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Conversation between Saša Rakezić alias Aleksandar Zograf and Zoran Paunović

Excerpts from Zoran Paunović’s introduction on cover designs of James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce (1882-1941) never had luck with publishers. From his first published work, the book of poetry Chamber Music (1904) to Finnegan’s Wake (1939), published less than two years before his death, the history of publishing of Joyce’s works is a history of misunderstandings with those whose job was to turn those works to books and bring them to readers…
… The author of the cover design of the 1935 American edition of Ulysses was none other than Henri Matisse (1869-1954), whose authorly contribution to this edition was valued so highly that his name on the cover was written in the letters of the same size as that of James Joyce. This original coauthorship was the idea of American publisher George Macy, who offered to Matisse 5,000 dollars (equivalent to some 90,000 dollars today) to illustrate the bibliophile edition of Ulysses. Matisse, as one would expect, could not resist such an attempting offer, so he produced six illustrations and twenty etching drawings and the cover layout. At first, a good-willed reader would reasonably ask where the abuse is in that and why such severity towards Matisse, who completed his task in a proper way. He irrefutably did so, but only as far as the visual part of the task. Still, he didn’t do his mandatory reading beforehand, for to an attentive (and well-read) observer the motifs Matisse decorated Ulysses with would inarguably indicate the artist hadn’t had time to read Ulysses, so he made the illustrations based on the motifs of Homer’s Odyssey. James Joyce was, of course, an attentive and well-read observer so he got angry with Matisse (and signed just 250 out of the total of 1500 copies for that reason). Therefore, we can’t look at Matisse’s artwork in the book as the interpretation of the novel, but rather as a very particular and curious case of forgery…
… One of the best examples is the one made for Rakuten Kobo’s 2015 edition which used Joyce’s famous drawing of Leopold Bloom. The drawing was made at the beginning of 1926 in Paris, at the studio of Joyce’s friend, American artist Myron Nutting (1890-1972). Joyce came by Nutting’s studio a month after his eye surgery, the seventh in the series of surgeries over years, in his desperate attempts to escape from the complete blindness. It was one of the rare days when it seemed the surgery had some positive effect; his vision in one eye got slightly better. To show it off to his friend, Joyce took a chunky pencil and on a sheet of paper made a sketch of a man with a bowler and thick mustache, characteristic marks of Leopold Bloom. To leave no doubt as to who it was, next to the figure he drew, Joyce wrote down the first verse of the Odyssey (in original Greek, with a spelling error and several incorrect accents). On the cover of the abovementioned edition, there is only Joyce’s sketch for the portrait of Leopold Bloom left, drawn through haze…

Aleksandar Zograf: “Soon it will be 20 years since your translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses was published.”

Zoran Paunović: “It is always a good time to read Ulysses, whenever we read it. It represents a state of mind, a relationship with the world and art that is eternal. In short, Joyce demonstrated how an artist’s position should be. He should take art seriously, as a religion, with utter dedication. But he isn’t to take himself too seriously. From there something like a play with art emerges.
Although perceived as a sombre book, Ulysses is actually a play with art, as it shows the relationship with literary tradition as it should be. One should not write as no one has ever written before, but one shouldn’t look for holy cows, that is for undisputable role models to build one’s expression upon. One should find a piece of own sensibility in the tradition. That is what Joyce was doing he respected some, ridiculed some, but played with all of them.
Art is play. Combining existing elements and creating new images. Art should make us look at the world once again, from another side, with Leopold Bloom’s eyes, because the world becomes different then.”

Aleksandar Zograf: “When trying to understand phenomena through historical lens, we see that what appears to be completely new has its roots in past times and knowledge. Rock and roll didn’t appear with electricity and is certainly related to the traditional music of African Americans. For example, the tradition of the so-called cartooning comes from a specific branch of the American culture the culture of American natives, with its particular concise expression and humor, that seem to continue to live in a completely different media of contemporary comics.
Although many of my American colleagues deny it, there is an under-the-skin layer, a kind of expressiveness that appears in comics, for instance, that is related to a deeper American tradition and expression. Is it possible to find the roots of rock and roll poetry in the American literature of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century?”

Zoran Paunović: “There were many ideas conceived in literature that later evolved within rock and roll. One of the best examples is William Blake that opened the American culture of the 1960s and later the British. It all started with beatniks who were important to the American authorial music scene. Blake was the initiator of what is best summarised in his thought that we should expand the door of perception and afterwards everything will appear to us as it is, that is infinite. Many broke that door violently. But that was something that fertilised a new artistic world only at a later stage.
Art is one and indivisible. Maybe we should not speak about parallels between literature and rock and roll. Rock and roll, if it is true and great, is literature at the same time. Likewise, if literature has only but a little piece of the unclear, that we perceive as a characteristic related to what we, somewhat vaguely, call the spirit of rock and roll, that literature then belongs to rock and roll. Sometimes that intertwining occurs in its explicit forms, but it is almost always there as invisible.”

Aleksandar Zograf: “We should mention our latest cooperation on the publication Notebooks from Bor, about the work of Hungarian-Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti, who was subjected to forced labour in the camp the Nazis established in Bor. After the camp was dismantled in 1944, with the news of the liberators progressing, Radnóti, among the other surviving inmates, was forced to a strained march to Berlin. He got to the Hungarian-Austrian border when the Hungarian soldiers executed him together with a group of inmates that were too exhausted to continue the march. His body was later found in a mass grave, and a notebook with the poetry he had been writing during the labour in the camp and the subsequent march was found in a suit assumed to be his. That was Notebook from Bor that first appeared in translation by Danilo Kiš and this new edition with its title in plural (Notebooks from Bor) was published in 2019 by National Library from Bor together with the essay by Zoran Paunović and my strip.”

Zoran Paunović: “I’ve known of Miklós Radnóti since my childhood. And of the labour camps. I find it one of the most moving stories of artist and artistic creation. Think about that moment when a man, people around him dying, aware he would soon suffer the same fate and be buried in a mass grave, is writing inexhaustibly, till the last. He’s writing, though the only thing he can expect is that notebook would be buried with him, and leaves a message in several languages to the one who would find those verses. That need, not just to speak as an artist, but to create until the final moment and to conceive the final moment through creation, to me that is most moving.”

Zoran Paunović (1962), Professor of English Literature at Languages and Literature departments at universities of Belgrade and Novi Sad, essayist and translator.
Saša Rakezić, alias Aleksandar Zograf (1963), commentator and comics creator