Friday, October 16, 2009

Books We Fully Intend To Read

You know how the movie is never as good as the book?  Except for Casino Royale?  And you know how comic-book adaptations of movies -- even movies adapted from comics -- are so comically bad that you can barely stand to read them?

Well, there have to be exceptions, and if that's true, then R. Crumb's Genesis is a likely candidate.

Crumb, of course, is a brilliant auteur, most closely associated with the "underground" comics of decades past -- Mr. Natural and all that.  In later years, he has been celebrated by a bio-doc, moved to the south of France, while his work has gone establishment, and  begun appearing in the New Yorker.  And, indeed, excerpts of his Genesis appeared there over the summer, and were immensely tantalizing.

It's out now, and a review in the Forward, reprinted in Ha'aretz, makes it sound like all that and more.  It starts with three particular points of interest.

First, this is a serious effort to interpret the text:

Crumb's "Genesis" is ... perfectly serious and the author wants us to know it. As he says on the cover, "Nothing Left Out!" Every "beget" from the King James Bible can be found here, along with plenty of scenes censored from previous graphic adaptations. 

And more prose, in the final "Commentary" segment of the book, than non-writer Crumb may have put on the page anywhere, aside from his published letters. ...

The commentary on his visual choices and his broader interpretations explores and explains his few intentional deviations, not only in the name of narrative clarity but artistic intent. Mainly, his notes drive home how he struggled to interpret the text in suitable graphic form, chapter by chapter, sometimes even character by character. There is no doubting the artist's integrity or hard work, in no small part because he redrew again and again, trying to find historically accurate clothing and scenery. The Old Testament of cinematic Charlton Heston, so to speak, became the Genesis of lived and perceived experience, socially real and super-real. Clues are provided with translations of specific Hebrew names within the visual text, essentially metaphorical in meaning. These clues may be the closest to footnotes that Crumb has ever provided. 

(Crumb also explains that his reading of Genesis has been reshaped by feminist analysis, which will appeal to some readers more than others.  But the others probably weren't going to buy this book anyway.)

Second, Buhle picks up on something that a Gentile reviewer might have missed, or neglected to mention for fear of insulting somebody:

More striking for anyone but the seasoned Crumb fan: unlike previous Biblical comic adaptations, including some published and drawn by Jews, Crumb's characters actually look Jewish, the women even more than the men. ...

Close readers will see Crumb's wife Aline Kominsky, to whom the book is dedicated, again and again, in various guises; perhaps only Chagall drew his beloved wife so often and with such varied imagination. 

Not only are the characters Jewish here, they are all ages and sizes. If, for instance, there are more drawings of Jewish elders in any single volume of comic art anywhere, I have never seen them. The women here are beautiful when young, heavily busted with large, muscular thighs. The men are strong, their beards full and noble.

To a secular reader, and Crumb will have many, this is enough.  To Egg readers, however, it may sound almost beside the point.  What about God, we ask plaintively.  We may be put off a bit by the revelation that, per Buhle, "the deity has a really big beard."  But God also "retains his notoriously bad temper," as well as his demand for absolute loyalty.   Well, that's good.  Buhle sees a greater depth, however, and even a new humility to Crumb's treatment of God: 

 Crumb treads with a caution all the more remarkable for an artist, who, short decades ago, allowed himself the full run of his imagination, heedless of the consequences. 

Well, yes, but not that humble.  This is a risky endeavor, and the likelihood of failure is high.  Granted, Crumb's source material is among the most richly textured and yet elliptically-told narratives in world literature.  But, far from guaranteeing success, that fact just raises the stakes.  They are raised again by the fact that, to a vast number of readers all over the world, this is not mere narrative, but Divine Word.  It takes a certain lack of humility even to consider it.

So, whether the book is as good as Buhle thinks or not, it is certainly worth a look.  And we will take a gander, as soon as we can. 


Anonymous said...

do you see it as available in Cluj?

Father said...

Funny you should mention that. No. In fact, I cut the whole paragraph where I dropped unsubtle hints about Christmas gifts for poor, suffering missionaries on the edge of the jungle.