A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

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In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

17 thoughts on “A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

  1. What a glorious set of books, you have found us some treasures here. Isn’t it unusual to find an Indian based company publishing work from German authors? I don’t know anything about this publishing house so maybe that is part of their model?

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    • Oh Seagull is something special. They do publish books with Indian themes and artwork, they have an interesting African line (my first purchase was a South African book – collection of essays by Ivan Vladislavić with old style plates of illustrations) and a wide range of European titles, usually focusing on authors that have not been translated yet. The books are beautiful, even the more conventional hardcovers are well crafted, sown volumes. Some are, of course expensive, but nothing I have pruchased to date is more than a hardcover book would be in Canada (often less). They are addictive… a celebration of the book, subject and object.

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    • These are both specialty items I suppose, but what would German lit month be without a few treats? I haven’t read December yet, but wanted to call attention to it… it looks interesting but best suited for a December read, I think. Great gift ideas too, no?

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  2. First, I love your description of winter in Canada. I am one of those rare birds who much prefers that seasons of fall and winter and I love the snow. And the descriptions of the books are wonderful. I think my daughter would love the fairy tale book and she has inherited my appreciation for books so it might be a nice Christmas gift for her. Finally, I just received a novella from Seagull Books and this will be my first title from them. I look forward to reading it!

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  3. I envy you – very beautiful books! So far I have read only one book by Seagull (Ralf Rothmann, Young Light – a wonderful book!) and they have such a good catalogue and program that I will indulge in more titles by this excellent publisher.

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    • I recently got their latest catalogue (it arrived on the same day that I came home to a burst water pipe – they told me they had failed to warn me of such probabilities!) I just got another one of their titles today – Sex and Terror by Pascal Quignard. I think that brings me up to 8 plus an advanced PDF of a forthcoming title (the first translation of Klaus Hoffer into English – are you familiar with his work?). I find their books such a thrill. And to date I have not paid any more than one might pay for an ordinary hardcover new release, say of the latest bestseller, here in Canada. And yet these are real treasures.

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      • Great to see that Hoffer is translated – I discovered the book thanks to a review by Wolfgang Hildesheimer many years ago. It will be interesting to read your review later. Seagull is one of the best publishers I know.

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