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Fragments from the cartoon philosopherReflections and ShadowsSaul Steinberg and Aldo BuzziAllen Lane ?9.99, pp101This strange and tiny book derives from conversations between Saul Steinberg (1914-99) – best known as the least obviously comic of the New Yorker’s cartoonists – and his friend the Italian writer Aldo Buzzi.The venue was Steinberg’s country house in the Hamptons, but the conversation was in Italian. Romanian by birth, Steinberg had studied architecture in Milan in the Thirties, where Buzzi was a fellow student. The conversations were taped in 1974 and 1977, but no explanation is offered for the quarter-century’s delay before publication. It was Buzzi who arranged the material, removing his own contributions to the dialogue, but Steinberg approved its form before his death.The result is a poignant flow of fragments, skirting the subjective. Steinberg studied philosophy before architecture and there is a sort of aphoristic rigour behind the simplest statements. He omits something as trifling as his marriage, but has room for advice about finding good, cheap restaurants (in Italy follow truck drivers, in the US be guided by railwaymen).Even something as predictable as a rant against the manners of over-indulged American kids is redeemed by its pay-off: ‘Occasionally you hear of children being strangled, probably by mothers or fathers who have been patient too long and have ended by delivering the scolding all at once.’If this book has a target readership and has not been released into the marketplace with the blitheness of Zen archery, then it must be admirers of Steinberg’s graphic art. When you learn that he spent a year on the run from the Italian authorities during the war, and then gave himself up because that was the only way of securing the exit visa he needed, it becomes inevitable that he should have published a book called The Passport (1954), whose contents include false documentation of all sorts: diplomas, certificates, wine labels.During his brief stay in a detention camp Steinberg observed the local women, whom he describes as having ’stepped right out of the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. They had round eyes… with an incredible stare and eyebrows as thick as moustaches, and very taut skin, which looked stuffed to the point of bursting.’ These women seem to have entered the world of his drawings, where ‘all those bulging curves ready to explode’ are uncomfortably close to eroticised vacancies.Presumably, it was his Jewishness which marked him out for arrest, though an early riser could be confident of avoiding the police, since ‘dawn raids’ never took place before 6am – Italian fascism respected policemen’s sleeping hours and their weekends.Whether Steinberg’s Jewishness was an inconvenience or a vital aspect of his identity is hard to assess on this evidence. If his name could not be turned into the diminutive, Saulica, because it was the name of the King of the Israelites, if his father’s cardboard factory won the contracts to make boxes for unleavened bread, if he was familiar as a child with food that had been kept under embers overnight for Saturday eating, then his upbringing was Orthodox, even if he mentions only the externals: a name that was immune to intimacy, massed towers of boxes as Passover approached, chicken turned to gelatine.But it is impossible to place him on a continuum of piety. Nor is it easy to gauge his tone when he refers to Sephardic Jews as believing ‘that by the joy of poetry and with the help of wine they could arrive at faith’. Is this Ashkenazi irony? Disapproval? Envy?The preoccupation with the legitimising power of official papers was still strong in 1966, when Steinberg became artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington: his drawings from that time played obsessive games with the letterhead on the institute’s stationery. The job paid well, but he was determined not to save money, even to squander his own resources, as though he was a one-man country with a nation’s pride to maintain.Reflections and Shadows is too short a book even to contradict itself very much, but there are two sites of conflict. One is drawing from life, which Steinberg respects and resists in equal measure – respecting it for the dedication it demands (’More difficult than inventing is giving up accumulated virtues’), resisting it on the (revealing) basis that it revealed too much of him.The other site of conflict is Romania. First he says that he would not want to return to a place that does not belong ‘to geography but to time’. Then he admits he would go back if he could live in Bucharest, on the street where he had his childhood home. Finally, it turns out that he has asked friends on three separate occasions to take photographs and slides of Palas Street to his precise instructions. He likes the winter photographs best, where the snow has a chance to muffle the changes of 50 years.


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