Author-Artist Double Acts


One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. While growing up, Andersen’s stories unnerved me. Very few of them had positive closure and at times highly ambiguous (Ugly Duckling, anyone?) and for a little girl who liked utopian, apple-pie endings where everyone lived happily ever after, Andersen’s stories usually left me sad. The Little Mermaid dies, the girl with the red shoes dies, the matchstick girl dies, the fir tree dies, the emperor in the Emperor and Nightingale, also dies – do you see where I’m going here?

But then I received a beautifully illustrated copy of Andersen’s stories from my mum’s friend which slightly altered my attitude to Andersen. It was the books I read as a kid which paved my gradual interest in art and soon I started taking note of various illustrators as well.

I know most people agree that Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl were the quintessential writer-illustrator duo but I could never reconcile myself to Blake’s scrawls and always felt that it detracted from Dahl’s genius instead of complementing it. I’m aware that I’m a minority here because Blake has been hailed as one of England’s foremost illustrators and the Dahl-Blake combo has been described as a perfect example of author-artist chemistry. But I always felt disappointed to see my favourite characters reduced to almost careless squiggles, with large dots for eyes and overlarge hands. I get the feeling that Blake was trying to balance a fine line between both caricatures and sketches but it never worked for me.

Two double acts I really enjoyed were Jacqueline Wilson-Nick Sharratt and C.S. Lewis-Pauline Baynes.

Wilson was a staple in my adolescent reading and Sharratt’s simple line drawings went just right with Wilson’s writing which was catered mainly to girls aged 11 – 16. Obviously, I went through a Sharratt phase where I tried (unsuccessfully) to model my drawings according to his. Sharratt had an excellent eye for just the right amount of detail – a print on a dress, an extra fluff on a cloud, markings on leaves – which I really liked.


  

Bayne’s simple sketches brought to life characters I’d never even heard of before.  Detailed illustrations of battles, Mr. Tumnus, Aslan and the Pevensies were beautifully bought to life – but done in a way which didn’t impinge on the reader’s imagination and their own versions of the scenes and the characters. I loved the Narnia Maps and later read that Pauline occasionally illustrated for Tolkien as well. The Telegraph has an obituary on her, I think she sounds fascinating.

But, my (insert superlative of choice) favourite was my Hans Christian Andersen book. The book is filled with beautifully intricate, whimsical, old school illustrations which you’d be hard pressed to find amidst the sea of mediocre illustrated children’s books these days which look positively kitsch in comparison. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (they were an illustrating duo) and the author were centuries apart but the obvious chemistry between the artists and Andersen’s stories pervades the book. I think the illustration eclipsed the stories at times, because I would pore over the drawings and make my own stories with spectacular disregard for authorial intent. The pictures really don’t do justice to the drawings. I would love to get my hands on a copy of their illustrations of the Grimms Fairytales – the Grimms Brothers are dearer to me and this combination would have been electric.


Despite my fondness for illustrated books, I’ve never actually warmed to comics and graphic novels. The lines between comic s and graphic novels have always been slightly blurred for me. I grew up on a steady diet of Garfield, TinTin, Asterix and Calvin and Hobbes but my die-hard graphic novel fan-friends scoff at me and tell me that these don’t count/aren’t enough. From what I see, the crux of graphic novels are basically comics – But with fancier packaging, marginally deeper story lines and a lot heavier on the purse. Yes? No?

I remember my dad presenting me with comic versions of Oliver Twist and Kidnapped years back. I looked  at the too-bright colours of the comic strips, the dialogue watered down to a handful of words peppered with exclamation marks with all my 13 year old contempt, wondering sadly when words ceased to be enough.

I like art and I like reading but I’ve always felt that graphic novels tended to compromise on the literature aspect instead of synthesising words and art. When classics are condensed into 50 page graphic novels, the nuances in the language and the detail are also watered down. I haven’t written away the genre completely though, so there might be hope for me yet.

This started off as an elegy to my beautiful Andersen book and to Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone but as you can see, I got a little carried away. Chemistry between an author and an illustrator is a beautiful thing. Do add in your favourite author-artist combos if you have any. If you’d like to browse more book illustrations, this site has some nice stuff http://www.booksillustrated.com/

 

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On rereading

I wish I could tell you that I regularly revisit Proust. I wish I could tell you that I peruse Swann’s Way frequently and that I get reacquainted with Tolstoy, Joyce and Kafka every now and then. I really do. The truth is while I try and read as much as I possibly can and my book case is brimming with my recent purchases, very rarely do I revisit everything I read.

I feel like some context is necessary so let me backtrack a bit.

When I walk into the British Council in Colombo, the old hands at the library greet me like an old friend. I’ve been going there since I was 8. My ideal Saturday outing was a day at the library (I was easy to please). I would curl up in a beanbag in the children’s section and then went home and read some more. As a child, I used to be the kid who had a membership in four different libraries. I didn’t just read books, I ate them for breakfast. I lived in books. I conversed with characters.  My best friends were fictional. I stubbornly read in candle light in between the electricity outages which plagued us a few years back.   Somewhere down the line, life got in the way and books became a luxury instead of a necessity. The only books I read these days are the ones related to my academics.  My 12 year old self would be spectacularly disappointed.

I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the reading bandwagon again and despite my growing ‘to be read’ pile (the age old lament of the bibliophile – so many books, so little time) I’ve noticed a tendency every now and then, to gravitate towards old favourites. The thing is, reading and rereading are two very different things. We all have our reasons for reading but why do some of us (I’ve met many people who refuse to revisit books) reread? Why, when there are so many undiscovered books waiting to be read and savoured, do we sometimes almost instinctively pick a well thumbed favourite in favour of a new one? And more, importantly what do we reread and what is it that keeps us coming back?

I can’t vouch for other re-readers, but it isn’t always literary merit which keeps me coming back to a book. Nostalgia plays a large part in my rereading. Old favourites include Enid Blyton’s Faraway tree series (the day you’re too old to climb an enchanted tree which leads to magical lands is a sad day), Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, Austen, the Narnia series, the dark materials and Sherlock Holmes.

Jean Webster’s 1912 novel ‘Daddy Long Legs’ has always been a firm favourite and was the initial book which kicked off my fascination for epistolary novels. Sometimes, revisiting old books and characters are bittersweet experiences. Over the years, you’ve changed and sometimes your interpretation of the novel may have changed. My most recent re-reading of the novel left me perturbed by the fact that Judy refers to her future love interest as ‘Daddy’ through the course of the novel but it probably won’t stop me from reaching out for it in a few months.

I’ve found that Roald Dhal improves with age. The older I get, the more I tend to marvel at his expansive imagination. A child who is gifted a chocolate factory, a boy who stumbles onto a witches’ conference and a woman who murders her husband and feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the murder – You really can’t go wrong with Roald Dhal. I’m yet to reconcile myself to Quentin Blake’s illustrations though. I was a puritan with my illustrations and Blake’s scrawls left me feeling cheated as a child.

The Anne series (Oh, Walter, Walter, Walter) was also a favourite. As I reread them, I preferred the later books in the series – teenage Anne talked in such huge, chunky paragraphs, it got annoying sometimes. Her kids were far more interesting. Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, more of L.M. Montomery’s books, Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairytales , Harry Potter and Asterix are other frequent revisits. Asterix was another series which improved with age.

I grew up on a steady diet of gender centric, good-conduct fiction. I’m still guilty of glancing through them every now and then when I go home and am in need of a quick read. Rediscovering old poems is another favourite past time– Grace Nichols, Cummings, Dickinson, Neruda, Atwood, Bukowski, Wendy Cope, Plath, Agha Shahid Ali, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, etc  are all old acquaintances.

Growing up, I was blessed enough to inherit a vast collection filled with books my family had amassed. With access to four more libraries, there was really no necessity to buy books either. Whatever few books I purchased were tried and tested before buying and carefully added to the library. When I started working, the hedonistic prospect of being able to spend my carefully earned money on books blew my mind. I started buying books a few years ago and I haven’t been able to stop.

While, there are few things more satisfying than a well-filled collection of books, what I’m uneasy about, is the initial conundrum mentioned previously – the fact that I don’t always revisit most of my recent purchases. Apart from Perec and one or two names, I haven’t been inspired enough to pick up and reread any of my recent reads which has me wondering if I’m reading the right books or if quantity has taken precedence over quality.

Do you reread books? If yes, which ones and if no, why not?

Ps: wrote this a few months ago.  Dug it up after coming across this post of PP’s and this recent article on authors and their rereads. With people rereading the great Gatsby, Proust and Toni Morrison, I feel a little ashamed to own up to the fact that I reread Enid Blyton and fairy tales.