Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Highsmiths

In this post I complained about what happens when a publisher changes a series look, ruining the look of any complete set of books by an author you might have on your shelves (because this is all I have to moan about in life). A related problem is when a writers' works are split between multiple publishers. An interesting approach to this has been demonstrated by Vintage and Bloomsbury, in regard to the great Patricia Highsmith.

Highsmith's five Ripley novels* are, for the most part, brilliant exercises in black, claustrophobic drama that manage to have you barracking for a psychopathic aesthete as he murders his way to a better life, and murders his way out of trouble. In the UK and Commonwealth, the first four are published by Vintage, while the fifth and final book is from Bloomsbury. This means that a nicely matching set ought to be impossible.



However, when Bloomsbury rereleased their Highsmith books at the turn of the millennium, designer Nathan Burton seems to have gone out of his way to create a design that, though not infringing on the copyright of, or exactly mimicking, the Vintage designs (by Julian Humphries), matches them as well as you could hope.


 

And then the Bloomsbury Highsmiths got a redesign--again by Nathan Burton, using his appealing illustrations and a rough hand-drawn type for the author name.


 

 
 

This ought to throw things out with the Vintage covers--except that Vintage has reciprocated by redesigning their own Highsmiths along similar lines.


 
 
 
 

I'm not sure if there's been any deliberate communication between the two publishers on these designs, but it's a good thing.

Speaking of Ripley, Norton in the US has recently released this gorgeous boxed set of the books. The box and books are designed by Chin-Yee Li--the photos of the individual books are taken from the excellent Book Covers Anonymous blog.


 
 
 
 
 

And then there are the beautiful new Norton paperbacks of the Ripley books, designed by Rodrigo Corral, Christopher Brand and Jason Ramirez.


 
 
 
 

So it's a good time to be buying Ripley.

Highsmith, by the way, is the only serious writer I can think of who had the dubious honour of getting a nude photo of herself put on the cover of her biography (and not by her choice, given that she was dead several years before it was published): the spine of the UK edition of Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow features this unexpected image.

 

* A question: does anyone have an explanation for this odd aspect of the Ripley books? Each book is set at about the time it was published, so the first book is very obviously taking place in the 1950s, while Space Invaders machines and other such aspects of more modern life appear in the last couple of books. And yet, by internal chronology, only a few years have passed. Highsmith is too smart and careful a writer to have not done this on purpose, and yet it's quite discombobulating.


31 comments:

Ian Shimkoviak said...

Just beautiful. All of it.

po6ot said...

I have this incomplete set of Ripley books.

It annoys me something rotten. My Ripley Underwater is the redesigned smaller Bloomsbury.

I really like those hardbacks - shame the boxed set is £70

Derek said...

I looked her up on Wikipedia. Not someone you'd want to run into in a dark alley late at night!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Highsmith#Personal_life

JRSM said...

She was apparently quite unpleasant, but understandably so--as a child, she was taunted by her mother with lines like 'This is the coat hanger I almost used to abort you!' or 'This is the stuff I was going to drink to abort you!'

Rex Parker said...

Read Marijane Meaker's memoir about her relationship with PH ("Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s"). It's both touching and chilling. PH was f'd up (overtly anti-Semitic, among other issues).

Still, Ripley books are sensational.

JRSM said...

I have read that book--creepy, creepy stuff! But Highsmith was such a sensational writer.

Deb said...

I seem to recall Jeanette Winterson used a nude photograph of herself for the author photo on one of her books.

Brian Busby said...

I'm pretty happy not to have any author nudes in my collection. Now that I think about it (and I wish I wasn't), it seems the writers I admire the most rank amongst those I'd least like to see naked.

JRSM said...

Brian, I know what you mean. A nude Patrick Hamilton, Stefan Zweig or Penelope Fitzgerald would not be high on my list. Nor, to be honest, would a nude Winterson.

Portuguese cunt said...

Somehow, the nude photo of Highsmith reminds me Stieglitz's nude photos of Georgia O'Keeffe.

John Self said...

Lovely chronology of these issues and reissues, JRSM.

Don't like the new Nortons at all. They completely lack the life that's at the heart of the Ripley books, and as for Ripley's Game - well, maybe there is a see-saw/teeter-totter in there that I've forgotten about, but the main of it is a pacey Mafia chase story, which the cover does not convey one little bit.

Incidentally, when oh when will we see the next batch of Bloomsbury reissues? People Who Knock on the Door, Found in the Street and A Game for the Living were first listed as October 2007, after Bloomsbury's initial flurry of reissues slowed down to a trickle. They even had Nathan Burton covers all ready to go.

But then they were put back to October 2008, and now October 2010. I mean, I know that they've already given us the best of her stuff, and what remains to be reissues is second-rate, but I still want to read them!

Paul D. Brazill said...

What a fantastic post! Great stuff!Love me Highsmith, I do. Ta!

Steerforth said...

I used to work in an independent bookshop where they'd never heard of the term 'return to publisher', so I was able to get a complete set of the Penguin Ripleys. I have a feeling I read most of them at the till point.

Having been used to the familiar image of Highsmith's raddled visage, I was pleasantly surprised to see what a fit body she had.

I had a similar shock the other week when I saw a picture of the young John Updike. He had his clothes on, but it was a shock to see this grand old man of American literature looking so young.

The picture was taken around the time of Rabbit Runand I suddenly realised that the authorial voice I'd had in my head was of the old Updike, which was quite wrong.

JRSM said...

John: I've been waiting ages for those Burton Highsmiths too--'A Game for the Living' especially (as I already have some hideous editions of the other two I found remaindered). 'Mermaids on the Golf Course/Little Tales of Misogyny' is supposed to be coming out some time, too.

Steerforth: I had a similar thing with Saul Bellow recently--he's supposed to be a man with a massive, bald cranium, not a young guy just starting out.

More Highsmiths to come, soon.

straight from the den said...

look what i spotted someone reading on a train journey.

JRSM said...

Fantastic! You couldn't make this stuff up. I hope he didn't approach you with a deal...

Brian Busby said...

Never let it be said that the clergy don't have good taste in literature... That said, I am a bit concerned about his mother.

straight from the den said...

This chap was sitting opposite us when we got stuck for several hours. We started chatting and shared some food with him.

When we finally reached his stop (middle of nowhere) at about 2am he put on his head torch and disembarked into a snowdrift. As we pulled away we could see the beam of light bouncing on the snow.

JRSM said...

There's an Anton Chekhov-like short story in that encounter.

Craig D. said...

"A question: does anyone have an explanation for this odd aspect of the Ripley books? Each book is set at about the time it was published, so the first book is very obviously taking place in the 1950s, while Space Invaders machines and other such aspects of more modern life appear in the last couple of books. And yet, by internal chronology, only a few years have passed. Highsmith is too smart and careful a writer to have not done this on purpose, and yet it's quite discombobulating."

She remarked about this in an interview, saying that she "cheated" with the timeline. I know of at least one popular series of movies that has the same kind of loose continuity: the Living Dead films. Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968 and takes place in 1968. Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 and takes place in 1978, but it's clear that no more than a few weeks has passed between the two films. Same with Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005).

JRSM said...

Ah, thank you--good to know it was a deliberate bit of oddness. And the Romero comparison is an excellent one, which I wish I'd thought of myself.

yellow lamp said...

Hi there - just wanted to say thanks, really, for posting all those brilliant covers.

I'm reading all the Highsmith books in order (am halfway through "The Cry of The Owl") and had to give up buying each in the newly reprinted editions after, well, Strangers on a Train, as they weren't listed as being ready for sale yet. Bit annoying at first, but actually, it's opened me up to seeking out older, affordable editions with interesting covers.

I've just ordered the hardback Heinemann copy of 'The Two Faces of January' after seeing the image on your blog and finding it on a used books site. It's now going to be mine for the bargain basement price of £2.68. Result.

Thanks again for a brilliant blog, I always enjoy coming back here and seeing what interesting stuff you've found.

JRSM said...

Thanks, Yellow Lamp. I hope you enjoy your Highsmith binge--she is excellent. I just saw the recent film of 'Cry of the Owl', which wasn't bad--it captured the creepy atmosphere of the book quite well, though it seemed a bit stagey in places (and I would have preferred it to have been set in the 1950s, rather than updated to now).

Craig D. said...

Here's a nice Highsmith hardcover that I didn't even notice existed until a week ago. (It was published in December 2010, according to Amazon.) I bought it partly because I had been meaning to pick up some of the non-Ripley novels, but I must admit the cover also swayed me. It's surprising that Highsmith never turned to modeling in her youth; she was like a female version of the first screen Ripley, Alain Delon.

http://tinyurl.com/699ztoj

JRSM said...

She was! I hadn't picked that, but now you've said it I can't not see it! That volume looks like an excellent introduction to her other work, too.

David Chute said...

I posted the nude image with a tip of the hat in this direction, although I first saw it elsewhere. I actually an eerie sense that if a 30-year time shift had somehow occurred and I'd run into that Highsmith when I was more or less the same age, I'd have been a goner. In more ways than one.

Here's the link:

http://blogaddress-generic.blogspot.com/2011/09/bohemian-girl.html

Craig D. said...

Will this post ever die? I found yet another new set of Ripley editions:

http://tinyurl.com/8xjss87

JRSM said...

Those are nice! I hope they do the other 3 books to complete the set.

Craig D. said...

There are only two other books in the series, although I think Strangers on a Train can be considered sort of a prototype Ripley novel. Bruno is more overtly psychopathic than Tom, but you can see the bricks being laid.

It's interesting that so many publishers seem to ignore the last two Ripley books, treating the series as a trilogy, as if the last two never existed. I agree that they're the weakest books in the series, but they're not bad at all, and it's not really fair to shut them out completely.

It's also interesting that filmmakers have ignored the last two books while the first three have gotten so much attention. The first three have each been filmed twice: The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1960 and 1999, Ripley's Game in 2002, Ripley Under Ground in 2005, and the 1977 film The American Friend (my personal favorite) combined Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game. I dream of the day I get to watch Tom rescue Frank from kidnappers while dressed in drag in an adaptation of The Boy Who Followed Ripley.

I think it's about time for a miniseries that adapts all five books. It would be nice to see a continuous series with the same actor and with all five stories in the same continuity, which we've never seen before, unless you count the 1977 film combining two books.

JRSM said...

Aargh, I meant the other 2. Brain not on. A miniseries would be a grand idea. I wonder which period setting would work best--the books' time periods are weird, jumping from the 1950s to the late 1970s in only around 18 months.

Craig D. said...

I would do it modern day. I've heard some people argue that the 1950s setting of the first book is essential to it, but all five novels come across as timeless to me. But then I have a bias against period pieces in general; I think adaptations should be made relevant to the time in which they're produced. I thought the Watchmen film should have taken place in 2009, and I think the BBC series Sherlock is actually more faithful to Doyle's books than the films that take place in the Victorian era, since the books were modern when they were written.

One of the many reasons The American Friend is my favorite Ripley film is that the director, Wim Wenders, added his own subtext about post-war relations between Americans and Germans. It kept the essence of the book while adding to it. The Matt Damon film, on the other hand, took place in the 50s and added nothing, except maybe some nice scenery. (Along with a seriously misguided interpretation of the character, but that's another rant entirely.)

And if it was a TV miniseries, they would probably need to make it modern simply to save money, since period pieces are expensive as hell.

I never had any problems with the time period in the books jumping around, always taking place in the present despite only a few years passing, probably because I grew up watching movies that have the same kind of sliding continuity, like the James Bond films and Romero's zombie flicks. It's really not a difficult concept, and I think that most complaints about it stem from modern continuity-obsessed geekdom. I think we have Gene Roddenberry to thank for that.

By the way, there is actually a series that adapts all five books, but it's a radio series from the BBC. It consists of five one-hour episodes starring Ian Hart, and it's pretty terrific. It can be tricky to find on CD, but if you have no qualms about using file sharing programs, you know what to do.