Post Road Magazine #23


Jim Lewis

Collaborations between visual artists and writers are often good, but seldom great. Usually, the problem is priority of one sort or another: coming up with a design and layout that's suitable for both can be difficult, and the coated paper that's best for reproductions is inhospitable to print of any length. In the absence of a good compromise, the pictures inevitably look like illustrations, or the words like captions. Moreover, it's hard to find a moment when both contributors are at their best, and in the mood to work together. Indeed, the better cases are generally not collaborations at all, but instances of a single figure working in two media simultaneously: William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience is a classic example, Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid a more recent one. There are exceptions. Hart Crane's The Bridge originally appeared in an edition that included three photographs by Walker Evans, the first he'd ever published. Robert Frank's The Americans came with a cranked-up introduction by Jack Kerouac, as good a piece of writing as he ever did. And then there's Facile, the most nearly perfect collaboration between an artist and a writer that the twentieth century has produced.

I first happened upon it in the Museum of Modern Art's library, when I was directly out of college: a thin volume produced by Man Ray and Paul Eluard, consisting of twelve photographs, mostly nudes of Eluard's wife (and Man Ray's model), Nusch—gorgeous, silky, serpentine images, around which the lines of Eluard's love poems curl like smoke from a cigarette. The whole was printed by photogravure and issued in an edition of 1200 or so; I don't know how many have survived, but World Cat shows a hundred or so copies in American libraries, and Google's image search yields a few legible reproductions.

My experience with the book has been a love affair in itself: I saw it once and was smitten. From time to time, I'd search for a copy online, but those that surfaced were well beyond my price range, out of my league. Then one day, a few years ago, I discovered that it had been reprinted at last, in a very good facsimile edition produced by a French publisher aptly named Bibliotheque Des Introuvables. It, too, had sold out immediately, but I found a single copy online, available in a bookstore in the 5th arrondissement. I tried to order it but couldn't negotiate their peculiar and puzzling website. Still, I would be in Paris in a few months. Would it still be available? I checked every week or so, and when I landed at CDG I took a taxi directly to the store, which was hidden on a side street a few blocks from the Sorbonne. It was closed, and there was no sign to indicate when it might be open. Through the window I could make out a tiny, unkempt place, mostly given over to disheveled Situationist matériel, pamphlets, paperbacks, posters. I asked at the bakery next door and was told that the owner showed up whenever he felt like it, and no, they didn't know his phone number. It started to drizzle. I was due somewhere. It was all very Casablanca. I waited under a narrow eave until at last I couldn't wait any longer; and just as I was getting ready to leave the proprietor appeared, a small, round mustachioed man in his mid-fifties, who seemed puzzled that an American would travel so far to buy such a thing, but who gladly took my forty-five euros and carefully wrapped the book in a used plastic bag to protect it from the weather. And thus I carried it, carefully stored in a pocket of my suitcase for the next two weeks. Now it sits among the artists' books in my library, a crush fulfilled and never dulled; and when visiting friends ask me, as they sometimes do, what volume in my collection I prize most, I don't think about it, I turn to the shelves and reach immediately for Facile.

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