BABEL Verlag, 2014.
Designed by Kevin Perryman at BABEL Verlag and printed for him by Thomas Siemon at carpe plumbum, with the deluxe edition solander box and its non-booklet contents designed, made and printed by Alexandra Frohloff.
Published in 2014 in an edition of 250 standard copies and 50 specials, with 10 deluxe copies published upon completion in 2015.
Vor Acht Leben (Eight Lives Ago) has been in my Books of the Moment since getting hold of a copy in late 2015. But I now have very good reason to expand upon my original write-up as I’ve just gotten hold of one of the ten deluxe copies that I’ve so hankered after since first seeing a copy at the 2015 Oxford Fine Press Book Fair.
In any of its three states Vor Acht Leben merits a Books of the Moment entry, but with this deluxe edition the leap between how exceptional it is compared to the standard and special copies is so considerable that a full and proper re-write is called for. In doing so I’ll start with a description of the publication in general, adding details of the special and deluxe versions as I go along. That way I think I’ll be able to give a better impression of the edition as a whole.
And so, to my review…
Vor Acht Leben is one of the more recent editions from BABEL Verlag, the German publishing imprint of English-born poet Kevin Perryman. In describing BABEL publications I would say there is, in general, a house style that’s a little unusual for a modern day fine press, in that the presentation is minimal in style rather than the more frequently taken route of sumptuous materials and creative, colourful typographic treatments. Texts are often set using very simple ‘no frills’ typography and printed single-colour on relatively modest-looking papers. As such, the results are not necessarily what some expect of a fine press these days, but they are very well executed. The materials and presentation are always high quality, and the texts first rate. At present I only own a handful of items from the press but this will certainly be rectified as time goes on and money allows.
It should be noted that quite a few BABEL productions are not so visually austere. Indeed several actually lean towards the more ‘visually decorative’ side of letterpress, as this particularly fine collaboration between English poet Anne Beresford and German print-maker Alexandra Frohloff clearly shows. For starters, while it may still stick with simple typography printed on a plain-looking stock, it does use a very fine and characterful all-rag Zaansch Bord paper for the wrapper (made in the world’s last working paper windmill). What really adds visual impact here, though, are Alexandra Frohloff’s series of two- to three-colour illustrations throughout. I was immediately taken by these pieces, which were printed from various relief blocks made using all manner of different processes and techniques. Being abstracts of a limited, almost monochromatic, palette her work isn’t the usual fare for fine press, and is far removed from the wood engravings and linocuts that tend to grace the pages of many modern fine press editions. While it is certainly true that the illustrative style of Vor Acht Leben may not be to everyone’s taste (which can be said for any illustration style, really), it is certainly to mine. I think Alexandra’s artwork is superb and makes for a refreshing change. There is a curious juxtaposition in her work, in that her pieces tend to be quite ‘dark’ yet without conveying gloom. I find them rather like the Cornish landscape; somewhat bleak and harshly textured, yet peculiarly beautiful. To me Alexandra’s illustrations suggest, without resorting to identifiable imagery, the natural world in one way or another.
Then, of course, there is the textual content, which certainly can’t be ignored or glossed over, for it is superb! This selection of Anne Beresford’s poetry, presented in both English and German (with the German translations by Kevin Perryman), is the first of hers that joined my shelves (I’ve since gotten hold of more) and makes for a very fine introduction to her work. I would describe her poems as having quite a traditional feel to them, which I like a great deal. They are beautifully written, sensitive pieces that convey a wonderful array of imagery without resorting to complex, impenetrable language or trying to be particularly modern, intricate or clever. This isn’t to say that Anne’s work is straightforward or unimaginative for it certainly isn’t. It just relies on a particularly well considered and concise use of words rather than being over florid or complicated. Her writing certainly makes a fine argument for the less-is-more approach to crafting poetry. From what I have read of Anne’s work, Vor Acht Leben is typical of her at her best.
While the standard edition is a fine and worthy addition to one’s shelves, the ‘specials’ have extras that make them worth the extra expense. Initially, they look the same as the standard copies, but on investigation you’ll soon find the two differences. Firstly, they are signed on the colophon page by both the poet and the artist. I happen to like having signed items, but I guess signatures can be one of those ‘take it or leave it’ elements in fine press publications, and not necessarily worth paying out a great deal more for if they are the only difference between a standard and deluxe copy. However, the signatures are the ‘lesser’ of the two addition to the ‘specials’, for there is also an extra illustration as a frontispiece. And it is a particularly good one (my second favourite in the booklet), and well worth getting the special for.
But now to the deluxe edition and what it is that makes it so desirable and, well, deluxe? The answer is a somewhat unusual one, inasmuch as it has very little to do with the actual booklet. Apart from the addition of the signatures of the publisher/translator, the printer and also the binder on the colophon page, the booklet is the same as the special edition, therefore not really ‘deluxe’ enough to warrant me raving over it compared to the special. But the booklet is only one part of this deluxe edition, and that which makes this a deluxe is something I have not come across in a fine press edition before. What you actually get for your money is a large white Hahnemühle Bugra-Bütten mould-made paper-covered solander box (much larger than the booklet), letterpress printed in black on the front. When opened, a copy of the extra-signed special edition of Vor Acht Leben is revealed, sitting on top of a handful of sheets enclosed in a letterpress printed wraparound sheet. And this is where is gets really special, for when the wraparound is opened, the full extent of just how ‘deluxe’ the edition is becomes clear. Inside is a suite of eight completely new two-colour etchings by Alexandra Frohloff (all signed, titled and numbered) that were further inspired by Anne Beresford’s poems. While I’m used to fine press special editions featuring extra illustrations, or a portfolio of signed illustrations from the book, what I’d not seen before is a special that incorporates completely new artwork not featured in the book, using a totally different artistic technique. Not only are these new images different to those in the booklet, but they are intaglio prints rather than relief. And although these additional etchings, which use a mixture of aquatint and collagraph techniques (with a single use of lino printing for the application of a solid block of black on one of the artworks), are stylistically in harmony with the relief prints in Vor Acht Leben, they are a thing apart and utterly exquisite! As much as I like the original booklet illustrations, the extra richness, depth and detail of these larger intaglio pieces printed into the thick, textural Hahnemühle Alt Worms mould-made paper makes them much more of a visual feast.
This stunning gathering rather redefines the parameters of a fine press deluxe edition and I am extremely happy to have a copy on my shelves.
Copies may still be available from the publisher here. The website doesn’t yet list the edition as it is somewhat out-of-date, but contacting the publisher via the email given should prove fruitful.
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