Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gimpel the Fool Animation

Note: Don't be concerned that the first words you hear are Yiddish: the English dialogue starts at around two minutes and 23 seconds in. Also, Youtube had a strict ten minute limit when this video was uploaded, so here's a link to part 2.

Today I have for you a wonderful follow up and compliment to my review of the short story collection Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is a cartoon adaptation of the first and eponymous story, a low tech hand-drawn piece, done in the early nineties by a man named Ezra Schwartz. Schwartz used, in his words, "about 10,000 paper frames" to create the movie. Each frame, in turn was composed of several layers of typing paper; Schwartz says he used about 80,000 sheets in all. The animation is accompanied by a beautiful original soundtrack and occasional Yiddish dialogue mingles with English, the main language of this adaptation. The movie took eight months for Schwartz to draw, and has since been screened at well over a dozen film festivals, between 1994 and 2006.

One can read more about the animation, including full credits, a list of screenings, and a few thoughts from the creator's own mind, here, at the page he obviously set up for the purpose.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel the Fool: And Other StoriesMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was able to read only the first two stories of this collection before I lost my copy. But a few months past and I found another, cheaper and in better condition. Naturally, I took it for a sign -- how could I not?

In the world of this book everything is a sign, and things still have magic to them. It's a beautiful simple world, Eastern Europe like most of us have never seen -- a lost world, a farming world, and, what's more, a Jewish world. This book, it speaks of a time when Yiddish thrived as a language of literature as well as daily life, and the Jews who spoke it... well, they lived. Today we live in a world where some Jews regard Yiddish as unclean, corrupt. What a shame! Today, the world in these stories has greatly shrunk and we may someday lose it all together. Well, at least we have the stories... some crystallized remnant of that dead world, a testament to how beautiful it was.

In a sense, the eleven stories in this collection are fairy tales -- but not the kind Disney pushed out, nor even those written down by the Brothers Grimm. In the world of these stories, even while towns and cities are industrializing, demons walk the countryside -- they are all around you, ready to cause mischief. In this world happy endings are merely those that are not sad. Happiness here comes from leading a simple and virtuous life within the narrow confines of The Law. You may get tricked by a demon; you may be forced to spend an eternity or more in The Place No One Wants to Go. But, all in all, it is a place in which a person can live or even thrive.

Now, as I say, there are eleven stories in Gimpel the Fool but let's just look at some of my favorites:

"Gimpel the Fool" starts it off, and is probably the most high profile story in the collection -- also, the only one translated by Saul Bellow -- and it sets the tone too. It retells a story at least as old as Judaism itself: the "fool" who is mocked and tricked by all around him, but who is really more wise and virtuous than them all. The story was dampened a bit in my eyes, however, because of my then-recent reading of "Ivan the Fool" by Tolstoy, a story similar in title, style, subject, and mood.

"The Gentleman from Cracow" tells of the same poor little Jewish village seen throughout -- or it might as well be -- and the great prosperity and success that comes to the village when a rich man from Cracow decides to live there. Of course, things are rarely what they seem, especially when rich men are involved; men who really aren't men at all. In a climactic scene only a Jew -- or perhaps also a masochistic Christian -- could think up, a party the man throws to choose a wife amongst the town girls dissolves into a fiery lake ringed by cackling demons.

A few of these stories -- "The Mirror," about a woman who is in the habit of watching herself, naked, in a mirror; "The Unseen," about a married man who lusts after his servant; and "From the Diary of One Not Born," about a woman who is tricked into public disgrace by a doppelgänger husband -- are told from the perspective of a demon. And what does a demon do but try to trick mortals into a fiery doom? These three stories are ones of sin -- vanity, in the case of the first; lust in the second; and sheer bad luck in the third. The little devils seem to drop down on anyone and ruin their lives for no good reason. A harsh fate indeed, but I suppose temptation can strike us all -- it is the truly virtuous, then, who successfully resist.

The stories of the virtuous of this collection are "The Old Man," "Joy," and "The Little Shoemakers." The eponymous "Old Man" walks across a country torn apart by WW2 to reach his native town. And in "Joy"... well, I do not remember "Joy." (I could reread it, but why? with a sentence like that?) And "The Little Shoemakers"? That's my favorite of the entire collection: about the latest in a very long line of small-town shoemakers, who is greatly befuddled by losing his seven sons to the call of the New World. But never mind: he finds his way to them again, escorted out of war-torn Europe by their new-found money to find himself on the shore of a lake, around which the seven prosperous brothers have built a house each, a thriving family each. Curtain falls on seven brothers dutifully helping their father in the little hut they made for him on their property, mending shoes the old-fashioned way, and singing that old song they used to sing when they were boys.

Maybe you don't like this kind of story. Maybe it has no place in the modern world, amid touch screens, feminism, toned down Christianity -- but I love it. Suffice to say, in a business-like tone, "It appeals to my sensibilities" -- though we all know there is much more to it than that.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Graphic Witness: Wordless Woodcut Novels of the Early 20th Century

The arrival of the latest Library of America catalog in this home is always an exciting event, indeed: a reminder that, yes, some poor misguided souls do still send catalogs through the "snail mail"; a harbinger of the same old dead men as we can normally buy for $3.99 at any old grocery store (though this time with archival ink and acid-free paper!); and, at least in the case of the most recent catalog, the revealing of a little subgenre of books hitherto unnoticed by me.

The Library of America has decided to reprint a set of woodcut novels -- that is, novels told solely through a series of woodcuts, generally without words. The six featured in the collection were created in the 1920s or 30s by an American artist named Lynd Ward.

I had never heard of the man, nor the handful of other artists who joined him in creating wood cut (or wood engraving, or linocut, or even lead cut) novels during the first half of the twentieth century -- but they are a bunch worth knowing. Though the novels they created probably never mounted beyond fifty titles, still they have an important role in history -- some call them the "original graphic novels." And the art... to be frank, I'm no great purveyor nor observer of the visual arts, and, as description of the beauty of a mare is really best left to a stallion, I will say only that the art is "worth a look" -- or even two. So I went and I took a look.

Well, the lovely two-volume box set above shown and described is a mere $55.00 online, $70.00 otherwise, but in my case mere is more like more , as in more than I can afford. I took neither route, opting instead to search for the book on my local library's database... No luck, exactly -- but I did find the slightly older (2007), yet still lovely book pictured to the left here. Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde (deep breath) is a collection, I'm convinced, well worth reading (or observing, or looking at, or staring open-mouthed at) -- largely because of the rarity and intrinsic value of the four wordless "novels" it contains. Frankly, the introduction by George A. Walker stinks, and the afterword by Seth is too short and even then just okay. It is the novels themselves, which are rarely reprinted and of course very expensive and hard to find in the originals, that naturally make the book.

Graphic Witness offers a nice variety too: from the vigorous, though imperfect technique of Frans Masereel, whom many consider the father of the subgenre; to the German-like style of Lynd Ward, already mentioned. All four books in the collection have distinct styles -- I'm sure I could match individual images with their appropriate books -- yet they share much. All the images in the book are dark, strict -- stern. And, while I suppose it is possible to soften the sharp lines of wood cuts and other forms of relief printing, as Masereel toyed with, all depicted objects are naturally hard-edged and very well formed. Now, I might say more on the artistic aspects of these four novels and their ilk, if only I were not a mule but a stallion. Perhaps, to mix my metaphors, though appropriately, I will one day find myself out to be truly a swan, but for now I will move on to more solid ground:

Narrative art: telling a picture merely through images. Seems challenging enough to me, without adding political subtexts. I don't know that all of the artists in the collection were "hardcore socialists" as I have heard tell, but I must confess that all were politically motivated and -- as I have come to expect from all politically motivated artists, not just Russians -- were remarkably fervent in their beliefs of social injustice and inequality. Frankly, I regard as within the realm of common sense that the more fortunate should aid in the rise of the less fortunate; that an ideal society is one in which all citizens are above a certain financial line; and that equality is more than just an ideal, to be looked for only in the words of misty-eyed professors and their students. So these artists believed, so they used the tools that came most at hand. How laborious the process of creating some one hundred wood cuts must have been! Even then, telling a complete, coherent, well done story in under one images is... well, to me even a wall of text seems much less intimidating.

To communicate information through images -- pure ideas, with little room for individual interpretation -- is a task I would certainly never want to get stuck with. Impossible, even, because as soon as someone tries, they create symbols, visual objects that a group of people associate with the same idea or group of ideas. Christianity, for example, has a very large catalog of symbols, many manifesting in or even being created for, narrative art. Beyond symbols, on that path, lay letters, words -- in a word, language, a collection of arbitrary symbols whose meaning a group of people agree upon.

History of narrative art is long and full of holes, but these days it seems the health of this particular art couldn't be better. While, in the days these woodcut novels were made comic books were sorely looked down upon -- leading the woodcut artists to distance themselves by avoiding comics mainstays like word balloons and multiple panels per page -- these days comics have reached literary pretensions all their own, in the guise of the New Yorker-acceptable graphic novel. For a bridge that connects these two acceptable media, I would advice the reading of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels by David A. Beronä, a book that no doubt has much to add to (or even correct :) all of what I have said here. Read it and let me know -- or perhaps I'll have to read it myself!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sentence Frequency and Originality of Expression

R: Tomorrow we'll have everything we need for a good long time. This place has got to have a stockpile of canned goods. Hopefully it was overrun by the undead before it could be looted by anyone.

S: Yeah, hopefully it's just full of flesh eating monsters and our baked beans are still intact in there... If someone had said last year that I would ever utter that line out loud, I'd still be laughing now... Jesus, I'd love some baked beans right now.
The above quote is from The Walking Dead, a long-running and popular post-apocalyptic comic book -- go ahead, guess what kind of apocalypse it was -- issue #13 in fact, wherein a crew of survivors is discussing a possible raid of an abandoned prison, in search of food. You or I may never find ourselves in quite the same situation, but surely one does not have to live in a world dominated by the walking dead to wonder at the linguistic possibilities...

"There's nothing new under the sun." We've heard that old song and dance before, but with hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, which can be arranged into an incompressible number of sentences, we humans have a very long way to go, indeed, before we have mined out all linguistic possibilities.

In fact, you and I probably explore new territory every day, creating original sentences -- sentences that have never been said or written before in the history of the human race! Usually, we do this without noticing, though sometimes we do, and we end up saying something like, "Wow, that was a weird sentence" or "Man, I never thought I'd say that." It's a very, very intriguing idea. Wouldn't be great, for example, to see the long list of sentences that have each been said exactly once? Or wouldn't you like to see how many original sentences a great writer -- Shakespeare, for example -- created in his life?

Originality is so highly praised these days -- at least as far as large corporations are concerned, who are in the habit offering up to the customer some twenty or so patterns on a t-shirt, for example, with the idea that the customer will then be able to "express their personal style." Literature -- or as the Jews put it, "The Art of Scratching on Paper" -- is no different in this respect. Originality of expression they call it -- or at least I do. Everyone wants it, it seems, but always it remains a hazy object.

Therefore, I can only speak and think in vagueries: I know when I'm writing like Shakespeare (never) and I know when I'm writing like David Foster Wallace (never......?) but, honestly, how am I to know what's trite? or cliche? or, well, unoriginal? I can't and you can't either, Mr. Scholar; likewise with so-called original sentences. Surely, we all will be kept up late into the night, wondering if someone has already said, "Pass the pineapple Jello ASAP, Martha, you inconsiderate slut!"

So you're not Shakespeare and neither am I, but please don't fret! We can't all wax poetic about a rose, or a bear or something... (well said, Abe), but not everything that's original is so great: say the word fuck enough times in a row and you're sure to make a new sentence. Furthermore, common sense tells me that longer a sentence is, the more likely it is to be "original," which hardly seems fair... And what about gibberish? Like the ravings spotted by the lunatics we're forced to get close to on the bus or subway? surely their incoherent ramblings are at least as important to our society as the works of Allan Ginsberg...

Nevertheless (anyone else loathe that word with a white hot passion?), as you can see below, I have decided to parse some of my writing -- a journal entry of sorts, taken while bumping along on the road to visit my grandpa. "Papa" we call him, a former Nazi soldier and wife-beater who is now, rightfully so, rotting away at his mind in a big empty house full of guilt in an isolated part of southern Ohio.

But the trip was fun! and this little parsing experiment keeps me thinking... Such parsing, taken into academic settings, could provide a great insight in the world of folk linguistics -- that is, the study of how ordinary people view language. If only there was something, some great control group in the sky, to compare the resulting data to...

Red - sentences that no one has ever said before
Orange - sentences I have said before
Blue - sentences someone else has said before
Black (and in brackets) - notes I added to this blog post

August 6, 2010
We are well along on the road here, on our way to Papa's house. I've been reading some Jack Kerouac -- ironic, no? [How could someone not have written that before?] And I'm writing now because I'm starting to get the beginning shivers of the shits. [I wish so badly that the preceding sentence is original...] The reason for the shaky handwriting is twofold.

So far, On the Road is just okay -- and it grudges me a lot to say that. Already I get the feeling that the circle of the Beatniks was entirely a man's world. This, naturally, leads to the idea of homosexuality -- angrily suppressed at times. In Jack's case at least, fact indeed has backed up the idea. [Dude, Jack, everyone thinks you're gay. Wait, let me rephrase that: everyone knows you're gay.]

"If she goes to Case, omg -- I'll be happy for her."
(momentarily stopped.)
"Isn't that where Uncle Chris works?"
"I think it's pronounced 'MEH-nerds.'"
"I can smell out a lie!"
Thirty miles, or so, from Woodsfield. [I've visited my grandfather many times before.] Using pen found on the floor. [and I've use a lot of floor pens in my day, too.]
Country is officially the only music on radio... and we just hit a butterfly. "I hate when that happens."
"They raised her up a lady, but there's one thing they couldn't avoid." [probably sung more than said -- sung by middle-aged "country" women on their way to Trace Adkins concerts] Even that drivel is now breaking up. Probably the high hills around us.

Now, on the radio: a laugh-inducing tribute to firemen -- "you hit another butterfly."

"Isn't that a hearse?"
"Uh... yeah."
"Well, it's for sale."

"Everybody's got the fever. That's one thing you all know." Oldies comes in too, barely. This song I don't know...

"Oh, look. A quaint water wheel."

"The nail-driving competition will begin at 11:30 am" -- Tyler county fair commercial.

50s, 60s, and 70s radio station. "I hate when they, like, wallow in a decade. They would never play this on [ ]." [I never could keep radio stations straight.] They a have a list of a thousand songs that they play over and over.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Young Man and the Dust Cloud: an original "folk tale"

Note: Inspired partly by my friend's still ongoing trip to Romania, partly by my recent reading of some of of the delightful stories in Gimpel the Fool: and other stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the below story is, if I have done my job right, nothing more than a simple folk tale- style story that will, at its best, make the reader think a bit, and at its worse, waste no more than a few minutes of the reader's time... I aim for "short and sweet."
-Abe Kurp

Once upon a time there was a village. It was a small happy village, at the foot of a tall mountain. Its few hundred inhabitants were not very educated or worldly, and people from other villages would often stop and laugh at them while passing through. But they were on the whole a jovial, kind-hearted people, content to run their own simple lives and help others with theirs when they could.

In this village there lived a boy of about seven years, who lived on a small farm on the outskirts with his mother and his three sisters. His father died when he was very young, so, although he was only seven he was already very accustomed to being the "man of the household." And a good man of the household he made, too! For, as kind and jovial as the villagers were in general, this small boy surpassed them all.

His kindness and virtue surpassed that of even the local holy man -- or so it was whispered when the villagers congregated. This man, who was not very good at delivering sermons and even worse at "practicing what he preaches," as they say, once heard some of these whispers. Inwardly angered at being surpassed in virtue by a small boy, the preacher denounced the child in his next sermon in an attempt to publicly humiliate him. The child took the derision with such calm good naturdness, however, that the villagers were shocked with their preacher, while the preacher for his part was so ashamed that he hid himself away for weeks, only emerging to deliver sermons, and never preached such a sermon again.

Yes, it was a quiet, happy place on the whole -- but all that was shattered on a hot summer midday. The young boy was still laboring in the field with his two oldest sisters when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. It was invaders from the north, who, despite being much richer and more powerful, had long coveted the simple happiness of this little town. Now, they were here to steal this happiness, to carry it away in sacks like so many coins or relics of gold. What else could they be after? The villagers had little else.

The dust cloud grew quickly and the villagers, unaccustomed to looking for invaders in those peaceful times, were caught unawares. When they did discover this cloud, the villagers tried to retreat to the mountains for protection. The boy and his sisters rushed back to their house to retrieve their mama and sister, then ran for the hills...The village lost many lives that day. The boy lost his entire family, and he himself escaped by a mere hair -- as if by chance, or Fate. Many other villagers vowed vengeance, sharpening their axes and forming alliances, but the boy just buried his mother and sisters and returned to his work.

Many years passed and the burnt fields of the village returned to, and even surpassed their former wealth and fullness. And no villager's farm was more prosperous than that of the boy, now really a young man. For Time did its work on men as well as the land, and the boy had grown into a tall, strapping young man. What is more, his kindness and good nature had never dimmed. And, though whispers of his tragic past still persisted, he was the most sought after man in town. All the old men wanted theirs daughters to marry him; and the daughters, for their part, were never opposed to the idea. The old women clucked over him during every town occasion, and the young men tried to befriend him in order to learn his secrets.

Our hero, for his part, seemed unaffected by the great stir he caused in his village. He listened intently to all marriage proposals, but never accepted one. And he politely conversed with the other young men when he had occasion to, but never accepted their invitations for hunting or swimming or cards. Even the preacher's repeated offers of a fishing trip, at his secret mountain stream -- a high honor in this simple town, though the spot was not as secret as the preacher supposed -- were politely but soundly rejected.

This preacher often sighed about the young man over dinner. "He is as kind as can be asked, with hardly a bad word to be said in his name. But still he has a distance about him. Still, he is all-consumed --I suspect, though he's never said so much -- by those...tragic deaths. You know, I am sure, the rumor that he watched his sisters and mother get cut down. And he would have gone too, would have flung himself in front of the sword, if some invisible force hadn't pulled him away." Here the preacher would always sigh in sad earnest. "I have spoken with many times, and prayed for him many times more; still, so he remains." The villagers, in their simplicity interpreted things more plainly: "he has a good soul but a broken heart."

Such were the state of things when, one day, a new cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. They came as quickly as before and in greater numbers too, but this time the villagers were ready. Up in arms and assembled at the town's border, the men took quick stock of themselves: all heavily armed, men young and old alike, the town beggars and the landowners, the sinners and the saints.

But at least one thing was missing: the young man. The village men were greatly surprised. Surely, with his natural leadership, for one, and his strong reason to fight, for two, the young man would be the perfect man to lead them into battle. Ah, but perhaps he was not aware, perhaps the cloud of dust had not reached his eye... A messenger, a young boy of no more than seven years, was dispatched to the young man's house.

The cloud was quickly approaching, however, and as the farm was far away on the outskirts and the little boy was slow in coming, the villagers chose one of the young man's rivals to lead them and then charged into battle. But they were badly outnumbered and, though they fought bravely and without reserve, were soon forced to retreat through the village to the mountains. The unluckiest among them were forced to a premature end.

Meanwhile, the horsemen from the north swept across the village, burning crops and pillaging homes. Soon a group of these horsemen reached the young man's farm. Aware of his history and reputation, they advanced slowly and cautiously towards the house at the middle of the farm.

When they were within fifty feet of the house, the front door opened and out walked the young man -- not up in arms, but in his normal work tunic, the dust and sweat of the field still encrusted to his skin. Almost immediately he began to speak. And the speech he made that day was remembered by all who were present, including the little messenger boy:

"So. Here you are. Years ago, when I was just a young lad, you struck my village. You burned our crops, our houses, you stole our tools and thus our livelihoods. Worst of all, you brutally murdered our families. You killed my family! My mother, my three sisters... And now you've come again. I foresaw your coming again, long ago."

"No." He cut short a horseman with the audacity to interrupt him. "I am not a soothsayer or a sorcerer. I have no magic. I do not really see the future. But I have common sense, and common sense tells me that a fox who has raided a nest of its eggs always returns. It tells me that a fox has a hunger that cannot be satisfied, that a fox is always in search of more...

Now here you are, not raging onto my farm like you did all those years ago, but on tip toes, like a group of common dinner guests. What, are you afraid of me? Perhaps you have heard stories... forget them. They are not true. Ever since you attacked. Ever since you... I have not been sharpening knives and axes, not practicing my archery. Ever since you came, I have tried to cope, to comprehend my feelings but, alas, I cannot.

In truth, I don't hate you. I don't love you either, though perhaps I should. My sisters do; my mother, too. They come and they speak to me sometimes, in the form of beautiful angels. They tell me not to hate you, not to kill you. 'Killing our killers won't bring us back,' they say. And I believe them. Even now they are here, saying 'Don't do it!" and I will listen. I do not know what will come of you all -- how you will die -- but I do know that it won't be by hand. You are safe, at least, from me. I will never disobey my mother and sisters, as long as I live and even afterwards."

His speech over, his audience stunned, the young man turned around abruptly and walked sternly back to his house. "Do as you wish," he shouted back to them as he shut the door of his house. And they did.