Oedipus by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1989)
LEC #547/49th Series V. 4 in 1989
Artwork: Photogravures by Marie Cosindas
Introduced by the author, translated by Leila Vennewitz
LEC #151 of 650. LEC Exclusive.
Click images to see larger views.
Front Binding – If a single book could showcase the incredible shift of focus between the eras of George Macy and the Cardevon Press to Sid Shiff, perhaps Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Oedpius is a contender for such a change. Shiff’s tenure from 1978 to 2010 drastically transformed the Limited Editions Club from its origins and its recent (mis)handling from Cardevon into a force to be reckoned with once again. The titles selected became increasingly recent, spotlighting far more women, people of color and other marginalized voices in literature and art, and reduced the subscriber count gradually to a very exclusive 300 for most of Shiff’s ownership and made the books Livres d’Artiste — an “artist’s book” of the highest quality and prestige. While I’ve covered Shiff’s books in the past: The House of the Dead, The Secret Sharer and The Adventures of Simplicissimus, Oedpius is closest to the breaking point where Shiff finalizes his ambitions in redefining the LEC. Released in 1989, this title reprints Swiss author/dramatist Dürrenmatt’s play Der Mitmacher‘s (commonly translated to The Physicists) postscript as both introduction and main body of this edition for the first time in English. It’s a curious choice to ignore the play entirely (especially considering it is his best known piece of literature!) to focus on a philosophical essay on a topic tangibly connected to its anchor of a publication, but it does reveal much about where Shiff’s intentions for the next two decades of the LEC would take its membership.
Dürrenmatt would only see this edition and died shortly after its publication in 1990, but he is also well regarded for Romulus the Great and The Visit.
This edition also spotlights the shift in the artistic direction. Photographer Marie Cosindas, a disciple of Ansel Adams until her urge to utilize color redefined her vision for much of her career, was recruited to provide two photogravures to accompany Dürrenmatt’s essays, and the black and white prints included are exquisite shots that capture the general sense of Oedipus as Sophocles’ rendered the character centuries ago. This would be her only contribution as well. Shiff’s publications would typically reproduce its art/photos at a exquisite quality and feature far fewer illustrations than the Macy family’s tenure or Cardevon Press’ typical sampling, which Shiff used to make the LEC’s transition towards Livres d’Artiste even more desirable. Exclusive, high-end prints of modern artists helped raise the subscriber cost for a huge reduction in book quantity; over the 1980s the traditional 12 volumes a year were trimmed to 4 by 1990, and even that was slashed to one to two a year until the 2000s, where entire years might pass by before the next LEC was published. Definitely a different perspective than George Macy, but it worked well for Shiff, who found the Club a profitable enough venture to keep it going until his death in 2010.
Design Notes – Ben Shiff, Sid’s son, handled design duties for this one. I did get the ML for this book, so let me share the production details:
Title Page – Dürrenmatt provides a reprinted introduction to his own work; this was not a common practice for the LEC, but always novel when it did happen. Leila Vennewitz served as a translator.
Colophon – This is #151 of 650, and was signed by Dürrenmatt and Cosindas. It was around the mid 1980s that Shiff reduced the limitation count from 2000 down to a far more limited number; The Secret Sharer was back to the traditional 1500 in 1985, while Oedipus was 650 by 1989. In the 1990s and most of the 2000s the limitation was capped at 300 and had less members than that active, so copies were available to purchase for non-members for several books (and some are still for sale by the LEC via their website). The final book of the LEC, The Declaration of Independence issued in 2010, had 500 copies produced, which was a bit of an anomaly but perhaps Shiff knew it was going to be his last volume before his death.
Examples of Cosindas’ Photogravures (right click and open in new tab for full size):
Personal Notes – I got this from Powell’s Books online in 2020, but it was accidentally listed as Oedipus the King and I was under the impression it was the more famous Sophocles rendition of the myth which the LEC published in 1956…but I got this Shiff edition instead. For a bit of a song, might I add. It’s always neat to pick up a Shiff-era book as I don’t expect to find them at decent prices very often, and to get one complete with monthly letter and slipcase is even sweeter. I wish more of Cosindas’ beautiful photography was featured, but beyond that I’m happy I have this.