Antiquarian book dealer and avid bibliophile Simon Finch meditates on the passions and delusions particular to his trade, and reflects on a rare text that eluded him nearly thirty years ago

In 1989, my bookselling career was taking off, and I was rabid to attend every auction I could. November of that year saw a fabulous sale of important books in fine condition at Sotheby’s in New York. Among the many remarkable items was a first edition of Don Quixote and a book by Georg Joachim Rheticus called Narratio Prima, one of the rarest and most important books in the history of science, printed in Gdansk in 1540.

Rheticus was the only pupil of Copernicus and his slight publication was the first printed account of the great man’s heliocentric theory of the universe. Its printing gave Copernicus the courage to publish his own book, and the sheets of De Revolutionibus were delivered to him on his deathbed in 1543. Perhaps he checked out at the right time: The idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun was not particularly popular then.

The month of the auction was also the month I got married, and I had to persuade my wife to take a detour on our honeymoon to see the book, which, kindly, she agreed to. But it was all in vain; the Rheticus went for $470,000, way beyond my pocket at the time.

The addicted book collector is motivated by hope and desire. Bibliomania is an ancient affliction, though it was only named in the 18th century by John Ferriar – a physician at the Manchester Royal Infirmary – and it is an affliction without a cure. The acquisition of one particular volume does not satisfy. Delusion is part of the disease. I somehow imagined that the Rheticus might slide between the cracks and be had for a bargain price.

About a decade later I was at a book fair on the continent when a gentleman asked me whether I would like to buy “quite a rare book”. Of course, the answer was “Yes”, but I was not quite prepared for what it was: a copy of the Rheticus and the equally scarce second edition. This time around I was in a position to make a deal – such incredible joy.

I never got the Don Quixote and my marriage didn’t last, but you can’t, as they say, win them all.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Translating: The White Book

Man Booker International Prize-winner Deborah Smith demonstrates the trials and triumphs of translating with an extract from The White Book, the new novel from Korean writer (and co-recipient of the prize) Han Kang

Han Kang, © Lee Chunhee

The list of white things with which Han Kang begins The White Book, and which form the titles of these individual pieces – prose-poems ranging from a paragraph to a page and a half in length – contains several that lack a direct English equivalent, not simply for the word (common enough in translation) but for the object itself. ‘Newborn gown’ is one of them – not the romper we’re familiar with now, but a tiny sleeved gown, a miniature version of something an adult might wear.

One of the ways in which Korean differs most drastically from English is that a sentence does not need a subject, and so will often do without one if it’s clear from the context whose actions are being discussed (clear to the author, at least, is the translator’s perennial gripe). The subject’s omission can also be used for specific effects without, then, seeming clunky or distracting from the flow of the prose. Human Acts, Han Kang’s heartbreaking account of the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising, enacts a seamless telescoping back and forth between ‘you’ and ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘me’, between the public arena in which history is made and the individual actors whose motivations are often far more personal. As the narrative shifts from one perspective to another, those first few sentences before a subject needs to be specified construct a kind of liminal space, bridging the gap between public and private, the living and the dead.

© Portobello Books

I attempted a similar effect in English, here at the end of the passage above, with the subjectless final sentence and by using ‘the’ in the one before as opposed to a ‘her’ which would suggest the mother, excluding the potential reading which has the baby as an alternate or additional subject. When I first read the Korean, it struck me so powerfully that this cold would be simultaneously sinking in to both mother and baby, the latter as the heat of life slipped away, the former now that the effort to save her baby’s life was no longer distracting her from her own physical sensations, leaving her lying on a tiled floor in winter; and that the silence would be the absence of tears on both sides. In the vacuum of exhaustion preceding grief, I wanted to highlight this final moment of communion.

Newborn Gown, from The White Book, by Han Kang

My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.

I was told that she was a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake. Though she was very small, two months premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her two black eyes and turned them towards my face.

At the time, my parents were living in an isolated house, in the countryside near the primary school where my father taught. My mother’s due date was still far off, so she was completely unprepared when, one morning, her waters broke. There was no one around. The village’s sole telephone was in a tiny shop by the bus stop – twenty minutes away. My father wasn’t due back from work for another six hours.

It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My twenty-two year old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors. Fumbling in her sewing box, she found some white cloth that would do for a newborn’s gown. Gripped by contractions and terribly afraid, tears started down as she plied her needle. She finished the tiny gown, found a thin quilt to use as swaddling bands, and gritted her teeth as the pain returned, quicker and more intense each time.

Eventually, she gave birth. Still alone, she cut the umbilical cord. She dressed the bloodied little body in the gown she’d just made, and held the whimpering scrap in her arms. For god’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes encountered those of her child, her lips twitched again. For god’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually leach into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is published by Portobello Books on November 2 2017

Palm Springs: The Good Life Goes On

Photographer Nancy Baron shares exclusive photos from her new book on Palm Springs, California, and discusses the uniqueness of  a town frozen in time

Palm Springs is a desert paradise – regardless of your definition of paradise – as there is something for everyone in this beautiful oasis. The San Jacinto Mountains block the clouds from the valley, allowing the sun to shine down on those lucky enough to spend time there. There are countless activities to enjoy – from hiking, horseback riding, golf, tennis, swimming, cycling – to lying by the pool with a cool drink and a good book, or floating the day away in the pool (listening to the rustling palms). 

I had visited Palm Springs for many years. When it became my second home (about 10 years ago) I was amazed to learn how much more there is to the town than I had seen as a visitor. I was fascinated by the devotion of the self-proclaimed modernists, to mid-century modern design and lifestyle and to its preservation. They are re-enacting a time in American history that many of them are too young to remember, or if they do remember, they now see the era through the glowing filter of a warmer, gentler time. Their commitment to the mid-century modern lifestyle bonds this vibrant community. I began to document the places and people that the occasional tourist rarely sees. I wanted to share my take on Palm Springs with the world, letting them know that there’s more to the town that meets the eye. Documenting my discoveries gives me the chance to clearly show what I love about this town. The devotion to design and the mid-century modern lifestyle is there to be discovered and documented as I find it, with strict attention to detail, in all of its colourful glory. Finding a place where people love to be is worth sharing.


‘Winged Ham Cam’

Palm Springs is a small town with big city sophistication; including a world-class art museum, some of the best vintage shopping in the world, and great restaurants. There are several star-studded festivals, including the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Palm Springs Photo Festival and the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival. Tour guides are around to give walking or riding tours of the countless mid-century modern architectural masterpieces. Modernism Week draws modernism devotees from all over the world. With a beautiful international airport designed by modern architect Donald Wexler, it’s easy to access all this wonderfulness. Because the town is so small, once there, getting around is a breeze too. All this and some of the friendliest people in the United States makes it hard not to fall in love with Palm Springs.

‘And the Cars to Match’

It’s a hopeful place and that’s something worth honouring.  It has inspired architects from all over the world to create beautiful homes that slip seamlessly into the desert landscape, built for comfort and ease. Through ups and downs, the town has managed to survive. Its natural beauty and lovely climate draw all kinds of people who are allowed the freedom to express themselves as they please, making for a colourful palette from which to draw.

Palm Springs – The Good Life Goes On by Nancy Baron is published by Kehrer Verlag, October 2016

Photography Nancy Baron

Interview by Cécile Fischer

Rick Moody: writing for an Internet age

We chat to acclaimed writer Rick Moody about finding humour in Virginia Woolf, writing fictitious hotel reviews, and why novels should mirror modern life

Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, published by Profile Books
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, published by Serpent’s Tail books

Rick Moody: controversial, riled against and hailed. His novels have criss-crossed from disintegrating suburban life to struggling slackerhood, and in his latest work, Hotels of North America, he has moved to the online world. How do we tell stories in this forum? Is it confession or performance? If we can present ourselves as anything, are we putting forth a true representation, or have we all become liars? And if we do choose to tell the truth, is it with irony or tenderness that we manage to do so?

These our some of the questions put forth in the book, released in spring 2016 – a deconstructed rush through one man’s life, told in the format of the minutely detailed hotel reviews he writes, and garners a devoted and vocal audience for due to their no-holds-barred confessional nature. Comedic, heartfelt, often tragic, the story spins its way across countries, through the many rooms, visitations, and memories that make up the life of Reginald E. Morse.

We sat down with Moody to talk TripAdvisor, the “fantasy-driven Internet world”, and finding humour in Virginia Woolf.

Where do you write?

Right now, I’m writing on a bed, while my wife looks at her phone beside me. But the site varies. I used to write in the car quite a bit. While it was parked, of course.

What are you working on at the moment?

An essay on Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

How has your writing changed since you first began?

I suppose I would leave it up to the critics to answer this question, though it seems to me I have changed a great deal. The earlier works were more narrative based, because I was figuring out what narrative is and how to use the large palette of the novel. But lately they have been more about consciousness and language, and more given to formal experimentation. Probably because I don’t like repeating myself.

How did you start researching your 2016 novel, Hotels of North America? Did you spend a lot of time in hotels or on TripAdvisor?

I started by staying in hotels. In fact, I didn’t really pay attention to TripAdvisor or Expedia or until I was nearly done with the first draft. I didn’t pay much attention to them at all, at the end of the day. Though they do have their delights.

Why did you choose the hotel review format for the book?

I chose the online review format because online life is life in the 21st century in many ways, whether you like it or not (and I don’t like it that much). I had started a more conventional novel, protagonist-driven in the somewhat traditional way, and I awoke one morning feeling like this work was totally fraudulent because it contained none of this fantasy-driven Internet world. The youngsters are almost always on there! It is where they live!

A novel that doesn’t take advantage of how life is actually being lived is a pretty ineffective mirror of its times. So I put down that novel, and began this one.

What do you think of review sites and the culture now where everyone can write a review, rather than just journalists?

Thrilling, democratic and totally id-driven, and thus both excellent and lamentably horrible at the same time.

A lot of Hotels of North America deals with the idea of an Internet persona – both in the character of Reginald Morse and the people he interacts with. How do you think the Internet has changed our ideas of identity?

I don’t think identity really exists; I think identity is a legacy of pre-20th century ideas of psychology. It’s useful to pretend identity exists, because it makes life easier, but I incline toward a ‘society of mind’ idea, in which we are systems of being who interact as selves on a temporary basis for particular social purposes. I don’t think there is a stable self, therefore, and the Internet reliably indicates as much. How many people on the web are transgender avenger ninjas? Quite a few, it would seem.

There seem to be two currents running through the book – the ironic motivational speaker and hotel reviewer, and then the tender side of a father and ex-husband. How do you consolidate these into a single work?

I always think that comedy and tragedy are obverses of one another and each makes cleaner and more compelling the incisions of the other. I can’t imagine a work that didn’t have each.

I was reading Woolf last week and remembering that she is very funny in spots, though she has a reputation for being earnest. The same is true of many writers I admire – Joyce, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard… They are funny and deadly serious at the same time. I want to make sure my work has a similar full spectrum of human emotions.

Rick Moody’s new novel Hotels of North America is available now on Serpent’s Tail books

Shooting the American West: Reto Sterchi

In his latest book, Swiss photographer Reto Sterchi examines the sprawling landscape and eccentric inhabitants of the American West

Reto Sterchi has photographed Taylor Swift, prominent NASA physicist Tom Campbell and Swiss adventurer Mike Horn, as well as a cadre of well known writers, artists, and models. But in a new series, the New York-based photographer has taken on his biggest portrait project yet: the American West.

Entitled A preface to: A visual record of the American West after the dawn of the Internet, Sterchi’s 47-page photobook draws attention to American tensions, its vastness and its individuality, its commercialism and its wildness, and bleakness amid the pursuit of happiness. The photographs bring these divergent themes into a single frame; Sterchi rarely crops or zooms, instead, his discovered details (the McDonald’s sign in the Grand canyon, the ‘nude girls’ billboard in the desert, etc.) are swallowed up by the landscape. His is an open-road view of America – the deserted hotels and expansive highways that can be forgotten when the focus is so often on big city glamour.

We caught up with Sterchi to discuss his idea of the American narrative, storytelling in photography and what he learned from Annie Leibovitz.

americanwest (42 of 45)

How did you begin this series? Was it one road trip or a culmination of travels around the American West?

All of the photos were taken on a single two-week road trip in 2015. My girlfriend surprised me with it for my 30th birthday. So I didn’t have a concept, I just started shooting as I always do on trips. The overarching story started to take shape in my head as we went along.

What is it about this particular landscape that is so appealing to you and what did you learn about the US while working on the project?

Well, I’m from Switzerland (talk about a cramped place…) and I see the American West as wide, wild, unorganised, mythical, and full of huge skies and weird stuff. It’s the ultimate inspiration. I can’t avoid exploring it and documenting it. I learned that people in the West are very, very friendly and that deserts are the quietest places in the world.

© Reto Sterchi
© Reto Sterchi

How did photographing this vast landscape and its characters differ from your regular portrait photography?

I’ve always been shooting this kind of stuff, actually. Even before the portraits… A huge project I shot in Switzerland about secret underground facilities from WWII is still in the works and is yet to be shown.

I come from a filmmaking background, but I fell in love with the non-linear storytelling in photography. There’s more and, at the same time, less ambiguity than in filmmaking. I knew immediately that this is what I’m here to do. That’s my mission.

In terms of approach, I do try to constantly evolve and try new stuff. On this project only a very few shots are cropped…only two, I believe. I think cropping kinda takes away the soul of the photograph. So that and fixed lenses made up the formal part of the approach for this trip.

Although many of these shots are landscape, they often include a single, almost-hidden detail, like the McDonald’s sign in the Grand Canyon. Why is this important to you and what do you think they tell the viewer about American culture?

It’s a comment on the capitalist culture in the US; placing billboards in those beautiful, wild landscapes seems so out of place to me. They disturb the balance and the peace.

They really stop at nothing. They would place a billboard on The Moon if they could. It’s funny and almost touching to see how humans decorate their environment.

© Reto Sterchi
© Reto Sterchi

Can you tell us a little about the narratives that appeared in this series, both in singular photos and as a whole?

If there isn’t a narrative in a photo it’s useless to me. Pretty pictures are everywhere and they’re ok, it’s just not what I want to do. I think it’s all about having opinions about things. That’s why I take a picture – to share my opinion and to communicate.

One photo shows a Harley Davidson bike on the back of a new pickup truck. It was such a neat analogy for how Easy Rider would look like these days. No rebellious spirit. None. And we’re out of touch with nature.

What other photographers do you think have influenced your style?

Well you can’t get around Robert Frank, William Eggleston and Martin Parr. Swiss photographer Andri Pol is one of the best working photographers in the world. The new book by Alec Soth (Read PORT’s interview with Alec Soth here) is amazing. But I’m more influenced by Raymond Carver and filmmaker Roy Andersson. The video game Grand Theft Auto is also a great inspiration.

I look at photo work more in terms of seeing what concepts people are doing now and finding inspiration there.

© Reto Sterchi
© Reto Sterchi

When you’re shooting portraits, how do you know when you have your shot?

I read this book by Annie Leibovitz and what struck me most was that back in the day, when they used to pay you, they gave you two days to do a portrait shoot. You’d get to know the person, talk about ideas and collaborate. That’s something I always want: for the subject to contribute to the picture.

These days you get 10 minutes for a portrait session and it will be a posed picture most likely. There’s not much you can do, unless both of you are having a very good day. My approach is to break down behavioral barriers and get comfortable over time. And yeah, when you’re out of stuff to talk about you know you have the shot.

A preface to: A visual record of the American West after the dawn of the Internet is available now

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Granta editor and Guardian first book award nominee Max Porter chats to PORT about taking risks in contemporary publishing

Image © Lucy Dickens
Image © Lucy Dickens

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, has garnered considerable praise in the the two months since it was published, and has already found its way onto the shortlists of literary prizes including The Goldsmiths Prize and The Guardian First Book Award. It’s also resulted in confusion among booksellers, who’ve struggled to place it in bookshops. The book darts between poetry, fable, drama, and essay – all within a slim volume of 15,000 words. And as a former bookseller himself, Porter can sympathise with this confusion.

In his current role as senior editor at Granta & Portobello Books, he can also see that this confusion works, and that, despite much noise to the contrary, readers are excited by innovation of this kind, where narratives that play with form aren’t necessarily weighed down by plot. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a small meditation on a huge subject, and, in a similar manner to the emotion it examines, it is structurally fragmented, individual, and brilliantly strange.

Ahead of the announcement of the 2015 Guardian first book award winner, we sat down with Porter to discuss the world of contemporary publishing, rewriting the definition for a successful novel, and paying homage to Ted Hughes.

book cover 500

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a combination of several forms: essay, poetry and short story. Were there any other works that
inspired you to publish in this way?

It reflects my reading life more than any specific writers or works. Moving between essays (on the tube), poetry (on the loo), children’s books (all the time) and novels (before bed), allows me to be quite self-conscious about what works for me and what doesn’t, and what happens in the movement between those forms. But, of course, I’m endlessly inspired by other writers.

In the case of this book notably: Anne Carson, Basil Bunting, Emily Dickinson, Russell Hoban, and Ted Hughes.

Your debut pays tribute to Ted Hughes’ book of poems Crow, almost translating his idea of the character into your own. What role do you think homage plays in contemporary literature?

I think we have an uneasy relationship with it, in this country especially. The assumption is you’re stepping on someone’s toes, or stealing their energy, and the implication is that it’s fine to do that invisibly, but not visibly.

I’m all for rootling around in the legacy of our dead poets, and believe they wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s all a game, ultimately – writing against the backdrop of all that has come before. I’m interested in letting the rules of the game, the scaffold of the exchange, show through and be a part of the surface.

There have been a lot of opinions expressed lately about the longevity or death of the novel. Do you think the format needs to adapt in order to survive?

I think it already has and always will. It’s a remarkable and singular thing, the novel. It’s always been in crisis, and it’s always been flirting with its own demise.

The best novels ever written take this crisis as a kind of generative starting point. I think the industry patronises readers, and fearfully shrinks the consumer into neat little algorithmic boxes. It’s daft; readers are unpredictable. The novel will be holding up a mirror to us, and sneaking in the odd devastating challenge, for as long as we have eyes to read with.

What advice would you give to first-time novelists and what have you learned from writing your debut?

Don’t fuck around second-guessing the market. Write the book only you can write. Don’t write for an imagined audience. Don’t write for an imaginary critic. Challenge yourself according to your own intensely demanding critical apparatus. Give it to people who will be harsh. Read it aloud. Re-write and re-write and save the drafts.

Image © Lucy Dickens
Image © Lucy Dickens

Where do you write?

The desk is no more, sadly – it made way for a cot. But I’m happy at the kitchen table with a glass of wine and a sharp pencil. On my work desk I have a David Jones postcard, a feather, and some LEGO. Sums me up, really.

Were there any challenges in getting published?

I was disgustingly lucky. Because it’s concerned with Ted Hughes, I sent it to Faber, thinking they’d either sue me or do it, and they did it. Beautifully. Other publishers have written to me to say they wouldn’t have had the nerve. But that’s the point. You have to see a way, and take it. Faber saw it from day one.

Is there space for the experimental novel in the publishing world today?

Yes, absolutely yes there is space for the experimental novel. Readers are willing to take risks. And I don’t think experimental work need be at the cost of emotional truth, humour, vulgarity, suspense or any of the things more associated with ‘popular’ writing. We can have it all.

Some writers say they’re afraid to write emotionally or sentimentally. Why do you think this is and how did you address this in your novel?

It’s the biggest trap, I think, for writers keen to avoid cliché. And perhaps there is a fear of being exposed. Someone read my book and said ‘people will think that sex scene is based on your real sex life’. Well, yes, but of all the risks a writer takes that can’t be the most frightening, can it?

I think great writing about emotional landscapes sneaks up on you. I like it when I’m undone by something in a text a little while after it’s happened.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is published by Faber

Tools of the trade: Liam Everett

US artist Liam Everett takes PORT through the process behind his latest work, a book inspired by his father-in-law’s collection of broken hammers and rusted chisels

Bruno Tollon taught History of Art at the University of Toulouse for 50 years and was known as an avid collector of tools. Rusting in the haphazardly stacked boxes in the professor’s garage in France are broken hammers, roofing chisels and keys for doors that no longer exist. Some have been repurposed by Tollon, serving as paperweights or containers for paper clips, and some have been mended, but many lie dormant. It is an impressive collection, with some tools dating back over 300 years. But for abstract painter Liam Everett – Tollon’s son-in-law, who had set-up a studio in the garage – their significance was not immediately apparent.


“I had known about this collection for almost 15 years,” Everett tells me on the phone from his current home in rural California. “I began pulling them together, creating a catalogue of probably about 13 different tools, not with any other intention than other than to familiarise myself with them. It’s very much the way I work in painting, beginning to work without an idea.”

Everett’s paintings are typically large-scale works, the product of alternately accretive and reductive processes that, in their gestural mark-making, evoke the movements of the artist. But for UTILE/INUTILE, published by RITE EDITIONS, Everett decided to work in a more intimate medium.

“I usually try and avoid narrative, I’d rather that rises up from the work itself,” explains Everett when asked why he felt the book was the best format for the work. “But Bruno started visiting my studio space every morning. He would pick up one of the tools on my desk and tell me the story , the memory that they evoked. Whether I liked it or not the project began to have a narrative.”


While in France, Everett delved further into Tollon’s collection and found a block of watercolour paper and ink that was over half a century old. After cracking open the jars of ink with vice grips and heating up the solidified ink (a process that Everett compared to painting), he soaked the tools in a mixture of alcohol, ink and salt to stabilise the metal and speed up the oxidisation process so they would deposit rust. Then he simply laid them on the paper and left them in the direct Mediterranean sun.

“After about two or three hours I would shift them on the paper and spray the same ink solution from above. At this point they just looked like cyanotypes,” he tells me. “You’re just getting the outline of the form like a primitive photocopy, but I repeated the process 20 to 25 times. I wanted the outlines of the tools to dissolve into a kind of static… I didn’t want the thing to be so literal.”

Although the images that result – half-realised, half-translucent forms in vibrant purples and blues and greens – are both compelling and beautiful, it was, for Everett, the act of producing the work that held the most importance, rather than the finished product. “For me the process wasn’t so much to make an image, but rather to handle the tools,” he explains. “To have a kind of influence with these objects, these things that were made only to have one purpose.”


By reminding us that tools like this that have been made redundant by new technology and lost techniques, Everett continues the themes of his large scale painting – of work done and of physical activity – into the book format. But UTILE/INUTILE goes further than this. The impressions of the tool, first on Tollon’s memory and then later on the watercolour paper, speak universally, while quietly evoking life’s aggregate of time and experience.

Beat Spotlight: a letter from Kerouac

A letter from Jack Kerouac, written the year before his death, gives us a glimpse into the beat icon’s life and reveals the plot of his last unfinished book

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac with a copy of a railroad brakeman’s rulebook – photograph by Allen Ginsberg, September 1953

When a piece of correspondence from a deceased icon is unearthed, a lesser-known side of that individual’s character is often revealed. In the case of writers, these fragments allow readers – who have seen mostly polished end products – to glimpse behind the veil of a public persona and better understand the person’s psyche.

This typed letter, dated September 27, 1968, and signed twice by Jack Kerouac, is precisely that. Addressed to Kerouac’s literary agent, Sterling Lord, the missive contains the premise for his final book, Spotlight, which was never to be completed, and covers some of his life’s successes as well as embarrassments. Lord was a pivotal figure in Kerouac’s career and was also the man who managed to sell On the Road – Kerouac’s roman à clef that was written during a caffeine-drenched, 20-day typewriter marathon at a friend’s New York apartment in 1951.

The autobiographical letter traces the rise and fall of Kerouac’s great works and acts as a fascinating testament to the inner mechanics that drove one of the Beat Generation’s brightest lights.

The original letter is now up for auction at Boston-based auction house RR Auction until July 15.

A Parisian reading list: Shakespeare and Company

As the dust settles after Paris Fashion Week, we asked Shakespeare and Company, the city’s famous English bookshop, to share their quintessential Parisian reading

Rooftops of Paris by Fabrice Moireau and Carl Norac
This stunningly designed book conjures you up to a levitated Parisian dimension. Artist Fabrice Moireau has an exquisite eye for quirky rooftop detail and surprising vistas – and see if you can spot Shakespeare and Company among the golden chimneys and mansard roofs.

Pure by Andrew Miller
Based on the true and disturbing story of Les Innocents – the Parisian cemetery destroyed in 1785 because the dead were literally bursting through cellar walls – this outstanding novel evokes a fevered and liminal point in history (it’s been read by many as a parable for the French Revolution) and oozes with grotesque atmosphere.

Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach
What a piece of luck that as well as being one of the great patrons of modernism, bookseller extraordinaire, and doyenne of the 20s and 30s Parisian literary scene, Sylvia Beach was also a luminous writer. This chronicle of her fascinating life at the forefront of some of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century is shot through with her legendary warmth and wit.

A Parisian Affair and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant
No one probes the two faces of human nature – the dark and the light – quite like de Maupassant. These 34 short stories, many of which are set in the playboy and prostitute-ridden nouveau riche society of 19th century Paris, reveal the complexities of love and lust with style and insight.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Pink hair, evening dresses in the daytime because everything’s in the wash, gossipy hangovers… The Dud Avocado, written and set in the 50s, follows utterly chaotic and lovable young heroine Sally Jay Gorce around Paris on her girl-about-town exploits and remains laugh out loud hilarious.

James Irvine: a life dedicated to design

Conor Mahon speaks to Marialaura Rossiello, the widow of influential British designer James Irvine, about the forthcoming monograph celebrating his body of work

James Irvine's monograph
James Irvine’s monograph

On the third floor of an apartment on Pannierstraße in Berlin is a sofa designed by the late James Irvine. It has been two years since I sat on that piece of furniture, which sits adjacent to a balcony window, and although during those 24 months there have probably been changes of tenants, owners and décor, I would be very surprised if that ‘Lunar’ sofa had been removed. It is both simply constructed and beautifully functional. As the apartment’s owner deftly flattened the sofa into a bed with her right foot, hands occupied by a plate and a piece of toast, the design etched itself into my memory.

The monograph of James Irvine’s life, compiled by his wife Marialaura Rossiello and released through Phaidon this month, is full of similar testimonies to the beauty of Irvine’s products, processes and character. The book details the life and works of Irvine who studied design at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University) and the Royal College of Art, before moving to Milan to work with the Italian design company Olivetti. In 1988 he founded Studio Irvine, which worked for a number of established publishers and design brands, and even devised a fleet of Mercedes-Benz busses for the city of Hannover in Germany. To find out more about Irvine’s story, I spoke with Rossiello about the experiences of producing the book, James’ time in Milan and the future of his studio.

Studio Irvine, 2013 – photograph by Santi Caleca
Studio Irvine, 2013 – photograph by Santi Caleca

Why did you decide to release this monograph now and how did you find the creative process of producing this book?

We very much wanted to tell the story of James. Emilia Terragni, who was a great friend of James’, had always wanted to do a monograph, but James was horrified by the idea of putting his whole career as a designer into a book. He didn’t feel up to it. Emilia got in touch with me shortly after his death and the book had to go ahead. We immediately thought of Francesca Picchi as one of the few who could take on such a delicate and intimate task by my side.

The book took a year and a half to complete, what with archiving, research, reading, interviewing…it kept us tremendously busy. We constructed each piece, gathered information and material, working on it in perfect harmony as an all-female team. Francesca interviewed all of James’ friends and put together a story beginning from the 1980s. It was a period of discovery and great enthusiasm, and it also involved some very emotional moments. The result is the story of a life dedicated to design, told through anecdotes, sketches, ideas, projects and stories; a constant source of inspiration and cheerfulness, as James was.

Left: Portrait of James Irvine. Right: Picture of Irvine aged seven with his handmade robot costume ©Santi Caleca  1965
Left: Portrait of James Irvine. Right: Picture of Irvine aged seven with his handmade robot costume ©Santi Caleca

Who do you think influenced James the most during his career?

James was curious about everything: people and things, human relationships and their relationship with objects. He was influenced by everything that surrounded him. Ettore Sottsass was a major inspiration for him, as he had been for all his friends, like George Sowden, Jasper Morrison and Stefano Giovannoni… but James had his own, strong personality – a unique outlook and touch. He found his way and his idiom with ease, while inwardly digesting and elaborating his experiences.

How would you describe James’ approach to design?

Rigorous, generous and ironical. Nothing was left to chance. Every millimetre was scrutinised all the way through, every small detail checked and double-checked; his was a truly open and meticulously precise approach.

The mongraph features a large number of Irvine's colourful and often humorous sketches
The mongraph features a large number of Irvine’s colourful and often humorous sketches

The book features some wonderful sketches by James. Do you have any favourites?

The Designer Dance is, for me, a hymn to the joy of being a designer, as is the Antibody of Design. Every action, project or drawing of his always ended with his particular little smile. Each expressed the exuberance of his life as a designer.

How did the relationship between James and Jasper Morrison affect their respective developments as designers?

James and Jasper were the best of friends and had known each other since they were 20 years old. They often compared notes and, as always between close friends, they influenced each other. Today, Jasper is,for me, very much a part of James and a constant reference for my children and I.

Radar Armchair for B&B Italia, 2001 – photograph by Fabrizio Bergamo
Radar Armchair for B&B Italia, 2001 – photograph by Fabrizio Bergamo

To what extent do you believe that Milan was James’ home?

Milan was his adopted home, he wouldn’t have changed cities for the world. It has sun, the sea only is two hours away and the mountains are even closer. It’s half an hour from Brianza, which has the best prototype makers and suppliers. All around is the Italian entrepreneurship of the most enlightened design makers. James loved being in the midst of the ‘debate’ and Milan was its perfect hub, even though he had always remained absolutely British.

Dodici Coat Stand, 2005 – image courtesy of Van Esch
Dodici Coat Stand, 2005 – image courtesy of Van Esch

What is the future of Studio Irvine?

Studio Irvine has never stopped working. The book captures the story of a gentleman designer, whilst the studio’s present approach asserts and pursues a precise design philosophy. Thanks to the book we have brought our design heritage into focus, which will help ensure its continuity. Today, with Maddalena Casadei at my side, we continue our long-standing collaborations, for example with Marsotto and Muji, and have embarked on others with Offecct, Hem, Kettal. Meanwhile we foster young entrepreneurs and enterprises, like Matteo Brioni and Foof, and prompt them to embrace new ideas for industry. We are ready to face the future, with curiosity and lots of fun.

James Irvine’s monograph is out now on Phaidon