Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Christmas Carol

The Ukrainian Institute of America (originally the Isaac and Mary Fletcher House) at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. 11:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011. An unremarkable early December day in New York. If that’s possible. I wasn’t in midtown so I don’t know about the crush there. The Tree at Rockefeller Center draws huge crowds and lot of tourists. Uptown, Upper East Side, it was relatively quiet. But sunny and pleasant.

The holiday cocktail parties have begun and will continue probably right up to the week before Christmas. There doesn’t seem like much of a holiday feeling around but maybe I’m a little early. I’m beginning to see Christmas trees in people’s windows.
I noticed walking home tonight that my next door neighbors (two young daughters) had their tree up and lighted already. The Christmas tree in the window lighted always reminds me of one thing: when I was growing up we didn’t put up our tree until Christmas Eve. This was a very stressful issue for the boy, for a lot of reasons. Although I got used to it, of course. Then we’d leave it up for two or three weeks.
Bethesda Terrace. 9:30 AM.
Same view, one week earlier.
Looking west towards The Dakota (on 72nd and Central Park West) from Strawberry Fields. 9:45 AM.
The scene below the trees, one week earlier.
When I grew up and had my own home, I continued the tradition and liked it that way. Nevertheless, when I see the trees in the windows I know that in some households the spirit is reviving. I like the holidays in New York because eventually, even if it’s only the week before, people get into it and there’s some hope and spirit in the air.

The Christmas holiday to me is not a religious holiday but a holiday for mankind and all living creatures, a mark of hope and light. That’s what it was for me as a child in a household of a troubled marriage in hard times, and that is what it remains today. It is one thing I’ve always been right about.

Last night I went up to Jesse Kornbluth and Karen Collins’ apartment on Carnegie Hill. I had thought it was their annual holiday party. The Kornbluths attract that unique New York literary-ish crowd. Not all writers but a lot of writers. So there is easy conversation. You can start right up and get to know each other immediately. Writers like to talk. All the conversations at the Kornbluths are like that. And the people are very agreeable and congenial. And relaxed; maybe that’s the key. So are the host and hostess. The host is an especially ardent conversationalist and has a sharp eye for the ironic (funny) twist to the story.
Jesse Kornbluth and Paige Peterson standing in front of her illustrations for their version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Last night, however, I later learned, had another purpose. It was a party for Paige Peterson and Jesse’s adaptation (my word, not his) of Dickens' A Christmas Carol; for the youngest generation. Paige did the art in the book.

The buffets at the Kornbluths are always good because Karen is a master at the desserts from the cookies on up. And when confronted with it, you go for it. Jesse also baked a ham and there were hamburgers and all the rest of the stuff that you can stand around eating while talking and when you’re done you’ve had dinner. Or maybe two.

Among the guests: Christina Haag, Priscilla Rattazzi, Howard Kaminsky, Madeleine Morel, Alan Hruska, Dan Hedaya, Lauren Cerand, Dominique Browning, Charles Moss and Susan Calhoun Moss, Jane Friedman, Julie Iovine, John Loeffler, Nancy Silverman, Susan Lehman, Till Schnurrman, Ginger Brown, Ann Gallagher, Susan Stein, Gretl Claggett, Charles Warner, Julia Bradford, Joan Schenkar, Jan Barker, Anki Leeds, Sarah Sym Rosenthal, Suzanne O’Malley Greenberg, this writer, and quite a few others.
Helen Kornbluth.
Karen Collins. Suzanne O'Malley, Sarah Simms Rosenthal, Susan Calhoun, and Susanne Maas.
Michael Schultz, Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle, and Neesia Pope.
Ginger Brown and John Josephson.
Anki Leeds, Suzanne Cochran, Susanne Maas, and John Loeffler.
Susan Stein and Phyllis Ungar. Lisa Schultz and Christina Haag.
Helen Kornbluth, Jesse Kornbluth, Julia Bradford, and Charles Warner.
Jane Friedman. Gretl Claggett with Greta Weil and Richard Conway.
Suzanne Cochran and Charlie Moss.
Dominique Browning and Alan Hruska. Nancy Silverman.
Ultan Guilfoyle and Christina Haag.
Sam Allen. Howard Kaminsky and Madeline Morel.
Till Schnurman, Nicholas Schnurman, and Jesse Kornbluth.
Jesse wrote the following for me about the book:

A year ago, I decided our daughter was ready for me to read to her --- the week before Christmas, sitting by a crackling fire --- a version of “A Christmas Carol” not dumbed down by Disney.

And why not? “Christmas Carol” is only 28,000 words. Over two or three nights, surely she could listen to Dickens’ holiday classic.

“This is boring,” Helen said, after just five minutes.

She was right. Books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. The story is a slow starter. The language is clotted. There’s a lot of extraneous description.

So I decided to shorten the text. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters and reduce the book to its essence, which is the story.

28,000 words are now 13,000. But words weren’t enough. The book needed illustrations.

In 1843, when printing art wasn’t cheap or easy, John Leech (1817-1864) did only 8 illustrations for the original edition. For an e-book, there were no printing issues --- I could have as many as I wanted.

And I wanted them from Paige Peterson. Over the years, as I’d looked at her work, I was amazed. Her styles changed --- radically. The only common thread was excellence. So when I asked her to do the illustrations for (charlesdickenschristmascarol.com) the first Head Butler e-book, I gave her no directions.
Then Paige Peterson wrote how she came to the illustrations for the e-book:

We’ve come to think of “A Christmas Carol” as a heartwarming story, but that’s because of the image we want to take away from it. You know, the final image in the movie and theater versions. A happy ending --- Scrooge reunited with his family, Tiny Tim saved, “God bless us, every one.”

But “A Christmas Carol” is, right until the ending, more like a horror movie.

I had to go for scary.

I started by going to the Morgan Library in New York. To celebrate the 200th year of Dickens’ birth, the library has a terrific exhibition of his manuscripts, letters and book illustrations on display until February 12, 2012 --- to see the images in the original edition.

At the library, I took pen to paper and began redrawing the Leech illustrations. These were quick, rough sketches. But that’s the feeling I wanted --- not Merrie England, but raw, cold, toxic London. Then I went home and began to paint. 
The cover image.
The rest evoked Leech without imitating him. And then, at the end, I created an image Dickens didn’t have: a joyous Scrooge. As the light of awareness bursts forth in color, I hope readers feel engulfed with warmth and a hope for redemption. The message: There’s a second chance. Even a third. You can turn your life around.
Back to me. I remember loving “A Christmas Carol” when I was a kid, and the bad man turned into a good man. What a relief. But Paige is right, it was like a horror story until the very end.

Leaving the Kornbluths’ last night, I decided to walk a bit just to take in the neighborhood where the side streets have a lot of  wonderful old houses, many of which are now apartments but many of which remain houses. The autumn leaves are still on the sidewalks and roadside leaving a whiff of that redolence in the air. Except right on Madison Avenue which is clear and moving.

I passed by Linda Horn. I used to stop to check out her windows when she was down on 78th and Madison. (Now she’s at 93rd in a bigger store.) I’ve written about meeting her years ago. Linda has style. She goes all out. She’s got guts and a highly refined aesthetic. There’s always shine and glimmer and bright which draws her eye. Diamonds pearls gold and silver. Linda’s like that. It’s rich. I’ll take it. The holiday spirit.
Linda Horn's fabulous windows.

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