December 9, 2010

Anatomy of a book design: Of bonnets and billiards


This is the seventh installment of a series by artist Mahendra Singh on the process of adapting Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem, The Hunting of a Snarkinto a graphic presentation. Like most of Carroll’s work, this poem has seen various iterations since it was written in 1874 but this is the first time it has been adapted as a graphic telling. Melville House published Singh’s adaptation in November.

A panel from Singh's adaptation

I think it’s safe to say that my version of the Snark is the only one in which you’ll find Friedrich Nietszche tied up in bows and vamping as the Maker of Bonnets and Hoods. Sadly, the Bonnets has little to say or do in the epic but his visual impact makes up for his taciturn reluctance.

Of course, there are those critics who’ll sniff at my choice for the Bonnets, they’ll mutter darkly of arbitrary choices and meaningless Nonsense (indeed!) but I can assure them that Nietzsche really did have a Bonnet!

Louise von Salome, Paul Ree, and Frederick Nietzsche

It was the Swiss photographer, Jules Bonnet, who took this infamous photo of our Prussian playboy whooping it up with his friends Paul Ree and Louise von Salome. If the Bonnet fits, wear it, Freddie! And frankly, I think the words “Prussian philosopher” provide sufficient merriment to qualify automatically for inclusion in any work of Nonsense. In fact, several philosophers were injured in the making of this Snark and later on we’ll see Marty Heidegger in a wig, nursing a badly broken ontology.

The gentleman chalking the tip of Freddie’s nose is the Billiard Marker, of whom Carroll says little except to note that “his skill was immense.” A Victorian billiard marker was a man or boy who kept the score and maintained the tables and equipment in a public billiard parlor. Billiards is a game of mathematical precision, which combined with the quality of immense skill, meant that there was only possible candidate for the job — Raymond Roussel!

Raymond Roussel

Roussel wrote several highly original novels, plays and poems, all imbued with an oddly emotionless, Gallic version of Carrollian Nonsense. He was much admired by the Surrealists of the time, who called him the president of the republic of dreams.

The star on his forehead refers to his declaration, after a nervous breakdown, that he was born for glory and felt a burning sensation like a star on his brow. This was one of his more mundane observations though. When asked what he thought of the Great War, Roussel remarked only that he had never seen so many men! He also mailed an electric heater to a Parisian lady friend who’d requested a memento of his travels in India. And best of all — economizing publishers take note! — when searching for an illustrator for his verse masterpiece, he hit upon the device of employing a detective agency to find a suitable artist!

Frankly, I can’t think of anyone better suited to chalk Nietzsche’s nose, can you?