The Book Naked

What would Johannes Speyer have made of digital technology? The question lurches around my head like a drowsy summer fly. I could wait for it to die, as all flies do eventually, safe in the knowledge that another, quite indistinguishable fly would soon take its place. Or I could get up, old copy of a literary journal in hand, and do something about it.

What would Johannes Speyer have made of digital technology? Here is one answer, at least. Taking it for granted that digital technology will change the way we consume books, leading us gently (or not so gently) to a future in which the book as object will no longer exist as a concept, let along a thing, one can only conclude that Speyer would not be overly disappointed. So long as the words still exist, he would argue, what is the problem?

One advantage of reading a book online, or on an e-reading device, is that one is not constantly besieged by a book’s cover. For many people, this comes as a sadness.  Book covers are fascinating things: sometimes they lead us into a book itself; just as often they put us off. The lack of a book cover allows the words to speak for themselves. The reader, in turn, is expected to work a little harder. This, Speyer would argue, is exactly how it should be. A book doesn’t need a cover to exist. A book requires words alone.


His [Edmund Ek’s] name dripped off so many tongues it might have qualified as saliva. I dare say that a few people put up his picture on their walls in order to admire his noble Norwegian nose all day (and night) long. His novel received similar attention. The award-winning cover sat on the display shelves of every obscure European bookshop, whilst the memorable title was used to pepper as many conversations as pepper was to pepper cabbage soup. Readers of the literary magazine Groping for Allusions voted it the ‘Best Book Title of the Late Twentieth Century’ whilst many a writer kicked themselves for not having thought of it first…

Seeing as we’re on the subject of Edmund Ek (see below), I have taken the trouble to re-publish Heidi Kohlenberg’s excellent review of his debut novel, The Incredible Expletive Shock. You can see the award-winning cover below.

There is, of course, much more to be said about Edmund Ek (most of which you may find here).

One Too Many Bowler Hats?

A small man in a luminous yellow and bold red jacket pushed a well-packaged parcel containing a proof copy of Boris Yasmilye’s new novel, The Bastard, through my letterbox this morning. I will begin to read it tomorrow, Bulgarian dictionary in hand, and will return to this blog sometime late next week to water its barren soil with a few fertilising thoughts.

Before I do that, let me toss into the empty field a couple of earthy clods, registering my disappointment at a choice made by Yashmilye’s publishing house regarding the book cover. For those who haven’t seen it, it features a well-known painting by my third favourite Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, showing the back of a man with well-combed hair looking into a mirror showing the back of a man with well-combed hair.

Across the oceans and seas we sigh. A Rene Magritte painting on the cover of an obscure European novel? One could not be less original if one tried. The fact is, book covers of obscure European novelists have been haunted by Magritte’s oh-so-mysterious images since somewhere near the beginning of time. All it takes is for the narrative to give at least a hint of a story within a story, or a cavalier approach to common novelistic trends, and some pigeon-brained sandbag at the publishing house art department drags another Magritte painting from his dangerously full drawer of well-worn ideas. Move on, say I! There must be something better with which to adorn Yashmilye’s carefully ordered collection of words? Surely?

More on this later.

Cover Story (part two)

The sources of yesterday’s dream (see below) are not all that hard to identify. Different editions have been on my mind – and desk, of late. As this blog post reminds us, there can be a certain pleasure derived from juxtaposing the English and American editions of the same book (or, in some cases, editions from a dozen other countries). Though this is not something that I have ever been able to do with my own books (alas) there are a sprinkling of obscure European novels that have been published on both sides of the Atlantic.

For example, an old acquaintance of mine recently sent me the American edition of Edmund ‘Blumin’ Ek’s debut novel The Incredible Expletive Shock!! I suppose I ought to reproduce it here and allow you to compare it with the English edition (which appears somewhere on this page) but as my camera is, at present, undergoing treatment, I fear that you will have to wait on this one. What I can tell you is that the American edition is much more colourful, to the point of luminous. It may even glow in the dark.

Another book of which I’ve recently seen two versions is Pyetr Turgidovsky’s forthcoming Delicious Air of Life. The American edition is an uninspiring matt black, with pale pink writing. The English edition, meanwhile, contains a photograph which looks distinctly like  a view of Vladivostock, a city close to my heart (so close, sometimes, that it threatens to stop it). This tallies with early reviews of the book, which claim that Turgidovsky’s tale takes on the Eastern seaport’s dark history of chemical pollution, delighting no doubt in each and every miserable statistic. Something to look forward to there.

In other dream-related news, perhaps I ought to offer a riposte to my wife’s theory that last night’s fantasy had something to do with body-based paranoia: the unspoken fear, perhaps, that I might be turning into my unattrative ‘American edition’. To this I say ‘pish’ and/or ‘tosh’. I am not a handsome man, that much is obvious. But I am in the not least anxious over the size of my ears and shape of my nose.

Cover Story (part one)

Last night I dreamt that I met the President of the United States. He was sitting on a park bench in Berlin, dressed in red, reading a book. I sat down beside him and asked him what he was reading. It turned out to be my own study, Gogol to Galsworthy: A Rhapsody in G. This came as a surprise – not because I don’t think my book worthy of a President’s time, but because it looked to me like a different book entirely.

‘It’s the American edition,’ explained the President. This surprised me; as far as I am aware, there isn’t an American edition. Still, I didn’t like to doubt his word. It was barely possible to. Oh those honeyed tones of his! So what if the crimson jacket was a little on the overpowering side: the man oozed dignity. I asked him whether I could have a look. ‘Sure thing,’ he said, cracking a winning smile.

So I took the book. On the cover was a black vase, Greek in style, with an orange ‘G’ on it, sitting on blue-stained floorboards (the book, not the orange ‘G’). All very tasteful – a far cry from the English edition, which has always displeased me, however many times my wife has assured me that it ‘commands attention’. On the back cover of the President’s book, nonetheless, I was shocked to see a photograph of a most unattractive man, with fat cheeks dripping like Dali’s clocks, a nose sculpted by a clumsy toddler and ears stolen from a kangaroo. ‘The author’ read the caption.

‘This isn’t me,’ I said, handing back the book. ‘It’s the American edition’ repeated the President. I asked him to elaborate, but before he could a white horse appeared and he fell (or flew, depending on which way you look at it) through a hole in the ground. Sitting in his place was the man from the photograph: the American edition of me. I awoke with what some writers would call a scream, but which I prefer to term a throaty whimper.

More on this later.

Fancy Jacket

The award season is upon us. Not only cinema land, but the literary world also is marked, like a lamppost strewn street, by the shining lights of prizes. All which makes me, I suppose, a weak-bladdered mutt.

The trick at this time of the year is to be surprised at nothing. Nevertheless I was a smidgen perturbed to hear that Edmund Ek has already received a glittering jug and hefty cheque for that deep sea wreck of a novel we call Dust Jacket. By all the sparrows of Boston, I cried upon hearing the news: what kind of justice is this?

It turned out, after all, that the prize wasn’t really for the novel at all, but for the ‘dust jacket design’. Irony, my old friend, let us share another pot of tea. Dust Jacket, a novel about trying to get beyond beyond surface appearances (supposedly), has been jettisoned by all but those who judge on that alone. Wonderful.

How did Ek react? I cannot say, though I’ve always known him to be fan of book cover design. One wonders, however, how many readers will buy a new book based on the beauty of the cover – or the fact that said cover has won an award. A fair few, you may say. And perhaps you’re right. Perhaps Ek’s award is worth winning after all. Perhaps other authors should be spending less time polishing off their paragraphs, and more time brushing down that dust jacket. Therein lies the lure.

More on Ek’s award-winning cover here.