Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Covers, Ayn Rand, and some ranting

Living in Paris, I sometimes miss good old English language bookstores. As much as I love the 4-story Gibert Jeune with its 3 euro copies of almost any literary classics, sometimes I yearn for those good old Penguin Classics. That's when I head into one of the few English language shops available: either the wonderful, always crowded, creaky and dusty Shakespeare and Company or its shiny, squeaky clean alternative, the foreign language section of Gibert Jeune. Of course, Paris being more in the vicinity of England than the United States, many of the English language titles tend to carry the British covers rather than the American ones. Which led me to stumble upon the following covers of Ayn Rand's novels:


This is not going to be a "cover comparison" post. It's more of a "cover complaining" post, that is, a response to seeing the above covers for the first time and finding them utterly ridiculous.

Let me start out by saying that I am actually rather fond of Ayn Rand's novels. Her philosophy has problems, yes, and one could argue about it until the cows come home, but I've always found her stories inspiring. Her characters are heroes, who have their own principles and act according to those principles. They are smart and courageous and self-sufficient, and those are things I will always admire. They represent the greatness of man, and that's always inspired me. That's perhaps why I'm so fond of the American covers - they show skyscrapers and trains and sunlight and they do give one the feeling that man can reach the heavens with his creations.

But the above covers...made me laugh. The Atlas Shrugged cover looks rather like John Galt is trying to be...Mr. Darcy? with a bit of Heathcliff? But in America? the Fountainhead one looks like it's trying to be The Great Gatsby (and yes, it's the correct time period). Now, if I were more of an art history expert I'd probably be able to say what artistic movement the covers are pretending to be a part of, but I can't. All I can say is that the covers are pretending to be something, something stylish and literary and artistic and utterly not fitting with the stories themselves. While Rand's stories do have their fair share of snobbishness, elitism and aristocracy, that was not the focus of Rand's stories. It was not the glittery gems and money, it was the personality and intelligence of the characters that earned those rewards that she focused on. Which is why portraying John Galt, a nameless factory worker with the world's greatest mind, as an aristocrat on the cover sort of fails. The woman on the cover of the Fountainhead is presumably Dominique, and she does indeed spend a lot of the book being all tall and skinny and blonde and exquisitely beautiful, just like in that cover illustration, but the Fountainhead is not her story but that of Howard Roark, and of the fountainhead of human creativity: the human mind.

And now I've just spent an inordinate amount of text over-analyzing book covers. At this point, is anyone going to judge Ayn Rand by a cover? She's a bit infamous, at least, in the United States, and those who pick up her books - mostly the young - will do so based on recommendations, the allure of the Ayn Rand Institute's essay prize, or because it made some list of literary classics. But this brings me to my next question: what is the attitude towards Rand in the UK? She's an American author, very concerned with American politics and the American system, and it's easy to see how some people might see her "current." That's not the case in the UK, obviously, and yet she's an English-language author, meaning that there's no barrier of translation. So are these covers the result of a need to market those stories to a UK public? Is their artsy, literary style a way to market these stories as literature, because to a non-American reading public, it's more difficult to market these stories as political and economic and philosophical texts?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday Masterpiece: Heemskerck’s "Course de taureaux à l’antique"

Continuing the trend of focusing on obscure works of art instead of actually masterpieces…(I promise I’ll get to Titian eventually)…this week I’ll be looking at Heemskerck’s Course de taureaux a l'antique, which I stumbled upon in the art museum at Lille, and which I've had a bit of trouble hunting down a picture of since. Click on the image for a larger version of the painting.

Heemskerck was an early Dutch Renaissance artist who helped introduce Italian art to the Netherlands. Like many Renaissance painters, he seems to have been rather fond of Roman ruins, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance. They served as inspiration for the artists and writers who looked back on antiquity and strove to emulate it in their art; Heemskerck in particular is known for his series of paintings of the seven wonders of the ancient world, several of which are classical edifices.

This particular painting falls into a tradition stretching back from the Renaissance through many centuries of painting Roman ruins; it’s a tradition of depicting a great civilization in ruin, paintings of people dwarfed by the broken remains of grandiose columns and dilapidated arches. Yet Heemskerck plays with that format. He creates a tension between past, ruin, destruction and the present, memory, the cycle of life.

The Coliseum-esque arena in his painting is a grandiose ruin that represents the ruin of a grandiose civilization. It towers above the people, but it’s falling apart, cracked and forgotten. The people in the arena are but ghosts, memories of a society long gone. They aren’t really there. Their presence is overshadowed by the medieval looking figures towards the front, who are certainly present and who recall a later age. Some are reminiscent of medieval courtly scenes. They suggest a new age that’s come. The cycle of history will continue as the sands of time obscure what’s past.

And yet…the painting itself is a record, a memory. The ghosts, even if they’re ghosts, are present to us, the viewers. The ruin is still there – it has not been completely effaced from the face of the earth. Greenery, representing life, grows from the very stones, suggesting that even from ruin comes life. The cycle continues, and human life is preserved by memory. Human life will not be effaced. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Living in France, part 1

Since I'm in Paris until June and highly opinionated (or overly observant), I thought I'd do some weekly post sharing my thoughts and some interesting highlights. By which I mean, I'm going to complain about how weird/inconvenient living here is. So, here is this week's list:

  1.  Apparently falling in love is a valid excuse for missing a deadline, not doing a particular piece of work, or being late.
  2. Apparently, you cannot view any transactions on your bank account that happened more than 45 days ago. 
  3.  The library of the university I attend has a lower limit on the number of books you’re allowed to borrow, a shorter loan time, and a poorer selection than the Paris public libraries. Deduce what you will about the education system.
  4.  To learn what my grade is, I can't look it up online. I have to go to the campus of the university, find a particular hallway in a particular building, and look for my grade posted on the wall. Sometimes it's there. 
  5.  The book I bought for one of my classes yesterday – a novel- cost the same amount of money as a coffee. Another book I bought – a Moliere play – costs half as much as said coffee. Um. Priorities?
  6. Something is always broken. The elevator, the credit card machine, the metro, the RER, the ATM, the internet…..
  7.  I went out to lunch with a dozen French people today. They said that two bottles of wine would be “too much.” Wait…what?