The Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti, Arion Press (2001)

One of my favorite things about collecting works from Arion Press is that while I get a good selection of well known classics, I also get introduced to great works and great writers who, while lesser known, are well worth exploring. An excellent example of which is Arion’s publication of The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti. Canetti (1905–1994), a Bulgarian-born writer who wrote plays, novels and non-fiction, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. His most famous works include Crowds and Power, a non-fiction work looking at the behavior of crowdsAuto da Fé, a modernist work of fiction; and a trilogy of autobiographical memoirs (Die Gerettete ZungeDie Fackel im OhrDas Augenspiel; and Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen) focused on his childhood and early years prior to World War II. 

The Voices of Marrakesh was Canetti’s only foray into travel writing, and it is fantastic. It was first published in German in 1968 (though Canetti became a British citizen in 1952, and subsequently lived in Switzerland the last twenty years of his life, his writings were always in German). The Voices of Marrakesh documents Canetti’s visit to Morocco, though unlike most travel writing published previously, it focuses on intellectual and emotional experiences rather than on history, particular sites, or ‘things to do’.  As such, it redefined the genre and is universally considered a classic of literary travel writing. Though somewhat minimalistic in approach, it is far from such in impact to the readers imagination which fills with imagery and knowledge of how it feels to be there. As Arion Press tells us in the prospectus, “the events Canetti describes could have taken place 100 years ago or yesterday or tomorrow.”  Here are some examples, the first of which are thoughts that crossed Canetti’s mind as he visited a souk (or bazaar)

It is astounding what dignity they achieve, these things that men have made…part of the desolation of our modern life is the fact that we get everything delivered to the door ready for consumption as if it came out of some horrid conjuring device. But here you can see the rope maker busy at his work, and his stock of finished ropes hangs besides him. In tiny booths hordes of small boys, six or seven of them at a time, operate lathes while youths assemble the pieces the boys have turned for them into little low tables. The wool with it wonderful, glowing colors is dyed before your eyes, and there are boys sitting about everywhere knitting caps in gay, attractive patterns.  Their activity is public, displaying itself in the same way as the finished goods. In a society that conceals so much, that keeps the interior of its houses, the figures and faces of its women, and even its places of worship jealously hidden from foreigners, this greater openness with regard to what is manufactured and sold is doubly seductive.

Here he ponders the ‘pricing system’ which remains a mystery, even today.

In countries where the price ethic prevails, where fixed prices are the rule, there is nothing to going shopping. Any fool can go out and find what he needs. Any fool can read figures and contrive to not get swindled. In the souks, however, the price that is named first is an unfathomable riddle. No one knows in advance what it will be, not even the merchant, because in any case there are many prices. Each one relates to a different situation, a different customer, a different time of day, a different day of the week…

His thoughts on the mystery of women in a society such as Marrakesh is blunt, though yearning in his wish for more.

It is like that with women. They are shapeless sacks walking down the street; you can make out nothing, guess at nothing and soon grow weary of the effort of trying to arrive at a firm idea of them. You dispense with women. But you do so reluctantly, and a women who then appears at a window and even speaks to you and inclines her head slightly and does not go away, as if she had always been there waiting for you, and who then goes on speaking to you when you turn your back on her and steal away, who would so speak whether you were there or not, and always to you, always to everyone — such a woman is a prodigy, a vision, and you are inclined to regard her as more important than anything else that this city might have to offer.

Probably my favorite thought in the entire book is a single sentence, that could only be written by someone truly aware of the greater world and one’s place in it. When one travels someplace where customs and day to day life is so different, so alien, one usually thinks ‘how strange’ or ‘how odd’ such culture is. Canetti instead reflects:

The astonishing creature was myself, who stood so long uncomprehending.

This edition from Arion Press is one of my favorites with a nicely designed mix of illustrations; etchings by American artist William T. Wiley and vintage photographs from American photographer Karl Bissinger. I am a fan of Wiley to begin with, and I have always had a special affinity for his work in Marrakesh. The etchings are evocative, illustrative of the text with restrained modernism, and visually appealing. Arion tells us that:

Wiley began by making some small watercolors of incidents in ‘The Voices of Marrakesh’, then a large preliminary drawing for an etching. He added an underlying map of the walled city of Marrakesh, which is printed in an earthy red, while the drawn images are printed in black. For the book, the etching is partitioned into six pieces, each segment illustrating a story told by Canetti.

Even if Arion had published this edition only with Wiley’s illustrations, I would have been happy. They are that good.  However, Arion Press put icing on the cake by including photographs from Karl Bissinger, taken while he was on assignment doing a travel piece on Morocco for Flair magazine in 1949.  Arion tells us:

The sequence follows the course of the photographer’s journey and coincidentally intersects with places mentioned in Canetti’s account. For the reader, the photographs give visual information about the ancient walled city to supplement the impressions and descriptions of Canetti.

With six etchings and 29 photographs, the edition is amply illustrated. The edition uses three types of paper; for the text Mohawk Superfine, for the etchings Rives Lightweight mounted on Fabriano Ingres. The photographs were printed in duo-tone and four-color offset lithography. The text was done using Goudy Old Style type, printed by letterpress. The book is bound with a brown cloth spine and red paper over boards; presented in an envelope made of the cover paper, with a fragment of the etching attached.  All-in-all an attractive book, nicely sized for easy reading, vibrant in design and a joy to read.

About the Edition

  • Six etchings by William T. Wiley
  • A selection of 29 photographs from Karl Bissinger was made for this book, 28 in black and white, appearing on every fourth page in the text, and one, as the frontispiece, in color
  • The photographs appear on verso pages, the etchings on recto pages
  • The etchings are 9.25 by 6.25 inches
  • The paper for the etchings is Rives Lightweight
  • The paper for the mounting of the etchings is Fabriano Ingres
  • The photographs were printed in duo-tone and four-color offset lithography
  • The type is Goudy Old Style, printed by letterpress
  • The paper for the text is Mohawk Superfine
  • Large octavo, 11 by 8 inches, 124 pages, plus 12 unnumbered pages for the colored leaves to which the etchings are attached
  • For 300 copies of the edition, the book is bound with a brown cloth spine and red paper over boards; These copies are presented in an envelope made of the cover paper, with a fragment of the etching attached; signed by the artist and photographer
  • 50 copies of the edition for sale are accompanied by an etching by William T. Wiley, “Canetti in Marrakesh” for these the book is bound as above, but with a brown leather spine, and presented in a slipcase of cloth and paper, with the fragment of the etching attached
    • Printed in two colors, black and red, on Rives Heavyweight paper
    • The size of the plate is 29.5 by 20.75 inches; the size of the paper is 38 by 27 inches
    • The intaglio plates were prepared and proofed by Timothy Berry of Teaberry Press in San Francisco and printed by Robert Townsend of R. E. Townsend Studio in Georgetown, Massachusetts
    • The edition is limited to 50 prints for sale, numbered and signed by the artist, each with a copy of the book, plus five artist’s proofs and five publisher’s proofs

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Envelope Slipcase
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Envelope Slipcase
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Envelope Slipcase Side View
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Envelope Slipcase Side View
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Cover
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Cover
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Copyright
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Copyright
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Contents
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Contents
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample text Page #1
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample text Page #1
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Sample text Page #1
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Macro of Sample text Page #1
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #1 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #1 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Etching #1 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Etching #1 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Text Page #2
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Text Page #2
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Etching #3 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Etching #2 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #5 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #2 with Text
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Colophon
The Voices of Marrakesh, Arion Press, Colophon

3 thoughts on “The Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti, Arion Press (2001)

Leave a Reply