by Sophie Nusslé
Once upon a time, in the early spring of 2005, I was exchanging private messages on Aeclectic Tarot with Karen Mahony of Magic-realist Press in Prague. We were discussing their latest deck project. I had long been a fan of the Tarot of Prague, and like a good fan, had written gushing messages to Karen telling her just how good that deck was. As a lover of fairy and folk tales, I was delighted to hear that magic-realist was to release a Fairytale Tarot in the not-to-distant-future. Karen was sighing about the amount of work they had – working on the deck and the book was eating up all her and her partner Alex’s time. “I won’t write the next book”, she told me. “I’ll find someone else to do it”. Then she mentioned that despite the heavy workload, they were already thinking about their next project, a Tarot deck based on the animal etchings of JJ Grandville, the 19th Century French illustrator.
At the end of that message, she casually asked – “do you know anything about Grandville?” I was brought up in a French-speaking region, where every child knows the 17th Century Fables of La Fontaine, and very likely the book version illustrated by JJ Grandville. If they are lucky, as I was, they will also have discovered Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe through the keen eyes and lively pencil of that illustrator. Later, I met him again in the company of Balzac, the great social novelist, and of the Romantics Musset and Georges Sand. Although I didn’t know much about his life, I confidently answered that I’d admired Grandville since childhood – and knew a fair amount about the times he lived in. So Karen suggested I write the book to accompany what was then called simply “the Grandville Tarot”, and I suggested visiting her and Alex in Prague, so we could discuss the project.
A few hours later, Karen sent me a few samples. I saw a king penguin sitting on a throne on the ice pack, holding a cup, and looking very reluctant to move anywhere, while his loose socks accordion around his ankles. A half-comical, half-dignified figure, that King of Cups captured my heart immediately. The Fool that Karen sent leapt straight into my imagination. A rat was trudging around the countryside, looking rugged and determined, ready to take on the world. Here was a Fool midway between the juggler-vagrant attacked by dogs in the Tarot of Marseille, and the newer “leap off the cliff” Fool – though this Fool looked like a veteran rather than a rookie! I wrote back to Karen saying I just had to write that book – those images were too eloquent, and told too many stories, and I wanted to be the one to tell some of them.
Fast forward a few weeks to May 2005. I flew to Prague, and Karen and Alex welcomed me with an open-hearted hospitality I could only think of as Middle-European. We pored over thick old tomes full of the etchings of Grandville – “this fox and hen pair would make a wonderful 7 of Swords”, “we thought this procession of scarabs in church paraphernalia would make a good Hierophant”, and “how about this burning phoenix for Judgement?” I supplied Karen with some stories to go with the sample cards she had sent. The Story of the Fool featured a rat that jumped off a priest’s wardrobe followed by his mouse companion. Except that, on closer inspection, I began to suspect that my rat Fool was in fact a lion! I scrambled back to my Balzac Animal Tales illustrated by Grandville – and there indeed was the Voyage of an African Lion to Paris. My imagination could not supply a wardrobe large enough for a lion to jump off, so it became the second storey of a barn in the French countryside. Despite my failing to recognise the king of the Animals in his ragged Fool’s garb, Karen was pleased with my sample stories. I suggested a format for the book – in addition to short stories or vignettes, with more classic card descriptions, for each card, I would write a section on Grandville’s life, times and art, another on tarot history, some general introductory words about the tarot and a “how to read” section with spreads. Karen wanted to ask another Aeclectic Tarot member, Paula Goodman Wilder, to write some sample readings in her characteristic witty reading style. I was confident that we could make a good book out of all this.
Back in Geneva, my first stop was our public art library, to investigate everything they had about JJ Grandville. I found several of his illustrated books, reproductions of his lithographic series The Metamorphoses of the Day, which had made him famous at the age of 25, a couple of monographs, a study on illustration in 19th Century France, some journals and letters. I was to find an equal trough on the internet. Karen, Alex and I had agreed that I would work off black-and-white rough cards, which they would put up on the internet on a private work-in-progress site.
That summer was a fairly eventful one for me. I spent about half my time in the mountains, and the whole of August in Namibia, Southern Africa. Grandville and his animals came with me wherever I went. I wrote many of the card stories and descriptions between the desert and the Atlantic ocean, in the seaside resort of Swakopmund in Namibia, in the hot and dry capital, Windhoek, or in small stopping-points in that vast desert country. I thanked the Tarot Gods for internet cafés so I could supply Karen with my material. The contrast between Grandville, his life and artistic style teeming with animal-like people that made up the cards, and the rugged, almost empty Namibia, could not have been greater, but somewhere between the two a space opened where my imagination could flourish. I was very keen to set all the stories at the time of Grandville, and in France. But how to make sure the stories and descriptions were relevant for our time, and for an English-speaking culture that would probably know little of 1830s France? The Namibians, like most Africans, are keen on divination, so I was given many opportunities to practice my tarot reading skills during that stay. This daily practice I was afforded, with people who generally knew nothing of Tarot, helped me keep my card description real whenever I returned to my laptop. What, indeed, does a fox running away with a willing hen have to say about an everyday human life situation in the early 21st Century?
After a few months, the project went quiet for a while, as Karen and Alex concentrated all their efforts on publishing and launching the Fairytale Tarot. Then in early 2006, Karen contacted me with the details of the rewrites she and her professional editor suggested. By then, I had started a job with the United Nations AIDS programme in Geneva, and was caught up in a big project there, which involved a fair bit of travelling. So started one of the craziest, and most fulfilling times of my life. Every day I would be writing and thinking about AIDS, and every evening and late into the night, Grandville and the increasingly beautiful Fantastic Menagerie Tarot drew me into their transformed world, where animals and men become each other. Once again, the divergence between my life and writing was only apparent. Grandville lived through a terrible cholera epidemic in 1832, at a time when he worked as a political caricaturist. Famine was endemic in France. In his lifetime, tuberculosis ravaged Europe, a seemingly unmovable disease that broke families and gnawed at the fabric of society. Grandville himself lost three of his four children, and his beloved first wife Henriette, to various infections. His seemingly innocent animal drawings grew out of his observations of a vigorous and creative society, which also had to live with fear, loss, hunger and constant disease. He drew them not as escapism, but as social satire and commentary on the deep contrasts he saw around him. The chasm between 19th Century France and a creative but AIDS-ridden Africa, closed, bridged by Grandville’s timeless drawings, and by magic-realist’s astonishing work of selection and transformation that turned Grandville’s book etchings into the Fantastic Menagerie Tarot.
Geneva, 2 June 2006