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THE ELECTRONIC LIVEIBIZA

Weekly Edition 057: Saturday 30th March 2002

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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

 
Part Three
 

Welcome back to Island Books - the website, not the foreign-language bookshop at the far end of Santa Eulalia, one of my favourite local haunts. This week our subject is a little-known children’s book which features one of the crumbling old towers built next to Ibicenco farmhouses for defence against Barbary pirates. But first, have you ever wondered about the term ‘ivory tower’? Such a construction would surely be outrageously expensive to build - not to mention highly dubious from an engineering point of view. It was a French literary critic, Sainte-Beuve, who first coined the expression in his 1837 poem, Les pensées d’août, describing the lofty study in the fifteenth-century mansion not far from Cognac in the Charente to which the aristocratic poet Alfred, comte de Vigny, retired from military life in 1827. In the poem, the Romantic poet is contrasted with


Vigny’s tour d’ivoire at Le-Maine-Giraud
 

 

Victor Hugo, then enjoying enormous success in politics and literature. The count was going through a bad patch - a stormy love life and a thwarted political and literary career in the French capital. (His candidacy for membership of the Académie had been rejected five times.) Like many a world-weary scribbler he found consolation in the natural world, and many of his greatest poems came out of that famous toure d’ivoire, which as can be seen, was built from the smooth, creamy limestone for which the region is well-known. Here is the relevant part of the poem:
 

Et Vigny, plus secret
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi, rentrait

And Vigny, more discreet,
As if in his ivory tower, returned before noon.

There is a possibility that the expression owes something to a much earlier idealisation of rural life - the Song of Solomon. In chapter 7, verse 4, the Hebrew poet thus describes his beloved: ‘Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like fishpools…thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.’ By a clever sleight of hand, the later French littérateur thus transformed a beautiful woman’s neck into a scholarly study elevated far above toiling peasants and crammed to the rafters with rare tomes. In fact Vigny worked his own vineyards, making sure his cognac was as good as his neighbour’s, and he even founded a school, not to mention the local library. But wait a minute: there are a lot of towers in that biblical lady. Let’s take a closer look at the original Hebrew: ‘ivory tower’ is a translation of mgdl h-šn, but according to one scholar at least, the word šn refers not to ‘ivory’ but to the village of al-Sinn or al-Shanu in the Asir region, north of Yemen, where much of the Old Testament was probably written. The traditional architecture of this region is full of towers so splendid as to present an obvious simile for surpassing beauty - even when describing the nose of one’s immortal beloved.

It was not until Henry James’s posthumous novel The Ivory Tower (1917) that the phrase came into widespread use in English, popularised by James’s friends and admirers - H.G. Wells, Huxley and Pound. “Doesn’t living in an ivory tower just mean the most distinguished retirement? I don’t want yet awhile to settle in one myself - though I’ve always thought it a thing I should like to come to.” comments Gray in the novel, doubtless thinking of Vigny and his poems, and possibly too of Jules Verne, whose town house in Amiens also had a tower. But James’s ivory tower is not simply a figure of speech, but an Indian cabinet on top of a secretary, covered with a thin veneer of ivory, in whose topmost drawer a vital letter is secreted. The expression is used now in a slightly pejorative way to signify a person or academic institution out of touch with reality, instead of a writer who shuns worldly success to dedicate himself fully to his art, but I think most people long to get away and spend just a few days, months, or even years hidden away in one. 

Back to Ibiza and children’s books. Number four is Juanito of the Tower (1966) by Gina Liebow, with photographs by Harold Liebow. This New York couple was signed up by publishing giants McGraw-Hill to write a series of five books illustrated with photographs aimed at American children and providing an instructive lesson into the lifestyles of various European counterparts. Two educational concerns underlay the scheme - the preponderance of the sciences and the beatnik phenomenon. It was hoped that examples might come from the other side of the Atlantic where youngsters were less scientifically-inclined and didn’t need to break so radically with the past. Well, that was the theory, although the Beatles themselves were by then well on the way to global conquest. But in the Manhattan ivory tower which bore the proud name of McGraw-Hill Book Company, Europe meant The Sound of Music. The first book was to take a peasant family in the Malaga area, to be followed by four others including white-collar Parisians, blue-collar Finns and communist functionaries in Prague. (In the event, only the first two were published.) On their way south in 1964 at a Paris party a wealthy lady invited the Liebows to a Christmas celebration at her house in Punta Galera, just north of San Antonio, Ibiza. The son of this same influential lady was later to make the greatest film ever made on Ibiza, More, partly filmed in that same house. The New Yorkers were so enchanted by Ibiza that they decided to stay and make it the setting for their peasant-boy story. Local education authorities suggested San Carlos as the model village and the literary protagonist - ‘Juanito’ - was talent-spotted in the village school. He lived with his father, stepmother, grandmother and sister in a house just south of the village near the road which now leads to the La Joya urbanización. The whole family, especially the grandmother, immediately warmed to the idea. As the Liebows spoke little Spanish, they needed a translator, and this was the book’s dedicatee, Joan d’en Xico, who had saved up enough as a short order waiter in the United States to return home and marry a far younger woman. He appears as the real-estate shark on pages 12-13 of the book.

In the tale Juanito visits his three uncles - a restaurant owner, a fisherman and a saltworker - to see how they live and decide whether or not to follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. The tower is his special retreat, the place he goes to mull over his future and dream about pirates and corsairs. I won’t tell you what decision the fictitious ‘Juanito’ eventually settles on, but the boy who posed for the photographs and partly inspired the text later became a successful businessman in Santa Eulalia, owning not just a café-bar but numerous other concerns. The photographer, Harold Liebow, has lived on the island since working on the book and it is his dearly-cherished wish that one day local education authorities discover the little gem their predecessors helped with and make it widely available for local schoolchildren struggling with English irregular verbs.  

Harold tells a story about the making of the book, which speaks volumes for local honesty. One day he inadvertently left his camera tripod behind in San Carlos. Driving back to the hotel, he realised outside Santa Eulalia that the scooter in his rear-view mirror had been following him for most of the way and on pulling to one side discovered it was Juanito’s father and a pillion rider holding the tripod, their faces streaming with tears from the frantic ride. 

We began our ramble along the shores of the Wine-dark Sea with a French bibliophile, Alfred Vigny, so let us end with another, René Descartes, father of modern philosophy: The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries. And, of course, women. Now, how about that glass of Rémy Martin?

Back and Front Cover of the book Juanito Of The Tower  (1966)
by Gina Liebow with photographs by Harold Liebow

 
Martin Davies
martindavies@liveibiza.com
 

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