their own sexual inclinations. By delving into the recondite lore of the hermaphrodite, these indecisive fence-straddlers found all the erotic stimulation they desired without any conflict at all. It simply became unnecessary for them to worry about which sex they found more appealing. Both were embodied in a single entity, thus eliminating the need for troublesome decisions" (pp. 159-60).

On female same-sex relationships: "Women with a fondness for their own sex were either not recognized as sexual deviates, or merely regarded as indulging in a passing fancy. Egotistical males invariably looked upon lesbianism as a second-rate substitute activity practiced by man-starved females" (p. 160).

On aphrodisiacs: "One popular seventeenth century formula included ants, wine, and cinnamon. Others not only included ants, but woodlice, bees, semen, blood, not to mention the genitals of every creature from the rooster to the stag" (p. 185).

Hurwood's tone is always this frank and playful; his discussion never shies prudishly away. He describes this lush and dirty fare from start to finish (ha [sorry]) with a coy tongue in his cheek, nicely shooing away those with incompatible moralities. From the preface:
"Most of the books, plays, anecdotes, and bawdy songs quoted here have been attacked at one time or another as 'indecent,' 'blasphemous,' and worse. In all probability there are still those among us who would delight in pinning similar labels on these works today ... [but] to read excerpts from them is a memorable experience. ... Lurid, fantastic, and wild are the best terms to use in describing these clandestine books of an earlier era. One thing is certain. The word dull can never be applied to them."
Wink-wink-nudge-nudge, indeed. I cannot recommend The Golden Age of Erotica enough, whether you're researching the period--erotica was such a huge part (ha [I'm so sorry]) of the period that in all conscience (look! I worked conscience into this!) you can't ignore it, and Hurwood provides a thorough bibliography--or just fascinated by its sexier angles.

* That is, their best side!
** One of my favourite novels. According to Wikipedia, it's "one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history." I'll give it its own post, trust.
*** Is this final sentence not pure blazing glory?+
+  I was born so far out of my time.