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Rodney Graham: The System of Landor’s Cottage

Rodney Graham is a Canadian artist who has produced works in various fields – drawing, painting, film/video and music. He has also produced literary works, based on found texts, i.e. he has taken existing texts and added to them. In addition to the work under review, he has done this with Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, a reworking of Georg Buchner’s novella Lenz, a story based on the Sturm and Drang poet Jakob Lenz, and part of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. However, in this case – and it is why it is here – he has created an entire novel. This work was inspired by a visiting card belonging to the poet Charles Baudelaire which Graham saw in a library in Vancouver. It contained several words taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s Landor’s Cottage. This was the last story Poe wrote before his death and tells the simple story of an unnamed narrator wandering through New England. He gets lost (but is not too concerned by this) and then, in the middle of the woods, stumbles across a cottage, with a well-tended garden and a very picturesque house, something he did not expect to find in such a remote location. He visit the cottage and meets a young woman about twenty-eight years of age and Mr. Landor himself. And that is it. As Poe says at the end It is not the purpose of this work to do more than give, in detail, a picture of Mr Landor’s residence — as I found it. This is, of course, somewhat odd, as there is no story, nothing frightening as we might expect from Poe, nothing about the narrator, his identity and what happens and nothing about Mr. Landor or the young woman, who they are, what their relationship is and why they live there. The visiting card that Graham saw had words from the story that Baudelaire had written for his copyist, Edouard Laumonier, as part of a translating assignment. Graham took Poe’s text and expanded both the story and the architectural features of Mr. Landor’s cottage. He was, he said, influenced by Raymond Roussel and clearly Locus Solus is a major influence. The manuscript of the novel, plans and an architectural model of the cottage as described by Poe were part of an exhibition in Vancouver in 1986. A limited edition of 200 copies of the novel was published in 1987. It was translated into French and then translated back into English by twelve different professional translating companies. Finally, the original English version was reissued in 2012 in a limited edition of 600 copies.

Graham takes the Poe story as it stands but interpolates a little bit before the narrator’s meeting with Landor but then adds an entire novel after the meeting with Landor. The style is both fantasy but also the story within a story within a story…, coupled with architectural, biological, geological and mechanical wonders, all lovingly explained. On his way into Landor’s cottage, the narrator already sees some strange phenomena in an annex, in the form of a pink cloud-form, with some blue mass hovering under it. He is invited into the cottage but Mr. Landor has to temporarily leave and the narrator sneaks a look into the annex through a door leading off from the parlour. There he finds a whole host of strange objects, some of which have cryptic wording on them, some of which change, due to some unidentified biological phenomenon, some of which seem to be mechanical marvels, some of which seem fairly ordinary but clearly have some undefined significance. When Mr. Landor returns he tells – over a period twenty-two hours – the story of all these objects, how they link up, what their genesis is and how Mr. Landor came into possession of them. He also explains some of the cryptic inscriptions, some of which are very cryptic and took considerable efforts at deciphering by Mr. Landor, despite his expertise in cryptography.

Mr. Landor goes on to tell various stories, several of which are stories within stories. We learn of L’Apostille-Magloire, the great entomologist and discoverer of the swarming coleoptera. We learn of the great English opera composer, Sligo, whose book My Life in the Musical Theatre contains a famous and apparently undecipherable cipher within it, which will occupy Mr. Landor for a long time, and which will unlock the great subaquatic pavilion in Ambreadad, capital of the Oriental kingdom of Ginnistan (i.e. country of the djinns). Indeed, Mr. Landor’s story starts with Sligo, a composer of operas whose reputation had fallen. He attends a vaudeville show, given by a man called Martingale, which features a subaquatic pavilion rising out of a lake. Maritngale introduces Missir, a man who suffered cruelly at the hands of the great Ginnistan poet, Al Ma’araji. He proceeds to tell the tale of Al Ma’araji, who speaks to the vizier, who, in turn tells a tale…

The book tells of fantastic Arabian Nights events, involving untold riches, mechanical and other wonders, love affairs that succeed and those that go wrong, great cruelty and fortunes made and lost. We learn how many of these wonders came and went and were rediscovered. We learn how Mr. Landor and others before him tracked them down and found them or did not find them, when things went drastically wrong and how they had to follow obscure clues and ciphers to do so. We learn of all sorts of plots within plots. In short, it is a magical, Arabian nights tale, that makes for wonderful reading. It is clear that Graham is fascinated with the wonders, mechanical, geological, biological and architectural, and he describes them in great detail. However, there is also a story, or rather, several stories, within the novel – the story of Sligo and his fate, of Missir, of Al Ma’araji, of Roenaz, a heroine of Ginnistan, as well as the story of Landor, his father and his son, all of whom have fantastic (though not always pleasant) things happen to them.

As it was conceived as an art work and not part of the literary mainstream, this novel has, sadly, fallen through the cracks. The fact that it has been only published (twice) in limited editions and by a Belgian publisher, means that it has not got the attention it deserves, as it really is a first-class work, even if it does piggyback on the work of another writer. If you wish to get hold of a copy you had better hurry, as the 2012 edition was limited to 600 copies (I have number 092). You cannot fail to enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Yves Gevaert/The Art Gallery of Ontario