The one thing I never expected, when I began blogging, was that it would lead to meeting so many talented, creative people. When I read about the effects of the current recession on publishers, who are already doing the headless chicken act and running around telling editors to refuse further submissions, it makes me ever more glad in my heart that the internet exists and provides a free, readily available playground for all kinds of artists, writers and general creative spirits (who were never that interested in the mainstream in the first place). One of those profoundly creative people is Ella over at Box of Books, who is the author of The Absent Classic series. These are the dinkiest little books ever, which she not only writes herself, but hand makes herself and even – in this latest edition – illustrates herself.
This is where I wish that I had photographic skills and could show you one, or indeed the technical skills to post the picture after I’d taken it. But they are hardback books, as big as my hand, colourwashed and varnished or covered with a fine translucent jacket and attributed to phantom authors who rejoice in names like Josephina Winterbottom and Augustus Pigeon. The most recent, A Guide to Lost Colors, claims to be an appendix to a much larger work, The Encyclopedia of Manufactured Pigments, written by the famous art historian, the above-mentioned Pigeon, whose work was discredited when it came to light that it had been written while his eyesight was swiftly degenerating. The book in our hands was an additional fragment, willed by Pigeon to an enthusiastic publisher, that is an autobiographical account of his early apprenticeship in art history. Even in these few lines, the character of the book, and of the series of absent classics, springs into focus; quaint, eccentric, charming, scholarly. But they are also subversive, parodic, entertaining and cunning; things are never quite as they appear, and the stories told raise as many questions as they answer.
There is a fascination with the structure of the quest in the absent classics that works at so many levels: the series itself is intended to supplement canonical works with missing fragments of texts. These fragments are always seeking a graft onto the main work (which is the real absent text, of course) that will make their value and meaning clear. But the stories themselves are episodic quests for information that perpetually eludes the seeker. In the previous volume of the absent classics, Folktales of the Bezai, the story recounted is a classically structured parable concerning a young boy who makes a deal with a malign tree to release the peacock trapped inside it. The peacock’s freedom is bought at the cost of a rose bush, an impossible object in this hostile terrain, but young Anah sets off courageously on his adventures nevertheless, working his way through dangers and riddles in a chain of consequences that echo those of the great questors, like Hercules and Odysseus before him. In A Guide to Lost Colors, the young Augustus Pigeon, sickly, innocent but dedicated, finds himself a mentor in the kindly Dr Voorhies, whose incapacitation in a wheelchair means that the young man is required to be his mobile researcher. Pigeon’s task is to locate color pigments in old Dutch masters whose composition has not yet made it to the great Voorhies Register of colors. This task sets him off on a trail of extraordinary paintings, most often found in extraordinary locations.
This is where the absent classic series comes into its own, with the inventiveness and the wit that bubble over in each scenario. Like the painting Pigeon discovers in the stately home of Lord Grayers, whose wife and her sister exist in a state of covert, catty warfare. ‘I had never before been afraid of a lady,’ Pigeon writes, ‘but there was something horrible in the way they both fixed their eyes on one, and moved their fingers as they spoke. Facing the two of them, with their jewelry, perfume, glossy dark hair, and unnatural thinness, I felt like a blue-backed housefly being sized up for lunch.’ The story skips lightly through a series of exotic locations peopled with eccentrics and hung with strange allegorical paintings, which are reproduced in the text as exquisite pen and ink line drawings. The tale is also accompanied by footnotes and an introduction, supposedly added in at a later date, that add to the hybrid, fragmentary feel of the book and provide one of the surreptitious counterpoints to the quest story that draws the reader forward. For in the way that the footnotes question the story told, or provide a different interpretation of events, our sense of certainty is played with. Furthermore, each picture Augustus finds meets with a calamitous end, so the objects of his quest continue to elude him. Similarly in Folktales of the Bezai, each episode of Anah’s adventures ends with a maxim of such ridiculousness that it is impossible to extract a meaning from them. This is what makes me call The Absent Classics fundamentally cunning; what they give with one hand, they pickpocket back with the other, providing the reader with richly drawn tales whose central objects and meaning are glimpsed only to crumble, implode or fade discreetly away. They are, in other words, delightful narrative teases, beautifully put together and slyly resistant to mastery.
You can subscribe to The Absent Classics at Box of Books, and you can find there other examples of Ella’s inventiveness, including this illustrated poem, which is one of the best things I’ve seen on the web all year. I’ve had a wonderful year on this blog for meeting authors, getting to know Gabriel Josipovici, Rosy Thornton, Anne Brooke and Deborah Lawrenson. It is a trend I sincerely hope will continue.