I am in the midst of reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and the latest warm-hearted offering by Alexander McCall Smith, but I now find myself 90 pages into The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov.
I blame housecleaning.
In a moment of vacuous calm after a bout of dusting and vacuuming, I happened to be staring at bookshelves, no doubt through the rise and fall of imperceptible dust motes, when I noticed how very plain the dustwrappers of the Nabokov hardcovers issued by Putnam in the 1960s were in comparison to the surrounding books. My initial reaction to the covers was to wonder why they were so drab. Was there a lack of direction in the art direction department? Was there a lack of funds? Was it a style of the period? Was it due to the sophisticated nature of the text that made them avoid putting a foot wrong, and resort to plain typographic design with a wash of backcloth colour? The contrast with contemporary designs for Murakami's works by Chipp Kidd made these covers seem exceedingly plain.
While these questions settled in my mind, I looked at some of the paperbacks of his work for which I have a fondness. The vintage illustrations for the Popular Library editions issued in the late 1950s and early 1960s do not tend to correspond to the text within but at least they are on the conservative side of the lurid illustrations of the day, when sex was used to sell paperbacks. These latter covers generally remind me of the 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, where the actor Tom Ewell, portrays a character who is overseeing a manuscript by a pyschiatrist, and the cover art designs for this non-fiction work are luridly ridiculous.
My first encounter with Nabokov's work was with Nabokov's Dozen (Popular Library, 1958), a paperback I picked up secondhand. I still return to this slim volume to reread Spring in Fialta and other short stories, sporting my pencil marks, signposts of a youthful passage. These illustrations are by the talented and prolific illustrator Stanley Zuckerberg (1919-1995), a New Yorker who illustrated many paperback covers during the 1950s and 60s, and according to Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History by William B. Jones, Jr., he illustrated two Classics Comics, A Tale of Two Cities (1942) and Robinson Crusoe (1943). He married a fellow artist, Lillian Chestney who also had a long and prolific career as an illustrator, and she also illustrated two Classics Comics, Arabian Nights (1943) and Gulliver's Travels (1943).
I cannot find a reference by Nabokov to this specific cover art for Nabokov's Dozen, nor to The Gift, but I gather from reading his selected letters, that he was adamant about what he did and did not want, and was often provided with cover art that was not to his liking in the extreme. The cover for Nabokov's Dozen does seem more like an advertisement for hair styles, but as a reader, I am rather fond of the volume.
The one-line blurbs on the back of the Popular Library edition of my 1963 copy of The Gift pictured here, are rather amusing: "A bizarre and special romp" (St. Louis Globe-Democrat), "A powerful kick" (Associated Press), "An occasion of delight" (Commonweal). On the back of my 1964 Popular Library copy of The Defense is the following hyperbolic purchase-motivating blurb: "Superior to Lolita and, in its way, as much of a shocker" (W. G. Rogers, Saturday Review Syndicate). Anything to sell a book.
In the late 1960s, Nabokov's son Dimitri provided paperback cover art sketches for a number of his father's works, The Defense being one. When it was to be reissued in the early 1970s, Nabokov was unhappy with the new cover. Writing to Rosa Montague of Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, the author wrote :
I do not wish to appear choosy, but the new cover design won't do. The banal pop-arty combination of a broken chessboard inserted between Siamese twins (identical except for the forlock on one brow) is meaningless and repulsive. I do not insist on cover designs illustrating a novel realistically, but I do object to a pseudo-realism unconnected with anything in the book. It is a great pity Panther does not wish to use the 1967 cover-design, but if so, let us have some purely ornamental pattern without eyes, noses, or hands. -September 9, 1970. (Vladimir Nabokov Selected Letters 1940-1977, HBJ, 1989, p.472.)
Dimitri Nabokov also provided the cover art for The Gift issued by Panther in 1967, one that his father approved of fully, referring to it as a "subtle and intelligent sketch. . . with the keys on the floor of the hall."
It seems if the art departments of publishers could not figure out a proper concept for his covers, large black lettering on a pale background was preferable. I gather that is what helped sway the decision process at Putnam's when they issued his books in hardcover with similar dustwrapper designs with the only variation being the subtle colour shadows to the titles.
Much more could be written about Nabokov covers, especially the wonderful book, Pnin, but I will leave that to another day, or to another altogether. I really should get back to 1Q84, but I so enjoy the rich textured prose of The Gift that I forget I have already been there before, walking beside Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev listening to his thoughts.
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