I was simply going to start blogging again as if I’d been at it all along but suddenly I’m feeling sheepish, wondering whether I’m obligated to mention something about how long it’s been, how I am not dead after all, etc. If you must have something in the way of an explanation, I’ve moved house recently, I hope that will suffice. From the East Village to Harlem. Packing, unpacking, painting things International Klein Blue. (SMALL things; it is every bit as potent as one hopes). I was going to return with a post about what I’ve been reading lately but I started making a list, and if I try to write about that many books at once I’ll wear out myself and all of you too. So I’m just going to choose particular books to write about, one at a time, not in any sort of order.
Now then. We are going to have a look at Richard Marsh’s Curios: Some Strange Adventures of Two Bachelors, an insubstantial but attractive little book suitable for cozying up with at this time of year.
It’s a Victorian-era collection of short stories narrated alternately by one of two friends / rival collectors, Mr. Pugh and Mr. Tress. They continuously try to out-wit each other in their efforts to acquire various objects, such as The Great Auk’s Egg. They also solve certain mysteries with (or against) each other: The Adventure of the Ikon, The Adventure of the Pipe, The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand and so forth. Yes, the latter is about a hand that creeps around having a life of its own, the well-preserved hand of a woman long dead, very much like The Monkey’s Paw. (Not a particularly good episode in my opinion, I much prefer Where the Woodbine Twineth). Lady Wishaw’s Hand has perfect pink finger-nails and doesn’t behave itself. As is the case with the other curios the two collectors pursue, it provokes cold shivering, acute misery, and much solitary pondering and plotting while half-enjoying roast woodcock, champagne, and the smoking of meerschaum pipes.
I have a friend I can see myself doing this sort of thing with. We haven’t put murderous old lady hands into each other’s wardrobes, but we did once discover we were bidding against each other on the same vintage juicer on ebay, which he won, and which the same seller then tried to sell me another of, possibly missing a crucial part, a part which he coincidentally (hmm!) failed to deliver to my friend. The Adventure of the Citrus Squeezer, were there two complete units to be had or no? There was one. My victorious friend was sporting enough to invite me over for effortlessly fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, which we enjoyed while his new (old, and maddeningly discontinued) enameled juicer sat gleaming on the kitchen counter.
Anyhow, Curios is a fun read, although not as fun as I’d hoped it would be. It could use more humorous humor and scarier scary bits. I was amused that the protagonists, although billed as friends, don’t actually like each other at all, but their little digs at each other’s wan observational skills, loutish servants and shabby pipe collections aren’t enough to make up for narrative that otherwise too often lacks tension. Some genuine affection wouldn’t be out of place either, in a book meant to be taken to bed with a big glass of brandy. I should also probably mention that one of the stories prominently features “a nasty little Jew boy” — not entirely surprising for a book written in 1898, but even a reader determined to blithely skip over these bits can’t help feeling a little disheartened — he wears out his welcome for entirely different reasons than he was meant to.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking about what might belong in an updated version of Curios. While arranging my new apartment I’ve been distracted by all sorts of tantalizing objects. Or, more precisely, by daydreams of finding pristine incarnations of them in the most improbable places, for practically no money. I suppose I could make room for a Great Auk’s Egg, but I’d rather have a Sergio Mazza Bacco bar for my living room, you know? Here are a few suggestions, should any of you feel like writing a little something to amuse me this winter, although I’m feeling inspired to write it myself now that I’m more or less settled.
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The Adventure of the Roadster. Being a Manhattan-dwelling person, I don’t think about cars much unless I happen to notice a spectacular one. Haven’t got one, don’t need one, but why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat. The buckles on the hood of the 1953 Allard K3 Roadster are of unsurpassable loveliness.
Discovered, somewhat indirectly, via Wary Meyers, who are always showing me something I never knew I wanted so badly. The fictional car will have to be haunted, won’t it? Possibly by the apparition of an eye-wateringly expensive mechanic seeking to collect on his final bill. Tragically decapitated in a garage accident, his gruesome ghost appears before the driver clutching his head in his hands, its eyes beseeching immediate payment in full.
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The Adventure of the Crosby Library. I was thrilled by the descriptions, in Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, of the books Crosby had printed by his vanity press. Mmm hmm hmm, naturally they were printed in very small quantities. It was called Black Sun Press and was founded in 1927:
Harry designed the bindings, boxes and ribbons in expensive materials—gold and red and gray and black—by Babout, whose work was then considered the state of the art. As time passed Harry alone came to select the titles the press would publish; Caresse would edit them, and usually perform the typographical design. The books of the Black Sun Press are clean, wonderfully easy and satisfying to read and touch, and even a dull poem takes some shine from its disposition on a page the Crosbys caused to have printed.
Many of the books were illustrated by the Baron Hans Henning von Voight, who went by the name of Alastair. He was “as peculiar as anyone Harry’s most vividly surreal drug dreams could command,” with a face “white as milk” and “a hypnotist’s eyes set theatrically deep beneath a skull that receded as though it had been operatically struck by it’s owner’s hand just before he repeatedly swooned.”
The books were printed in a little shop in Paris and I’d like to think there are still a few editions to be found in its environs, not yet having been offered at auction.
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The Adventure of the Radio. It’s tempting to have my protagonists scheming to acquire a Dieter Rams-designed Braun SK-4, which would also be an entirely appropriate choice given that Pugh and Tress had an Adventure with a phonograph one of them picked up from a pawnbroker in the Fulham Road. And yet I’ve become fixated on the idea of a Normende Spectra Futura radio instead, capable of being tuned to a mysterious, spooky, pirate radio station, spooky in entirely different ways than the ways Clear Channel stations are spooky.
Do you want to see one closed? Here.
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The Adventure of the Dirty Magazines. I’ve never so much as flipped through a single copy of John Willie’s Bizarre but I’ve lately become convinced a stack of them would be very handsome on a coffee table.
They’re not impossible to come by — there are some here, if you want to get started on your holiday shopping right away — but something like this is best encountered unexpectedly, and in an unlikely place. Maybe one of my protagonists will find them in a shiny brass trunk, like the one Ms. Brick House picked up in Palm Springs.
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The Adventure of the Synchronized Cats. Autonomous severed hands are passé, but cats, never.
I’m not sure how this bit will work but I rather like the idea of a pair of murderous cats skilled in hypnotic induction.
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The Adventure of the Weed.
I blame a neighbor I had freshman year of college for my lingering supposition that potheads might very well be tasteful collectors and not the lumpen, hairbrush-dodging Taco Bell-munchers I’d grown up with. She’d covered the entire surface of her dorm room floor with layered oriental rugs and was never without an ample stash of excellent quality Humboldt County weed, which she would share while reading W.S. Merwin poems. I would likely give her fictional counterpart a preference for Georges Allier tapestries and H.D. but you get the idea. Smuggling seems tedious, so I’d probably have her weed stashed away in her grannie’s LaGardo Tackett cookie jars, for my protagonists to merrily fight over at an estate sale, each wondering whether the other knows their contents. Shades of Pugh and Tress’s Adventure of the Cabinet, wherein Pugh sets out for the country in pursuit of a Louis Quatorze armoire, encounters Tress — whose “most generous critic would scarcely say that the pure, virtuous air of the country was suited to him” — and claims that he himself is there merely for innocent “straying beside the limpid waters” because he finds “rural simplicity a sympathetic atmosphere.” Pugh wastes little time knocking at a certain country door and notes that it “was opened by a shrivelled-up, middle-aged woman in rusty black, who looked as if she were in a continual state of tearfulness; just the kind of unprotected female whom Joseph Tress would delight in imposing on.”
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Coming soon-ish in this series: Loads of Sylvia Townsend Warner, more Frederick Rolfe, a fair amount of Flann O’Brien, Harry Mathews, Stanley Crawford, Jane Bowles and Henry Green, and too much else to mention.