Wednesday, 12 August 2009


I recently talked about this book by Bohumil Hrabal as one which I ordered because I was charmed by the cover.

Now that I've got the book, I can tell you that the cover is by Mio Matsumoto, a Japanese-born and -based illustrator and designer who trained in London. Her work shows a definite influence from fashion illustration, and she has done several other book covers, so let's take a look.

First, another Hrabal cover, for I Served the King of England, a book which I wanted to like more than I did, having read it in the wake of loving Hrabal's wonderful Too Loud a Solitude.

(Sadly, I found Dancing Lessons... to be a bit more in the I Served... camp than the Too Loud... camp. It's a book written as a 100-page sentence, a rambling monologue by a cobbler ex-soldier to an audience of ladies, and while it has its charms, it's all a bit slight. Furthermore, there are a number of places where the 100-page sentence is actually broken, but sleight-of-punctuation tries to hide it. This may not matter, since the stream of words and commas gives the whole thing an unusual and effective momentum (with a suicide on every second page!), but it does seem a bit of a cheat.)

Matsumoto has also done a couple of other covers. The first is this agreeably scruffy and vivid illustration for Lucy Ellmann's Dot in the Universe.

It's a great cover--shame about the book. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Ellmann's first three books (the titles of which are plugged on the back of the dustjacket above), but Dot is an unmitigated disaster. I read to the end, expecting Ellmann to finish up with some cunning trick that turned all of the mess that had come before on its head, making something good out of the wreckage, but no: it was just misconceived and misbegotten from beginning to end. I'm all for authors experimenting and trying new things, but sometimes you have to know when not to publish the results.

To prove that I'm not a total whinger, though, here's Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's The Key, with a cover done by Matsumoto for the Vintage Blue series (a bunch of erotic, or at least very rude, classic novels repackaged by Vintage in 2004). Now this book--and author--is the good stuff.

Mio Matsumoto has also produced a book of her own. At the age of 25, she developed what she thought was a painful boil or ulcer on her tongue. After leaving it untreated for six months, she finally sought medical attention, and found that it was cancer. During the period of her treatment and recovery, she kept a diary in comic form, published last year by Jonathan Cape.

Rather than being translated from the Japanese, this is written in an English that is not so much broken as slightly skewed, which adds to its charm. The story behind this book is explored in greater depth in an interview with Mio here--the person who provided the title of this article would have done well to remember Clive James's advice that punning on Asian names is the lowest form of wit.

More of this style of writing, and of Matsumoto's work, is to be found at her blog.


Max Cairnduff said...

Not sure about the others, but I love the Tanizaki cover.

I've read his Diary of a Mad Old Man, which I thought spectacular, full of suppressed (and not so suppressed) eroticism married to thoughts on aging and appropriate behaviour.

I thought the protagonist heroic, refusing to grow old gracefully, my wife thought him a selfish bastard, both of course can be (and probably are) true.

Anyway, I can see that cover really fitting a Tanizaki, I'm a bit more surprised to see it attached to a Hrabal, but then I've only read Closely Observed Trains so far and a less erotic book it's hard to imagine.

JRSM said...

The Hrabals do have erotic elements, though often in the form of an unlikely protagonist finding bliss in the arms of a prostitute.