Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Pens and pencils for Douglas Adams

Walking amongst the departed is often peaceful, especially if they are lying in Highgate cemetery, the repose of the famous dead in north London. And here under the trees and greenery and in between the winding paths lies Douglas Adams. His fans have taken care to replenish the receptacle in front of his tombstone with pens and pencils. 
"He picked up from the table a piece of paper and the stub of a pencil. He held one in one hand and the other in the other, and experimented with the different ways of bringing them together. He tried holding the pencil under the paper, then over the paper, then next to the paper. He tried wrapping the paper round the pencil, he tried rubbing the stubby end of the pencil against the paper and then he tried rubbing the sharp end of the pencil against the paper. It made a mark, and he was delighted with the discovery, as he was every day."
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1995.

Douglas Adams tombstone at Highgate Cemetery, north London.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Franz Kafka's Pencil in a Dream

Franz Kafka's tombstone in Prague
Source: Wikimedia Commons
No sooner has Josef K. in Kafka's A Dream lived than he is confronted by his impending death. In his dream he walks in the winding path of a cemetery until he comes up to two mysterious figures ramming a heavy tombstone into the ground. K. is mesmerized by the possibility of death; the cessation of existence appears as a mysterious even a romantic prospect. The artist (who is none other than Joseph K's other self) who suddenly appears waving a pencil proceeds to skilfully carve gold letters in the tombstone and Joseph K. finds himself eagerly anticipating their formation. He has contemplated death, he has thought of death in the abstract, perhaps as eternal repose, as the final flourish to a life-line, a pure glittering end of his time above earth but now he thinks again. 
Instantly, a third man emerged from the bushes, and K., promptly identified him as an artist. He was wearing only trousers and a misbuttoned shirt; a velvet cap was on his head; in his hand, he clutched an ordinary pencil, drawing figures in the air even as he approached.
He now applied this pencil to the top end of the stone; (...) Through some extremely skilful manipulation, he succeeded in producing gold letters with that ordinary pencil; he wrote: "Here LIES---" Each letter came out clean and beautiful, deeply incised and in purest gold. After writing those two words, he looked back at K.; K., who was very eager to see what would come next in the inscription, gazed at the stone, paying little heed to the man. And in fact, the man was about to continue writing, but he could not, something was hindering him, he lowered the pencil and turned to K. again. (...)
Writing stops, the pencil is dropped. As the realization of the finality of death dawns upon him panic and a feeling of helplessness engulfs K. He cries inconsolably covering his face with his hands. How can he embrace his mortality? How can he accept death? But then he realizes that he can do nothing but to accept that his existence must end. His refusal to die wavers and as it does the the pencil starts writing again, scrawling at first but unmistakeably forming his name on the tombstone.

The artist waited for K. to calm down, and then, finding no other solution, he decided to keep writing all the same. His first small stroke was a deliverance for K., but the artist obviously managed to execute it only with utmost reluctance; moreover, the penmanship was not as lovely -- above all, it seemed to lack gold, the stroke moved along pale and unsteady, only the letter became very large. It was a J, it was almost completed (...). 

K. gives in to the inevitable. The end is near. The earth gives in readily. Everything seems prepared. The large hole already dug and gaping beneath to accept him receives him in its embrace. 

While he lay there, his head still craning upwards accepted by the impenetrable depths, up above, his name went racing across the stone with immense flourishes.


Franz Kafka's A Dream in Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Classics 2007.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Writing instruments in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Bram Stoker writing
Evil and a foreigner coming from eastern Europe where else would Dracula set up house than in London's East End, an area associated in the mind of the Victorian reader with poverty, crime, depravity, and immigrants. Deprivation and depravity threatened middle-class aesthetics and morals, untrammelled immigration caused fear. Not surprisingly Bram Stoker placed Dracula's lairs in Whitechapel, the area of the 1888 Jack Ripper murders, and  Bermondsey, the "very capital of cholera" and notorious crime hot spot made famous by Dickens' Oliver Twist. But perhaps in an allusion to Dr Jekyl's double life (Stevenson's gothic novel had been published almost 10 years earlier), Dracula kept a house in affluent and prestigious Piccadilly too where he could enjoy fine dining as a respectable member of society and still have time to retreat to the shadows before sunrise.

The Count's effects as found during the raid of his Piccadilly house by Van Helsing and company included a clothes brush (Dracula was meticulous about his garments); comb and brush (it wouldn't do to face the London high society with an unkempt mop) and jug and basin (to rinse off excess blood from his nightly feed) - a true dandy. Some writing implements (notepaper, envelopes, pens, and ink) were also reported and these the Count took care to cover in thin wrapping paper to keep them from the dust. What an unnecessary and yet touching detail about the vampire who cared about his pens and paper. 

After a cursory glance at the rest of the rooms, from basement to attic, we came to the conclusion that the dining-room contained any effects which might belong to the Count and so we proceeded to minutely examine them. They lay in a sort of orderly disorder on the great dining-room table. There were title deeds of the Piccadilly house in a great bundle; deeds of the purchase of the houses at Mile End and Bermondsey; notepaper, envelopes, and pens and ink. All were covered up in thin wrapping paper to keep them from the dust. There were also a clothes brush , a brush and comb, and a jug and basin - the latter containing dirty water which was reddened as if with blood.

Dracula's writing implements paled in comparison to the sophisticated devices of the civilized Victorians: the phonograph and the typewriter. The phonograph, a recording device, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 was brought to Britain in the late 1880s by the Edison Bell company. Dr Seward in Bram Stoker's Dracula must have used the Edison Bell Commercial phonograph

The arcane pens of Count Dracula are no match for Mina's Traveller's typewriter, a portable invented by George Blickensderfer in 1892, some 5 years before Bram Stoker's novel was published. In this portable typewriter in place of individual bars with letters on the end was a cylindrical wheel with letters embossed on it. Mina must have used the Columbia portable.

Edison Bell Commercial phonograph
Source: The City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society

Dr Seward complains that he misses his phonograph and that writing a diary with a pen is irksome. Mina declares herself "grateful to the man who invented the 'Traveller's typewriter and to Mr Morris for getting this one for me" for how could she possibly do the work if she had to write with the pen. The Victorians were embracing automation and revelling in the newly discovered wonders of technology. An arcane figure like Dracula had no place in this new brave world. It was only a matter of time before he would become obsolete and perish: "It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, [his] whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight."


Bram Stoker's Dracula was first published in 1897.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The absurd ink of Albert Camus

In Albert Camus' The Stranger Meursault is the embodiment of Camus' philosophy of the absurd. Meursault lives his life and faces his death in a world which he sees as devoid of rational meaning. Alienated from this world, Meursault is an outsider, a stranger to moral dilemmas, moral judgements and accepted wisdoms. When his friend Raymond asks him to write a letter intended to hurt Raymond's girlfriend, Meursault sees no reason not to. He focuses his attention on the objects on the table, the squared paper, the pen box, the inkpot. The act of writing such a letter which will eventually trigger the events leading to his execution never bothers him.

He lit a cigarette and told me his plan. He wanted to write her a letter "which would really hurt her and at the same time make her sorry". Then, when she came back, he'd go to bed with her and "right at the crucial moment" he'd spit in her face and throw her out. I agreed that that would punish her all right. But Raymond told me that he didn't feel capable of writing the kind of letter that was needed and that he'd thought I might draft it for him. When I didn't say anything, he asked me if I'd mind doing it right away and I said no.
He stood up after drinking another glass of wine. He pushed aside the plates and the bit of cold pudding that we'd left. He carefully wiped the oilcloth that was on the table. Then he took out of a drawer in his bedside table a sheet of squared paper, a yellow envelope, a small red wooden pen-box and a square inkpot with purple ink in it. When he told me the girl's name I realized she was Moorish. I wrote the letter. I did it rather haphazardly but I did my best to please Raymond because I had no reason not to please him.
Raymond (George Geret) hands over paper, pen and inkpot to 
Meursault (Marcello Mastroianni) in Luchino Visconti's The Stranger (1967)

Albert Camus, The Outsider, Penguin 1982, first published in French 1942.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Madam Bovary's unused penholder

She would be wearing her dressing-gown unbuttoned, revealing, between the copious folds of her corsage, a pleated chemisette with gold buttons. Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the instep. She had bought herself a blotting-pad, a writing-case, a pen-holder and envelopes, though she had nobody to write to; she would dust her ornaments, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall in her lap. She yearned to travel or to go back to living in the convent. She wanted equally to die and to live in Paris.

Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary, first published 1856.
Screenshot from the 1949 movie Madame Bovary, starring Jennifer Jones.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Dostoevksy's calligraphist prince

In Dostoevsky's The Idiot, prince Myshkin having declared to general Ivan Yepanchin that he has no one in Russia, no special talents and no employment says that he nevertheless reads a great many Russian books. "Then, of course, you can read and write quite correctly?" inquires the general.

"Oh dear, yes!" 
"Capital! And your handwriting?"
"Ah, there I am REALLY talented! I may say I am a real calligraphist. Let me write you something, just to show," said the prince, with some excitement. 
"With pleasure! In fact, it is very necessary. I like your readiness; in fact, I must say - I-I-like you very well, altogether," said the general. 
"What delightful writing materials you have here, such a lot of pencils and things, and what beautiful paper! (...) 
"...Gania, give the prince some paper. Here are pens and paper; now then, take this table. ..."  (...)
"Oh!" cried the general, catching sight of the prince's specimen of calligraphy, which the latter had now handed him for inspection. "Why, this is simply beautiful; look at that, Gania, there's real talent there!" (...) 

"...Now that is an ordinary English hand. It can hardly be improved, it is so refined and exquisite - almost perfection. This is an example of another kind, a mixture of styles. The copy was given me by a French commercial traveller. It is founded on the English, but the downstrokes are a little blacker, and more marked. Notice that the oval has some slight modification - it is more rounded. This writing allows for flourishes; now a flourish is a dangerous thing! Its use requires such taste, but, if successful, what distinction it gives to the whole! It results in an incomparable type - one to fall in love with!" 

"Dear me! How you have gone into all the refinements and details of the question! Why, my dear fellow, you are not a calligraphist, you are an artist!..."

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, first published 1869.

 Screenshots from The Idiot Russin TV Series (2003), dir Vladimir Bortko; Evgeny Mironov (prince Myshkin). Oleg Basilashvili (general Ivan Yepanchin).