Book-Curator-to-the-Upper-Crust Kurt Thometz Is into Vibrant, Sexy African “Market Literature” These Days

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Life & Mad English

not that Thometz, who earns his living helping the filthy rich build and organize
their collections, doesn’t feel the temptation to do some acquiring for
himself. He has a philosophy about it.

books is like dealing dope," he smiles. "If you’re gonna deal,
you can’t use." The things he acquires for himself are like the little
tastes a volume dope dealer allows himself. "My little nickel bags,"
Thometz says fondly.

who’s in his late 40s, grew up in a small town outside Minneapolis. He
was working in a bookstore out there when he met a poet from New York who told
him he needed to move here. Since the poet was Patti Smith, he decided to heed
her advice. He arrived in 1973 and immediately dove into the then still-thriving
world of the 4th Ave. booksellers and antiquarians. He skipped college in transit:
"My education was on 4th Avenue," he tells me. He also made some notable
downtown friends like Fran Lebowitz, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
He would go on to organize sections of the Strand and work as a salesman and
book scout at the ritzy uptown Madison Avenue Bookshop for 17 years.

as "The Private Library" (
since 1980, Thometz has curated collections for what sounds like the entire
10021, including Diana Vreeland, Calvin Klein, Mrs. Vincent Astor (generations’
worth of the Astors’ books had never been catalogued), the Lauders, Mike
Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Steven Ross, Felix Rohatyn, S.I. Newhouse, Leslie
Wexner of Victoria’s Secret and Diane von Furstenberg. He credits his friend
Vreeland, whom he describes as a much more literate and erudite bibliophile
than one might have guessed, with starting him on this career as librarian to
the zillionaires.

was making it all up on the spot," he admits, noting that he never studied
library science. He simply organized these collections in ways that made the
best sense to him. "I’m German," he explains. "I make order,
damn it."

Meanwhile, some of those
"nickel bags" Thometz was acquiring for himself were gradually turning
into a book of his own. It started in the legendary, and infamously scruffy,
University Place Bookshop, run by one of the lions of Book Row, William French.
French was "the cliched rare bookman who’d buy a book before a pair
of shoes," a Pall Mall-devouring "wild-ass Irishman" who scared
off all but the most courageous customers with his bag-person looks, his gruff
demeanor and the squalid clutter of his shop.

He was also
one of the country’s earliest and preeminent bibliographers of African-American
and African literature. His Yellow Pages ad claimed he carried Everything
to do with the Negro
. "Everybody had to go to Bill to get their Africana,"
Thometz recalls. In French’s shop, from the late 70s into the 80s, Thometz
discovered and became obsessed with a fabulous strain of African publishing
that erupted in Nigeria from just after World War II and thrived until just
after the tragic fiasco of the Biafra war.

called "market literature," named for the bustling Eastern Nigeria
market town of Onitsha where it flourished. After centuries of colonial and
slave-trade influence from the British, the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria in
the postwar years were just developing their own literature in the borrowed
English language. Cranked out in cheap pamphlets ("They cost the equivalent
of a bottle of beer"), written exclusively by men who had other careers–as
High Life musicians, pugilists–and had names like Speedy Eric and Strong
Man of the Pen, it was an entirely new literature, written by Africans for Africans,
at a time when both author and reader were only just learning to read and write
in English. Market literature captures an ages-old culture at the very moment
it was emerging from the bush and stepping into the vortex of modern urbanity–as
Thometz puts it, a culture "on the cusp of orality and literacy… These
are Africa’s incunabula."

And what
a vibrant, sexy, crazy-quilt literature it is. Like Elizabethan pamphleteers
who operated under very similar conditions–and not unlike Thometz himself
at the dawn of his curatorial career–the Onitsha writers and publishers
were making it up as they went. Publishers mixed typefaces and graphic designs
with zestful abandon–a drawing by a local artist here, a photo of Pat Boone
ripped from an American magazine there. Typos abound. The authors were similarly
loose with grammar and syntax, often using commas and quotation marks more as
decoration than punctuation, being freely creative with spelling, mixing metaphors
and inventing words. It often reads like surrealist writing, or like unknowing
cousins of Finnegans Wake–and can demand just as much full-immersion
commitment from the reader accustomed to more standardized usage. Thometz dubs
it "Mad English."

The authors
were often forthrightly imitating their favorite kinds of Western books–trash,
for the most part. There are bodice-rippers about sex-craved nymphettes
(Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away), there are noir and crime stories
(Rosemary and the Taxi Driver) and overheated romance, and there’s
how-to advice for the Igbo man in the big city, with magnificently sage titles
like Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors, How to Avoid
Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love from Girls
and the eminently wise Money
Hard to Get But Easy to Spend
. All of it filtered through and sometimes
mangled by a peculiarly Igbo worldview.

When Thometz
stumbled across French’s stash of these pamphlets in the 70s, Onitsha market
literature was little known and little studied in the West (the two best scholarly
guides being Emmanuel Obiechina’s Onitsha Market Literature and
An African Popular Literature). In ’95 he made a modest contribution
to this scholarship with a little pamphlet of his own cataloguing his collection,
giving it the wryly suitable name The Important Book of Nigerian Market Literature.

More recently,
he built a similarly pamphletlike proposal for Eroll McDonald at Pantheon, which
sold the editor on a book of market lit Thometz selected and introduces: Life
Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English
(356 pages,

a mesmerizing book–if sometimes a little confusing. (Thometz quips that
market lit and Finnegans Wake are the only forms of literature he knows
where it helps to be "really, really stoned" while reading them.)
Here’s the opening passage of Rosemary and the Taxi Driver, a lusty
tale of love and juke joints and thievery:

there was a prize to be awarded for falling in love at first blush, Rosemary
should be given the richest golden medal," She has been chasing around
the romantic seaport of Lagos, with her flareful flush of romance. Her violet
gown with vibrant colours and heavenly patterns vested below her knees. She
wore a dazzling gold necklace, shiny ear rings and a botanical veil, stained
all over with jet colours.

It was in
the month of April, while the dry season was nearly over. "The season that
sparks off love, kisses and romance. Wasn’t it wonderful? The long carefree
days had gone." It was time for love to roar on the air, and equally, the
time for Rosemary to travel on a journey from Lagos to the East.

The sun
flickered over her canonball head, with the hairs on her forehead, heightened
like onboard type of shaving. She resoluted to follow the train at the earliest
declining hour of the day. At down, She got ready to march with all the guts
of the times, besides her romantic love. She sang many love poems to them, while
they twist, wiggle waggle and utter many love incantations, worthy of marring
all the lively zests of any woman folk.

The kind
of aleatoric Joyceanism found in that passage pops its weird and wonderful head
out all over Life Turns Man Up and Down. The book is a riot of poetry
that’s as sublime as it is often accidental. "They felt like cavalries,
led into an Indian hotel, where beauty sparks itself, amidst kindness."
"It was a total below me down, as he didn’t feel his hands cold, before
he caught him in the tough position of life." "Startled were the leaves
around, mourning under the roary wind." Of a young man in the throes of
sexual abandon: "I wish my brains were good enough to allow me give you
a full and fitting description of his wildness. His entire frame was dancing
like jelly-fish; to see his eyes, you would swear that he had been drinking
alcoholics for the past four hours."

That last
citation is from one of my (and Thometz’s) favorites, Mabel, the
story of a sweet young virgin in the big city who knows what she wants–to
become sexually active–and gets it in a big way. It’s unusual in the
literature in that it features a heroine who is fully sympathetic and self-actualizing,
albeit a bad girl.

As heated
as sexual fancies like Rosemary and Mabel are, they’re no
wilder than when Igbo authors turned their minds to modern history. The strangest
entry in Life is a brief play, The Statements of Hitler Before the
World War
, by Sunday Okenwa Olisah. Some avant-garde theater must produce
this play:

It must interest you to hear that we have two wonderful military weapons specially
manufactured for this live or die war, the first weapon is called AUTOMATIC
EXECUTOR (applause.) This travels ten thousand miles when fired and no human
being, tree, animal, could be alive again where it passes (applause) As far
as war is concerned, Germany commands the "technical know-how."

Crowd: Hit
Hitler! Hit Hitler! Fire Hitler! Fire Hitler. The strong man of Germany. Your
name terrifies the Britishman as tiger terrifies an ordinary man.

A moment
later, Hitler informs the crowd:

cock-sure, most Germans have not realized that their Hitler (he points to himself)
is partly a HUMAN BEING and partly an ANIMAL. (Wonderful! Wonderful! shouts
the crowd)

My mother
is a human being but my father is an animal. It was a very strong animal called–Gorilla
who conceived my mother.

Wonderful, Wonderful! shouts the crowd again.)

So my blood
is mixed up–human blood and animal blood and that is why I am very very
strong and could kill and elephant with a single blow. (applause)

the work of a rare bookman, Life Turns Man Up and Down is as fun to hold
as it is to read. At Thometz’s insistence, it evokes and reproduces the
look and even a bit of the feel of the original pamphlets, the jumbled typefaces
and darling illustrations and off-color paper stock. It’s a beautiful production.

The era of market literature
may have passed, but in a sense it lives on in a new form. Thometz tells me
that Onitsha today is the center of a prolific film industry, cranking out low-budget
potboilers for African audiences. He shows me some videos he’s picked up
in African shops around New York, and they look exactly like Rosemary
or Mabel adapted for film. (The video box for Izaga, The Story of
My Life
bears the legend, "She was an evil temptress who must not fall
in love.") This, of course, has given him an idea. He’s hoping to
get Onitsha filmmakers to adapt some of his pamphlets. Then he wants to take
a crew there himself and film the filmmakers filming, to make a documentary.
He’ll play Les Blank to their Werner Herzog.

also has ideas for turning more of his library into new books. With a former
wife he lived for some time in Egypt, "kind of in the 7th Century,"
in a house in the Valley of the Kings. They befriended a local sheik who was
accountable for any antiquities dug up in his area, "forgeries of the same"
and the local drug trade. That got Thometz researching the history of dope in
Egypt, which was all news to me. It’s pure Eric Ambler. Apparently the
Brits brought dope to Egypt, just as they had to China. He shows me amazing
documents published by Egypt’s Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau in
the late 1920s, detailing the arrests of heroin smugglers, hashish dealers and
the like. It was Egyptian sailors, Thometz says, who first brought heroin to
the Lower East Side. That book is now churning around in his head.

got a collection of the great Black Orpheus magazines that he’d
like to compile in another book. And a stack of hilarious pornographic comics,
like Tijuana Bibles, produced and furtively distributed in Brazil in the 1960s.
Call it bossa nova porn. He’s done the research and could produce a compilation
of those as well.

I sincerely
hope he gets to do all of them. In the meantime, I plan to quit my job, take
a bedroll over to his house and camp out there, spending the next few decades
reading all the originals in this guy’s fascinating collection. I hope
his wife doesn’t mind.