Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Altered Book: (S)tree(t) of C(roc)od(il)es

Interestingly, it took a well known fiction writer to get an altered book published and available to a wide audience. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, among other works, took an English language copy of the 1934 novel The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and, as the copyright page notes, "cut into the pages, carving out a new story." The original was Safran Foer's favorite story. The new version is called Tree of Codes.

My first question was: will it really read like a story, or is this a novelty item? When I picked up the thick paperback book I discovered that it was light, spongy, already a curiosity. Upon opening it I was delighted by the layers of words. Then I began to read, page-by-page. I found repetition of words and some wonderful poetic language left intact, for example, "like the glove from which a hand had been withdrawn" (14). The text in its cutout form tells an abstract story, which is grammatically correct and has complete sentences with "Father" and "Mother" and "I" as the characters. The intrigue lies in the words that float to the surface and play hide and seek with one another. Phrases from below add color, like the past influencing the present. 
Although Tree of Codes isn't completely satisfying as stand-alone fiction (which it isn't meant to be anyway), it is magical in conjunction with the tactility and playfulness of the reading experience. The book as a whole is satisfying. Now, I would like to read The Street of Crocodiles. I suspect it is magical because of the language.


Here is what the book and the author look like:


Here is how the book was made using die-cuts:


Bruno Schulz was an artist (and art teacher by profession) as well as a writer which may account for the strong imagery in his written work. You can see his artwork here.
"I was happy," said my father, "to see that unexpected flowering which filled the air with a soft rustle, a gentle murmur, falling like colored confetti through the thin rods of the twigs.
"I could see the trembling of the air, the fermentation of too rich an atmosphere which provoked that precocious blossoming, luxuriation, and wilting of the fantastic oleanders which had filled the room with a rare, lazy snowstorm of large pink clusters of flowers.
"Before nightfall," concluded my father, "there was no trace left of that splendid flowering. The whole elusive sight was a fata morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life." 
The Street of Crocodiles (68)
Tree of Codes (60)

Tree of Codes is published by Visual Editions, 2010
"At times I felt that I was making a gravestone rubbing of The Street of Crocodiles, and at times that I was transcribing a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had" —Jonathan Safran Foer (139).

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