CHARLES FORT: THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SUPERNATURAL by Jim Steinmeyer, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 332 pp.
NIGHT WRAPS THE SKY: WRITINGS BY AND ABOUT MAYAKOVSKY, edited by Michael Almereyda, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 272 pp.
Technically these are a biography and an anthology, but both are in effect delightful samplers of the work of two very singular and controversial men who were roughly contemporaries, although they were born 19 years apart: Charles Fort (1874-1932) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). I’m far from completing either book at this point, but both make for very pleasurable summer reading.
Fort was a late bloomer, especially regarding his public profile, which essentially consisted of the last four of his five published books–The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932), all very witty, imaginative, and provocative forays into debunking science. These were preceded only by several short stories published only in magazines and a 1909 novel that has never been reprinted, as well as some other creative non-fiction, all unpublished, that Steinmeyer quotes from liberally. Steinmeyer is a specialist in stage magic with whom I once had the pleasure of doing a lengthy phone interview. (He was a good friend of Orson Welles, and his principal confidante while Welles was writing one of his late screenplays, The Cradle Will Rock.)
By contrast, Mayakovsky was a revolutionary poet who bloomed early whereas Almereyda, an old friend, is a filmmaker and writer who’s perhaps best known for his films Nadja, Hamlet, and William Eggleston in the Real World. He doesn’t know Russian, but to all appearances he’s done a fine job of chronicling, collecting, and describing Mayakovsky’s art, with the help of many translators and other writers.
Both books, incidentally, are illustrated, but in Night Wraps the Sky the photographs and other visual art are clearly integral parts of the text. [8/5/08]