Thursday, 18 September 2014

Maugham Series: Pan, Bantam, Avon

Well, strictly speaking, only the Pan covers form a series; the rest are just grouped by publisher. Maugham's books have through the years been subjected to some extraordinarily beautiful covers, but the aim of this post is to find the most outlandish one. I understand publishers have to eat, too, and so they want to sell as many books as possible. It’s all right to opt for the most striking and effective cover. But one has to draw the line somewhere; when it comes to outrageous misrepresentation of the contents, I do. The perversity of publishers is infinite and incorrigible. I’m not talking of Folio Society here. I’m talking of commercial publishers who specialize in cheap paperbacks. I’m talking about Pan, Bantam and Avon, in order of increased ridiculousness.

Pan, late 1970s.
This series is not notably worse than some of Penguin’s efforts. Ten Novels and Their Authors is very nicely done. Not so the others, although I like the apt simplicity on The Summing Up and the unconventional idea on The Narrow Corner.

Bantam, mostly 1950s.
These covers try really hard to convince you that Maugham is nothing more than sleazy and superficial melodrama. This is, of course, how the highbrows see him, so I guess they would enjoy these monuments of tawdriness. I see him differently, so I don’t. It may be noted that the changed titles are no improvement over the originals. At least Bantam (and Avon too, see below) have the decency to mention the original titles on the front cover. The relatively recent Bantam Classic in the end is shown as a proof that things have changed but not improved.

Avon, 1940s/50s.
We have a winner! This Avon edition of The Gentleman in the Parlour wins the first prize – against some pretty stiff competition – for the most ridiculous Maugham cover. If you have any idea how it reflects Maugham’s travel through the jungles of South-East Asia, not to mention his reflections on literature and human nature, by all means let me know. To be honest, though, I may have to call it quits. The Point of Honour and Other Stories must share the first prize. The cover apparently depicts the opening scene of “The Unconquered”. Well, read the story and tell me this is the most important part of it. I sometimes amuse my idle fancy with people who, misled by the cover, open these books expecting some sort of lachrymose soap opera or action-packed adventure tales. They must be very unpleasantly surprised to discover something much darker and more disturbing – if they have the capacity to recognise it, of course. (How many readers have opened Ashenden expecting Ian Fleming or John Le Carré?)

PS Berkley, late 1950s.
Berkley should be commended for publishing in paperback some of Maugham’s finest collections of short stories, thus making them available to a much larger reading public. But these cover illustrations, beautifully drawn as they may be, are vastly misleading. I surmise the bohemian fellow on Ah King refers to “The Beachcomber” (as he is known in the 1938 film version with Charles Laughton) from “The Vessel of Wrath”, whereas the steamy couple on First Person Singular is supposed to depict a crucial scene from “The Human Element”. How relevant are these illustrations on the whole? That’s something for you to decide after reading the stories.

This cover of Cosmopolitans is no noticeable improvement, but it is shown here to illustrate another favourite tool of publishers: sweeping statements that border on blatant lying. The practice has, of course, been widespread for ages, and it still is. But it is just as well to remember that the fact that somebody does something – or has been doing it for ages – doesn’t necessarily make it right. The last paragraph on this back cover suggests that Maugham selected these 29 stories as something like his “very best”. Far from it. These “very short stories”, as the subtitle runs, were collected in a single volume because of their length. They were written on commission to fit two opposite pages in Cosmopolitan.

PPS Pocket Books, Dell and others
Here are some more paperback curiosities from bygone times. I admit they have a quaint, old-fashioned charm – as do the others above – but their chief value remains, for me, one of light entertainment. They bring neither aesthetic delight nor any insight into the works they are supposed to illustrate. Were it not for Maugham’s name on the cover, I might have mistaken these volumes for comic books.

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