At certain points in his life he confessed to having an ‘unhealthy obsession with the minutiae of writing’. To put it another way, all he saw was the details. ‘I could let the ideas drift,’ he said, ‘so long as the commas were exactly in the right place. I was in the grips of what an old friend once called “punctuation fever”. I would even dream about punctuation. I once dreamed that I was tied to a post in a large white room. Into the room came columns of commas, semi-colons, and full-stops. They formed circles around me and began to dance to some terrible thumping music. Midway through their dance their ranks were swollen by a phalanx of question marks, exclamation marks and brackets. Last but not least came a frightening row of dashes. Oh it was unbearable!
Further to yesterday’s post, I have received an update from Jaymer Veers’s publishers (HalleysCommaPress) announcing their intention to print a ‘adhesive colon’ (i.e. a sticker) for ‘readers who wish to correct the printing error in the title of Mr. Veers’s first novel’. I presume the sticker is intended for the cover of the book only, with instances of the error occurring within the pages of the book to be ignored as before. Or will we perhaps be provided with an adhesive colon sticker book, to cover up all those unwanted commas?
Whilst one praises the efforts of the publishers in this instance, one does wonder how far this sort of behavior could go. After all, some years (more than five, at least) have passed since the original publication of Poppies: Book One. Does this not mean that the mistake has now become part of the book? Try as they might, I doubt they can stop all readers referring to the work in question as Poppies, Book One. Indeed, I am beginning to doubt that I, for one, can be bothered to roll with these particular (and, some might argue, pointless) changes.
Like many readers of obscure european fiction, I have a habit of incorrectly reproducing book-titles and author’s names. For this I can hardly be blamed. Who can, after all, fathom the great ocean of mystery surrounding the accent (or lack of accent) in Luis Funnel’s surname? Who hasn’t mistyped the title of Eusen Eof’s novel : ? ; )? How many times have I been called Gregory or George by close friends and mere acquaintances – even by my own dear wife?
It comes as no surprise to hear, therefore, that I have been dropping commas and colons in the ‘wrong place’ in relation to both of Jaymer Veers’s novels. Over the course of these two posts, for instance, I refer to his first novel alternatively as Poppies, Book One and Poppies: Book One. Elsewhere I refer to its sequel as both Poppies: The Index and Poppies, The Index. Which is it?
It seems there is little agreement. Sources close to the author suggest that it is the colon should be present in both titles. However, it is a certainty that the first novel was published with a comma; the second without. If this was an error in the first place, it is an error that has stuck – and will not be easily corrected. We can hardly collect all known copies of Poppies, Book One and insert a colon in the title of each, can we? Or can we?
It is in acting out of character that we reveal our true selves. Or something like that. At any rate, I’m always interested in how my favourite Johannes Speyer stories are the ones which, on the surface, seem to say little about the ‘essential character’ (or essentially ‘perceived’ character) of the great man.
I have said before, no doubt, that Speyer was not a man of action. And yet at the same I keep referring to him as the Father of Active Reading. ‘I don’t go out much,’ he said to me once, not long before he died. It was an understatement. He barely left the house. But when he did, well: that was when things happened.
Consider the sky-writing incident. How old was Speyer when he did this? I can’t recall, but he was no spring chicken. He wasn’t even an autumn chicken. Low on funds, energy and time, his sudden decision to stage a major active-reading-skywriting project took most people by surprise. Not least the skywriters.
Skywriting is some skill, sure – but there’s no denying the vast majority of what gets written in the sky is the most banal sort of tripe. A company name, a short message of love, contemporary lingo – it’s hardly poetry, is it? Speyer had noticed this, and he was determined to change it, whatever the cost (and trust me when I say that the cost was high. Sky high). So he commissioned what is, I think, the longest piece of skywriting to date; the first sentence of Paavo Laami’s famous novel The Phoenicians, in its entirety.
In its entirety? I lie. It wasn’t quite the whole first sentence. The unfortunate skywriter in question misread his instructions and missed out a comma. This sent Speyer into a rage. He cursed the pilot a thousand times. He refused to pay up. He cursed the pilot a thousand times more. He wrote letters to skywriting magazines (of which there are a surprising amount) vehemently protesting his case. Not for a moment did he reflect on the near triumph of his project. Not for the first time (see here) he allowed a small piece of punctuation to ruin everything.
It’s a pity, for like I said, the project was almost an absolute triumph. Despite the mishap, he had created a thing of no uncertain beauty. Paavo Laami written in the sky! Wonderful. To Speyer, however, there was no such consolation. When he did crawl out of his shell and set about making things happen, it really was a case of all or nothing. There was to be no compromise. Not on his watch.
I have returned, not without a little reluctance, to the ongoing process of re-editing the articles in my temporarily static journal Underneath the Bunker. Why such reluctance? It is, alas, as I have mentioned on previous occasions, on account of the seemingly endless parade of errors I encounter every time I set foot on the old website. One edits once, one edits twice, one edits thrice: still the mistakes get through. Grammar, spelling, sense – there is no end, it seems, to the soul-crushing chaos. I could claim that it isn’t all my fault: I could blame my cack-handed contributors, for instance, or my imperfect proof-readers. Ultimately, however, an editor needs to stand up for his or herself: to confess their countless sins and make clear their intentions to right all careless wrongs.
It’s funny how sensitive one can become to these small errors; these piddling crimes of punctuation. I recall the late great Johannes Speyer writing a romantic letter to one of his many female followers. Two hours after passing the note over to the lady in question he burst into her house and demanded she return it. ‘Why so?’ she squealed (or so he claimed). ‘I have just remembered a small error I made,’ he replied, seizing the letter from her dainty little hands and rushing out of the room. Minutes later he reappeared, replacing the once-offending missive into her quivering palms. She looked down to see that he had crossed out a semi-colon and inserted in its place a comma. ‘I couldn’t bear for you to think of me as the kind of man who would misuse a semi-colon’ he said, before leaping through the open window and trampling on her flower beds.
Like the majority of Speyer’s love affairs, this one was not meant to be. Granted, the girl was never to think of him as the kind of man who would misuse a semi-colon, but she was to think of him as a selfish, four-timing, flower-bed trampler. Still: this was fine by him. So long as the love letters were appropriately punctuated, it didn’t much matter what came of them.