I HAVE A THEORY, too precious to me to risk my subjecting it to the scrutiny of scholars, that writing and drawing are, at bottom, but a single activity. Certainly it is the case that elsewhere in the world, as well as elsewhere in time, mankind has been content to fashion written languages in the form of pictographs, hieroglyphs and the like; the age-old use in Western Europe of words cobbled up out of alphabets -- words that are mere tokens, valueless unless they happen to retain some onomatopoeic force -- has caused us to forget the primordial kinship between what is written and what is drawn. Once we acknowledge this kinship, we perceive that a gift for the one is very likely to be a gift for the other; we have no reason to be surprised, therefore, by how many well-known writers have also been artists (in England in the 19th century alone, we have the examples of Thackeray, Hopkins, Carroll, Ruskin, Lear, and Hardy, and in America in the same century both William and Henry James set out with the intention of becoming artists).
The gift that I speak of is, in its written aspect, complex, in part because of the hardship of a writer's being limited to the employment of tokens; poor devil, he is forced to think, and even on occasion to think hard. In its drawing aspect, the gift has a look of benign simplicity; one would swear that it was a function of the hand rather than of the head. Indeed, I have heard Saul Steinberg describe the sense of agreeable astonishment with which he observes his sublime doodles emerging from his fingertips onto paper; something of this same feeling is shared by many other writer-artist friends of mine, among them William Steig, Jules Feiffer, James Stevenson and William Hamilton. All of them move readily back and forth between the world of images and the world of letters, making them one.
Prominent in any contemporary group of writer-artists is Mitsumasa Anno, a Japanese artist now in his fifties, whose increasing fame has caused his name to reduce itself among his devotees to a simple "Anno" -- a sacred password, the very uttering of which is capable of turning total strangers into friends. At least half a dozen of Anno's works have been translated from Japanese into English over the past several years. The latest of them is The Unique World of Mitsumasa Anno -- by bad luck, the least felicitous of his titles. (Surely publishers should know by now that "unique" is even more tiresome an adjective than "wonderful." It conveys nothing except an awareness of its own exhaustion.) Fortunately, the book is far superior to the title and serves as an admirable introduction to Anno's quirky and mischievous nature, which combines to an uncanny degree the analytical and the intuitive. He is an artist-writer at once playful and in dead earnest; his mind rejoices in pranks, and the pranks must be as logical as they are comic. If their outrageousness is not highly reasonable, he will find no use for them. "I am," he seems to say, "a teacher disguised as a clown. I have something hilarious and serious to tell you."
The dust jacket of The Unique World is itself a prank. At first glance it appears to be a package, wrapped in brown paper, stamped, addressed, and bound with heavy twine; one is tempted to look for a pair of scissors with which to cut the twine. The trompe l'oeil having been successfully seen through we discover that the contents of the book consist of more pranks -- drawings of objects, many of them impossible to experience in the real world (the so-called Escher staircase is one of them). The drawings are based sometimes upon physics and sometimes upon folklore and are accompanied by texts drawn from an unexpectedly diverse mingling of sources. Freeman Dyson, Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, Yoshitoshi Sugiyama, and St. Matthew are surely surprising bedfellows, or bookfellows; what they have in common is the relish with which Anno uses quotations from their writings as captions for drawings of a striking (and cunningly calculated) inappositeness -- an inappositeness raised to the level of genius.
An introduction to Anno as useful as The Unique World is Anno's Medieval World, in which he supplied both text and drawings and in which his bent for teaching is fully exploited. We are charmed and amused and we are also instructed. In an afterword, Anno notes that the book could have possessed a longer title -- "I might have called it, How People Living in the Era of the Ptolemaic Theory Saw Their World." That, he claims, is what the book is about, but we as readers will feel free to contradict him; the book is about the sunny interior of Anno's mind, which is not only Copernican, but Pickwickian.
If still another introduction to Anno's books were required to lure us into the Anno cult, then let me recommend with all my heart, especially for children, Anno's Italy, in which Anno the writer is entirely suppressed in favor of Anno the artist. Page after page of ravishing watercolors depict an Italy that none of us has ever encountered but that we recognize at once as the true Italy -- the Italy of our hearts' desire, in which men, women, children, dogs, cats, horses, sheep, cows, and birds dwell in happy comity together. It is an Italy in which St. Francis of Assisi is likely to be come upon as we round the next corner, and we need show no surprise if he proves to be carrying a balloon in one hand and a lark in the other. Not a word of text is needed, even to point out certain pleasing secret references tucked away in treetops and green fields. Here is Anno's hand, lightly touching the page; we share with him as if from one moment of creation to the next the springtime freshness of the wonders that flow out of it.