I have always looked favorably at picture books which keep a double reading level: one more instinctive, emotional, irrational (that avoids any kind of concrete references, and only tied to the ones provoked by the readers’ life and their knowledge, no matter if they are children or adults); the other deeper, rational, meditated, where the clues given by the author are essential, but they don’t presume to be conclusive or to show a one-sided reading (actually they can be an opportunity for considerations and comparisons).
When I asked Claudia Palmarucci to talk about her visual and bibliographic references for The double, published by Éditions Notari, with texts by Davide Calì, I was just aware of a few things.
Reading the book, the illustrations have some immediate and clear references to art and movies. But what Claudia sent me back is a wonderful network of philosophy, sociology, art, and literature. Here there follow some of the things that she generously shared with me, and that now I wish to share with you.
Double: A person who looks exactly like another
On the left, Buster Keaton, in a photo by Arthur Rice dated 1925. In Sherlock Jr., a 1924 movie, Keaton is both an anonymous projectionist and the famous detective: a double-character living in two different dimensions, the one of reality, where he is helpless in front of a problem, and the one of his dreams, where he is strong and smart enough to solve any situation. Paradoxically, a double is seldom, if ever, a perfect replica of the original. Rather, the double, has often something that the original lacks: strength, intelligence, beauty, or, as Xavier in the book, time. And often the original, who initially is the sole authentic character of the story, eventually turns into the double’s victim, and ends up being deprived of his capacity to control his actions and thoughts.
Keaton, with an unexpressive face that seems more of a mask, apparently unemotional, but being genuinely a deep expression of human condition in nowadays society […] will succeed in representing the man of the previous century and, at the same time, he will anticipate the man who will soon arise: the machine-man.
(Alessandro Morera on Carmilla)
Work: Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result
The other key word of the book is work.
Continuous, stressful, alienating. Repetitive.
Xavier is a modern Sisyphus, and for Claudia he recalls the Sisyphus described by Albert Camus in 1942: someone trapped in a life
…in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again.
Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification (with regard to whom or what is not the question). He weighs his chances, he counts on “someday,” his retirement or the labor of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free, even if all the facts make a point of contradicting that liberty. […]
To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty. (Albert Camus)
In the book, Xavier does not realize immediately that his life is running away. The doubt creeps in his mind like a nightmare; he slowly becomes aware that he is losing time, love, energies. His conscience recovers strength and awareness, until he decides what to do and realizes that he cannot stand his life anymore as it is.
Alienation: (In Marxist theory) a condition of workers in a capitalist economy, resulting from a lack of identity with the products of their labour and a sense of being controlled or exploited.
Alienation and the loss of happiness transform people. Sadness is on their faces, the void is in their eyes. Claudia found her inspiration in the portraits by Theodore Géricault: mental illness and workers’ alienation are not so diverse, as in both conditions one’s authentic self is eventually replaced by something different, a pale shadow which comes to stands for someone who is no longer present. It’s curious that Géricault realized four portraits, as four are the types of alienation described by Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844, published in 1932).
The first step for Xavier is to understand, through the alienation around him, that he is himself an active victim of such a condition. Caludia’s portraits in the book explains very well this new sight. The second step, then, is to look around with a different point of view, a sharper eye that enable one to focus more on details and to look for something else: a way-out, a new key to read the reality. It’s like an awakening, as Claudia hints as she quotes Domenico Gnoli’s work.
There would be so much left to say about this book, which is the perfect example of how picture books can, and should, always work:
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words […], but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
Roland Barthes, The death of the author, 1967
Text and illustrations together multiply this tissue. Society, the reader, and the context make such a tissue alive.
The double will be presented during the Bologna Children’s Bookfair. You will find it at the Éditions Notari stand, in Hall 29 D36.