If I had any sense of the topical I'd have done this two weeks ago, when the BBC dramatisation of Money was on the TV (also, I might still have a job on a newspaper. But then, I'm not convinced that would be a good thing except in terms of, you know, money). Anyway, Martin Amis's Money, first Penguin edition, 1985, reprinted 1987:
Not my original copy, by the way, which I remember buying in 1986. No designer credited: and who would want to put their name to this? Admittedly, the scan hasn't done the embossed silver lettering any favours, but the whole concept is feeble - too tame and unimaginative to work as either come-on or satire, pathetically unequal to the job of conveying the energy and grim delight of the novel. You wouldn't know the subtitle of this novel was "A Suicide Note".
All that applies a fortiori to the BBC version: John Self, as conceived by Amis, is a grizzly bear, all threat and appetite; Nick Frost, who got to play him on TV, is a teddy bear, keen to be loved, to justify himself. "I must have been very unhappy," he says in voiceover at one point: "It’s the only way I can explain my behaviour.” What's to explain? He wants, he grabs; you argue, he hits. This isn't a story in which the protagonist arrives at some deeper understanding of himself and thereby becomes a better person; it's a story in which the protagonist gets so thoroughly fucked over that good behaviour is the only option he's got left ("You can't be doing with fighting at my age"). But the TV version seemed to be caught in a constant cringe of apology, desperate to let viewers see that it wasn't endorsing any of the attitudes (sexism!) or practices (public smoking!) portrayed on screen. (Meanwhile, Fielding Goodney, Self's nemesis, was played by Vincent Kartheiser, known almost entirely for playing Pete Campbell in Mad Men: if there's one message to be derived from the popularity of that show, it's that modern audiences can swallow the bigotry and excess of the recent past without choking on it.)
Amis himself, in an interview with Alison Flood on the Guardian website, was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the BBC version: "Nick Frost [...] is remarkable. I found him a joy to watch. He brought a lot of pain to the role, undemonstratively, holding it in, with not a hint of self pity. In my imagination Self was not long-haired and he didn't have a moustache, but Frost has taken over from that." Really? I would have thought watching your best novel traduced as this was would be like having teeth pulled, though Amis is the authority in that field. Perhaps he's just fed up with his grouchy public image; or perhaps once you've seen Dexter Fletcher play one of your leading men everyone else looks good.
One positive note about the TV version: I had never got the joke of Lorne Guyland's name before (say it out loud). I'm such an idiot.
Back to the covers. That first one comes from a period when Penguin had abandoned quaint notions of identity and taste in favour of the quick commercial grab. Within a few years, things settled down a little:
Cover photography by the Douglas Brothers; no date given in my copy, but from memory I would place it in the early Nineties (that, and the fact that the Douglas Brothers were all the rage back then). The orange flash around the title is more vivid than the scan shows.
This does convey the point that the book is about absence as much as excess - absence of meaning, absence of love. If anything, the empty suit and the dollar bill are too blatant: if I'd wanted a message I'd have asked for Western Union. Other problems: the GIRL sign isn't ideally placed, competing with title and author; and alongside the Douglas Brothers' other Amis covers from the same period, it isn't terribly distinctive. On the whole, though, I like its ghostly quality; we're definitely heading in the right direction.
And now we've arrived:
First appearance in Penguin Classics, 2000: perfect. For one thing, this is a point when Penguin had rediscovered some pride in the brand, putting the Modern Classics in particular into a handsome, somewhat austere uniform - that strip of silver-grey at the bottom, the discreet lettering, and almost always a photograph (here credited to "Images colour library"). For another thing - what a photograph. It would have been so easy to find an image that reeked of excess and the various brands of pornography, sexual, fiscal and otherwise, favoured by John Self. You can read the picture in several ways: it's about money, the high life, effortlessly hopping the Atlantic; or it's about rootlessness and emptiness; or it's about tranquillity. Tranquillity being about the only emotion the book never mentions or experiences, I'm tempted to conclude that it is the book's true subject.
By the way, interesting to read the quotes on the back of that first edition: "laughter in the dark, if I ever heard it," says one; another compares it to Lolita. I didn't know anything about Nabokov back then; but I'm pretty sure now that Amis had both those doomed protagonists in mind - Albinus, the patsy in Laughter in the Dark, and Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the Englishman touring his Old World cravings about the New.
PS: And let's not forget the Oedipal angle - Self is also One Fat Englishman.