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Illusion vs Allusion


Woodcut illustration by Valenti Angelo for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Scarlet Letter

Book illustration is an art, a special creative act. For, scattered throughout pages of text are shards of context, strategic two-dimensional representations of material culture essential to the story, set pieces, reminders of what we already knew rather than distractions. They are a preview of what is to come.

Those same images can be jarring, I suppose, unexpected, like the twists of language that can tweak the reader with an unusual word choice or grammatical construction. But instances of that sort cannot be a regular thing, least of all rhythmic, expected like the next drumbeat.

In some cases they may set the stage for what is about to take place. In a way, they are that place. Icons. [Or are they avatars?] But what they ought not do is f**k with our sense of the characters themselves. If you intend to cast the play, design the set, lease the venue for the day, fine. But the book’s characters are mine ti imagine.

It’s too cartoonish an example, but the film based on Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cast Alan Rickman’s voice as Marvin, the paranoid android. Rickman’s sardonic sneer was perfect. He was Snape before Harry Potter. But Marvin’s physical form more than a disappointment; it was all wrong. I don’t know what I’d expected to see on the screen but it wasn’t a pingpong ball with legs.

The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby

A 1928 edition of The Scarlet Letter was my introduction to the art of Valenti Angelo — though subsequent encounters haven’t maintained that quality, for me, at least. I appreciated their woodcut-y-ness, which is apparently the way they were created and presumably printed, in letterpress by the Grabhorn brothers, predecessors of the Arion Press. Angelo’s three- and four-color compositions have a “period” quality appropriate for the temporal setting of the story. And the leave to the reader’s imagination how the characters appear, for they will in each reader’s mind.

One of fifty pen-and-ink illustrations by Michael Graves for the Great Gatsby

Then, fifty-six years later, Arion Press reprised the success of the Grabhorn Scarlet with its commissioned illustrations by architect Michael Graves for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Here, the illustrations are peppered throughout the text, while in Hawthorne they serves as chapter headings. But in both cases, we never see a human form, in fact, no animate representation whatsoever.— no dog, no songbird, except for a roasted chicken dinner, in Gatsby; I have to review the Hawthorne to make sure. But Gatsby’s Long Island estate is as proper as Malfoi Manor was in Harry Potter. The choice of Graves, the architect, was especially correct.

I suppose the character of a character can change, evolve, contradict itself, while the details of setting remain our link to the author’s intent. And I hope for a similar relationship in Agincourt. So far, so good.


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