-- or is it? Masereel's remarkable little book declines to explain itself.
These 165 expressive woodcuts present snapshots from the life of one man, or so we assume. He's not all that special - he's not a great hero, leader, or lover, though he's each at one point or another. He doesn't rise above or sink below anyone else, except in the usual ways. As with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," this book celebrates the ordinary. And, when seen in such detail, the ordinary becomes quite extraordinary.
The book opens with the un-named man's arrival by train. The crowd and surroundings excite him, as does the mechanism of the train itself. Then, he's off to his new life in the city. We see that life in an uneven, even surreal pace. Masereel's vivid, expressive images hopscotch through the years of his life. Sequences of unrelated images seem to compress years into just a few pages. Other times, long sequences examine individual stories in detail - the adoption of a daughter, his happiness in her, and her final illness and death may be the most moving. It's a life-changing event, and sets the anonymous man off on a lengthy voyage, perhaps to lose himself or to find himself again. He returns to the city life, and eventually retires. The imagery changes radically at this point. It suggests Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and "Starry Night," and also hints at Van Gogh's death.
Or maybe not. The imagery speaks volumes, but speaks a different volume to each viewer - and will probably speak differently to me when I read it again. Although it's an illustrated story, it's not for children. It is for anyone who wants to see the grandparents of today's illustrated fiction, or who appreciates woodcut in itself. This Dover edition is a beautiful reproduction, with richly saturated blacks but paper opaque enough to keep each page from bleeding through. It's easy to enjoy - so go ahead, enjoy it.