The Art of the Novel
By GEOFF DYER
Published: November 3, 2011
In London recently there was an exhibition of paintings by Atkinson Grimshaw. The name might not ring a bell, but his paintings will be familiar to you. Victorian street scenes at twilight. The amber-lit windows of homes through the bare branches of trees — the seasons always fall or winter. Shop windows reflected in rain-slick streets. Solitary walkers. Moonlight, tattered clouds, turquoisey sky. An atmosphere of mystery, elegy, lingering anticipation.
Still not ringing any bells? Then look into my eyes and I will take you back, back in time to the 1970s (O.K., for younger readers this will involve past-life regression), when you read the orange-spined Penguin English Library editions of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” by Charles Dickens, or “The Woman in White,” by Wilkie Collins. Or the gray-green spined Penguin Modern Classics editions of “The Secret Agent,” by Joseph Conrad, and “The Turn of the Screw,” by Henry James.
For me, the identification of these novels with the paintings is absolute. To reread any of them with different cover art is inconceivable: “Edwin Drood” is Grimshaw’s painting. But it goes farther because, on reflection, I realize I never finished reading “Edwin Drood” (the novel Dickens never finished writing) and never even started “The Woman in White.” But I know the paintings well enough to have absorbed the contents of the books visually, by near-synesthesia.
There is a widespread nostalgic fondness for the first Penguins, with their bands of color that made every book look the same within whichever category of writing — green for crime, purple for . . . something else? The same is true of the early Modern Classics featuring drawings, but for someone of my age — born 1958, buying and reading from the mid-1970s — these editions were the stuff of used-book stores. They all looked pretty much the same: old, dreary and therefore oxymoronically unmodern. Whereas the 1970s livery with titles and authors’ names in sharply discreet Helvetica was the pristine look of modernity — sometimes modernism — itself.
The use of different paintings meant each book was a “modern classic” in its own particular way. A side effect was that books I was reading for an education in literature doubled as an introduction to art history. Art lessons at my school meant clowning around for an hour and a half each week in the way that physics or chemistry meant being bored rigid (though science was enlivened by the unrealized hope of explosions). I have a distinct memory of being shown some Dalí paintings in a large-format book, but in terms of art history that’s as far as it went.
I saw my first-ever Hopper — or a detail of one at any rate, showing a couple in folding chairs, staring into a radioactive sky — on the cover of “One” by David Karp (who seems subsequently to have dropped from the pantheon of Modern Classics). Ditto de Chirico (a detail from “Enigma of the Hour” on Franz Kafka’s novel “The Castle”).
Since then the happiest moments in 35 years of museum-going have occurred when I’ve seen these Penguin Modern Classic paintings on a gallery wall. Especially since the cover often showed only a detail of the original. Seeing the works themselves revealed exactly what had been lost, though I invariably saw it the other way around, with the painting as an expanded version of the Penguin original.
Aside from the Grimshaws, my favorite cover was for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s paired novellas “Southern Mail” and “Night Flight,” which showed a biplane diving through a dark and turbulent sky. When I finally caught up with the painting, C. R. W. Nevinson’s “Swooping Down on a Hostile Plane,” in the Imperial War Museum in London in the 1990s, it felt like the fulfillment of an accidental 20-year pilgrimage. All that had been excluded by the crop was the hostile speck of the enemy plane on which the Penguin one was swooping. By then I knew enough about aviation to see that this plane was actually a British Sopwith Camel, which, strictly speaking, was misleading since the aircraft in both books are civilian and French. Quibbles notwithstanding, paintings like this became visual essays on the books they adorned: the equivalent, in reverse, of so-called ekphrastic poems about works of art.
From an early stage I noticed that paintings by the same artist would appear on different books by the same author. Quite reasonably Vanessa Bell (whose name meant nothing to me) provided images for both “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Waves.” (I bought the latter in about 1975 from Woolworth’s. Virginia Woolf in Woolworth’s! Quite a contrast with today when it’s a struggle to find her “Selected Diaries” in some branches of Barnes & Noble.) If the same artist showed up on books by different writers then a connection between titles was implied — a subtle, associative version of “If you liked that then you might like this” marketing. Actually, that understates matters, for the Penguin Modern Classics series seemed an unshakable guarantee of quality. When I could not get through a book — “The Waves,” for example — I took it, unquestioningly, as a sign of my inadequacy or unpreparedness. Thirty years later, my now-informed taste remains pretty much the same: I still can’t ride “The Waves.” What’s changed is the imprint’s all-powerful, canon-determining place in the market. I remember thinking, in my late teens, that if I owned every Penguin Modern Classic I would somehow have read all of modern literature. That was in the mid-1970s, slightly predating the debates about course reform and the assaults — from various corners — on the very idea of the canon. In its provincial and limited way my formation by, faith in, and subsequent growing beyond Penguin Modern Classics reproduced the collapse of the grand narratives that is a staple part of Postmodernity 101.
Not for the first time I find myself thinking what a privilege it was to grow up in a house without books — or art. Those Penguin Modern Classics did not have the allure of drugs or under-age drinking; there was nothing illegal or subversive about them (except insofar as the constant infusion of knowledge steadily undermined parental authority), but consuming them was an expression of independence and discovery. Let’s put it as modestly as possible: acquiring and reading them provided an opportunity to accomplish what every adolescent craves — going somewhere and doing something without one’s parents.
All of which makes me realize how appropriate it is that Atkinson Grimshaw should be the artist whose work stands, metonymically, for this whole experience. Those houses with their toasty windows visible through the bare-branched trees beckon and glow, elegiacally, with the promise of reading and literature itself.
Geoff Dyer is the author of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010” and other books. His column appears regularly in the Book Review.