Friday Book Design Blog: Beautiful Mutants, by Deborah Levy

Jonathan Gibbs

early mutants Friday Book Design Blog: Beautiful Mutants, by Deborah LevyIt’s always exciting to see a writer emerge from relative obscurity back into the reading public’s consciousness, and although there are plenty of opportunities for shouting about the writers who should be better known, it’s rarer that it actually happens. It seems to have happened with Deborah Levy, who was picked up and published to great acclaim by And Other Stories, leading to a Man Booker shortlisting for Swimming Home and a collection of stories, Black Vodka (that I wrote about on this blog here).

And Other Stories are reissuing a revised version of her 1990 novel An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell later this year, and a new book-length dramatic poem in 2016 – but she also has books coming out from Penguin, who are republishing some of her backlist, and a new novel, Hot Milk, next year.

Now, I’m not in on the publishing politics of this. I’m just happy that she’s finding her way onto shelves again, especially as some of her early books were huge discoveries for me in my late teens -and one book in particular, Beautiful Mutants, which I found both tantalising and talismanic.

levy unloved Friday Book Design Blog: Beautiful Mutants, by Deborah Levy

I was, I’m sure, initially swayed by the marvellous cover, with an Andrzej Klimowski design, for Vintage. In looking on my shelves for her books, I realised how much I loved that ‘V’ colophon on the spine. Although Vintage paperbacks are still well designed, I find the type only logo rather dull – seeing a ‘V’ in a bookshop would always make one reach for it, to see what was on the cover – as I did recently, in fact, with Robert Irwin’s Exquisite Corpse, which I still haven’t read, but wow it’s another great cover, this time using a photograph by Edmund James.

Klimowski, now Professor of Illustration at the RCA, is perhaps most associated, in book terms, with covers for Faber of Kundera, Pinter, Ishiguro and the like, his work involving collage and stark imagery derived from European poster design. You can ask questions about Klimowski’s use of the female nude – as occurs in this interesting piece - but then Vintage continued the theme with their cover of The Unloved.

This cover, though, also has something of Vaughan Oliver’s work for record label 4AD, which would have been a major influence on my aesthetic at the time. So, while I do like Penguin’s bright, monochrome, type-led covers for their reissues, with their nod to modernism in the fracturing or misorienting of the title, I do miss the dark fantasy of those earlier covers – another one, Swallowing Geography, is below.

Googling for other covers it’s clear that that fantastical element is easy to pull out of Levy’s writing, but that processed into imagery it can seem rather fey – see the swam’s neck photo – or programmatically sureal – the mermaid/seagull contraption.

Interestingly, the back covers of the Penguin reissues feature full-bleed black and white illustrations of Levy – her publisher obviously sees her as a project for the future, a writer-brand that will grow and grow. Which is a horrible way of saying a good thing. They don’t expect to see Levy retreating to any obscurity any time soon.

levy other beatiful Friday Book Design Blog: Beautiful Mutants, by Deborah Levy

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