DECEMBER 30, 2014
BY ROLAND KELTS
Haruki Murakami’s illustrated novella, “The Strange Library,” arrived in the mail this month looking like a Christmas card from a bipolar ex. Two cheery and colorful cartoon eyes adorn the card’s top half; beastly fangs in sepia tone snap down below. When I slid open the envelope-like front cover, its button seal bearing the numerals “107,” I expected to find menace, and I did. One dark-rimmed emerald green eye glared at me from the broad interior fold, embedded in hair and encircling a black pupil. On the smaller bottom flap was the upside-down half-moon mouth of a smiling child, skin pink and over-bright, canines pristine.
Two realities trading places, the threat of violence in an uneasy state of play: classic Murakami, of course. But also vintage Chip Kidd, the associate art director at Knopf who has been designing U.S. first editions of Murakami books since the author’s 1993 short-story collection, “The Elephant Vanishes.”
Kidd’s designs contain eyes and other facial features, circular motifs that seem to swirl through kinetic colors, and bold, arresting closeups. In a display case in his Upper East Side apartment, Kidd devotes a shelf to his “Murakami face trilogy”—the covers of the author’s three longest novels, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Kafka on the Shore,” and “1Q84,” boasting, in order, a painted mechanical bird’s eye, a head that looks like an inflated golf ball, and a photograph of a young woman’s face, parts of which are strategically concealed behind the book’s title and dust jacket.
Kidd designs books by James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, Oliver Sacks, and many other top-tier contemporary authors. He has also written and published two prose novels of his own, one graphic novel, and a book on the history of Batman in Japan. But his collaboration on “The Strange Library”— a fairy tale that reads at times like a grim blend of Kafka and Lewis Carroll, with a touch of whimsical erudition in the vein of “The Phantom Tollbooth” (the subtitle of the illustrated Japanese edition, published in 2005, is “a fantasy for adults”)—marks the first time he’s illustrated an entire book front-to-back.
“It was a book designer’s dream,” Kidd told me. “I was given totally free rein.” The instructions from Knopf’s editor-and-chief, Sonny Mehta, Kidd said, “was to just illustrate this thing, or figure out how it can be done.”
Kidd is no stranger to Japan’s vast library of graphic commercial and popular art. Raised in suburban Philadelphia in the late sixties and early seventies, he got hooked on now iconic Japanese animated and special-effects TV series like “Astro Boy,” “Ultraman,” and “Gigantor.”
It was an education in what he describes as the aesthetics of modern Japanese pop. “The compartmentalization: one large image living on the picture plane, with lots of other images scattered around,” he said. “You look at the big one first, then the little ones, and it forms a whole new idea.”
Kidd has visited Tokyo five times since 2001, drawn to the city’s multiple paradoxes—too many things, not enough space, elegant minimalism, and order in the world’s most populous metropolis. In Tokyo, he spends his free hours trawling the shops and stalls of the city’s antique book district, Jinbōchō, collecting scrapbooks, magazines, and other ephemera from the forties, fifties, and sixties, including advertisement flyers and matchbooks.
“I’ve got albums of vintage Japanese matchbooks which are just amazing,” he said. “I love the design sense. But also, the fact that I can’t read the language makes me appreciate the design formally in a different way, for how it looks rather than what it says.”
The result of Kidd’s obsessions is the retro psychedelia of “The Strange Library.” Every other page contains an illustration, often so arresting that you can’t stop staring (and there are many eyes staring right back at you). Some graphics sprawl across two-page spreads. The typeface is called Typewriter; the pages of text look like they’ve been scrolled through an Olivetti and bound to images from a shared past. In the young narrator’s opening description, his new leather shoes “clacked against the gray linoleum” as he enters the library; it is followed by a primitive, two-toned advertisement for patent-leather shoes—a luxury for many in postwar Japan.
The story is simple and wildly unpredictable: the unnamed boy seeks to check out some books at his local library. He is told to descend to the basement and knock on the door of room 107. There he meets a little old man who grows increasingly big and sinister—a brother of the sadistic schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” The boy is imprisoned with three massive tomes, all about the Ottoman Empire, and told that he must memorize their contents in a month—or else the old man will devour his brains. He is stuck in the cell with a sheep-man (far more sheepish than the one in Murakami’s “The Wild Sheep Chase”), a beautiful, wispy young girl who may be a bird, and several spreads of gourmet food, fresh donuts, and honeyed tea that makes him feel quite warm inside. Around the corner of every frightening turn is something delightful. (The food, served punctually by the girl, “looks scrumptious. Grilled Spanish mackerel with sour cream, white asparagus with sesame-seed dressing.”)
Kidd told me that he is drawn to the “hypnotic quality” of Murakami’s writing. “When you start reading it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated,” he said. “But the further you get into it, the more complex it becomes in this stealth kind of way, and you become really invested. I find this minimalist maximalist quality very engaging.”
Kidd’s visual accompaniment is a sheaf of blowups—insect motifs collide with origami paper and the face of a geisha; a spectral half-moon is completed by one half of a donut (the only graphic that didn’t come from his collection of Japanese ephemera; he purchased it from a food cart in front of the Knopf offices and “stuck it into a scanner.”) Kidd wasn’t trying to graphically tell the story. Instead, he said, his goal was to “graphically play around with form and content so it surprises you.”
The stealth complexity and the mechanics of Murakami’s storytelling are laid bare in “The Strange Library” ’s novella form, partly because its sentences are so spare and its plot so fast. The boy’s real fears have little to do with the phantasmagoric librarian, the walls of his library cell, or mnemonic torture. When he was younger, we learn, he was bitten by a big black dog on his way home from school. Since then, his mother has become a worrywart, and he fears causing her anxiety by getting home late. He also suspects—correctly, we discover—that she may be unwell.
Kidd and others believe the story may be an allegory for Murakami’s days as a college student at Waseda University, whose library features several basements and a rather Byzantine system for checking out books. (Murakami told me he “can’t say, because I never went to the library at Waseda University.”)
There are now four illustrated editions of “The Strange Library.” In the original Japanese version, the Japanese artist Maki Sasaki’s illustrations are simple and bulbous, like children’s manga, faithfully representing each plot point’s actions and characters. The German edition, published last year, is rendered in heavy dark ink, neo-gothic and humorless. Harvill’s British edition, also published this month, is a scrapbook of charming stock images, culled from the Library of London, that echo fragments of the story.
Kidd’s bright, bold, Americanized mashup of Japanese ephemera takes some getting used to, especially for those familiar with the Japanese original. (A few friends who work in Japanese publishing shook their heads in dismay when I showed them Kidd’s edition.) But Murakami said that he appreciates Kidd’s tendency to take his designs in unexpected directions. “I’ve been working with Chip for twenty years already, but he continues to always surprise me with his designs,” the author told me before leaving Tokyo for Christmas in Hawaii. “Being surprised by his designs is one of the things that makes writing the books that much more fun.”
Nabokov and the Movies
BY JOHN COLAPINTONabokov was trading in movie-friendly, noirish suspense long before “Lolita.”CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY MGM STUDIOS / ARCHIVE PHOTOS / GETTY
The axiom that great novels make bad movie adaptations has not been entirely true for Vladimir Nabokov, whose books depend to a surprising degree on plot-heavy narratives (not to say cravenly pulpy story lines) that lend themselves well to the screen. Take “Lolita,” with its tale of the Humbert Humbert, who marries the mother of the twelve-year-old girl he covets and plots his new wife’s murder, only to see her die accidentally under the wheels of a car minutes after she discovers his secret diary of pedophilic lust, whereupon he embarks on a cross-country road trip with his orphaned stepdaughter, all of it culminating in an extended murder scene when Humbert tracks a shadowy pursuer who stole the girl away from him. Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1962 movie version, starring James Mason as Humbert, compressed all of this into two hours, and also captured the novel’s tone of suave irony—which makes “Lolita” as much a satiric indictment of mid-twentieth-century American mores as it is a study of a pervert. (The 1997 film version, by the director Adrian Lyne, deaf to the novel’s humor and everything else, was a slow, sodden, sombre slog—an embarrassment.)
Nabokov was trading in movie-friendly, noirish suspense long before “Lolita.” His 1938 novel, “Laughter in the Dark,” (about which I wrote in an earlier post) is a lurid love triangle involving an amateur film producer, a would-be film animator, and an underage aspiring actress. With its intimations of illegal sex, murder, and marital infidelity, the book seems made for the movies—and it was. Nabokov, at the time a penniless Russian exile in Berlin, admitted that he wrote the book with an eye toward a screen sale. This finally happened in 1969, thirty years after the novel’s release, when Tony Richardson directed an adaptation that moved the story’s setting from nineteen-thirties Berlin to the swinging London of the sixties. Richard Burton was set to star but was fired a few days into shooting, for inebriation, and was replaced by Nicol Williamson (himself no teetotaler). The movie drew respectable reviews, and today it sounds like a fascinating period piece, replete with mini skirts and go-go boots, and with cinéma-vérité party scenes featuring real-life London hipsters such as David Hockney. Unfortunately, the film has since been removed from distribution, has never been shown on television, and is unavailable anywhere, including in MOMA’s rare-film archives. (A planned 1986 remake, with Mick Jagger in the role of the demonic Axel Rex, ran aground after a ten-day table read of the script when Rebecca De Mornay, cast as the sex-kitten seductress, clashed with the director, Laszlo Papas, and fled the production. Maryam d’Abo—soon to be cast as a Bond girl in “The Living Daylights”—was hired to replace De Mornay, but the production crumbled and was abandoned).
Nabokov seemed also to have had the movies in mind when he dreamed up “King, Queen, Knave,” his second novel, first published, in Russian, in 1928. Like “Laughter in the Dark,” it tells the story of a racy love triangle, this time with a tinge of incest. Franz, a twenty-something rural yokel goes to work at his uncle’s Berlin department store and is pulled into an affair by his lubricious aunt. Soon, they’re scheming to murder the blithely unsuspecting uncle/husband. Again, Nabokov had to wait many decades, until his post-”Lolita” success, to see the novel made into a movie; the film version of “King, Queen, Knave”—directed by Jerzy Skolimowski and starring David Niven and Gina Lollobrigida—was released in 1972. But trying to force Nabokov’s exquisitely controlled satire of bourgeois materialism and conventionality into a slapstick would-be youth comedy was a grave error. The movie is a sloppy, slapdash affair that badly squanders its source material (and its actors), and it serves as a reminder of all that could be bad about early-seventies movies. Everyone involved seems desperate to appear young and with-it. You can see for yourself—the entire movie has been uploaded to YouTube.
Six years elapsed before another Nabokov novel hit the screen, and it was, again, one of the dark-comic masterpieces from the author’s sojourn in Berlin in the nineteen-thirties: “Despair,” a novel whose plot seems tailored to a high-concept, one-sentence Hollywood pitch: “Man meets his double, swaps identities, and kills him for the insurance money.” Like “Lolita,” the story features a highly unreliable narrator, Hermann Hermann, who also happens to be the main character—which poses real challenges to any filmmaker. Fortunately, the director was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working from a script by the equally gifted Tom Stoppard and starring the superb Dirk Bogarde as Hermann. Fassbinder retained the Nabokovian humor but introduced his own astonishing touches, like the moment when Bogarde’s Hermann, the owner of a chocolate factory during the rise of the Nazis, stares down into a pile of baby-shaped chocolates in a bin, his eyes growing wide with premonitory horror at what suddenly seems to be a heap of corpses. Stoppard, meanwhile, provided a script that more than matches the source author’s word play, and hints at Hermann’s creeping departure from reality, as when Hermann, obsessing over his insurance scam, mishears the word “merger” as “murder.” “Merger, murder,” Hermann says, shrugging, as if they’re all the same. Of all the Nabokov movies, this is the only one to rival Kubrick’s “Lolita,” and it is still in circulation, in libraries and on Amazon.
There were, in the late nineteen-nineties, a few foreign-language adaptations of Nabokov short stories, and of his first novel, “Mary.” But the most recent English-language adaptation was the 2000 John Turturro vehicle “The Luzhin Defence.” The director, Marleen Gorris, and the screenwriter, Peter Berry, made an admirable attempt to bring the novel’s story of a recessive chess genius to life, but they were encumbered by the same problems that Nabokov himself faced with the novel: trying to make interesting and sympathetic a character who is wrapped up, to the exclusion of all else, in a recondite game. That a young woman (played by Emily Watson) would fall in love with this solipsistic and frankly unappealing character is no more believable in the movie than it is in the book, which is one of Nabokov’s rare misfires.
By now, filmmakers have mined all of Nabokov’s movie-friendly novels—with the possible exception of “Glory”, which offers semi-autobiographical glimpses into Nabokov’s years at Cambridge in the early nineteen-twenties (catnip, perhaps, for period-loving “Downton Abbey” watchers). But the adaptation I’m still waiting for is “Pale Fire,” which pretty much everyone agrees is unfilmable. The idea of a movie version was first suggested to me back in 1985, when I was interviewing David Cronenberg, who discussed his fantasy of adapting the book. The basic framing of the novel—a madman’s scholarly notes to a long poem—would present immense formal difficulties. But the crazed commentary of Charles Kinbote (who believes himself to be the exiled king of the fictional Zembla) is thick with movie-ready palace intrigues, teams of regicidal assassins, revolution, and a late-night escape from a castle through underground tunnels. And the “real life” layer of the story ends with the highly cinematic scene of an escaped convict murdering the poet John Shade, whom he mistakes for the judge who put him away. Come to think of it, is Cronenberg available?
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