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East of the Sun

East of the Sun

You know how sometimes you come across a book you didn't know you needed and suddenly you understand that you can hardly go on without it but you feel like you have too many books so you don't buy it but you keep thinking about it and then one day you think, It's my birthday and I WANTS it, so you order it, and you can't wait for it to arrive, and then it arrives on a very busy day and it's shrink-wrapped, so you don't open it immediately, and then every day is busy, and you keep saying to yourself that you're going to open it on Tuesday, on Friday, on Sunday, when you have time to really enjoy it as it deserves to be enjoyed, and you keep looking at it longingly as you're putting your coat on before work or writing group or dinner or this or that, and after a while you start thinking maybe you'll just give it away because you'll never have time to look at it, and that shrink-wrap starts to seem like some gate to which you do not have a key, and you come to realize that your life is going to be one long stretch of not reading this book, until finally you have a string of weeks so utterly exhausting that when you have come out the other side and survived them you look at that book and you say to yourself, I WANTS IT, and you tear off the shrink wrap and you're equally as prepared to be disappointed as to be impressed, and it turns out that not only are you impressed, you spent your first ten minutes with the book simply staring at the endpapers, because they're that stunning, and you are once again ten years old with all the time in the world and this book is every beautiful, strange, mysterious, nostalgic, melancholy, and joyful thing you ever wanted out of life?

Well, that's what happened with me and Taschen's edition of East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen.

The scans on Wikimedia Commons do not do Kay Nielsen justice, but they are all I [legally] have.

When I was a kid, I never liked fairy tales much (with the one exception of East of the Sun, West of the Moon) because nothing makes any sense. The parents are always mean, first of all, which I did not at the time understand could happen in real life. But also, people are always falling asleep for longer than a typical human lifespan, and when they're awake, they do not seem to have normal or even consistent motivations. There is no internal logic to fairy tales, no character arcs, and very little relatability. Little Kate was deeply bothered by the lack of verisimilitude. Little Kate preferred the illustrations.

Especially creepy ones. Part of the reason I liked East of the Sun, West of the Moon so much was because I grew up with the version illustrated by Michael Hague, which is very creepy. Kay Nielsen also fulfills this very specific desire to be frightened while safe and warm under the covers before bed. His figures are alarmingly thin, and if they are not in themselves malicious, they tap into some sort of Aubrey Beardsley-centered portion of your brain that associates thinness with malice.

The sharp crowns probably don't help. And thin, insect-like wings. And that spiked dragon-tail. Nielsen's drawings are beautiful, but never comfortable or soothing.

Even this beautiful image is unsettling in more than one way. Lovely daisies, face in a lake. The horse is carrying someone's head. The crown, again, is spiked. Somehow all the plants look deadly. I love this so much.

The images are also sometimes quite strangely balanced. The white space (or here, the black space) is so large, and contrasts so sharply with the figure in white and the tall (skinny, and creepy) windows and the funereal flowers. And then there are the mismatched choices of color; it doesn't all go. It's not what your eye expects. And yet, it's perfect.

Also unexpected: that duck. Let's look more closely.

The duck wants no part of whatever is going on here.

It is at this point that I admit I haven't actually read the stories yet. By the time I was done staring at the endpapers and reading the introduction, I had to go to bed. And I haven't been able to get back to it since. And now it's 10:42 on a Tuesday and I have to go to bed again. So I have no idea why this duck is upset, but I will find out. At some point. Hopefully soon.

In the meantime, you should all treat yourselves and buy this book. Or whatever book you've been hankering for. And then also buy this one. You won't be sorry.


These illustrations are all from the Kay Nielsen category on Wikimedia Commons.

If you would like to see more from Kay Nielsen, you can find better-quality images (and more of them) at Hyperallergic's The Dark, Enchanted Worlds of Kay Nielsen, and The Paris Review's East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Taschen produced their gorgeous edition of East of the Sun, West of the Moon in 2015. It was originally published in 1914.

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