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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Revisiting a Couple of Old Friends

“Have you read this?” The question is reasonable (unlike “Have you read every book in here?”), but sometimes the answer is no. My reasons for ordering new books for stock vary. Occasionally a new book remains unsold long enough that I forget why I ordered it or even that I have it—and then when it comes into my hand, by chance, it becomes a new discovery. This morning, for example, I plucked from the shelf What Does It Mean To Be Human? Reverence for Life Reaffirmed by Responses from Around the World (NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000). The responses ranged from the didactic to the poetic and kept me turning pages and reading, but I did not remember what had first brought the book to my attention until I closed it again and saw that one of the three listed compiler/editors was Frederick Franck. Ah, that explained it!

Frederick Franck first came into my life through his book Simenon’s Paris, put in my path by the Kalamazoo Public Library but not entirely by chance, since it was, I’m pretty sure, shelved in the section containing travel books on Paris, only a dream of mine back then. Simenon’s Paris--and I have taken it down from its place on our home bookshelves this evening to look through its pages again—was, for me, the entrance into a magic kingdom. What Franck had done was to take various sketches and drawings he had made over the years, all over Paris, and put them together in a book, subsequently searching through the works of Georges Simenon (many of the Inspector Maigret stories) to find a passage that fit with each drawing. The order of events is important. He did not create the drawings to illustrate passages in the books but made the drawings first and then put the passages to them. And just as Simenon’s writing captures Paris, puts the reader there, in the streets, on the metro, etc., so Franck’s sketches did the same. I lost myself in the book, words and images, over and over again.

Many years later I discovered Franck’s classic, The Zen of Seeing (never out of print since its original publication), and its sequel, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. Franck had wanted to meditate but found he could not sit cross-legged, eyes closed, doing nothing, and empty his mind. It didn’t work for him. When he was drawing, however, the meditative state came naturally. He was no longer thinking, no longer centered in himself, in his ego, but had left himself behind to merge with his subject. If part of the magic of photography, as I wrote recently, is leaving behind language for (nonverbal) perceptions of balance, how much more satisfying, ultimately, is the meditative state one enters when attempting (my own attempts deserve no more name that this) to draw a landscape or a simple still life. A month from now, I will have taken up again the delights of meditating with pencil in hand, and much of the inspiration for daring to do so I owe to Franck.

There was another old friend for me today, though, finally brought by Santa and left in my post office box this morning. It was Palmer Brown’s The Silver Nutmeg (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1956), a much-worn ex-lib. copy but one I could afford and possessed yet of its charming illustrated dust jacket. So there I went, through the still water with Anna Lavinia to the other side of the pond—and the tingle! Not having held a copy of this story in my hands since grade school, I am happy to report that it has lost none of its charm. Every sentence of the story, every poem and song, and every drawing (by the author) moved me as effectively today as it had in the fourth grade. How unfair to children of the 21st century that this book is not available in reprint!

It was a strange day, foggy from morning ‘til night, and so warm that the fields to the north and south of our driveway were bare earth by late afternoon. The words of the overnight forecast, however, included “blast,” as in “cold blast, so our false spring will probably be gone by Sunday morning.


Raph G. Neckmann said...

Interesting reading what you write about Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. Many years ago I used to draw with my other hand to activate imagination. It seemed to work, as I now have too many ideas and not enough time!

The Silver Nutmeg sounds intruiging - what is it about?

P. J. Grath said...

What is THE SILVER NUTMEG about? Oh, my!

Well, things are not at their rosiest for Anna Lavinia. Life is never quite right when her father is away, and this time drought has even her pets drooping. The well is dry, and Anna Lavinia must make repeated trips to the spring for water as her mother puts up spicy green paw paw preserves so as not to waste the paw paws that fell from the tree before they could ripen.

Uncle Jeffrey’s visit is a pleasant diversion. His relationship to the family is a little vague, “twice removed,” though he won’t say from where, but he brings spices and songs and gifts.

Before he left on his trip, Anna Lavinia’s father had begun making a hole in the stone wall surrounding their garden. The purpose of the opening was to broaden Anna Lavinia’s horizon and give her a point of view. Through the opening she could see a small wooded hill. On top of the hill was a dew pond. How many hills have a dew pond on top? Her point of view was something special.

When Anna Lavinia visits the dew pond, she learns the truth of the old saying, “Still waters run deep.” There is another world on the other side of the still water! A boy on the other side invites her to jump, assuring her that if the water is still she can get through without getting wet. She jumps, and thus begin her adventures in a world without gravity, where people and objects are attached to earth by the tingle as long as they are touching the ground or something that is touching the ground.

But the workmen were going to drain the pond to irrigate the parsnip field! How will Anna Lavinia get home again? And who was Aunt Cornelia’s lover, and will he ever return?

This is the beginning of what the story is “about,” and I feel it tells nothing at all. The charm is in the very specific language, the songs and rhymes, the drawings, the faces of Anna Lavinia and the other characters, the details of the animals, and so on and so forth. It is truly a magical book.