The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 15, No 1 (2011)

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David Beagley, editor


Encore Une Histoire d’Harlin Quist:The Print-to-Pixel Remix of Guy Billout’s Number 24

Nicholas Paley


Nicholas Paley is Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University. His articles exploring the avant-garde children's books of Harlin Quist span several decades, and have appeared in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, The Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, and Resistance and Representation.


In 1973, Guy Billout’s wordless picture book Number 24 was published under the imprint of Harlin Quist. In the course of that year alone, three editions of the picture book were issued, and Number 24 quickly became one of the most successful of Quist’s curious publications for children, receiving much acclaim for its conceptual and narrative power.

A brief summary of Number 24 might be helpful to reorient readers to its mysterious spell. The book’s wordless narrative depicts an anonymous man patiently waiting, briefcase in hand, for the arrival of his usual, morning bus — Number 24. As he waits for his bus, a series of improbable arrivals take place instead: A driverless car appears which is almost immediately crushed by a speeding locomotive; which is followed by a World War I tank which is overridden by a legion of armored knights on horseback; which is succeeded by a biplane that is knocked out of the sky by an aircraft of gigantic proportion; which is followed by a pilotless skiff that is nearly sliced through by an ocean liner; which is followed by an aerial gondola that is sideswiped by a speeding semi-trailer truck. Finally, mysteriously, the Number 24 bus arrives, and the anonymous commuter apprehensively boards it, and the bus drives away — but to where during this bizarre rush hour in Billout’s silent, odd city?

Number 24 cover scan

Number 24 has been described as “mysterious as a roomful of Magritte paintings,” projecting an “odd admixture of suspense, frustration, anger and emptiness” (The New York Times, 1973).  This combination of sensibilities — and Billout’s calculated juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange, the calm and the chaotic, the busy and the blank lend the text an uncanny power — a kind of first encounter, for young readers, with the surrealist experience.

Number 24 quickly became a minor classic in children’s picture book lore, and even today, on sites such as Amazon and eBay, reviewers often post their appreciation for the book’s mysterious, hypnotic magic. I, for one, have been a fan of it since its publication, finding it difficult to imagine that anything could match its sophisticated artistry and conceptual challenge. That is, until now.
But before I explain why, let me provide some real-time context.

This Monday morning (February 22, 2010), I’m talking with Patrick Couratin in his Paris studio about his collaboration with Harlin Quist during the 1960s and 70s, the brief heyday of the Quist imprint. The reason I’m here is to gather information for a new book project that I’m working on, part of which will focus on Quist books and the way they challenged numerous long-standing conceptions of language and childhood literacy, and part of which will consider how they prefigured post-modernist impulses in a later generation of children’s picture books such as David Macaulay’s Black and White, David Mamet and Donald Sultan’s Warm and Cold,  Maira Kalman and David Byrne’s Stay Up Late, and Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park. (see Paley, 1992).

For this new project, I’m particularly interested in the early years of this collaboration before Quist books zoomed into even more adventurous (some would say, more dark and unsettling) territory. Couratin published two books under the Quist imprint in the early 1970s (one of which, Mr. Bird, won several awards for its story and illustrations). In 1972, Couratin became artistic director of Harlin Quist publications, and served in that capacity in Paris the end of the decade, when Quist returned to America to renew his career in theater. Quist and Couratin’s collaborations were reprised in 1997, when Quist again returned to Paris to restart his interests in children’s book publication under the new imprint, Encore Un Livre d’Harlin Quist. This project would last, however, only three years, ending with Quist’s untimely death in May, 2000.

For the most part, the adventures in language and literacy that Quist books provided have long since faded from view. Today, hardly any booksellers carry them -- or even recognize the name. If Quist books can be found at all, it’s usually only in specialized collections in libraries devoted to researching children’s literature. But even locating Quist books in these specific institutions can be problematic. When I inquired about Quist books’ availability last week, for example, at the main Paris library branch for children’s books, La Librerie de Jeunesse, even the knowledgeable librarians drew a blank and directed me to other libraries, since no Quist books were represented in their archives.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve interviewed Couratin on numerous occasions previously, worked with him and Quist in their Paris studio on rue Menilmontant, and have written extensively (but not for a while) about their productions. This means Patrick and I have a fairly extended knowledge base to draw on as we speak this morning even though our dialogue is completely in French (Couratin is very gentle with my linguistic reinventions of his beautiful native language.).  Over coffee, we immediately strike up our conversations seemingly where we left them the last time, which was nearly five years ago. We talk for several hours about the early years of the Quist initiative (something I’m especially interested in), and I take notes as Couratin recalls with astonishing detail many of the collaborations and conflicts — especially the legal, economic, and interpersonal dynamics involved during this period. He also provides me with contact information for Etienne Delessert, one of the most renowned contemporary children’s book illustrators and an award-winning illustrator of three early Quist books, two of which (Story Number 1, Story Number 2) were written for children by the famous playwright of the Theater of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. Contact Etienne, Couratin recommends, he’s an extraordinary wealth of information, and when you mention Harlin, I bet you’ll get an earful. (In fact, I do talk with Delessert several days later, and Patrick was right, but that’s a story for a different time.) It’s nearly 1:30 when I get up to leave Couratin’s studio, and almost as an afterthought, he stands up, walks over to his extensive library, finds what he’s looking for, and hands me a DVD that Label Frères (a Paris-based animation studio) and Couratin have just produced. It’s a digitized version of Number 24 — but it’s called instead, Bus 24. Take a look, Couratin says, I’d be very interested in what you think.

That evening after dinner in my Montparnasse apartment, I click on the TV and slide the DVD into the player. I already know what I’m expecting to see, of course, so I’m pretty casual about my expectations — besides, the nightly broadcast of Les Jeux Olympiques is just beginning in a few minutes on France 2, so I’m eager to switch to that as soon as possible. Anyway, I think to myself, I’ve read the book at least a hundred times, so this evening’s screening will make one-hundred-and-one — OK, it’s short, I can do that. At the very least, I promised Patrick some feedback. D’accord?

In fact, I’m completely unprepared for what I am about to see. Yes, I “know” the original text, but only from a book architecture point of view — open-close, page-to-page, top-down, left-right, next page, turn again, etc. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But the DVD format shakes all this up — transforms it, expands it, enriches it.  But even these verbs are inadequate to describe the nature of this change exactly. The precise word I’m looking for may be sensualize — the DVD version sensualizes the original text by first animating it, which provides for a different kind of “narrative fluency”; and second, by amplifying it through the layering of a haunting, sophisticated musical arrangement that integrates electric, acoustic, and digital technologies, which creates a different kind of “narrative tone.” The music is complex (more on this in a moment), and is scored for guitar, violin, flute, saxophone, bugle, harpsichord, tuba, trombone, and percussion.

The initial scene scrolls by, and I move my chair closer to the TV. There’s the little guy allright, he’s walking out to his bus stop. Good luck, little man, I think to myself, you have no idea of what’s going down. And in DVD space, I’m struck by how the guy looks even more anonymous and alone, and by how the city he works in seems even more empty and surreal — but in a delicate, liminal sort of way. The events in Billout’s original text are followed faithfully and fully interpolated sequentially (as described above), so no surprise here. But the technologies of DVD production also enable nuances that the original text did not — i.e., subtle shadowing that contributes to image depth; an overall gray foreground tone that contrasts with and vivifies the surreal-colored sky; and of course, the animation+music which orchestrate Billout’s illogical sequence of events as precisely as a dream. These digitized visual transformations make the book’s intellectual arguments for the mysteries of human existence even more compelling, even more sensuously grounded. The story flow is deeper, more dynamic – and I find myself almost saying out loud, Au courage, mon petit — ne quittez pas — vous-n’etes pas seul — I’m someone who’s waiting, too.

As I continue to watch, I slowly become conscious of how I’m being blown away by this DVD and by how its realization simultaneously intensifies, then deepens, the enigmatic qualities of Billout’s original text. If anything, the depictions of longing and emptiness are even more magical and atmospheric through the technologies of digital imagination, and I’m astonished by the way the original idea and illustrations have been used as a base to transform a narrative (even one that’s as unique as the original) into something that’s extra-ordinary and more-dimensioned.  Like many admirers of children’s books, I’ve always been eager to view adaptations of some of them on film (The Polar Express, Jumanji, Where the Wild Things Are, etc.), but they’re usually disappointments (even Sendak was much dismayed at the latter text’s adaptation, Delessert told me). It’s as if the producers were trying too hard to not to break something, too careful not to give creative wings to their imaginations, not to liberate the text from its own invention. [1]

But in many ways, too, as I later reflected on my initial viewing experiences several weeks later, this digitized version of Number 24 also reflects broader considerations of what some critics see as the increasingly complicated migration of the text (at all reader levels) to digital realms, transforming the solitary act of reading — a direct exchange between author and reader — into something far more social, re-mixable, and interactive. The week after I returned to the States, for example, I invited my wife, Lin, to watch Bus 24 with me one evening after dinner. After a quick re-reading of the book itself to update her on the original print version, we popped in the DVD for an initial digitized go-through. This was immediately followed another, then another viewing still, during which we happily shared our thoughts about the very cool textual-digital remix as we jumped back and forth through our favorite scenes for the better part of an hour. 

A few days later, I came across a provocative essay by The New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani (March 21, 2010) which addressed questions of how digital and internet technologies are “mashing up” everything that we’ve previously understood about language and culture. Referencing a number of writers examining the effects of today’s web and digital technologies on narrative and text cultures, Kakutani noted how some writers believe that “the unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs [and images] vying for Google’s attention” (Steven Johnson, as cited in Kakutani, p. 22); or that “the record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital” – the very nature of today. (William Gibson, as cited in Kakutani, p.23).

These considerations turned me to revisit the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth (2005), the feminist and media scholar, who has thoughtfully analyzed the implications of digitized environments on how we think and feel and learn in the presence of such pixellated engagements. For Ellsworth, these new kinds of interactions provoke important, “anomalous places of learning” – “constellation[s] of feelings//thoughts that include eager anticipation, an impending sense that something is changing but not knowing what it will change to, excitement, pride and satisfaction in following a complicated story as it unfolds on the screen . .   [s]o we’re following, but not in a compliant way, because there is also a deep sense of  trust that where I and the pedagogy are going will be surprising to both of us because our destination is somehow getting made up as we go along . . . the [pixilated environment] has managed somehow to make explanation metaphorical and nonliteral. It has somehow managed to take back explanation even as it offers it.” (p. 172)/

For more than a few individuals, then, the new digital technologies that embrace a print-to-pixel format have created a kind of “a Roshomon world” where the very idea of textual integrity is a question mark — as if eerily fulfilling Maurice Blanchot’s (1981) pre-internet counsel for writers to “produce the book, then, so it will detach itself, disengage itself as it scatters . . .”  (p. 149). Could this have been the future of literary experience that George Steiner (1977) was already imagining when he spoke of a newer culture of textual production whose contiguities to the forms of traditional syntax and grammar would be “beautifully irrelevant or false” (p. 85), and whose nature would appear as “outrageous as the morning sun” (p. 91)?

A Roshomon world indeed — since, in addition to these broader interpretations of textual and cultural mash-ups, Bus 24, at least from my perspective, can also be considered as an art object in its own right — an accomplished DVD, inventively responding to Hans Jauss’s (1973) challenge to extend readers’ horizons of aesthetic expectations, thereby occasioning possibilities for individuals to creatively re-position themselves in relation to textual works in fresher, more amplified ways. (Or, as Walter Benjamin (1921/2000) argued, the life and afterlife of a text are always implicated in its ongoing task of its translation/transformation.)  Further, still, are the subtle appreciations of how Bus 24 also pays tacit homage to Quist’s own experiments with producing — and transforming — children’s books nearly half a century ago, since part of Quist’s own goal was “to revitalize and reshape the form [of the book] . . . honoring the form but treating it in new ways to remind us that there are other dimensions to imagination, other fantasies that are possible to people that can enrich their person and their life”  (Quist, 1978, pp. 36-37). The running time of Bus 24 is just over 4 minutes.

It’s not easy, of course, to describe, much less analyze the impact of all these visual, auditory, theoretic, and contradictory socio-cultural remixes in discursive voice alone. Probably the best path for those who might be further interested and who wish to explore for themselves, is to contact Patrick Couratin directly for a DVD copy at crapuleproduction@wanadoo.fr.  (Bus 24’s general distribution is iffy both in France and in America at the moment.) Another path might be to contact the producers of Bus 24, also directly. (Couratin was the artistic director for this project and was the originator of the DVD’s idea. The DVD itself was mastered under the imprint of Label Frères, with the musical arrangement created — scene by scene — by Albert Marcoeur of the same company.) Interested viewers can contact labelfreres@marcoeur.com. (Further full disclosure: While no commercial interests were harmed in the writing of this article, my contacts with the above individuals and the studios who produced this DVD are purely research-oriented — I do not in any way economically stand to benefit from any Bus 24 DVD sales.)

To sum up: Bus 24’s re-visioning of Billout’s original text is a beautifully contradictory accomplishment, a creative translation, a very cool remix of a classic children’s book — a digital remix that acts as a fascinating barometer of cultural production today. Its presence reminds us that texts always have many causes and serve many functions — and even those that are considered classic — are never fixed or final productions, but as John Dewey carefully observed — “simply material for a new creation” (Dewey, cited in Westbrook, 1992, p.84).  By re-imagining Billout’s original text through the resources of today’s luminous technologies, Couratin and Label Frères have happily created the complicated possibilities, as Dewey would further say,  “for a wider and fuller experience  . . . [and] an expansion of sympathy, imagination, and sense” (Dewey, 1934/1954, p. 334).

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Joel Taxel and John Stewig for critique; to Etienne Delessert for historical background about the initial years of Quist Book production; and to Patrick Couratin and Alain Marcoeur for studio access and information about the production of Bus 24.


Notes

1. Joel Taxel, a children’s literature scholar at the University of Georgia, has suggested a more economic explanation for this phenomenon. In a recent telephone conversation, he pointed out that an economics of film production is also at play in the book-to-film mix. A film version of a 32 page picture book of say, 200 words length, needs to be designed to “attract” viewers for at least 90 minutes, so narrative and imagery get changed around in order to make the book  “viewer-friendly.” The film also needs to generate a profit for the production studio and its investors. As a result, children’s books that are translated into animated format aren’t designed to be just cinematic equivalents of literary works, but often exist primarily as commodities to be reshaped for audience and market purposes. The result often is a misrepresentation, often a  perversion, of the original work.

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. “The task of the translator.” (1921). In The translation studies reader (trans. Harry Zohn; ed. Lawrence Venuti). London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Billout, G. Number 24. New York and Paris: Harlin Quist Books, 1973. Print.

Blanchot, M. The gaze of Orpheus. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981. Print.

Dewey, J. Art as experience (1934). New York: Capricorn Books, 1954. Print

Ellsworth, E. Places of learning: Media, architecture, pedagogy. New York: Routledge/Falmer, 2005. Print.

Jauss, H. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory. New Literary History (1973): 17-37. Print

Kakutani, M. “Texts without Context.” The New York Times (2010). Arts&Leisure. 1,  22-23. Print.

The New York Times, (1973). Dust jacket review (3rd ed.), Number 24. Print.

Paley, N. Postmodern impulses and the contemporary picture book: Are there any stories to these meanings? Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 5, (1992): 151-161. Print.

Quist, H. “Designing books for the delight of the child.” Proceedings: Children’s Book International 3 (1978): 34-37. Print.

Steiner, G. “The Pythagorean genre.” Language and silence. New York: Atheneum, 1977. Print.

Westbrook, R. John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell  University Press, 1992. Print.

 

Nicholas Paley

 

Volume 15, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2011

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"Encore Une Histoire d’Harlin Quist: The Print-to-Pixel Remix of Guy Billout’s Number 24" © Nicholas Paley, 2011.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680