The Labyrinth, by Saul Steinberg.
New York Review Books, 2018. 277 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
The question for Steinberg fans is: “Do I need to get this version, on top of the 1960 print of it I already have?” ANSWER: Probably yes.
Listen, I have a 1960 here in the apartment. It’s an oversize book, as you know, so the text block is (inevitably) in some danger of separating from the boards. After all, the only thing that’s holding the cover on is the endpapers. They’re intact, but they’re almost sixty years old, and you can see they’re somewhat brittle. Also the pages are a tiny bit yellowed. One feels the book must be handled with care. There’s an unpleasant crackling involved in opening it.
And there are other disadvantages to the 1960. The pages aren’t numbered, so the only way to refer, in writing, to the pictures is to laboriously describe them. More, the only indication of where these drawings first appeared is the following note on the copyright page:
Of the 341 drawings in this book, 153 originally appeared in The New Yorker; 6 in Harper’s Magazine; 3 in Life; 2 in New World Writing; 2 in Britannica Book of the Year, 1957–58; 1 in Scientific American; 8 in Femina-Illustration; 2 in L’Express; and 5 in Encounter.
So, if for some reason you wanted to know which drawings appeared in New World Writing, you’re out of luck. There are no notes or explanations of any kind, anywhere in the book, aside from the passage I just quoted.
This NYRB version fixes all that. The binding is indestructible, the paper is great, the pages are numbered, and the first publications of the individual items are properly cited, in the back. The only, only, only thing wrong with this new version is the four pages wasted on Nicholson Baker’s “Introduction” and Harold Rosenberg’s “Afterword.” Those pieces of blurby fine writing have no value that I can see. They consist mainly of the laborious descriptions I mentioned above, ones that are entirely superfluous if you have the pictures themselves in your hands. I trust you will believe me when I say no verbal description can possibly stand comparison with Steinberg’s drawings.
Indeed, I turn the pages of this book in a state of outrage that anyone could have been gifted with this much talent. I keep saying aloud: “Son of a bitch!” “Goddammit!” “Fucking no. NO. You can’t be this good. No one can be this good!”
Basically, this is one of those books about which you could safely say to your friends: “Pay the twenty-five dollars on Amazon Prime, and if you don’t like the book, you just lemme know and I’ll cut you a check for twenty-five dollars.”
If anyone is reading these sentences and doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I urge you to run a Google image-search on “Saul Steinberg.” My only warning is: Don’t do this if you have less than an hour to spend gaping. Also prepare to put a bunch of quarters in the “swear jar.”
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).