Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wordless on a Wednesday

I have two very intriguing books to discuss today -- both from Porcupine's Quill Press, in their new series of wordless novels. Both of these are books which use images to tell a story; as the publisher states:

The aim of this project is to publish wordless books created using the relief printmaking techniques of linocut, woodcut or wood engravings. Each book will feature original work created by contemporary printmakers. The reason for choosing relief printmaking to illustrate these stories is not only to pay homage to the artists who started the tradition of the wordless novel but to help revive interest and appreciation of the rich qualities of line and texture indicative of relief printmaking.

I had no familiarity with this tradition before receiving these books. However, being the kind of reader who must follow a new thread of interest, after reading these I did a little research into their history. Both artists mention the influence of Frans Maserell, a Belgian artist who is considered the master woodcut artist of the 20th century. He created the wordless novel, a story told in a series of single page woodcuts. There is a lot more to learn, and coincidentally there is a recent book on this very topic, entitled Wordless Books: the original graphic novels, by David A. Berona.

Anyway -- on to the books!

Let That Bad Air Out: Buddy Bolden's last parade / Stefan Berg
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, c2007.
140 p.

This first novel in the series tells us the story of Buddy Bolden, jazz artist of New Orleans (b.1877-d.1931). Bolden is credited with being one of the first jazz musicians, but he died young and in disgrace: he collapsed during the parade which is the subject of this book and was sent to an asylum, where he later died. (Buddy Bolden is also the subject of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, the only one of Ondaatje's books I've ever managed to finish.)

The way this is laid out is as follows: beginning with a short 2 page introductory essay about the topic, and a one page explanatory essay by the author, the remainder is single sided linocuts, sharp black and white images taking us through the day of the parade. The images are intriguing, and the storyline is fascinating, but personally I would have liked more detail in the images to provide more narrative complexity. Still, it is a good start to this series and has a lively topic to explore.

Back & Forth / Marta Chudolinska
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2009.
187 p.

This one, brand new, really caught my fancy. The artist is creating a novel in a genre sparsely populated by women, and yet the structure works so very well for this story. The story moves "back and forth" between Vancouver and Toronto, as the main character flashes back to her previous life in TO -- this is shown by switching the colour of the prints; Vancouver is an orangey colour while Toronto is in black and white. We see our main character alone at the beginning, and then begin to understand what is going on when we see the progression of a relationship in flashbacks. The smallest details tip us off; a glance, a puff of breath in cold air, a look of expectation on a face.

I found the narrative line of this wordless novel very easy to follow, and very evocative. The use of varied perspectives in the linocuts gives a sense of spaciousness, of an observing, outside eye. For example, in the first image we are looking down at a bedroom from above; in another, we are looking up a staircase leading out of the subway; in yet another we have the character barely appearing as she stares out the bus window and there is a real of movement in the print. I enjoyed this book, and as I haven't had a lot of experience with this type of story, I was relieved to find it engaging and quite complex. I would like to see more from Chudolinska, who is also a bookbinder and painter in addition to printmaking.

Thanks go, once again, to Porcupine's Quill Press for letting me experience these fascinating books which are outside of my regular reading routine. Nobody else makes me explore so many new things so often!


  1. These books look wonderful. I recently told my partner that if I had any artistic talent I would want to be able to do wood block prints.

    Part of the reason I thought that is because of a great book I read called Consequences by Penelope Lively. Mainly a multi-generational story about a family of strong women in England. But one of the main male characters was an artist who did wood block carvings. It is a great book (but doesn't contain any prints...)

  2. Thomas - yes, the prints are fascinating to study. I also thought of Consequences while I was looking at these books -- it was the first Lively I read which started me on my recent Lively reading streak.


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