Tuesday 29 January 2008


A Void is the English translation of Georges Perec's bizarre La Disparition, a 280-page novel that has not a single occurrence of the letter 'e'.

Perec (1936-1982), a member of the Oulipo group who wrote using various formal restraints on their books' structures, seems to have begun this book on a dare, and then thoroughly enjoyed its creation. It's a kind of mystery novel about a man who wakes up with a fundamental sense of wrongness: he's one of the few who notices that 'e' seems to have vanished from the universe. When he himself vanishes soon afterwards, his friends try to track him down, using the various strange documents he has left behind. Along the way they encounter clever 'e'-less remixes of various great works of literature, including Moby Dick, Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquoy, Shelley's Ozymandias, and Poe's The Raven.

The English translation from the French was done by Gilbert Adair. Aside from Love and Death on Long Island, I've found Adair's own novels deeply unsatisfying. They take intriguing ideas and ruin them with characters who have all the psychological realism of a Shakespeare play performed by kindergarten students. This translation, though, must count as a masterpiece. After all, it was probably even harder to write than the original novel: Perec, at least, could take the story where he liked, whereas Adair was stuck with the very narrow aparameters of converting one specific text from one language to another without ever using the letter 'e'.

The new Vintage Classics edition of A Void also has a clever cover, by Jo Walker. Aside from the publisher/author names in the top corner, it consists only of the letter 'e'.

This cunning use of negative space is quite uncommon, and all the more effective for it.

Monday 28 January 2008

All Fool's Day

This is the first of the Ends of the World posts. I must repeat that these books are not being presented in any order: Edmund Cooper's All Fool's Day has its moments, but it's far from a great book, and demonstrates too much of the author's undoubted misogyny. I'm starting with it for the simple reason that I just finished reading it.

The reason for the crumbling of civilisation is weird sunspot activity causing a huge number of suicides, leaving most of humanity dead by their own hands. Only the unstable types are left alive--psychopaths, artists (Cooper was no friend to the Left), political extremists and so on--to eke out a living in the ruins.

My edition is the Hodder & Stoughton paperback from 1967. It has the feel of that era's Penguin covers, combining an eye-catching and -warping pattern with the hero's girlfriend in her bra and a bunch of religious cultists. It's a very Summer of Love cover, and though the cultists look like psychedelic KKK members, there's no hint of the numerous murders, deaths by rats, and other nastiness contained within.

This second cover was used on later Hodder/Coronet edition. it's by artist Chriss Foss, famed among readers of science-fiction in the '60s, '70s and early '80s for his ability to get naked breasts onto the cover of any book, irrespective of their relevance to the book itself. The book was set only a few years into its own future, and so there were no futuristic cities or Mad Max-style Amazons in there, either.

Then we have the original hardcover jacket, a moodily Masereel-like image hinting at the sinister contents.

Last of all, for completeness, here are a few of the other editions: one a scene from the book, the second quite abstract, and the third gloriously '60s-ish. These three images came from the Edmund Cooper Visual Bibliography.

So there you go. It's no masterpiece, though it does have a few nastily effective set-pieces, and Cooper's hatred of women shows through too much. This is, after all, a man who said in an interview that "let [women] have totally equal competition ... they'll see that they can't make it!"

The next time we visit the end of the world, we'll try for something with a little more quality.

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter informs me that "the illustration on the Remploy edition of All Fool's Day was originally illustrated to cover Remploy's edition of Death of Grass by John Christopher. Both novels contain scenes of which this illustration could be a representation. I think the swap-over was because of an illustrator not coming up with the goods on time and All Fool's Day was due out sooner. I am not so sure that it wasn't used on Death of Grass as well.

Ends of the World

Most avid readers have particular areas of obsession: not just crime fiction, or popular science, or biography, but weird little sub-genres that they seek out again and again.

I have a number of them: fiction set during the London Blitz (all those lives being lived as normally as possible, with shopping trips dinner parties and marriages and infidelities, while bombs rain down each night and tear the city apart), Austro-Hungarian Empire novels, campus novels, and end-of-the-world novels.

In fact, few of these feature the actual end of the world (a few notable exceptions include gems like William Gerhardie's Doom or Greg Bear's The Forge of God), instead focusing on the end of humanity, or at least the end of civilisation.

This started when I was a child--perhaps 10 years old--and, having seen the excellent BBC TV adaptation of The Day of the Triffids, I got hold of the book and literally stayed awake all night reading it, gripped, with a torch under the covers: the childhood reading cliche realised.

This is a sub-genre a number of people who normally refuse to read or recognise science-fiction have recently delved into by reading Cormac McCarthy's wonderful The Road.

Now I'm going to inflict this obsession on you, my readers, by starting an irregular, open-ended series of posts on end-of-the-world novels and their covers. These won't be presented in any particular order, and not all of these books are worth reading (I'll point out the duds as we go along), but they have covers worth considering, for good or ill. Enjoy, and remember to play nicely After the Bomb.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Something in the Sea?

To be honest, Iris Murdoch is not a writer I rate very highly. She has a great reputation as a thinker and philosopher, and that's probably fair enough. As a novelist, however, she has severe failings. This is not something you'd necessarily know from the near-sanctification of her that has taken place over the past few years, spearheaded by her husband's various memoirs.

One of these was turned into Iris the movie, which I enjoyed (with all its steely Judi Dench-ness and rampant Kate Winslet nudity), but which also hid the fact that, despite all their claims to great love, Murdoch and her hsuband were both rampantly unfaithful, and tended to use the third parties they were bonking to attack one another psychologically.

Looking at her vast back catalogue, and the number of them which have fallen out of print, I would have suspected that Murdoch does not in fact still sell very well. However, a 2004 story in The Guardian noted that her Booker Prize winner from 1978, The Sea, The Sea, sells some 7600 copies a year. And fair enough: if people want clunky characters, unrealistic dialogue and shoehorned-in philosophy then she's your writer of choice.

The point of this little rant, though, is to draw attention to the new Vintage Classics edition of The Sea, The Sea, which has a really lovely cover (designer unknown to me, as I've lost the bit of paper I wrote it down on in the bookshop). [UPDATE: I find that the designer is actually Jo Walker, who also did the Perec cover discussed above!]

I didn't even notice the sinister tentacle the first time I looked at this, but it's very clever. I also like the three-dimensional, layered-paper effect on this cover (though I suspect that effect was computer-generated with drop shadows rather than photographic, it still works well). It has a somewhat Japanese feel, like a wave-painting by Katsushika Hokusai crossed with the complex layered-paper work of Masayuki Miyata.

To see what I mean, here's Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, and an illustration Masayuki did for The Tale of Genji.

By the way, the title of this post came from a thriller I read recently by Yves Bonavero. It's no masterpiece, but it's a lot of murky fun.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Mind-Boggling Quick One

I'm just posting a quickie here today, as I managed to fall off the roof on the weekend and damage my hand, which has limited keyboard time. However, I couldn't NOT post this old magazine image. Let's try to imagine what series of events led to this situation...

Scan from the good people at Cover Ups.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

More Cover Comparisons

Another of those quickie posts looking at the use of the same or similar images on book covers. First of all, this chap seems to get around...

It's the same image, flipped, in both cases. Bel Canto is a wonderful book, about an opera performance overtaken by terrorists, presumably inspired by the Moscow Nord-Ost siege at the appalingly named Theatrical Centre of State Ball-Bearing Plant Number 1. The second is a small collection of some of Fitzgerald's short stories, and since Fitzgerald is one of the greatest short story writers ever, you should read it.

Here we have two books published by Penguin, one new and one from long ago, with very similar cover treatments. Not much to say beyond that, except to note that the first is from Seven Hundred Penguins; a finer piece of book-cover-porn you will not find.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I'm somewhat surprised to find that I've been named as a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. You can read the first two chapters of Gibbons (which also function as stand-alone short stories) here. If you do, please comment/review/rate/polka about what you thought.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Ben Stockley in the York Hall Russian Baths

Another case here of the same image being used for two different book covers. It is, however, a very effective image used in two different ways (one of them not so so effective). Here are the books in question...

The first, John Beckman's The Winter Zoo, is a sinisterly erotic story of an American hiding from his life in Poland. The second is a thriller from Tess Gerritsen, which I have not read. I really wanted to like her work, based on her entertaining and informative (about publishing and writing) blog, but then I tried to read her Gravity. It opens with a group of astronauts in crisis on a shuttle out of control. "If this turns out all to be a run in a flight simulator, being cynically used to ratchet up the tension for the book's opening, then I'm giving up on this," I thought (or words to that effect). So, it turned out that it was a run in a flight simulator, being cynically used to ratchet up the tension for the book's opening.

Anyway, to the covers. Notice how the cropping makes a difference. In the first image, the model's direct gaze is mildly disconcerting, turning what should be a voyeuristic image into something more equivocal. In the second, the lack of eyes, coupled with the lighting and the marble slab (divorced from the context of the bathhouse) immediately suggests a body in the morgue.

The photo is from a photographer named Ben Stockley, who has a number of his images available for commercial use through Getty Images (see the selection here). The original photo is shown here...

It's from a series of photographs Stockley took at the York Hall Russian Baths, about which more here, which also says that "at the turn of the last century, philanthropists built a number of public baths and washhouses in densely populated areas of the East End of London, where the majority of housing lacked decent washing facilities ... the East End had the greatest concentration of Turkish Baths in the capital and York Hall is still going strong today."

Some others from the series of photographs (all from the Getty collection) are shown here.

Stockley's pictures are intriguing, as you'll see if you visit the collections linked to above, and seem well suited to use as cover images. I would not be surprised to see more of them used so in the near future.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Zamyatin & Moravia

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937) was a Russian writer who has come to be known for a single work: the dystopian science-fiction classic We. This book, which George Orwell acknowledged as a major influence on 1984, is a beautifully written warning about individuals abdicating themselves to a collectivist society which attempts to make everybody uniform. Understandable, it was not published in the Soviet Union in Zamyatin's lifetime (the first Russian edition appeared in 1988). If you want to know about it, there's a surprisingly coherent Wikipedia entry here.

We is in print in a number of different English-language editions at the moment, which means we have the opportunity to look at how different cover designers approach the same book. Here are two different versions from Penguin Classics. The first is the UK edition, the second the US edition.

The photograph used on that first cover is Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko by Georgii Petrusov, about which more below. It's a a dark, disturbing image which fits the atmosphere of the book. The second, which unfortunately I can't identify, is also very appropriate, showing a Stalinist-looking retro-future bathed in red light.

Here are three other versions of the book.

The first is the new Vintage Classics version, making elegant use of pictorial typography that also suits the architecural style of We's future world. The second is Hesperus's new translation, a straightforward hint at (again) a Stalinist statue. Finally, the Modern Library edition replicates the look of a Soviet-era publication.

Georgii Petrusov's photograph of Rodchenko, who was a founder of Constructivism and a talented and wide-ranging artist (some of whose work is to be found here and here, with Russian text), is also used effectively on the cover of the NYRB Classics edition of Alberto Moravia's brilliant Contempt.

This book is one of Moravia's best: the story of an aspiring screenwriter who effectively prostitutes his wife to an overbearing movie director in order to advance his career, and who loses her respect as a natural consequence. It was memorably filmed as Le Mepris, starring Brigitte Bardot (as well as the great Fritz Lang playing himself). A detail from the one of the movie's iconic posters was used as the cover for the late, lamented Prion Books' edition of Contempt.

So there you go. If that's not a wide-ranging post, then I don't know what is.

Friday 4 January 2008

Natasha Michaels' Sharp Teeth

The book is actually Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, and a damn good one it is too. Any description makes it sound silly (since it's a free-verse novel about Californian werewolves), but it's a gripping noir-ish crime/revenge/love story/thriller. It also includes some wonderfully evocative writing from the point of view of dogs; the equal of John Crowley's in Beasts (which is very high praise).

The cover is another example of effective use of black and white. It's by Natasha Michaels, about whom I can discover very little. Design week notes that "Random House's in-house team has come up with this bold cover design for ... a book about ancient werewolves living in modern-day Los Angeles. Natasha Michaels created the stark cover artwork, which continues within the pages, where free verse is peppered with haunting canine images created by Suzanne Dean."

I also wanted to talk about another cover artist who works extremely effectively in black and white. This is Russian-born, UK-based Vania (or Ivan) Zouravliov, who did the beautiful cover for Vintage's Grimm's Fairy Tales discussed in an earlier post. However, two things are stopping me. First of all, his website has died, so it's quite hard to get more information on him. Secondly, much of what I can find of his seems to be illustrative work for sleazy porn. This is simply too depressing for words. That someone with such skill and talent should have spent so much time doing beautifully detailed work for a bunch of knob-polishers seems an incredible waste.

Anyway, here are a couple of his good things. The first is a cover image for a collection of stories and poems for Poe (in both its more effective monochrome version, and the final colourised cover), and the second is from I know not what.