Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Great Gatsby

The first time I saw Nicki Greenberg's little characters I thought they were surely too facile to bear the weight of a tragic novel from the canon of American Literature. But more and more they've come to remind me of a type of pictorial invention that goes back centuries. The first hint was when I found myself thinking of the grotesques you find in the fourteenth century Luttrell Psalter, which are highly particular even among their type. Describing the beings populating the margins of the psalter, the babooneries, or 'babewyns' as he called them, the late Michael Camille wrote:
'Created from a variety of textures- greasy, slimy, hairy, subcutaneous, phosphorescent. rubbery, metallic, velvety and vegetal- they exhibit every possible variation of malformation, often on one page. a pug-nosed piggish human face with speckled yellow legs stares in dismay as his own cabbage tail sprouts up from between his legs with a tentacular, ejacuatory gush. Above on the same page, a sneering hooded fellow with a metallic blue body and flippery feet wears a kitchen cooking pot with the aplomb of a fashonable hat.' (from Mirror in Parchment)
You may say that such grotesques are not apt in the context of a modern novel, but they were hardly appropriate to the psalms either.

Part of the catalogue of individuals seen at Gatsby's parties:


The book's major pictorial conceit puts it squarely in the twentieth century. It begins with Nick Carraway pasting photos into an album. In Fitzgerald's novel he simply narrates, reopening the wounds of the past.


It's one of those old fashioned photo albums with the matt black pages, and the photos are all in sepia. The book is printed in full colour in order to make this sepia, even though we never see a hint of colour in the story pages. Chapter headings remind us that a full range of hues is in use. As the stylistic device runs for the whole 306 pages, it is likely to slip your mind that you are ostensibly looking at photos, with their serrated edges and occasionally casting a shadow, until late in the book a character is removed by being literally torn out of the picture. A peculiar thing: the publicity dept. at Allen and Unwin sent clean jpegs of the above, but they seemed to me to lack some important ingredient by being removed from the actual paper of the book, so I scanned them myself. It's one of those packages where every detail is in harmony, including the binding and type of paper. It's pleasing to just hold it and contemplate it as an object.

Gatsby is to be released in September here in Australia. It may not be available where you are until 2008 (UK) or even 2010 (USA) as copyright restrictions on Fitzgerald's novel run out at diifferent times due to varying international legalities and original publication dates. Greenberg is a qualified lawyer who explained it all to me carefully, but she did so in a bar, and if you find my version unconvincing, get a better one later.
I like her book a great deal; it is a singular achievement. She puts her little cast of 'babewyns' through a faithful if slightly condensed version of the text, and by the time you finish, her cast seems neither more nor less up to the task than the one that includes Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

Nicki has a website.
and a blog too.
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And speaking of Australian women:
Australian Woman Killed By Amorous Camel
(thanks hayley)
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And of beings that are half human and half something else:
Dwarf's penis gets stuck to vacuum cleaner
The attachment broke before the performance and Blackner tried to fix it using extra-strong glue, but unfortunately only let it dry for 20 seconds instead of the 20 minutes required. He then joined it directly to his organ. The end result? A solid attachment...
(thanks Gareth)

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

Nicki Greenberg is da' bomb... as the kids would say if they were as stuck in the early 90's as I seem to be.

Her stuff is honest, funny, and dare I say it... delightful. Many of the same qualities the lady possesses herself.

I look forward to Gatsby with a glee not seen in these parts for many a footy season.

21 August 2007 4:44:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Hayley said...

My pal Arthur says he was at a party in Edinburgh last night. The dwarf was there too.

I'm told that for a man with an embarrassing willy story he was suprisingly dull.

21 August 2007 6:39:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger HemlockMan said...

I just reread GATSBY this week. Beautiful prose. What a strange project to adapt it with drawings of weird little critters.

My least favorite part of the novel is the boring litany of people Carraway describes at one of Gatsby's parties--which the artist has chosen to illustrate.

21 August 2007 4:10:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Zoe said...

That section (the 'boring litany of people' at one of Gatsby's parties) was one of my favourite parts of Nicki's adaptation. I heard an interview with her on the ABC's Book Show (24/9/07, you can podcast it) where Nicky described her decision to illustrate the characters as creatures because Fitzgerald's original descriptions are so over-the-top they're more like archetypes than realistic descriptions (she says it more eloquently than that) ... for this reason, those pages at the party fascinated me - Nicky has obviously spent so much time (and had so much fun) visualising these bizarre characters. I think this is an example of the illustrations adding something entirely new to the interpretation of the text. It reminds me a little of some illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland where the characters resemble politicians and public figures - it contextualises a known story in a new way.

25 September 2007 11:16:00 pm GMT-5  

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