This is a new type of review we’re trialling at DRC towers, in which we ask small press comic creators to write about a book or series that has influenced them. This week, Tom Mortimer reflects on a treasure from days gone by…
Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness)
by Max Ernst
First published in 1934
208 pages (Dover Publications, 1978 ed.)
Available from Amazon (£10.99)
Review by Tom Mortimer
Une Semaine De Bronté (A Week of Kindness) is a ‘surrealistic novel in collage’ by the artist Max Ernst, originally published as a set of seven volumes in 1933. The initial impact of this work is that it takes the images of racy pulp fiction – crude and sensationalist images of crimes, deaths and romances – and then twists, mutates and mystifies them. The illustrations subsequently become removed from the stories they were intended to depict, and develop a variety of new additions, morphing, interrupting or crawling over them. This stylistic approach leaves us with an image that gives a direct spectacle of what we lust for, but also a cryptic mystery – perhaps comical, if not dripping in or concealing some underlying sense of threat.
Something about Ernst’s style of illustration shouts drama. Nearly every pose is that which best amplifies the activities his characters are engaged in. In animation, any movement is broken down into frames, but of these maybe two or three will stand out to us as still images, because the way we read them is more clearly defined. They become symbolic of that action. You often see this in comics, to the point where a page can just look like an arrangement of stock poses, leading to an effort to explore variations and alternatives to smooth things out.
Une Semaine De Bronté is supposed to be a novel, but I don’t think it has the page-to-page connectivity to work as a normal narrative, even though it’s linked by certain shared themes or motifs. Instead, each page is like a compression of its own story, and they all piece together to make a body of work. What is so effective in this regard, is that Ernst uses the lure, the mystery, the set up, to turn the reader into a story generator. Many artists dream of this ability, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. We now live in a world full of images manipulating our desires, to create illusions of depth or meaning. We also often miss the point; Ernst’s is a layered journey.
The Dadaists and Surrealists themselves were known to carry political motivations but beyond depicting the eruptive entry of the unexpected, it’s difficult to now see what was really intended or invested, or what effect this had at the time. In today’s context, the use of Victorian media means the whole book is smothered in nostalgia and romanticism; albeit with threads of some element of threat still remaining.
Although it may feel different today, the fact that this work can dwell on the shelf and seem to emit something, demonstrates its bizarre nature and worth. It does feel almost occult. Perhaps it has become even more mysterious as a voice of the past, yet reprinted in a fine and flattering re-embodiment: a conspiring weave of old and new. I like to think all this may still grant the work its original intentions, and still carry some of what the movement stood for: implanting into the ordinary world and nestling into the mind’s darker recesses, until at some point it is released…