Sunday, 5 December 2010

'A Void' by Georges Perec

‘La Disparition’ is a novel written by Georges Perec in 1969. It was later translated by Gilbert Adair and published in English as ‘A Void’ in 1995.
It is 300 pages long, concerns the search for a missing man by a group of his friends and is written, in English and French, entirely without the letter ‘e’.
It is an example of a lipogrammatic work, one where a letter or group of letters are deliberately omitted.
One of the earliest examples of such a piece, and an inspiration to Perec, is ‘Gadsby’ by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and has over 50,000 words in it, none of which contain the letter ‘e’, the most common letter used in English or French.
The omission of the most common letter necessarily means leaving out some of the most common words such as ‘the’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ in English and ‘je’ and ‘le’ in French.
Other lipogrammatic works that have worked around other ideas include ‘Alphabetical Africa’ by Walter Abish where the first chapter contains only words beginning with ‘a’, the second chapter contains words beginning with ‘a’ and ‘b’ and so on until the twenty-sixth chapter which is written without any restrictions. For the following twenty-five chapters Abish then reverses the process.
‘Cipher and Poverty’ (The Book of Nothing) by Mike Schertzer is narrated by a prisoner who can only use words that can be composed by the phrase ‘Who can find me here in this silence?’
The book is then a collection of poems written by the prisoner using just these letters.
Perec was a member of a literary group called ‘Oulipo’ which is short for ‘Ouvroir de litterature potentielle.’ This can be roughly translated as ‘The Workshop for Potential Literature’ and was a gathering of writers who produced works using constrained writing techniques.
This would involve the use of lipograms, palindromes and mathematical problems such as the ‘Knight’s Tour’ which Perec used in his novel ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ (1978).
This book is set in an apartment block in Paris and Perec imagined the rooms of the apartment block as the squares on a chess board and the narrative moves from room to room according to the movement of a Knight on a chess board.
Although there is clearly enough to admire in the sheer technical expertise of Perec in utilising these ideas what sets his work apart is the fact that the techniques also help to form the larger themes in the books as well.
In ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ one of the key elements of the plot is the quest of Bartlebooth, one of the main characters, to create and destroy a series of jigsaws, which is ultimately unsuccessful.
The aim of a Knight’s Tour is for the piece to visit each square exactly once. Perec actually fails to do this echoing the failure of Bartlebooth’s plan.
Perec, born in 1936, lost both of his parents in the Second World War and was raised by an aunt and uncle.
Walter Motte, in the literary magazine ‘Context’, addressed this loss and felt that it was, undeniably, an influence on the ideas in ‘A Void’:

"The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père ["father"], mère ["mother"], parents ["parents"], famille ["family"] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec. In short, each "void" in the novel is abundantly furnished with meaning, and each points toward the existential void that Perec grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood. A strange and compelling parable of survival becomes apparent in the novel, too, if one is willing to reflect on the struggles of a Holocaust orphan trying to make sense out of absence, and those of a young writer who has chosen to do without the letter that is the beginning and end of écriture ["writing"]."

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Pneumatic Transit System of Alfred Ely Beach

The Beach Pneumatic Transit began as a system for the transportation of letters and parcels through Manhattan.
Construction had began in 1869 after Alfred Ely Beach, the owner of Scientific American magazine, had received a franchise from the state of New York to build two tubes with a diameter of fifty-four inches to move mail along Broadway.
The system was based on the emergent technology of pneumatic transport which had been used in the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in Dublin from 1844 to 1854 and the Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway which had operated throughout 1864.
Pneumatic transport involved the use of railways that run through tubes with the carriage itself forming a near air-tight seal with the walls of the tunnel.
A steam-powered fan than pushes or pulls the carriage along the rails using the partial vacuum created by the seal in the tunnel.
Construction was completed on Beach’s project in only fifty-eight days with the only delay coming from Beach applying for a new permit to build a single tunnel with a diameter of one hundred and eight inches to replace the two smaller tunnels that had originally been agreed upon. Beach explained that he could fit the two pipes necessary for his postal transit system within this single tunnel and that it would speed up the construction process.
The state had no objection to this and allowed this apparently small, but ultimately vital, change to the plans.
Invitations were issued to the great and good of New York to the opening of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company on February 26th 1870.
They were told to come to the offices of the company at 260 Broadway on the corner of Warren St. Many who received these invitations were perplexed at the instructions.
The corner of Warren and Broadway was home to a clothing store, Devlin and Co., and there had been no evidence of any works taking place there that could involve any sort of major engineering project. Some expected to find little more that a presentation of the plans for the system given the amount of time since construction had began and the lack of any apparent work being done.
Instead, they walked into a scene that none of them expected.
They descended into the basement of Devlin’s to find a 120 foot long reception room illuminated by gaslit chandeliers, fine art lining the walls of the room and tables of champagne and hors d’oeuvres laid out in front of them.
Beach himself greeted them and lead them across the room to the opening of the tunnel where the Beach Pneumatic Transit System would run. There they were confronted by the biggest surprise of all. It was something that no New Yorker had ever seen before.
A subway car.
Beach explained that his system had evolved from a postal delivery scheme to a passenger transit line. The larger tunnel could accomodate the two pipes needed for the proposed delivery system but was also, conveniently, just the right size for a subway car.
The officials from City Hall were furious for a couple of reasons.
Firstly they had invested huge amounts of money, both their own and the states, in the development of overground rail transit systems that were being developed.
Millions of dollars in contracts and kickbacks had been pushed through the Tammany Hall system of William ‘Boss’ Tweed, a corrupt figure who ran the government of New York City.
In addition to this it was seen a additionally embarrassing for the men of City Hall that this construction that threatened their fortunes and careers ran directly under City Hall itself.
Beach, fearing the authorities discovering the scope of his plans, had planned the tunneling process meticulously. He didn’t announce that he had begun construction to stop fictitious complaints about the effect on water and sewage supplies from those who opposed the scheme and he managed to dispose of tons of debris from the excavation and the elaborate construction of the tunnel and reception room without attracting attention.
All of this was done under one of the busiest streets in New York.
Beach had invented a special tunneling shield to allow for the speedy creation of the tunnel with the minimum of work required to move the resultant debris. The shield also allowed for the tunnel to curve to the left or right, a first in subterranean excavation.
The initial tunneling that Beach had done ran along the length of Broadway and was 321 feet long. Beach was confident though that he could quickly and easily extend his system throughout the island of Manhattan in a very short time.
All seemed well for Beach and the Pneumatic Transit System. It was proved to be a speedy, dependable and clean way for people to move around the city with a minimum of effort.
However this did not tally with the plans of ‘Boss’ Tweed and the many New York industrialists that had invested time and money in the development of other transit systems.
Beach’s efforts to expand his plans were repeatedly blocked by City Hall and in the New York Senate. Beach used his considerable fortune to keep the project running but needed outside investment to make it a workable reality.
This dried up as the years of opposition to the scheme stretched out and eventually a financial crisis in 1873 saw Beach lose all other investment and the company collapse.
The tunnel was hired out as a wine cellar and a shooting range and Beach’s interest in pneumatics waned with the development of electrical engineering.
In 1912 the City of New York declared that it would be building a subway station at City Hall. Excavation began and the workers stumbled upon a long forgotten project.
It was Beach’s tunnel.
The tunnel had been sealed for forty years and was entombed in dust but was in complete working order. The air inside was warm and dry as the tunnel had never leaked or caved in.
Sitting at the edge of the tunnel was Beach’s subway car, ready for it’s next journey...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Cook's Tale

‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer are a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims traveling from London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
The pilgrims pass their time on the journey by telling stories that, despite the pious nature of their adventure, are often bawdy and rely on strong vernacular language that would have shocked many readers at the time.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is typical of many of Chaucer’s stories in the Tales with earthy language, content and characters but it is set apart by its very abrupt ending.
Chaucer allows the Cook to begin his story but it stops at what appears to be an odd moment.
In the General Prologue to the Tales we meet the Cook, he’s a lively character with a taste for ale and sporting a ‘mormal’ or lesion on his shin.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is introduced by the innkeeper who links the tales together and he expands upon the character of the Cook claiming that he sells pies that are drained of gravy, are constantly reheated and sold for days on end and that his shop is infested with flies.
The Cook laughs off these accusations and threatens to tell a story about an innkeeper but instead begins the tale of Perkyn, an apprentice to a cook in London.

A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee
An apprentice once dwelt in our city
And of a craft of vitaillers was hee
And of a craft of food merchants was he

Perkyn is quickly taken by the temptations of London and is distracted from his work by drinking, dancing and women.

That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour
That he was called Perkyn Reveller
He was as ful of love and paramour
He was as full of love and womanizing
As is the hyve ful of hony sweete;
As is the hive full of honey sweet;
Wel was the wenche with hym myghte meete
Happy was the woman who with him might meet
At every bridale wolde he synge and hoppe;
At every wedding party he would sing and dance;
He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe.
He loved the tavern better than the shop.

His preference for the tavern to the shop does not go unnoticed and Perkyn is soon released by his master.

Therfore his maister yaf hym acquitance,
Therefore his master gave him his certificate,
And bad hym go, with sorwe and with meschance!
And ordered him to go, with sorrow and with bad luck!

So Perkyn moves in with a friend whose wife is a prostitute.

Unto a compeer of his owene sort,
Unto a companion of his own sort,
That lovede dys, and revel, and disport,
Who loved dicing, and revelling, and having fun,
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
And had a wife that kept for the sake of appearances
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.
A shop, and screwed for her living.

The tale ends here, a sudden stop that confused many scribes although the critic Richard Embs makes a compelling argument for the tale being complete.
He contends that the Cook’s Tale is autobiographical and that if we imagine the other pilgrims hearing the story, seeing the scab on the shin of the Cook and believing it to be venereal in origin and being disgusted by the whole affair the tale has served its purpose.
In defence of this theory, Chaucer later gives the Cook an opportunity to expand on his tale or tell another.
Unfortunately by this time the Cook is too drunk and instead falls off his horse.
It seems likely then that Chaucer never wanted any more of this tale to be told.
This was not helpful to the scribes and copyists that put together the various editions of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and they developed some creative solutions to this apparent omission.
There are 83 known manuscripts of the Tales with 55 believed to have been complete at one time and the remaining 23 being so fragmentary that it is difficult to know if they were individually copied or were once part of a larger set.
No unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus on the order Chaucer wanted the Tales told in has been agreed upon.
Editors and copyists have used this confusion to their advantage when attempting to place The Cook’s Tale in their editions.
In the Hengwrt manuscript, probably the earliest attempt to organise the fragments of the Tales, the scribe made a note in the margin:

‘Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore.’

25 manuscripts, including Harley 7334 and Corpus Christi 198, continued on from the Cook’s Tale with the 902 line romance ‘Gamelyn’, sometimes with a bridge such as the couplet in Royal 18.C.ii:

‘But here-off I will passe as now
And of yong Gamelyn I will tell yow’

Manuscripts without Gamelyn did the best they could.
Many accepted the Cook’s Tale as complete and moved on to the next pilgrim’s tale.
The creative scribe who completed the Rawlinson Poetry141 (fol 29a) edition placed a four line conclusion at the end of the Cook’s Tale to tidy things up:

‘And thus with horedom and bryberye
Togeder thei used till they honged hye.
For whoso evel byeth shal make a sory sale;
And thus I make an ende of my tale.’

The Bodley 686 manuscript took the most trouble to act upon the incomplete nature of the work, both in terms of content and moral teaching.
An extra forty-five lines were added to the end of the Tale along the same instructional lines as the Rawlinson edition above.
The prudish nature of the scribe responsible of these additions can also be seen in his transcription of the Tale itself, particularly in the actions of Perkyn’s friends wife.
In this edition she pleyed rather than swyved for her sustenance...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

On the Silver Globe

After his second film, ‘Diabel’ (1972), was banned in his native Poland, Andrzej Zulawski decided to relocate to France to continue his film-making career.
He went on to make ‘L’Important c’est d’aimer’ (1975) in France and enjoyed such critical success with this film that the Polish government felt it was embarrassing for an artist of such standing to be effectively exiled from his own country.
They invited him to return and gave him the freedom to work on any project he chose, without government interference.
Zulawski had long been interested in adapting a novel, ‘On the Silver Globe’ which was part of a trilogy of books written by his granduncle Jerzy Zulawski.
The story concerned a group of astronauts whose ship crashes on the dark side of the Moon.
After the crash only one adult survives as well as a group of children.
The children develop their own society based on shamanism and the worship of fire, they dub themselves ‘Selenites’ and the adult ‘The Old Man’ and both worship and revile him.
The Selenites find themselves in conflict with the Szerens, the Moons original inhabitants, while The Old Man removes himself from the group and goes to live in the mountains.
Here he records a video diary which he sends to Earth. A space researcher called Marek finds the diary and goes to the Moon. When he gets there he is greeted by the children as a messianic figure and the reincarnation of The Old Man who they believe will lead them to victory against the Szern.
From 1975 to 1977 Zulawski adapted the novel into a screenplay and began to film at various locations in Europe and Asia.
In the Autumn of 1977 the project came to a sudden halt with the appointment of Janusz Wilhelmi as the vice minister of Cultural Affairs in Poland.
Wilhelmi believed that the conflict between the Selenites and Szern in the film was a thinly-veiled allegory for the Polish peoples struggles with totalitarian Communist rule.
He ordered that the production be shut down and all the footage and related materials from the film to be destroyed.
Zulawski returned to France, despairing over the wasted time and effort he had put into the film and vowing never to work in Poland again.
Wilhelmi died a few months later in March of 1978 but it took the end of Communist rule in Poland eight years later for Zulawski to return to Poland and continue with the production of the film.
The footage, props and costumes that Wilhelmi had ordered to be destroyed were actually saved by the film studio and various members of the cast and crew.
However not enough was salvaged for Zulawski to complete the film the way he had intended.
Instead he edited together the footage he had and added a commentary to the film explaining what he had intended to do and filling in the narrative gaps.
This version ran at 166 minutes and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988.with some critics describing it as a ‘ruined masterpiece.’

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Big Numbers

‘Mad Love’ was a publishing company established by comic book writer Alan Moore, his wife Phyllis and their mutual lover Deborah Delano in 1988.
The first production of the company was ‘AARGH’ (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) an anthology challenging Clause 28, a law designed to stop schools and councils in the United Kingdom from ‘promoting homosexuality’.
Following this Moore worked on a comic called ‘Shadowplay: The Secret Team’ for Eclipse Comics. This was part of an anthology called ‘Brought To Light’which was commissioned by the Christic Institute and examined the role of the CIA in drug smuggling and arms dealing.
The artist on this project was Bill Sienkiewicz whose blend of photorealism and abstraction had revitalised comic art in the 1980's.
This proved to be a successful partnership between the two men, whose love for detail and discord combined beautifully.
For his next project for ‘Mad Love’ Moore was to push himself to new heights creatively and would need an artist that could keep up.
‘Big Numbers’ was the story of a new shopping centre in a small town in England.
On the surface this seems straightforward enough but Moore had decided that the best way to examine the impact of the opening of this new structure on the lives of the people in the town was to use a combination of Chaos Theory and the Fractal Geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot.
Moore felt that the only artist that could handle the shift between the mathematical ideas underpinning the piece and the human drama at the forefront was Sienkiewicz.
The first two issues were published in April and August of 1990 with another ten due to follow.
However, Sienkiewicz was overwhelmed by the work that the book required and soon began to miss deadlines. Eventually he backed out of the series completely, having got as far as finishing the majority of the art for the third issue.
The delays meant that the book missed slated publication dates and the overheads of the project, with no product being released to generate revenue, caused the production to stop.
Kevin Eastman, the owner of Tundra Comics, stepped in to take over the publishing of the comic and Al Columbia, Sienkiewicz’s art assistant, was hired to provide the artwork for the remainder of the series.
After beginning work on the fourth issue Columbia also quit the book, claiming that he had destroyed the artwork he had produced.
In 1999 the ten pages that Sienkiewicz had produced for issue #3 were published in the magazine ‘Submedia’ and then in 2009 a photocopy of the complete lettered art of #3 appeared as part of a lot on eBay. It was bought for $49.99 and included issues #1 and #2 of the published books. The successful bidder, having got permission from Alan Moore first, published scans of the work on LiveJournal.
In 2000 Al Columbia posted his version of events on the ‘Comics Journal’ message board:

“...I was paid $9,200 to complete issue number four of ‘Big Numbers’.
A lot of times Paul Jenkins (the editor) was good enough to pay me as I went along without even seeing the pages.
Okay, don’t tell anybody, but the truth be told I didn’t even finish the issue-but was paid for it anyway.
You see, I never had any intention of staying with the project but merely attached myself to it in order to gain a certain prominence, at which time I would quit in the manner we have all heard about.
This way, with no visible proof of the artwork, it would always shine as a masterpiece in people’s minds and imagination.”

Alan Moore has spoken about the future of the piece a number of times.
In 2000 he said:

“I don’t see any way that I can resurrect it as a comic script...
For ‘Big Numbers’ the television’s the idea of selling it...
I mean, I think fractals and shopping is a great idea but not as a pitch to hot, young Channel 4 presenters who are just mainly thinking ‘Let’s do ‘Queer As Folk’ again and see if we can shock some more retired colonels from the Home Counties and get viewing figures off the back of it.’”

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Crazy Horse Memorial

In 1948 Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor, received an interesting new commission. Chief Henry Standing Bear, the leader of the Native American Lakota people had written inviting Ziolkowski to create a monument to Crazy Horse, a famous Oglala Lakota warrior.
In the letter Chief Henry Standing Bear outlined the significance of the structure to the Lakota people saying:

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.”

Ziolkowski was intrigued, partly by the scale of the project.
Chief Henry Standing Bear wanted the statue to be carved out of a mountain with the completed structure becoming the world’s largest sculpture.
Ziolkowski had worked on Mt. Rushmore, the monumental sculpture of the heads of four Presidents of the United States, located in the Black Hills region of South Dakota so had some experience on projects of this scale.
He initially wanted to carve the statue in the Wyoming Tetons where the rock was better for sculpting but the Native American leaders insisted that they wanted their creation in the Black Hills area, close to Mt. Rushmore.
The Black Hills region is sacred to the Lakota people and the position of Mt. Rushmore was an affront to a great deal of them. As well as being a memorial and statement of the legacy of the Lakota people they also wanted their statue to be a riposte to Mt. Rushmore.
For that reason they demanded that the sculpture of Crazy Horse be substantially bigger than that of the Presidents.
When completed the Crazy Horse memorial will consist of an image of Crazy Horse on horseback pointing into the distance.
It will be 563 feet high and 641 feet wide. The head alone will be 87 feet high.
The heads of the Presidents at Mt. Rushmore are each 60 feet high.
There is some controversy among the Lakota people on the value and veracity of the project.
Crazy Horse was never photographed and was buried so that his grave would never be found.
The idea of an image of him being fixed to one place has offended some Native American people.
Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man, spoke out against the project saying:

“The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape. It is against the spirit of Crazy Horse.”

Ziolkowski defended the work, claiming that it was not supposed to represent a definitive image of Crazy Horse as a man. He said:

“Crazy Horse is being carved not so much as a lineal likeness but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse.”

The image of Crazy Horse with his arm extended into the distance is designed to represent a moment where he was asked by a white man about the fate of his people.
The man had mockingly asked the defeated Crazy Horse where his lands were now.
Crazy Horse pointed out in front of the man and replied:

“My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

Work began on the sculpture in 1948 and is far from completion.
The project receives no Federal or State support and is reliant on fundraising and private financial support.
Ziolkowski died on October 20th 1982 and left the final instructions for the sculpture with his wife. He told her:

“You must work on the mountain. But go slowly so you do it right...”

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Nelson Pillar

Nelson Pillar was a memorial dedicated to Horatio, Lord Nelson that stood in O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin from 1808 to 1966.
Its construction actually predated the more famous Nelson’s Column, which is of a similar design and is located in Trafalgar Square in London.
The erection of a statue honouring Nelson and those who died at the Battle of Trafalgar, including a large number of Irish volunteers, was the idea of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, James Vance.

It was also seen as a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in Europe.
The cost of the Pillar was met by public subscription although, tellingly, it took two years for the sum of £5,000 to be met.
Initially, objections as to the Pillar revolved around aesthetic considerations, with many feeling that it’s disproportionate size overwhelmed the space around it.
Soon, people also came to see its location in the centre of O’Connell Street as a cause of traffic congestion.
After the Easter Rising of 1916 the arguments against the Pillar became even more focused.
Its location, overlooking the GPO which had been the headquarters of the Republican forces, was seen as an affront to those who had died.
The figure of an British war hero towering over such a potent symbol of Irish nationalism was just too much for some to bear.
In 1955 a group of students from University College Dublin occupied the Pillar and attempted to melt the statue of Nelson with homemade flamethrowers. Gardai attempted to arrest them but were dissuaded by sympathetic bystanders and the students were released without charge.
1966 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and the debate over how appropriate it was for Nelson to be in such a prominent position in the middle of Dublin began again.
At 2 a.m. on March 8th 1966 a bomb destroyed the upper half of the Pillar, toppling the statue of Nelson and sending rubble into the street below.
Despite the force of the explosion there were no injuries and the only damage was to one window of a nearby taxi.
Two days later, engineers from the Irish Army demolished what was left of the Pillar in a controlled explosion.
This blast caused most of the windows on O’Connell Street to be broken and left the city with a massive list of claims for compensation.
Within a week of the explosion a song called ‘Up Went Nelson’ by the Go Lucky Four was at the top of the Irish music charts.
Joe Dolan also wrote a song called ‘Nelson’s Farewell’ about the incident which The Dubliners recorded for their 1966 album ‘Finnegan Wakes’.
The head of Nelson was stored in a warehouse in Clanbrassil Street but was stolen by students from the National College of Art and Design.
They attempted to demand a ransom for the head’s return to pay of their debts but when this was denied to them they instead hired out the head to various people.
They first received £200 from an antique dealer in London who displayed it in his window. Later, they rented it to the makers of a women’s stocking commercial and loaned it to The Dubliners for a show at the Olympia Theatre.
Ronnie Drew, one of The Dubliners later recalled that the crowd were sceptical that the head was genuine until another member of the band, Luke Kelly, took a run up and kicked the head to prove its solidity.
The students eventually returned the head to the Lady Nelson of the day and it can now be seen in the Gilbert Library in Pearse Street, Dublin.