Being a complete list of all the secondhand books I bought during my summer holiday in Norfolk, with my "reasons" for buying them:
The Pattern of English by G. H. Vallins Pelican 1957 “The developments in the construction of the English prose sentence from the earliest times to the present day.” I’m unsure now why I thought this was worth buying, except to make up the numbers on a five-for-a-pound deal at a village fête.
Hear us O Lord from heaven thy dwelling place by Malcolm Lowry Penguin 1969 The cover has an attractive woodcut by George Tute; I like inscriptions: this one has the owner’s name, N. Ingpen, and the enigmatic note “(W.T.C. October 1970)”.
Common Sense by Thomas Paine, ed. with introduction by Isaac Kramnick Penguin American Library 1982 Nice cover: the Bennington Flag of 1776. You can’t have too many copies of Common Sense, and I only have two.
High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, Panther 1979 I’m writing about Hughes for the LRB, and needed a reading copy. This is an ugly commercial paperback; the main feature of interest is the jacket copy, which consists mainly of endorsements from Hugh Walpole, Cyril Connolly and Arnold Bennett - who, in 1979, gave a fig for their opinions?
Mario and the Magician and Other Stories by Thomas Mann Penguin Modern Classics 1975 Cover badly creased but I wanted the opening story, “A Man and His Dog”, because I’m working with Tim Dee on a series for BBC Radio 4 about dogs in literature and life, to be broadcast late next year.
The Friendly Dog: An Anthology ed. J. Parson Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd. 1912 See above
CausticCoverCritic's interview with the illustrator Andy Smith reminded me that I bought one of his handmade books years and years ago. I did mention to CCC the idea of sending him some scans, but it makes more sense just to post them here. Rather than overload your thrill-circuits with the whole thing, I thought I'd let the tension mount day by day. So there's the cover, and here's the opening spread:
Copyright Andy Smith, obviously: I hope he doesn't mind having his limited-edition genius shared with the world this way.
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.
By which I don't mean realism, but sheer vitality and cheerfulness:
There is also an official video, which contains some terrific ensemble dancing. It's spoiled, though, by an embarrassing subplot involving Janelle Monáe being chased around an old-style madhouse by bizarre dementor-style creatures with mirrors for faces.
This may be the most beautiful of all Stephen Russ's designs:
"What a delight it is / When, skimming through the pages/ Of a book, I discover / A man written of there / Who is just like me. // What a delight it is / When everyone admits / It's a very difficult book / And I understand it / With no trouble at all/"
- from Poems of solitary delights, Tachibana Akemi
These days, Penguin anthologises almost exclusively according to country and period - Renaissance Verse, German Verse - though they also do Homosexual Verse and Poems for Love (edited by the extremely lovely Laura Barber). Time was they did all thematic anthologies, some of the themes quite unexpected: Socialist Verse, Unrespectable Verse, Sick Verse (which we'll come to in a day or two).
Religious Verse is not, on the face of it, an unconventional category, but R. S. Thomas takes a determinedly - given his character, cussedly may be a better word - unconventional view of it. The book is divided into five sections, God, Self, Nothing, It and All (you might guess that there's a strong streak of mysticism and pantheism); and although some of the names are predictable (Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Alexander Pope, Christopher Smart), some are distinctly left-field: Hugh MacDiarmid, Charles Madge (one of the founders of Mass Observation), a translation by Douglas Young of Paul Valéry into Scots. Some of the poets are represented by odd poems - John Webster gets a long slab of dialogue from The Devil's Law-Case; and Blake, who was very keen on god, only has the two brief quatrains of "The Sick Rose": "O Rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm, // Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy, / And his dark, secret love / Does thy life destroy." In other words, the book does what any good poem does, reordering and refreshing your thoughts.
This is the first printing, 1963. I think the cover gets something of Thomas's purpose - the fragments of stained glass represent tradition and beauty, but shattered and then built up into new patterns.
Of course, if I'd got started on this three days ago the gag might have made some sense.
As a special Christmas treat for the select readers not here for Bulbasaur or zoo porn, over the next few days I'll be posting a selection of Penguin poetry covers by Stephen Russ. In an ideal world I would also be posting some of his covers for Penguin Scores, but that bit of the bookshelf is hidden behind the Christmas tree; perhaps I'll get round to them after twelfth night.
First printing, 1962. Comment from me superfluous; from you, very welcome.