Wednesday, May 3, 2017

At Rare Book Cafe', if it's interesting, we're on it.

LitHub, the website about books as books, has a fun article up about Edward Gorey (1925-2000), the illustrator whose works would have delighted Ronald Firbank, and who collected exotic friends (his college roommate was the poet and art critic Frank O'Hara) but whose signature animations have nearly been banished from the credits of PBS' Mystery! to make room for ads:
... My biggest surprise came in a book from 1961 by Gorey called The Curious Sofa, which bore the memorable subtitle of “A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary”—an anagram for Edward Gorey. The brilliant text replaces the children so common in Gorey’s popular works with hilariously lecherous adults, many “well-endowed,” nearly every page filled with sexual innuendoes—or so Gorey wishes us to think. At the end, the eponymous sofa finally appears—and then something unexplained happens, causing the protagonist, Alice, to “scream.” Perhaps none of the innuendoes were innuendoes at all—and the end, alone, contains something sexual that shocks an innocent Alice. Or not. Gorey reveals nothing, all the while revealing how eager we, as readers, are to read sex into the book’s lines. It’s a wonderful, unexpected twist—yet, curiously, it is unclear what the twist even is. There was suddenly something stranger, more shadowy, in Gorey’s work. “Ineffable effable,” as Eliot writes in “The Naming of Cats.” 
Gorey’s tales, I began to see, can be divided into two types: overt and enigmatic. In his overt tales, like The Gashlycrumb Tinies or The Loathsome Couple, Gorey leaves little to the imagination. It is clear what is happening in each amusingly macabre sentence and illustration. (Gorey, incidentally, did not like the word “macabre,” perhaps due to having heard it too much in interviews.) In his enigmatic tales, by contrast, something, perhaps quite a bit, is left to the imagination. In The Insect God, we are left to wonder, in horror, what happens to the girl at the end and what this new, sudden entity, an insect god, is. Perhaps the most obvious of his enigmatic stories is also his most experimental book, West Wing; the images seem like mumbled whispers to the reader, beckoning them into the rooms and halls, but revealing almost nothing. The Curious Sofa, with its clever yet inscrutable ending, is also one of these. Gorey’s work had once reminded me of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; now, despite the extreme brevity of his books, his work seemed darker and more complex than both. I loved it. 
Reading those other books reminded me of comments Yukio Mishima had made about Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties around the time Gorey was beginning to attract attention. In an introduction to the novella, Mishima argued that great writers’ work can be divided into two categories: “the obverse or the exterior, their meaning on the surface, and those of the reverse or interior, their meaning hidden.” Mishima argued that in the latter category of “interior” or “hidden” works, which he also called “esoteric” after esoteric Buddhism, we begin to see a writer’s more-often-hidden thoughts, feelings, themes. “In an esoteric masterpiece,” Mishima wrote, “a writer’s most secret, deeply hidden themes make their appearance. Such a work is dominated not by openness and clarity but by a strangling tightness… rather than the broad, open world we have a closed room.” These texts, then, either conceal or force us into a space we cannot escape, where we come face to face with that deeper, more startling theme, like divers suddenly finding themselves anchored to an iceberg’s vastness beneath the surface. For Gorey, this theme seems to be the inexplicable. “My favorite genre is the sinister-slash-cozy,” he said. “I think there should be a little bit of uneasiness in everything because I do think we’re all really in a sense living on the edge. So much of life is inexplicable. Inexplicable things happen … and you think, if that could happen, anything could happen.”
Rare Book Cafe', of course, was on the Gorey already. Cape Cod book dealer Jim Visbeck knew Gorey and used to attend his rather odd little theater performances. Here's that interview, from our archive:

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