“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Doing research on early twentieth century newspapers, I came across a feuilleton in the Figaro from one of the most famous fin de siecle reporters, Jules Huret. Huret is known today by a few specialists for the fact that he practically invented the scenography of the interview with the artist (Royer, 1986); his subjects included Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Sarah Bernhardt, Giusseppi Verdi, and Kipling, among others – a veritable who’s who of the fin de siecle’s bright lights. In 1909, he made one of his innumerable reporting trips, this time to Germany, and wrote a series about the place for his newspaper.

What attracted my attention was his visit to the pencil factory.

Huret was obviously keen to share with his French audience his impression of the transformation of the German economy from one of small ateliers to large industrial complexes. Getting to Nuremburg, he discovered that the town contained 23 pencil factories. He decided to visit the most famous of them: Johan Faber’s.

“The Faber factory counts 1,000 workers. Almost everything is made, naturally, by machine. Under a vast hangar crowned by six lightning rods, a mountain of cedar logs are left to dry, as big around as one hundred year old oak, entire linden trees, and Swedish birch; and piles of small planks which are distributed on cutting blocks. An exquisitely balsamic odor emanates from the cedar wood. One breathes, everywhere, the perfume of the sawdust. All the buildings are covered with red ash. Nothing other than the powder of cedar, the house receives in its atelier nearly 15,000 kilograms each year. This dust is resold to the makers of etheric oils, to perfumers who exploit it for the mixtures of various perfumes. Under the hangar, the cedar reserve alone amounts to 2 million.

Powerful American saws work on the enormous coniferous trunks. Sometimes, dramatic surprises happen to the workers; great snakes are discovered in the crevices of the trees where they have taken refuge and sleep; scorpions and rare insects are daily taken from the tropical forests.

The cedar is a wood which grows quickly and is quite humid. This is why is it easy to work with. Those of Ceylon and Australia, too hard, are worthless for pencils.  Here, they prefer the ones from California. It has been tried to transplant them to Germany, but they don’t develop and turn out too hard.
How pretty a new pencil is, red and glistening! When I was small, I took a sensual pleasure in touching them, in sniffing them, in sharpening them, in biting and chewing on them. Today, still, the idea that I could someday run short of pencils vaguely discomforts me, and I always have some in reserve. And here they are by the thousands, or what am I saying, by the millions! One makes 15,000 packets daily, here, which is 2 million, 160,000. My joy is great and I am tranquilised.

I never asked myself how they make pencils. This is how: flat small planks of dry or tender wood pass under shaping machines that, in one blow, round them up on one side like chocolate bars and on the other drill out a series of small gullies, six per plank, so that two of those planks juxtaposed, after one has inserted in the gully a small stick of lead mixed with a strong glue, makes six pencils which are then separated by the help of another machine. It then remains only to polish them, to color them, varnish them, and stamp them with the brand name of the factory. All this is done by very specialized machines, save for the gilding of the stamp, which demands female hands. The pure gold which serves for the stamps mounts to about 40,000 francs per year, without counting the copper and aluminum which serves for the inferior quality.
I saw there all kinds of pencils and pens imaginable. They even make special pencils for surgeons, who draw on the skin, and others that can write on glass and even on metal.

Certain pencils are so hard that they hardly erode at all, They are worth 50 to 60 centimes. There are 15 degrees of hardness. The softest are destined for Russia, which only uses these.”

Indeed, Huret’s description took me to Russia, and to one Russian in particular: Vladimir Nabokov. In what I’d call Nabokov’s most beautiful book, Speak Memory, he gives a special notice to a Faber Pencil in the very first chapter. This one came from Treuman’s, a shop which is described all at once on page in a telescoping parenthesis of passerby’s prose:  “(writing implements, bronze baubles, playing cards)”. The Pencil is, originally, part of a fever dream – and if the society from which the dollop of the dream descends is meant to remind us of  Nabokov’s ultra-rich childhood home, worthy of mention in a Figaro article and, indeed, competitive with Proust’s childhood, the fever of that dream points us in the direction of Nabokov’s antithesis, his Dr. Moriarity – Dostoevsky – whose characters tend to come down with fevers so often that his collected works could be considered something like an epidemic.  Sick, dreaming of his mother, Nabokov – an infant in this chapter - sees her in a waking dream pick up a wrapped package from Treuman’s, sees her footman carrying the package (“which looked to me like a pencil”), is astonished that “she did not carry so small an object herself”, and then sees her in person, entering his room:

“In her arms she held a big parcel. It had been, in my vision, greatly reduced in size—perhaps, because I subliminally corrected what logic warned me might still be the dreaded remnants of delirium’s dilating world. Now the object proved to be a giant polygonal Faber pencil, four feet long and correspondingly thick. It had been hanging as a showpiece in the shop’s window, and she presumed I had coveted it, as I coveted all things that were not quite purchasable. The shopman had been obliged to ring up an agent, a “Doctor” Libner (as if the transaction possessed indeed some pathological import). For an awful moment, I wondered whether the point was made of real graphite. It was. And some years later I satisfied myself, by drilling a hole in the side, that the lead went right through the whole length—a perfect case of art for art’s sake on the part of Faber and Dr. Libner since the pencil was far too big for use and, indeed, was not meant to be used.” 

The pencil, which inverses the proportions of sickness and health (shrunk in the hallucination to normal size, and enlarged in reality to an hallucinatory extent) is as much the symbol of Russian art as the cracked servant’s looking glass into which Buck Mulligan was gazing around the time the pencil was purchased was, per Stephen Daedus, the symbol of Irish art. In fact, it was an era, this turn of the century, in search of symbols of art. Just as Huret is fascinated by something ultra about the making of the pencil –something that brought the artisan’s craft ethos to the factory, something so satisfactory about the fit of the lead to the pencil, those small, grooved gutters, that sawdust that coats the factory walls, that odor of cedar – so, too, Nabokov is pleased by that touch of the unnecessary – the pencil in the giant display pencil – which is a case of art for art’s sake sprung from industry.

And what is that art? It is not the art of fevers, but of specificity. In Nabokov’s lecture on Dostoevsky, he approaches Notes from the Underground (a ‘stupid” translation of the title, N. preferred notes from a mousehole), by noting that the mouseman’s book is composed entirely of soliloquies in front of a phantom audience (which is a form, incidentally, pinched for Lolita). And he writes, with evident disapproval:

Throughout this part the mouseman, the narrator, keeps turning to an audience of persons who seem to be amateur philosophers, newspaper readers, and what he calls normal people. These ghostly gentlemen are supposed to be jeering at him, while he is supposed to thwart their mockery and denunciations by the
shifts, the doubling back, and various other tricks of his supposedly remarkable intellect. This imaginary audience helps to keep the ball of his hysterical inquiry rolling, an inquiry into the state of his own crumbling soul. It will be noticed that  references are made to topical events of the day in the middle of the 1860s. The topicality, however, is vague and has no structural power. Tolstoy uses newspapers too—but he does this with marvelous art when, for example, in the beginning off Anna Karenin he not only characterizes Oblonski by the kind of information Oblonski likes to follow in the morning paper but also fixes with delightful historical or pseudo-historical precision a certain point in space and time. In Dostoevski we have generalities substituted for specific traits.”

The last sentence is supposed to come down with crushing force on poor Dostoevsky, much as a the rubber of the eraser attached to American pencils comes down on the false word or phrase and rubs it away, transforming sense- or nonsense –into a pile of dirty pink crumbs.

Pencils are not only writing instruments, they are the writing instruments of childhood. Huret’s description of sniffing and chewing on pencils must have reminded his readers – as it reminded me – of the tooth gashes one would leave in the pencil that one played with as the teacher talked in the front of class, little secret crescents – or the crescents left in the wood by pressing one’s fingernail into it. Nabokov’s big pencil is both in continuity with the childhood culture of the pencil and, well, bigger – although drilling into the pencil is, after all, the ultimate child’s gesture, even if Nabokov struck art at the end of his drilling.

Finally, reading Huret’s account today, one thinks, as well, of the tremendous maw of human desire into which so many trees have disappeared. And the dust, the perfume that enchanted Huret – is the same dust that, breathed in by those workers, day and night, doomed a percentage of them to silicosis – a fact that Ludwig Hirt, a German doctor, had already documented in the 1870s. Huret finishes his up his tour of the pencil factories by going to a graphite factory and watching the pencil leads being manufactured. He exits, covered in black soot. It doesn’t occur to him that the soot he was covered in penetrates into the lungs – but it does. And this is where Nabokov’s view of the pencil swerves to avoid a reality – about both art and pencils. Fredson Bowers, in his introduction to Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Writers, remarks that Nabokov could not abide “social criticism”: “In the classroom lectures the social element in Turgenev is deplored, that in Dostoevsky  is ridiculed, but Gorki’s works are savaged.”  But this critical stance leads to an incorrigibly childish canon of good taste – as though the poems were written by magic scepters, rather than implements made by human beings, and exacting a price-  in energy, in grace, in time and trouble, in mortality – which enters art by the front door. The opponent of art is not social criticism; the opponent of art is denial. Stripping denial of its power is what separates art from mere sublimation.  The pencil is, indeed,  childhood’s thing, but it is a thing that is wrenched, at amazing sacrifice, from out of the raucous adult world.


Ed said...

It just occurred to me that pencils are for children. I don't think I've used one as an adult.

I wonder if we will see so many over-literary passages on dry erase boards and their markers.

roger said...

Carpenters use them quite a bit. Big blocky pencils which you can mark a two by four with