Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Faber pencil: Speak Memory

"As far back as I remember myself", writes Nabokov in his autobiographical Speak Memory, "I have been subject to mild hallucinations". Before sleep or during one of numerous childhood illnesses, Nabokov would experience aural or visual hallucinations which, coupled with his coloured vision, made him a child with peculiar sensitivities.

His mother, Elena Ivanovna Nabokov, would cultivate those by painting several aquarelles for her son and indulging him in the wonder of her jewels "hardly inferior in mystery and enchantment to the illumination in the city during imperial fetes": sapphires, emeralds and rubies, produced from a secret compartment of her dressing room for young Vladimir's bedtime amusement.

Vladimir Nabokov's mother, Elena Ivanovna

In his numerous childhood illnesses Vladimir Nabokov, a mathematical child prodigy, would feel "enormous spheres and huge numbers swell relentlessly in [his] aching brain" and in his delirium tried to explain them to his mother who understood his sensations as if she had known them herself. 

Still in bed and convalescing from one of those long illnesses and knowing that his mother has gone to buy him a present, Vladimir found himself in an "unusual state of euphoria and repose... a strangely translucent state" from within which he visualised all that his mother was doing. He saw her driving down Morskaya Street in a sleigh, heard the horse's snorting breath, saw the coachman in his heavy blue robe, his watch - 20 minutes past two - the muff his mother raised to her face as the sleigh gained speed.

She stopped at Treumann's writing implements and came out with her purchase - a pencil - carried by the footman.

 I was astonished that she did not carry so small an object herself and this disagreeable question of dimensions caused a faint renewal, fortunately very brief, of the "mind dilation effect" which I hoped had gone with the fever. ... A few minutes later, she entered the room. In her arms she held a big parcel. It had been in my vision, greatly reduced in size - perhaps, because I subliminally corrected what logic warned me might still be the dreaded remnants of delirium's dilating world.

Now the object proved to be a giant polygonal Faber pencil, four feet long and correspondingly thick. It had been hanging as a showpiece in the shop's window, and she presumed I had coveted it, as I coveted all things that were quite purchasable. ... For an awful moment, I wondered whether the point was made of real graphite. It was. And some years later I satisfied myself, by drilling a hole in the side, that the lead went right through the whole length - a perfect case of art for art's sake on the part of Faber and Dr Libner since the pencil was far too big for use and, indeed, was not meant to be used.
It is tempting to offer various Freudian interpretations to the story. Indeed all the psychoanalytical ingredients or favourite psychoanalytical objects are there: childhood, visions, swellings, long pencils and the potent figure of the mother. But Nabokov had an aversion to Freud: "I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols", he wrote. It is like "searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare's works".

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Everyman's Library 1999. First published 1951.

Monday, 28 December 2009

What's on a Writer's Table: Vladimir Nabokov Novel Writing and his Penholder

27 February 1929. Hotel Tablissement Thermal, Le Boulou, East Pyrenees. The photo taken by Vladimir Nabokov's wife shows the famous author novel writing in his hotel room. The novel is The Defence. What's on a writer's table? Known for his precise descriptions and love for details Nabokov revels on the photo exclaiming that "seldom does a casual snapshot compendiate a life so precisely".

A half-empty package of Gauloises cigarettes can be made out between the ink bottle and an overful ashtray. Family photos are propped against the four volumes of Dahl's Russian dictionary. The end of my robust, dark-brown penholder (a beloved tool of young oak that I used during my twenty years of literary labors in Europe and may rediscover yet in one of the trunks stored at Dean's, Ithaca, N.Y.) is already well chewed.

Nabokov Novel Writing from his hotel room with his penholder. 
From Speak Memory

My writing hand partly conceals a stack of setting boards. Spring moths would float in through the open window on overcast nights and settle upon the lighted wall on my left. In that way we colleted a number of rare Pugs in perfect condition and spread them out at once (they are now in an American musuem). Seldom does a casual snapshot compendiate a life so precisely.
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Everyman's Library: 1999. First published in 1951.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Cretacolor Graphite Pencil: Koh-I-Noor Diamond and Monoliths

Made of the finest graphite of English Cumberland or of the purest Siberian lead? Joseph Hardtmuth had a third answer: Oriental graphite. In 1790 Hardtmuth produced the first pencil leads made of a mixture of graphite and clay in his factory in Vienna, Austria. And in 1893 his Koh-I-Noor pencil, named after the legendary diamond, was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition meeting with great acclaim thereafter.

The Koh-I-Noor's name and its distinctive colour - yellow - carried connotations to the Orient in keeping with the era's fascination with all things oriental and their mysteries. Koh-I-Noor eventually became the name of a pencil factory opened in New Jersey in 1919. Timberlines blog has a interesting post about the history of the company and brand: L & C Hardtmuth, Koh-I-Noor: A Diamond in the Rough. The Hardtmuth Koh-I-Noor company was taken over by Cretacolor in 1996.

Cretacolor Monolith

Cretacolor Monolith is a unique graphite pencil. It consists of pure lead protected by a thin layer of varnish and is reassuringly heavy. A smooth cylindrical pleasure, grey, shimmering grey, the Monolith is a delight to the touch and performs wondrously. I tested the 4B grade for writing and sketching. The Monolith glides on the paper. Letters are of course not as crisp as with an HB for example and prone to smudge. But it is still a joy to use.

It is perhaps the Cretacolor Monolith's weight that places it a notch above the rest. Its smoothess is extraordinary and it can achieve fine and broad strokes equally well. The Monolith pencils were awarded the "Frankfurter messe" prize in 1999 by a international jury of design professionals.

Densities range from HB (medium) to 9B (extra soft).

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Stylus Pens: Star Wars Meets Nintendo Meets Roman Stylus

Today the wealthy cannot be seen without a Mont Blanc or Yard-O-Led pencil. In Roman times they couldn't do without a decorated stylus. Used to write on wax tablets, a Roman stylus was a metal writing instrument, mostly plain with a pointed tip and a flattened end for erasing. A stylus was usually made out of bronze or iron but not so for the higher echelons of Roman society.

A Mont Blanc of a Roman Stylus, the instrument discovered in the Balkans is made of iron and silver and featuring a silver border and a gold centre surrounded by a silver crescent. Styli continued to be made well into the Middle Ages until the stylus was replaced by the quill, ink pen, pencil and fountain pen.

14th century styli

The Nintendo stylus is not very dissimilar to its Roman ancestor but now the wax is replaced by an LED screen and there is no need for erasing. The principle is the same though. An instrument that makes eraseable marks. Back to basics (with a twist).

A Christmas stocking filler par excellence, the Stylus Pens by Nintendo DS are not your normal styli. The force will definetely be with you with the three Star Wars lightsabers. It took some time but Star Wars finally met the Roman Stylus. Depending on your mood, you can be Yoda (Green lightsaber), Darth Vader (red) or even Anakin/Luke Skywalker.

Nintendo DS, Star Wars Stylus

May the Force Be With You and Happy Holidays.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Rhodia Pencil: Graphite and Orange

A distinctive pencil painted the trademark orange of Rhodia, the Rhodia pencil is a writing instrument that appeals to vision and touch. Triangular body with the Rhodia logo imprinted on all three sides, black dyed tip, ferrule and rubber, the Rhodia pencil features a delicious contrast between the shiny graphite tip and bright orange body. In fact, there are four shades or textures of black: the graphite tip, shiny against the light; the dark wood, rough to the touch; the gleaming ferrule and the black cylinder of the rubber on the top.

The Rhodia logo - two fir trees - dates back to 1932 and according to legend it symbolises the two founders of the stationer "Papetieres Verilhac Freres", brothers Henri and Robert Verilhac. Henri and Robert ran a successful family business selling paper in the south of France. The production of the famous Rhodia notepad began in 1934 and the colour orange became their trademark. Their company was purchased by Clairefontaine in 1997.

Photo L. Apostolakou

The Rhodia pencil keeps the memory of the original founders alive with the fir tree logo and original orange colour. Read Michelle Krell Kydd's post "Rhodia: A Pencil for the Senses" in her Glasspetalsmoke blog.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Toulouse Lautrec: Dog Drawing in Pencil

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec most famously known for his paintings of cabaret dancers, has left behind more than 4,000 pencil drawings:

I have tried to depict the true and not the ideal. It is a defect, perhaps, for warts do not find favour in my eyes, and I like to embellish them with playful fur, to round them, and to put a shining end on them. I do not know if you bridle your pen, but when my pencil moves, it is neccessary to let go, or crash!... nothing more.
Toulouse Lautrec has also reportedly said: I am a pencil.

 Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Palmyre with her dog, Pencil drawing, 1897

By the end of the 19th century, the bulldog with its short, muscular body and ugly face, had become the identity accessory of the lesbian, the prostitute, the woman writer. Madame Palmyre, a friend of French writer Colette and proprietor of the club La Souris was one of the first bulldog owners. In the world of painters, cafe owners, prostitutes, lesbians, coachmen, butchers and traders of Mont Martre and Moulin Rouge, the bulldog became "a gender and political marker and privileged survival companion for the manly woman". Madame Palmyre's dog, Bouboule, was immortalised by the pencil of Toulouse Lautrec.

See Donna Jeanne Haraway, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press 2008; Henry Petroski, The Pencil, Faber and Faber 2003.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Build Your Own Notebook: Writing Tablets from the Renaissance

What an ingenious solution to the problem of writing on the move! Writing tablets! Or writing-tables, or table-books. The first such portable notebooks were made in the Low Countries and Germany in 1527. They contained blank leaves of specially treated paper that acted as a wipe board. The writing tablets could be used again and again (though sometimes the previous writings being not completely erased these portable notebooks resembled palimpsests).

Hamlet portrays his memory as a wipeable "table":

Yea, from the Table of my Memory,
Ille wipe away all triuiall fond Records,
All sawes of Bookes, all formes, all presures past,
That youth and obseruation coppied there;

Inspired perhaps by this quote the authors of "Hamlet's Tables" published in the Shakespeare Quarterly in 2004 explore the technologies of writing in Renaissance England. And writing tablets are top of the list.

The writing tablets produced by Robert Triplet in 1604 came with instructions for use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on:
Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.
How to Build A Notebook

Making portable notebooks or writing tablets such as those used by merchants, poets and aristocrats of the Renaissance, you will need to probably get hold of a book of secret recipes - trade secrets that is, to which only artisan guild members were privy to. But such secrets did came out and in 1555 Girolamo Ruscelli, published The Secrets of Master Alexis of Piemont revealing to the world how to make "white tables to write in... such as come out of Germanie".

A medieval scribe

Writing tablets, or writing-tables consisted of printed pages bound together with blank pages of erasable paper, or parchment. So to build a notebook you will need to know how to bind the printed material together with treated blank paper. You could also have writing tablets with no printed material in them. An example of a notebook with 12 erasable leaves is held in the British Library and dates from the late 17th century.

For the blank paper you will need parchment, or "pasteboard" or "asses' skin". For the coating, gesso and glue are essential. Gesso was a mix of chalk dust, white pigment and animal-derived glue. Mix gesso and glue and apply on your parchment in several coats and you will have the perfect notebook cum wipe board, ready to go.

Parchment making. 
Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, Frankfurt am Main, 1568

On writing tablets see the excellent and detailed "Hamlet's tables and the technologies of writing in Renaissance England" by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, Heather Wolfe, in Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2004 from where most of this information was taken. My "Portable Notebooks and Writing Technology in Suite101. On Renaissance secret recipes see "How to" Trade Secrets Revealed: Renaissance secret recipes from Venetian glass to marbling paper" on Suite101.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Transparent Pencil

Hugh Person, a tidy man, considered the pencil. It had shot out of the crooked middle drawer of an old desk which (drawer) Hugh had tried to woggle in. The pencil "was not a hexagonal beauty of Virginia juniper or African cedar, with the maker's name imprinted in silver foil". It was "a very plain, round, technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac".

The thingness of things. Nabokov considers the materiality of objects: grasping it, we grasp reality. That thin veneer of immediate reality spread over matter, that tension film that should not be broken if "one wishes to remain in the now with the now". If we concentrate too much on a material object, "the very action of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of the object. Objects become transparent. Through them we can see the past.

Consider the pencil.

Go back to 16th-century Borrowdale, a valley in English Cumbria, when according to legend under the trees uprooted by a violent storm a strange black material was revealed to amazed shepherds: graphite. Take young girls and old men and put them to work. Make them finely ground the graphite, make them mix it with moist clay: caviar!

Place "this mass, this pressed caviar in a metal cylinder" - a cylinder with a blue eye,a sapphire with a hole drilled in it" - and force it through; watch it issue "in one continuous appetizing rodlet"; watch it cut into lengths by "old Elias Borrowdale". See it baked, see it boiled in fat. See the pine tree cut, the trunk stripped of its bark. See the board that will yield the integument of the pencil.

Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things, (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1972).  

And Nabokov concludes:

We recognize [the pencil's] presence in the log as we recognized the log in the tree and the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built. We recognize that presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but nameless, and as impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never seen smiling eyes.
Thus the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person still somehow eludes us!

Borrowdale at dusk. Photo by Skier Dude

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Franz Liszt's Inkstands: From Aladdin's Cave to Madonna del Rosario

A celebrity virtuoso Franz Liszt toured Europe in the 1840s to perform before almost delirious audiences. Heinrich Heine spoke of "Lisztomania": women scrambled for a lock of his hair, broken strings from his piano, shreds of his velvet gloves. He was sought after by all the famous salons and his concerts were attended by royals. And he was awarded accordingly.

Franz Liszt's Chickering piano. Courtesy of the Franz Liszt Museum.

Liszt's rich and powerful fans showered him with gifts: from his Chickering piano ("the most perfect, most sonorous... among those made in the Austrian Empire and beyond") given to him by Chickering himself to his collection of gold and silver batons, Liszt was bestowed with the best of everything. Including inkstands. And the inkstand followed him from the height of his virtuoso career to his retreat in the Oratory of Madonna del Rosario in Rome.

Aladdin's Cave

"His table is beautifully fitted with things that match", wrote Ludwig Nohl of Liszt in 1884. "Everything is in bronze - inkstand, paper weight, matchbox, etc. and there is always a lighted candle standing on it by which the gentlement can light their cigars". Inkstands had also pride of place in Aladdin's Cave, the special cabinet when Liszt's famous mistress kept her lover's status symbols.

Two years after Liszt met Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein at a Kiev concert in 1847, he moved in with her in Altenburg, Weimar at a property rented from the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, the sister of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. There the Princess created a trophy room, "le cabinet vert", an Aladdin's cave where all of Liszt precious gifts were displayed to dazzling effect: expensive rings, gold boxes set with diamonds, gold and silver batons, a solid-silver writing desk and a "large platinum inkstand with figures in relief".

In the catalogued collection of the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest there are three inkstands that belong to the famous Hungarian composer: a bronze one decorated with fruit and foliage; a cubiform ink stand with cut edges of clear glass and a third one with an inscription commemorating 50 years of Liszt's artistic career dating from 1873. The latter one comprises an engraved silver tray with four legs with a small sculpture of a date palm in the middle.

Franz Liszt composing desk. Courtesy of the Franz Liszt Museum

An inkpot made by Fabergé between 1842-1870 in St. Petersburg is described as made of platinum and glass, cubiform, cast and chiselled with a lid featuring a large turquoise with gold inlay and Turkish characters in the middle. The inkpot is decorated with Baroque foliate ornaments and bears Liszt's coat of arms on the front side (Liszt had been awarded by Emperor Franz Joseph the Iron Crown, the lowest order of Austrian nobility, and thus had the right to apply for coats-of-arms).

The Museum collection holds also a "Persian or Turkish" travelling inkpot and pen case made of copper; and travelling writing box made of carved pear-wood.

Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, ca. 1880, in her later years

Madonna del Rosario

Caroline wanted Liszt to stop performing and concentrate on composing. It was probably her that gave him a gold propelling pencil inscribed with her name. A symbolic gesture perhaps: "use your hands to write not to play". The Princess was already married and the Vatican did not grant her the possibility for a new marriage.

When the Princess's husband died in 1864, the desire to marry has left them. Although Franz and Caroline continued to keep in touch, they decided living apart was for the best. Liszt was already in retreat in the Oratory of the Madonna del Rosario. There would be no more Aladdin's cave or "green cabinet". Asked about his intentions Liszt replied:
"everything I could wish for being contained in my inkstand, and the inkstand being where it could be better placed, in the custody of the Madonna del Rosario at Rome".
Franz Liszt at the piano by Josef Danhauser, 1840

Sources: Franz Liszt, Agnes Street-Klindworth, Pauline Pocknell (ed.), Franz Liszt and Agnes Street-Klindworth: A Correspondence 1854-1886, Pedragon Press, 2000; Paul Merrick, Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt, Cambridge U. Press, 2008; On Suite101 see Franz Liszt short bio, love affairs and antique pianos.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: Pencils and Sharpeners

In his autobiographical A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway reminisces about the time he roamed Paris, an unknown writer in the 1920s, writing in cafes, having lunches and cream coffees, poor, happy and in love - sharing Paris with such literary stars as Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel.

Amongst his meetings, lunches, drinks and writings, there are references to pencils: Hemingway's favourite writing instruments. And sharpeners.

"I belong to this notebook and this pencil."

"The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed."

"A pencil-lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would use the small blade of the pen knife to clear it or else sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade..."

And finally,

"You have to go?"
"Have to and want to."
"Go on, then," Pascin said. "And don't fall in love with typewriting paper."
"If I do, I'll write with a pencil."

 "The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance."

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and Sweet Caroline: Nibs, Ink Pens and Pencils

Among the 175 catalogued items in the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest are the famous Hungarian composer's and pianist's writing instruments and implements. Nibs, pen holders, ink pens, ink pots and ink stands are displayed along with Liszt's famous Chickering and Bosendorfer antique pianos - writing instruments touched by the hand of the man who became such a celebrity in 19th-century Europe that people spoke of "Lisztomania".

Nibs, Ink Pens and Anton Rubinstein

Among Liszt's writing instruments is a 18.5 cm-long beech stem with a cut steel nib and a 16.5 cm-long ink pen of brown polished wood. The latter one is inscribed "Liszt - 23.IV.75 Rubinstein" and I assume that it was given to Liszt by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), the child prodigy and great pianist, whose virtuosity has been compared to Liszt's.

Rubinstein had met with Liszt in Paris during the early years of his life. The Hungarian pianist was very fond of nicknames and had later on nicknamed Anton Rubinstein "Ludwig II" because of the Russian pianist uncanny resemblance to Ludwig van Beethoven.

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) 
nicknamed by Liszt "Ludwig II" as he looked like Beethoven

A wood lacquered penholder and nib inscribed with "Blanzy Poure et Cie" indicates that Liszt must have used these nibs made by the Pierre Blanzy and Eugène Poure French company founded in 1846.

Sweet Caroline

Franz Liszt had many love affairs most famously with Marie d'Agoult and Marie Duplessis. The first love of his youth was Caroline de Saint-Cricq. Sweet Caroline was beautiful and rich and Liszt was her piano teacher in 1828. But it was not meant to be. Caroline was forced by her father to marry someone else.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) by Franz Hanfstaengl, 1858

Liszt was reunited with Caroline years later. His first love was reportedly unhappy in her marriage and was living in the Pyrenees. They reminisced about the past and in memory of their reunion Liszt wrote one of his best songs "Ich mochte hingehn wie das Abendroth". They would never see each other again.

Among Liszt's writing instruments are two propelling pencils with gold controlling rings. One has a green stone set on its cap and is engraved with ornaments and the other is inscribed "Caroline". But was it really her who had given him the pencil? Or the other Caroline of his life, Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein? Equally sweet but equally doomed to disappear from his life.

For a brief bio of Anton Rubinstein see Tel Asiado's Anton Rubinstein on; the nibs, ink pens and ink pots of Franz Liszt are part of the extensive collection of the Ferenc Liszt Museum in Budapest; on Franz Liszt's lovers, see Franz Liszt and the Lady of the Camelias. On Liszt's life see Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, Cornell U. Press 1988.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

To Write is the Joy and Torment of the Idle: Colette

To write is the joy and torment of the idle. Oh to write! From time to time I feel a need, sharp as thirst in summer, to note and to describe. And then I take up my pen again and attempt the perilous and elusive task of seizing and pinning down, under its flexible double-pointed nib, the many-hued, fugitive, thrilling adjective...
 Renee, Colette's heroine in La Vagabonde.

Colette by Jacques Humbert, ca. 1896

It is said that the legendary and controversial French author, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) used Mandarin Yellow Parker Duofold.

Colette's Parker Duofold Mandarin Yellow, 
as pictured in Belles Lettres. Manuscripts from the Masters of French Literature, New York 2001.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Vladimir Nabokov Pencils and the Joy of the Eye

Vladimir Nabokov did not like Freud and what he stood for. He despised the quest of Freudianism to interpret everything in terms of something else, to go behind the surface and discover or reveal the hidden. "I don't give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth... What we have to study is the joy of the eye", he said. Nabokov celebrates "the thingness of things", the humble objects that are "microcosms of human effort and ingenuity" whose existence "opens up dizzying vistas of contigency".

Perhaps nowhere else has the pencil been described more completely than in Nabokov's Trasparent Things, a pencil

The Thingness of Things. Photo by Lito Apostolakou

"a very plain, round, technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac. It had been mislaid ten years ago by a carpenter who had not finished examining, let alone fixing, the old desk, having gone away for a tool that he never found. ...
In his shop and long before that at the village school, the pencil has been worn to two-thirds of its original length. The bare wood of its tapered end has darkened to a plumbeous plum, thus merging in tint with the blunt tip of graphite whose blind gloss alone distinguishes it from the wood.
A knife and brass sharpener have thoroughly worked upon it and if it were necessary we could trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on one side and tan on the other when fresh, but now reduced to atoms of dust whose wide, wide dispersal is panic catching its breath but one should get above it, one gets used to it fairly soon (there are worse terrors)."

Pencil, the Joy of the Eye. Photo by Lito Apostolakou

David Lodge, "What kind of fiction did Nabokov write? A practitioner's view", Cycnos, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1995; Vladimir Nabokov, The Transparency of Things, 1972.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ink, glorious ink: Charles Dickens at work with quills

He could not write unless everything was placed exactly ready to his hand in apple-pie order, writes Maurice Clare of Charles Dickens. In his house in Gadshill, ordered and arranged in every detail by Dickens' meticulous eye, a writing-table stood amongst the most somniferous beds, the most luxurious sofas, the easiest of chairs: it was "supplied with every kind of paper and envelopes and continuous provision of quill pens".

Charles Dickens desk. Photo L. Apostolakou.  
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens was particular about his writing instruments, his pens, quills and ink. The way he used them provides clues as to his method of working and the chronology of his writing. Dickens changed inks and nibs, wrote with different quills whose fineness and ink flow differed as did Dickens' handwriting. In his Dickens' Working Notes for his Novels, Harry Stone analyses the Victorian author's method of writing based on ink, quill and handwriting variations.

A prolific and incessantly working writer Dickens placed great importance on writing supplies. In his letters he often refers to ink and pens, necessary ingredients of his idea of a writer's paradise. In trying to entice Douglas Jerrold to come to Genoa he writes (16 November 1844): "There are pens and ink upon the premises; orange trees, gardens, battledores and shuttlecocks, rousing wood-fires for evenings; and a welcome worth having".

Charles Dickens Quill. Photo L. Apostolakou. 
 Courtesy of Charles Dickens Museum

In other instances he deplores the deficiency of writing equipment: "the pens and ink in this house are so detestable" or "My Dearest Kate, With an intolerable pen, and no ink, I am going to write a few lines" (1844). And in resolute terms to his friend John Forster in August 1846:
I have been hideously idle all the week and have done nothing... but hope to begin again on Monday - ding dong... The ink stand is to be cleaned out to-night, and refilled, preparatory to execution. I trust I may shed a good deal of ink in the next fortnight.

Sources: The Letters of Charles Dickens, vol.4 Madeleine House et al (eds.), OUP 1977; Mauric Clare, A Day with Charles Dickens; Hary Stone, Dickens' Working Notes for his Novels; Also Charles Dickens Manuscript Collection on Suite101.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Ernest Hemingway: Writing in Pencil

I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write... A girl came in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin... I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink. I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
 From Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964

Like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway's favorite writing instrument was the pencil. When he started on a project, writes Bruccoli, he always began with a pencil, filling an onion-skin typewriter paper with handwriting which as years went by became "larger, more boyish, with paucity of punctuation, very few capitals, and often the period marked with an x." Only when the writing became easier, for instance, when he was writing dialogue did he shift to the typewriter. But writing didn't come easy with Hemingway.

You know that fiction, prose, rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true,
he wrote to Berenson. Hemingway wrote in shorthand at a tiny desk with a stubby pencil. "And every page is a tremendous effort. For writing doesn't come easy with Hemingway."

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

Although he did use the typewriter, the pencil remained for Ernest Hemingway the preferred writing instrument, a conductor of feeling, place and emotion to the reader. There is a permanency in a typewritten text, a rigidity, something that yields reluctantly to revision. But a pencil-written text keeps the writing "fluid longer so that you can better it easier", writes Hemingway On Writing:
After you learn to write, your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil, you get three different sights at it... First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it... It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier".

Ernest Hemingway writing in Kenya. Photo Bobster855

Sources: Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964; Christopher Knight, The patient particulars: American modernism and the technique of originality, Bucknell U. Press 1995; Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, U. Press Mississipi 1986; Ernest Hemingway and Larry Philips, On Writing, Pocket Books 1999.

Perhaps as Mont Blanc has produced an Ernest Hemingway fountain pen as part of its Writers Edition, a pencil manufacturer should have produced an Ernest Hemingway disposable pencil.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Thomas Edison's Pencil

"I like my pencil best. A fountain pen has always been a mystery to me",

Thomas Edison had allegedly said. Where is the original source of this pronouncement? I am yet to find it in any other source apart from blogs, Readers Digest and antiquarian books websites. Joe Nickell in his Detecting Forgery reiterates the great inventor's love for pencils and cites Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance as his source.

Eagle Pencil Company, ca. 1870-90, Robert Dennis collection of stereoscopic views; 
New York Public Library's Digital Library

Reportedly Thomas Edison had his pencils custom-made by the Eagle Pencil Company, one of the "Big Four" American pencil manufacturers of his time. The pencil had to be 3 inches long  (or 3 1/2 or even 4  inches according to another lore) - that is, shorter than the standard so as to fit in his vest pocket. And the graphite  had to be softer than normal. According to Petroski, Edison ordered his pencils in lots of a thousand and once had to write to the Eagle Company complaining that "the last batch was too short" - the pencils "twist and stick in the pocket lining".

U.S. Library of Congress, ca. 1893. Photo by J.M. White & Co.

Edison's Estate comprises at least 4 million pages which include 3,500 notebooks filled with his writings, notes and sketches. While in his lab, at home or out for a walk, Thomas Edison would seize a piece of paper and cover it with pencil illustrations: "this was likely to be accompanied by tricks of tapping with the pencil or of tugging at his busy eyebrows", writes George Bryan in 1926. At home Edison would sit in an easy chair conversing until late "pulling meditatively at his eyebrows" and would eventually get hold of paper and start sketching:
"He is wonderfully handy with the pencil, and will sometimes amuse himself, while chatting, with making all kinds of fancy bits of penmanship, twisting his signature into circles and squares, but always writing straight lines - so straight they could not be ruled truer",
writes Frank Lewis Dyers of Edison, in 1910.

Edison was always seen with a stub of pencil and pad of paper sticking out of his rumpled suit jacket, filling page after page in pencil-stub writing, doing numerous pencil sketches and losing himself in incessant pencil-stub scribble.

Thomas Edison Light Bulb patent application, 1880, spot Edison's signature

 Sources: Joe Nickell, Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents, 2005; George Bryan, Edison: The Man and his Work, 1926; Frank Lewis Dyer, Edison: His Life and Inventions, 1910; Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, 2001. Also Tel Asiado's brief bio of Edison, the most productive  inventor of his time: Thomas Alva Edison, American inventor of electric light bulb, phonograph, cameras.
Thomas Edison's electric pen or pencil found its way into the hands of Leo Tolstoy.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

How to Make Ink: Renaissance Secret Recipe for Iron Gall Ink

Before you cut your quill make sure you have ink to dip it in. Jo Wheeler's beautifully illustrated book Renaissance Secrets, Recipes and Formulas, reveals some of the "secrets", that is, trade recipes and formulas, which apprentices of the 16th century were sworn never to reveal. These teach anything from how to make dyes and hair oil to how to bake "morsels to excite Venus", a male aphrodisiac. And here is how to make ink, iron gall ink.

Drawing in pen and iron gall ink by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, or Baciccio, ca. 1690
Iron Gall Ink

Iron gall ink was made from, well, oak galls - galls being, according to Uni of Kentucky entomologists, "irregular plant growths which are stimulated by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects". The oak galls contain galllotannic and gallic acids which were extracted by soaking the galls in water or wine or by boiling. Iron sulphate was added to these acids to produce a black pigment. Arabic gum was used to fix the pigment and add brilliance.
Oak galls. Photo by Roger Griffith

The Renaissance "secret recipe" was not so secret as the formula for making iron gall ink was more or less common knowledge from the 12th century. The iron sulphate used was either "Roman vitriol" which had a grass-green colour or "German vitriol" which was imported from Venice and was yellowish green, writes Wheeler. This recipe comes from Ugo da Capri, Thesauro de scrittori, Rome 1535 - the only writing-book by a 16thC artist.
16th-century inkstand from Italy

How to Make Ink

You will need 1 oz of oak galls (crushed), 12 oz of rainwater,1/4 oz of German vitriol (ground) and 1/2 oz of Arabic gum. The oak galls need to soak for at least 6 days in the rainwater and then boiled until reduced to 8 oz. Strain, add vitriol and gum, "and you will make a wondrously good ink". Experts knew how to make ink for different seasons of the year and for different surfaces as well as cheaper and portable inks.

Jo Wheeler's book is a delightful anthology of many Renaissance secret recipes; recipes are sourced from books held in the National Art Library and linked to objects that belong to the magnificent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Pepys Penmanship: Samuel Pepys's Pens, Pencil and Manuscript

Samuel Pepys penmanship is remarkable.  Written between 1660 and 1669, Pepys diary is an invaluable source for the Great Plague (1665-6), the Great Fire of London (1666) and the English Restoration period in general. It is also a monument to extraordinary penmanship. With no use of guide-lines or ruled backing sheets, Pepys writes in neat, horizontal, evenly-spaced lines. Only a few ink blots mar the perfect manuscript: Pepys presented to the world a neat and tidy manuscript that had something of the qualities of a printed book.

The diary was written in six volumes comprising paper of different quality and texture (some thick, some opaque, some very thin), the pages have margin lines in red ink, and the ink Pepys used varies from "heavy black" to "thin brown", though I suspect that this may have been the result of later ink corrosion as Pepys must have also used iron gall ink. Each page contains 24-28 lines.

Pepys used shorthand both for convenience and concealment. The manuscript drafts that survive (and which are not so neat) often resemble palimpsests with longhand superimposed on shorthand using different density inks. The variations in the written characters have to do with the use of freshly-cut quills or blunder ones.

Samuel Pepys bookplate from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899).
Pepys Pen, Pepys Pencil

In the era of nibs, penholders, ink pots and blotting papers, Samuel Pepys acquired a rare instrument. On 5 August 1663, he writes in his diary:
"This evening came a letter about business from Mr. Coventry [Sir William Coventry] and with it a silver pen he promised me to carry inke in, which is very necessary".
On 11 May 1668, he mentions a "blacklead" with which he took down the words of the Echo song from Shakespeare's Tempest at the play interval. This "blackhead" must probably have been either an early leadholder or a wood encased pencil which was perfected through the 17th and 18th centuries.

Samuel Pepys ( 1633-1703), 1689 by Geoffrey Kneller

John Smith "deciphered" Pepys diary putting it in plain English between 1819 and 1822. The complete diary was published in eleven volumes in 1893.

See The Diary of Samuel Pepys online: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary, run by Phil Gyford. The blog won Guardian's Best of British Blogs. Also the introduction by Robert Latham and William Mathews in The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1600, HarperCollins: London 2000. Claire Tomalin's The Unequalled Self, a biography of Pepys, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2002.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Marcel Proust, Writing In Search of Lost Time: Proust's Notebooks and Paperoles

In his ordered, cork-lined bedroom in 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Marcel Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time from his bed, on notebooks resting on his knees. "Never saw him write even the shortest note standing up", wrote his housekeeper Albaret. He wrote "from a semi-recumbent position, suspended mid-way between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk", writes Diana Fuss.

Proust sought to eliminate all sensory distractions from his writing environment and regulated the latter with obsessive precision. His brass bed in the corner of the bedroom was surrounded by little tables upon which his writing instruments and implements were kept.

Photo by LWY

Proust's Notebooks and Paperoles

As Marcel Proust's writing instruments were humble, so were his notebooks and papers where he scribbled down In Search of Lost Time, arguably the most significant novel of the 20th century. His Sergent-Major nibs were of the cheapest kind as were his pen holders. For paper, Proust used the common French school children exercise notebooks which he purchased in bulk.

Marcel Proust's paperoles
in Belles Lettres, Manuscripts by the Masters of French Literature, Harry Abrams: NY 2001

But any other paper lying about would do. Envelopes, magazine covers, scarps of paper of different length and format were used: Proust called these "paperoles". Pages were torn out of notebooks and pasted elsewhere, and paperoles were often stuck together sometimes forming two-metre long scrolls. The creative process for Proust involved "writing fragments, putting them together and then separating them in order to re-assemble them in another way", writes Jean-Yves Tadie.

Marcel Proust manuscript from
Belles Lettres, Manuscripts by the Masters of French Literature, Harry Abrams: NY 2001

Near his bed, three bedside tables held books, handkerchiefs, lamps and hot water bottles, a water jug and the indispensable coffee on which he survived the later years of his life. They also held his writing equipment: inkwell, nibs, penholders, notebooks, paperoles and spectacles. "The three tables are in fact highly organized; together they neatly circumscribe thought with sensation in an apparent demonstration of Proust's theory of writing from the senses".

Marcel Proust

On Proust's room, see the wonderfully-written, Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior, Routledge: NY & London 2004. Also Proust in his Bedroom in Suite101. On Proust's writing process, see Jean-Yves TadiMarcel Proust. A Life.trans. Euan Cameron, Penguin Books, 2001.

Monday, 30 November 2009

John Steinbeck, Pencils and Sharpeners

The favourite writing instrument of John Steinbeck was the pencil. During his life he wrote 16 novels, 8 works of non-fiction, one short-story collection, two film scripts and thousands of letters. He did use the typewritter at some point but his pencils remained his preferred writing instruments. His right ring finger had a great callus  - "sometimes very rough... other times... shiny as glass" from using the pencil for hours on end. He admitted that he had to keep his hands busy: "I have to hold a pencil in my fingers. I need to write something every day".

The use of the electric sharpener was part of the daily routine of the American Nobelist as he started the day with 24 sharpened pencils which needed sharpening again and again before the day was through.The electric sharpener must have worked full time especially during the process of writing East of Eden for which he used some 300 pencils.

John Steinbeck used yellow legal-size pads and wrote in tiny script. His 500-page archive discovered in a North Hills, California residence is mostly handwritten on yellow, lined notepaper. The archive reveals the attempts of Steinbeck to transform his Cannery Row (1945) into musical theatre.

His friend Pascal Covici supplied John Steinbeck with all the pencils he needed: "It is the little things that you do, what you once called the sharpening of the pencil", Covici wrote to Steinbeck on July 14, 1945, "where some of your sharpest writing appears". Steinbeck was "fanatic about pencils. They had to be exactly the right kind, and round", observed Covici's son. The Mongol pencil, 480 #2 hit the spot.

Yet, Steinbeck observed later in life:
For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones, but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is right some days is no good another day.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Perfect pencil: John Steinbeck, Blackwing Pencils and the Mongol 480

John Steinbeck, famous author of 16 novels among which Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and East of Eden, and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, writes in one of his letters to his friend Pascal Covici:
My hands have to keep busy. I have to hold a pencil in my fingers. I need to write some pages every day. ... On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day.
Steinbeck's favourite writing instrument was indeed the pencil. It is said that John Steinbeck would start the day with 24 newly-sharpened pencils which he would need to sharpen again before the day was through with  a rare for his time electric pencil sharpener. The story goes that he used some 300 pencils to complete East of Eden (1952). For the Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945) he is said to have used 60 cedar pencils every day.

Most of his life, John Steinbeck would look for the perfect pencil. Did he ever find it?

Blackwing Pencils, Mongol 480

John Steinbeck's love of pencils and his search for the perfect pencil is legendary. He described Blackwing Pencils as "soft and fine" floating "over the paper just wonderfully". But at other days the Blackwings "cracked on him", their points breaking and "all hell is let loose". And then it was the Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round. Jay Parini identifies the Mongol pencil as Steinbeck's preferred writing instrument. And for some strange reason, Steinbeck relied on his friend Covici to supply him with his perfect pencil at regular intervals.

The famous Blackwings of John Steinbeck: Courtesy of
When John Steinbeck decided on the title of his novel East of Eden he realised that he was running out of pencils:
My pencils are all short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out 12 new pencils. Sometimes just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention. We shall see. It means I will have to have more pencils before long though. Would you send me another box. They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round."
For a review of Blackwing Pencils, see Blackwing 602 in Pencil Talk; Thomas Fensch, Steinbeck and Covici, New Century Books, 2002; Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Henry Holt: New York, 1996.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Giorgio de Chirico Art: Elements of Drawing and Drafting Pencils

In his Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin, English art critic, artist and social commentator, instructs on the issue of drafting pencils:
The pencil is indeed a very precious instrument after you are master of the pen and brush, for the pencil, cunningly used, is both, and will draw a line with the precision of the one and gradation of the other... I should recommend... keeping only a small memorandum book in the breast-pocket, with its well-cut, sheathed pencil.
Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian surrealist artist, read the Elements of Drawing in his youth and learnt all "these fine things" about drafting pencils and sketching "explained in great acumen and intelligence", as he writes in his memoirs. But De Chirico's first teacher was a young railway employee, a Greek from Trieste, called Mavrudis.

The Elements of Drawing and Giorgio De Chirico

De Chirico lived the first years of his life in the Greek port town of Volos, where his father, a railway engineer, was employed to construct part of Greece's railway network. From about 1896 to 1898, his art teacher was Mavrudis whose teachings left a lasting impression on the 10-year-old artist: "I looked at him and... wondered into a world of dream and fantasy... [and] thought that everything could be portrayed by this extraordinary man's magic pencil".

All the things that Mavrudis explained to him, Giorgio de Chirico found later in the Elements of Drawing. De Chirico's teacher was the first to teach him "the love of clean, beautiful lines, fine contours and well-modelled forms... and the love of good materials: Faber pencils with good points, paper of first quality, Elephant-brand rubbers, which were very soft".

Drafting Pencils

As Ruskin insists in his Elements of Drawing it is important for the artist to keep a consistent point on his writing instrument so that the point can be maintained constantly. In drafting pencils this can be done by cutting back the wood to expose the lead and shaping the lead to a fine point. The process of sharpening one's drafting pencils is described also by Thomas French, Engineering Drawing of 1911. Mavrudis, De Chirico writes,
was the first to teach me how to sharpen pencils in a regular way, cutting round the wood with care and symmetry and not in the slovenly manner of many people, making the point of the pencil look like a big toe deformed by cold.
 And he continues: "If my master Mavrudis were in Rome today he could show the way to all our modernistic 'geniuses' and teach that before being imitators of Cezanne, Picasso, Soutine or Matisse... they would do better to learn how to sharpen their pencils properly".

On Giorgio De Chirico's first years of life in Greece, see Giorgio De Chirico: Trains and Childhood Images, Evaristo de Chirico, Volos and Childhood Images, on Suite101; Also John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing,  (first published by Smith, Elder & Co., London 1857), Dover Publications, 1971