Stefan Themerson: Just Two Doorways to a Hall of many Doors
The first thing I tried was a book, of course.
With the first page of Stefan Themerson’s The Mystery of the Sardine, the door opened on a man with two lives: as a writer in town, writing out of a fund of creative hatred, he sleeps brutally with his secretary between dictations; as a friendly country squire with a family he nurtures a harmless poetry habit. I thought this might be the protagonist of the mystery, but I was wrong (in a way). Soon he was dead, and his wife had met his secretary and entered in on a love-life with her that both seemed to find more fulfilling than their previous lives. They are happily installed as snaky dancers on Saturday evenings with breasts always one inch apart, in a Majorca hotel, by the end of the first chapter. And banal and bizarre continued to collide as in succeeding chapters I encountered an exploding black poodle, a boy genius with a solution for Euclid, and a sympathetic and practical Minister of Imponderabilia, among others. There is indeed a classic mystery to be solved in the book, perhaps more than one, but the most gratifying aspect of it is the book itself. Where did this salutary madness (unaccountably reminiscent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire) spring from?
Bertrand Russell said, of Themerson’s novel Bayamus, that “the highest compliment I can pay is that it is nearly as mad as the world.” Dalkey Archive publishes three of Themerson’s novels, Hobson’s Island, The Mystery of the Sardine and Tom Harris. While I’m used to the feeling that some people wouldn’t call some of our publications novels, I’ve tended to stick with the notion that despite all doubts, if they are in fact novels, then the people who wrote them must be novelists. Not true of Stefan Themerson, I discovered. For one thing, his art can’t really be separated from that of his wife, Franciszka, who illustrated his books and with whom he shared the design and planning of everything he did. And then, it wasn’t all about writing either. Stefan and Franciszka were an experimental orchestra of art-forms. Beginning with film, they worked in almost all available media (including photography and radio – I wondered what they would have done with computers? CGI?) and most fields of study too: philosophy, sociology, art history, and more.
The next doorway for me was a film. In the mostly white sitting room of the keepers of the Themerson Archive, I was left alone to watch Stefan and Franciszka, billed as a simple ten-minute documentary, followed by reconstructed sequences from remnants of the Themersons’ own films. And what unfolded was a most unorthodox introduction to a pair of lives and a fascinating elision of 20th century technological and philosophical discoveries. Before leaving Poland in 1937, Stefan and Franciszka were part of the Polish avant-garde art scene. They made experimental films using photograms and designed and edited their collective’s journal f.a. Obliged to leave Poland by the war, they came to London via Paris in 1942, where they established themselves as a one-couple counter-avant-garde, with their own publishing imprint, the Gaberbocchus Press, which together they operated by hand in their own hallway, and for which Franciszka did the design and illustrations and Stefan the writing -though this is a hopeless simplification and near-dishonest distinction to make. Together they published such classics as Barbara Wright’s translations of Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Queneau’s Exercices de Style. As well as Stefan’s books, creations including costume and theatre designs, more films, a hand-drawn opera, comic strips and lectures rolled out of their workshop.
The films showed me that my litero-centric approach was far too narrow to comprehend the Themersons’ art. People who can relate the technology of cinema to the mark a small leaf imprints on an apple’s skin as it ripens in the sun deserve a wide-open mind and the widest kind of reading.