Monday, December 04, 2006

Clea excerpted

Last Friday I mentioned Typefaces for Books, by James Sutton and Alan Bartram. That book consists mainly of examples of a single piece of prose set out in 100 different typefaces, or fonts, in various different sizes and line spacings.

What this means is that we have a book in which the same passage of prose is repeated nearly one thousand times; and yet, at first, one hardly notices it, because the whole point of the book is to allow a browser to get a good impression of what a particular font looks like on the printed page. One tends to look at the shape of the letters, and the density and clarity of the print; the actual content and meaning of the words one tends not to notice.

When one does, finally, pause to read the repeated passage, it proves to be a brief excerpt from Clea, by Lawrence Durrell.

Clea is the fourth and final volume of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, first published by Faber in 1960. In its day, this series was quite a success, being awarded many column inches in the broadsheets and literary magazines, and also, I believe, selling quite well. But one doesn't seem to hear so much of Mr Durrell these days. Or is that just because I don't bother with literary fiction and lit crit?

In any event, I have never felt tempted to read any of Durrell's books. Except, now that I come to think of it, once.

In 1938, Durrell wrote a novel called The Black Book. He sent it to his friend Henry Miller, in Paris, and asked him to throw it into the Seine after reading it. Miller sent it instead to the Obelisk Press, one of those Paris-based publishers which issued books that were too hot for London and New York.

Somewhere around 1960, I was offered a copy of The Black Book in one of those dubious Soho bookshops which were, in effect, run by the boys of the Obscene Publications Squad in order to boost their pensions. But it was subtitled An Agon, and, if I recall correctly, the first line also included the word agon. I leapt, mistakenly, to the conclusion that a book so badly proofread was not likely to be of interest, and declined to purchase it.

In fact, as you will know but I didn't, agon is a term derived from the Greek, usually meaning a contest or a challenge. And if I'd been really on the ball I would have known that, in 1957, Balanchine and Stravinsky had used the word as the title of a ballet.

But I digress. Back to Clea.

The passage which Sutton and Bartram used for their masterwork on typography is one which is, aptly enough, related to the book world. And it's an odd little snippet. Not the least of its oddities is that it's all one paragraph, and another is the extraordinary number of exclamation marks.

I reproduce the passage below, in the hope that you might find it amusing. Though those of you who have fresh bruises on your amour propre, as a result of submitting a manuscript, may, I fear, find it more risible than amusing.
Walking along the Mall we wondered who all those men were -- tall hawk-featured men perched on balconies and high places, scanning the city with heavy binoculars. What were they seeking so earnestly? Who were they -- so composed and steely-eyed? Timidly we stopped a policeman to ask him. 'They are publishers,' he said mildly. Publishers! Our hearts stopped beating. 'They are on the lookout for new talent.' Great God! It was for us they were waiting and watching! Then the kindly policeman lowered his voice confidentially and said in hollow and reverent tones: 'They are waiting for the new Trollope to be born!' Do you remember, at these words, how heavy our suitcases suddenly felt? How our blood slowed, our footsteps lagged? Brother Ass, we had been bashfully thinking of a kind of illumination such as Rimbaud dreamed of -- a nagging poem which was not didactic or expository but which infected -- was not simply a rationalised intuition, I mean, clothed in isinglass! We had come to the wrong shop, with the wrong change! A chill struck us as we saw the mist falling in Trafalgar Square, coiling round us its tendrils of ectoplasm! A million muffin-eating moralists were waiting, not for us, Brother Ass, but for the plucky and tedious Trollope!


Andrew O'Hara said...

I would guess if the second speaker in an agon said, "You win," it would be an antiagon. (I wonder if the search ended with Danielle Steel...)

Daddy said...

Lawrence Durrell was always one of my favorites, especially TUNC, which I own two copies of. Sadly, he has dropped out of favor. I wonder why?

Dave Lull said...

The Merry Scribbler essays a parody entitled "TUNC" TO "REZ".

yaeli said...

Why has he dropped out of favour? Fashion, is my guess. The great reading public read what they are told to by the media...Hence the popularity of such schlock as "Bridget Jones' Diary", and those awful books by Dave Peltzer.

Buce said...

I got far enough to reach the character who said:

"The world is a cucumber. One day in your hand, the next day up your ..." Now, that is literature.

Jenny Haddon said...

I used to love the Alexandria Quartet. It has survived a number of bookshelf culls, too. Though I haven't reread it for years, my sub-conscious was clearly telling me something. Time for another nibble, I think.

Mind you, I'm v. glad that Durrell, L also wrote 'Sauve Qui Peut' and other gems of diplomatic life. I defy anyone to read the tale of the Slopsy Blob Celebration Liberation Machine without hooting. Sound chap.

Jon Allen said...

No J or Q in the text.
You'd have thought they'd have chosen something that used all the letters at least once.