The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary
Created by: Teddy Kristiansen, Steven T. Seagle
Published by: Image
ISBN: 1607065606 (Amazon)
This weekend Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight lands in metropolitan theaters across America. It’s a film that I am hotly anticipating and one I’m hotly anticipating landing in less metropolitan regions of the country. Before Midnight is the third in what may be my all-time favourite film series and follows Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset. And while I currently feel my blood vibrate in anticipation for a new sequel to Before Sunrise, this wasn’t always the case.
A decade ago when I heard there was going to be a sequel to Before Sunrise, taking place nine years after Sunrise's final moments, I was skeptical. The audacity that Jesse and Celine would happen to meet again for the first time in nearly a decade screamed: “Gimmick.” I will admit to some excitement and anticipation, as I was a tremendous fan of the first film and was cautiously optimistic. Still, I had a hard time seeing how a sequel set nine years later could in any way seamlessly flow from Jesse and Celine’s Long Conversation in Vienna (not official title). I was terrified that one of my favourite films would be diminished by someone’s need to force a sequel. But the funny thing about gimmicks is that they sometimes pay off.
In Before Sunset, the gimmick does pay off and Linklater delivers a maddeningly compelling film that actually enhances the value of the earlier film.11And if critics are to be believed, Before Midnight does the same for both of its own precursors. Happily for Teddy Kristiansen’s and Steven T. Seagle’s gimmick-steeped collaboration on The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary, their own gimmick pays off well and each half bestows a kind of blessing on the other half.
Explaining this book’s gimmick is almost certainly going to be obnoxious, but without the explanation it will be almost impossible to convey the wonder of the work. I’ll try to keep this brief.
The project began as a single book, Le Carnet Rouge, written and drawn by Seagle’s occasional collaborator, Teddy Kristiansen.22The two worked together on the lauded It’s a Bird… and the soon-to-be lauded Genius. There are other collaborations, but I have not read them and so they do not yet exist for me. Seagle loved Kristiansen’s art on the book and wanted to bring it over to America under Image’s Man of Action imprint—only Seagle would have to be directly involved in the book’s writing for the work to be published through Man of Action. And as the book was already written by Kristiansen, that wouldn’t fly. Seagle might have gotten away with publishing via a translation credit, but he speaks neither French nor Danish (Le Carnet Rouge had already been translated into Danish. So he came up with the bizarro gimmick that would give us two books in one (the volume is presented flipbook-style, with each story reading from its respective front cover to the book’s center).
Through a process Seagle terms transliteration (but is really nothing like what everyone else means by transliteration), Seagle took the Danish version of the text and adapted its sounds into something like English, then cleaned that up and massaged it into a coherent story. (In the end notes I’ll provide the example that Seagle uses to illustrate the process.) The surface-level trick is that his story is wildly different from Kristiansen’s. Using the same art. The real trick though is that both his version and Kristiansen’s are very good stories, regardless of either their process of generation or how very little they resemble each other.
Here’s an example. Seagle’s “transliteration” is on top and Kristiansen’s original is below.
Both tread some of the same thematic ground, exploring characters whose identities are in flux, who submit to war as means to escape the self, and both feature a man named William Ackroyd who seeks to untangle a history divulged through a collection of diaries. But in Kristiansen’s book, Ackroyd is a biographer researching a poet who stumbles upon a more interesting story. In Seagle’s, Ackroyd is a former artist whose works are celebrated though the War took his ability to produce. In Seagle’s, Ackroyd experienced the fullest measure of WWI’s trench warfare. In Kristiansen’s, Ackroyd may not have yet been born at the time of WWI. Both stories concern a British painter in 1910 Paris (Seagle specifies Montparnasse), but their stories and experiences are very different. Both end up fleeing Paris, but in Kristiansen’s in fear for his life and in Seagle’s in fear for his soul.
Both stories are excellent, but at less than seventy pages perhaps rather slight. Put together and in contradistinction, Kristiansen’s and Seagle’s sororal twin stories present a powerful exploration of both the human condition and the narrative craft. Taking the opportunity to tell the two fully different stories under an identical restrictive framework gives the reader a unique porthole through which to observe the vagaries of the human spirit. Where Seagle’s story might initially appear as mere technical exercise (perhaps a challenge to himself if nothing else), the final result is intriguing and entirely worthwhile. In comparing the two stories while reading—almost an inevitability due to the format of the project—the ingenuity of both creators is magnified through a sort of meta-story that extends beyond the words and plotlines and art.
As with another big release from 2012, Building Stories, the order of revelation may be important as well. Depending on which version of the story a reader takes in first, impression of the other will shift and be somewhat governed by the experience of the first. The first time I read the two stories, I tackled Seagle’s “transliteration” first and followed that with Kristiansen’s original. Two days ago, I reread the work and reversed the order. My experience of the two short stories was quite different. Part of this would owe to the removal of suspense over just what is going on, but I think the larger part is how the reading of one book informs the phenomenon of the second. And vice versa.
Kristiansen’s art is brilliant as usual and is the strongest part of what makes Seagle’s gimmick here plausible. He conveys the variant Ackroyd’s stories through his usual downbeat palette and lightly impressionistic strokes. The art is vague enough to be read through multiple lenses (essential for Seagle’s scripting conceit), but concrete enough that we can grasp his figures as material solids, people whose lives matter with the kind of tangibility that breeds empathy. And while Kristiansen relies often on desaturated and muted earthtones and blues (lending a weighted mood to much of the work), he includes bursts of occasional red that feed fire into the reading. As well, some brighter outdoor scenes lend a trickle of the verdant to both stories, reminding us that even the reccountment of past woes can be lent verve in the manner of the telling.
Unlike Before Sunset, I find myself unable to forget entirely my initial thought that The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary combination is forged of a gimmick. It’s too thoroughly the book’s foundation and identity. But it doesn’t matter. The project embraces its gimmick completely and shows definitively that such tricks cannot determine the success or failure of a work; instead and unsurprisingly, it comes down to the usual mystery of craft, vision, and competency. Read this book/books/whatever it is.
Seagle provides an example of his process in the book’s backmatter (which is really actually middlematter since this is a flipbook). These are the opening lines of the book:
Kunsten kan, på sin egan brutale måde, få alle til at føle en rus, som en frygtelig sygdom, men måske den smukkeste af alle sygdomme.
Through “transliteration” this becomes:
Constant can father’s sin even brutality made for all til it falls in ruin some in foretelling wisdom men made the mistake of all wisdoms.
Then he cleans it up a bit:
Forever will man’s sins of brutality make for mankind until it fall in ruin wisdom itself foretells that man makes his mistakes in the name of wisdom.
And finally another pass renders it:
Forever will man’s sins of brutality make pain for all men—until they fall to ruin—who claim that their mistakes were made in the name of a greater wisdom.
Pretty weird, huh? Regardless, Seagle does something magical between the Danish and his final script. I don’t know just how much massaging was done to the text but I imagine that in places, the conscious reinvention had to be pretty substantial in order to maintain the fluidity of the narrative (especially with regard to names of characters).
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