Friday Book Design Blog: French holiday special

Jonathan Gibbs

french covers Friday Book Design Blog: French holiday special

A short holiday post, as I unpack my bags after the summer. I can’t visit France without buying at least a couple of books, and this time I spent a little more than usual, largely down to finding a delightful independent bookshop – Les Passeurs de Textes – in Troyes, a city between Paris and Dijon, with a particularly helpful and chatty bookseller.

Looking at my treasure trove, I can’t help thinking: would this blog even exist in France? There, book covers, or literary ones, at any rate, tend to stick to the tried and tested format of text only, (no images! non, non, non! pas du tout!), and that text in an almost invariable serif font, printed in red or black only, with perhaps a simple line border, on either cream or white paper. It’s certainly a classic look, and gives the definite sense that it’s all about the text inside. No one’s going to try to seduce into reading a book that doesn’t deserve to be read by jacketing it with an artfully blurred photo of a woman standing staring forlornly out to sea, or whatever the ‘hot’ visual trope of the moment might be.

The book on the left, a collection of essays by the Italian academic Antonio Tabucchi on Fernando Pessoa, absolutely fits the formula, though it’s smaller than most first run French books. It’s clean, clear, straightforward, honest, noble, austere. A book that holds its head high. Looking at it, I am reminded, too, of the Penguin Great Ideas series (series designer: blog favourite David Pearson). This would certainly have fitted into the first, red-detailed set.

The book on the right does have an image. It’s from the ever-dependable ‘poche’ (pocket) collection Folio, essentially the paperback imprint attached to the publisher Gallimard – although of course in France pretty much everything’s paperback. Not that anyone would be likely to buy this book on the basis of the image, a rather startling painting of a woman reading a book in the bath.

It suits the book at least, a personal Top 50 Books of the 20th Century (*see note below) presented by Frédéric Beigbeder, who is best known abroad for his novel, Windows on the World, about the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and partly set inside the restaurant of that name before and after the plane hit. As you might expect, the list leans towards the French, though there are a few English language writers there, including Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald, Lawrence, Faulkner, Nabokov, Orwell, Huxley, Hemingway (the only one inside the Top 20) and, er… Agatha Christie. (I didn’t actually buy this, it was designed – and given – as a freebie, and although the picture is particularly bad, Folio is normally pretty reliable. It’s cheap, at any rate.)

But best of all, or worst, or most surprising, is the book in the middle, L’ârret de mort, by Maurice Blanchot, a frighteningly theoretical writer probably not much read outside academia, but whom I’d been meaning to read for ages. (This year’s Man Booker International winner Lydia Davis described the experience of translating his essays as “one of the difficult I ever had” – and she’s translated Proust.)

This is a guy who makes Samuel Beckett look like Dan Brown, or at least Martin Amis. He’s being published by another imprint of Gallimard. And how are they publishing him? Well, to blunt, with a cover that you’d think has been it’s been knocked up on PowerPoint in a spare ten minutes by someone with no idea of graphic design whatsoever. The text, distressed, shadowed and distorted, looks ready to dissolve, or start spinning, and bounce off the edge of the cover, ready for the next slide in some idiot’s managerial presentation.

A quick look at the Gallimard website shows that the basic format (white cover, author name at top, publisher logo at bottom) is consistent across the imprint, with the book title coming in the middle. The good news is they don’t all follow the same pattern. The bad news is that they are all, almost without exception, awful. Some of them are truly dreadful. I can’t think of a major publishing house that is putting so many great books out in such amateurish covers. Have a look, if you dare…

(* In fact, ‘Dernier inventaire avant liquidation’ is written by Beigbeder, but he didn’t choose the books. These were the top 50 books of 100 as selected by French readers in a poll conducted by Le Monde and Fnac. Read the full list – which also includes Rushdie, Woolf, Salinger and James Hadley Chase – here)

  • Felix

    As a translator, I’ve never considered Proust as a benchmark of difficulty. His classic French transfers readily and flowingly into English. Now Jean Genet’s baroque, overwrought French, there’s a much tougher proposition.

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