Friday Book Design Blog: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola (Vintage Classics)

Jonathan Gibbs

zola therese raquin Friday Book Design Blog: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola (Vintage Classics)

This lovely-looking new edition of Thérèse Raquin, from Vintage Classics, is a good window into how classics are being treated in this – let’s say – transitional phase of publishing. As Clare Skeats said, during her talk about redesigning Pushkin Press (see here for previous blog post), classics are the workhorses of publishing, while the books on the front list are its showponies. That said, sometimes classics are treated like showponies, and this would seem the case here.

Zola’s novel is given a new translation by British author Adam Thorpe (though he’s Paris-born and France-living), to go along with his translation of Madame Bovary – a book that has pranced out of the show pony paddock twice in recent years, with Penguin bringing out a translation from Lydia Davis. (Now both books live in the Penguin Random House stable: do they bridle when they see each other?) You can’t imagine this kind of attention being given to this much-published, near-150-year-old novel without there being a new version to push. Certainly, once the Bovary (which was similar, though not identical in cover design to the Zola) reached Vintage paperback, it looked no different to any other of that imprint. It’s only in hardback that it gets special treatment.

And it needs it, you’d have to think. With printing costs as they are, and branding what it is, there is nothing to stop any publisher bringing out series of ‘classic’ (aka out of copyright) books. I don’t know for sure what the split is across the two divides of print/ebook and classic/frontlist, but you’d assume people are more likely to buy paper books of classics than ebooks – after all they’re usually available for free somewhere.

As a book, this Zola seems well-bound and type-set, compared to my small old Penguin Classics paperback, the Bodoni type giving lots of white space on the page. The cover, with its lacework pattern, evokes not just the fusty world of Paris, but the sinister plot, with its encroaching sense of hysteria and madness. There are tiny flecks of red-brown on the some of the edges, but I’m not entirely sure if this is supposed to look like blood, or is just part of the lace.

Inside, there are ‘marbled endpapers’ – though a printed facsimile of the marbling, rather than truly marbled paper. In fact, I’m not entirely sure if I even own any single book with genuine marbled end papers.

Well, it turns out I do, though I’d thought it wasn’t. The beautiful marbled end papers of The White Review are proper marbled paper, made by Payhembury papers. Below is the Zola (top) and Issue 8 of The White Review, bottom.

therese raquin endpapers Friday Book Design Blog: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola (Vintage Classics)

Does it matter? Perhaps, perhaps not. Marbled end papers are the marker of ‘a classic’, and to that they do their job. Would genuine marbled paper make a difference, make it feel like more of a classic? For me, that’s got to come lower down the list than quality of paper and binding. I suppose I will only know in 50 or so years if this is the genuine article, or just looks like it.

  • Susi Johnston

    the old edition was better. what a signal of decadence it is to celebrate such a trivial thing as this redesign, all the more so as it is a shallow and mercenary redesign. get off drugs you guys. there’s so much better stuff design-wise, art-wise, and literature-wise to report on. feh! try coffee instead of molly, kids.

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