an irregular Barcelona Review Feature
by Michael Garry Smout
I gladly admit to my own ignorance in many matters; firstly it helps prevent bar room brawls and secondly there's always the chance I might actually learn something. In England I'm sure I noticed things like the change in bookcovers as the title moved from trade to mass market or film version to whatever but I am pretty confident that even in my art student days I never gave any consideration to just how a book cover comes about, whether the author has control or even a say and what changes might happen once the book is published in another English speaking country, let alone in translation. Album covers hardly change - bit of suitable local text maybe or a heavy handed censor here or there - but an English release is going to look familiar in Australia, America or Bolivia. So I assumed the same happens to books.
Contacting Alan Warner for this issue gave me an insight into just how radically a cover can change. Warner had total control and publisher support for the British cover of his first novel Morvern Callar. With a friend as model, photographer David Thompson, designer Chris Shamwana, and some mud and plant life, one of my all time favourite bookcovers was created.
I may be a bit conservative but I do like covers that have some relevance to the contents and Morvern first gets herself pretty muddy burying dismembered parts of her boyfriend in different parts of the countryside. Later with a friend: "Using my fingers I smeared more fresh mud out of the little hole and across Lanna's cheekbones..... Lanna wiped more wetter stuff on my dried mask then she squashed a few rowen berries and heather onto my forehead where it stuck."
Warner also explained his ideas, involving a foot and toe dividers, to a receptive Jonathan Cape for the Vintage mass market edition. But outside of Britain his control ran out. For America it was "a nightmare story....you should have seen the first suggestion: it looked like an out-take from a low budget, transsexual porn movie. They cracked up when I went mad about it and warned I wouldn't promote a book with that cover, so, although I Fed-Exed a friend's painting to New York at my own expense, they [still] put that mushy mess on it."
For Spain life was made difficult by the change in title. 'Callar' is Spanish for 'to be quiet' and it was felt the original title wouldn't sell. It was changed to Cara Quemada (burnt face) and obviously a muddy, plant-splattered face didn't fit. Bookcover designer Damià Mathews wanted to "get away from a realist image and to give an introspective feeling". He based his design on a 60s Hungarian poster which in turn was based on Edvard Munch's The Scream. Warner wasn't impressed and caustically observed: "Cara Quemada? It looks like one of those 60s murals you find in Franco-backed hotels, 'Paradors' etc. Real sub-sub Picasso's eighth cousin stuff!!" Actually, upon seeing the book in situ in several bookstores in Barcelona last week, Mathew's cover was notable for being the only one on view that showed a graphic pattern and not a photo or a realistic image. Its oddness and uniqueness set it apart and if that attracts people to pick up the book then Damià has created a successful cover, even if the author is unhappy.
Alan Warner also designed the cover for his latest book These Demented Lands: "Cape sent the poor model up mountains in Wales, with a propeller tied to his back!" So, more problems in the future? "Now that I'm a more powerful, hot shot fucker, I have a clause that the Cape cover must be used in foreign sales. I've just sold Demented Lands to the U.S.A. but they have to use the British cover."
Morvern Callar © Alan Warner 1995.
Jonathan Cape: Photograph: David Thompson
Cover Design: Chris Shamwana
Vintage: Photograph: Sara Morris
Doubleday: Design: Ashwini Jambotkar
Ediciones B (Cara Quemada : traducción Mercè López) Design: Damià Mathews
see Bookcovers 3 for a different point of view from author Jason Starr.
© The Barcelona Review 1997