Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Maugham Series: Vintage Variations

It’s hard to say how many different sets of covers Vintage have used since they started publishing Maugham’s books in the early 1990s. At least four, I think, though most of them are far from complete and don’t include even the core of the Maugham canon. The first two series are by far the most handsome; the last two oscillate between passable mediocrity and audacious ugliness. Within each series, the titles are arranged in chronological order.

1st series: Vintage International, mid-1990s.
This is a very appealing design. Unfortunately, I have discovered very few titles. Just compare this cover of Up at the Villa with the one in the third series and you will know what I mean by “vintage degradation of book cover art”. Pico Iyer’s superficial and promiscuous selection of Maugham’s travel writing appeared, out of the blue, in the series as recently as 2009.

2nd series: Vintage Classics, 1999-2001.
This is my favourite set of covers. I started collecting them not so many years after they were published, but a few titles – and important ones at that, Of Human Bondage and the last two volumes of the Collected Short Stories, for example – I could never lay my hands on. They did, apparently, exist, but only in very limited editions that quickly became scarce. Too bad Vintage dropped these covers so soon. The vintage photographs are strikingly evocative and suggestive. Not all of them are of equal quality, of course. But there are very few disappointments (e.g. Cakes and Ale) and many perennial favourites (e.g. the first and the third volumes of Collected Short Stories, The Gentleman in the Parlour, Christmas Holiday, Points of View, Far Eastern Tales).

P.S. The only drawback of this series is the tradition to quote other writers on the front cover. Who cares that Maugham is “a writer of great dedication” according to Graham Greene or “the modern writer who has influenced me most” according to George Orwell? The back covers – except for yet another repetition of the vacuous quotes – are well done. The photo that graces every one of them is among the finest ever taken of Maugham.

3rd series: Vintage Classics, 2001-2004.
Except for Up at the Villa, which was published in 2004 (and has some traces of colour), these wonderful examples of monochrome dullness seem to have appeared at the same time as the infinitely superior design with the contemporary photographs. I wonder who was the bright mind at Vintage who suggested the change. Up at the Villa is, indeed, a very strong contender in “The Ugliest Book Cover I Have Ever Seen” category. Fortunately for posterity, very few titles appeared with this design. Evidently somebody at Vintage still had eyes to see and guts to speak.

4th series: Vintage Classics, c. 2010.
This is the current design. Its range is vast: from misguided and misleading parties in the “roaring twenties” style (e.g. The Narrow Corner, Christmas Holiday) to garishly overdressed ladies from “the smart set” (e.g. all four volumes of Collected Short Stories) to vague abstract compositions (e.g. The Vagrant Mood, Points of View). None of these do I find in any way relevant to Maugham’s works. Many covers fall between the aforementioned categories, but that doesn’t make them less baffling (e.g. The Summing Up, Up at the Villa) or less ugly (Theatre, The Merry-go-round). With the possible exception of Cakes and Ale, On a Chinese Screen and Don Fernando, this series consists of one dud after another. Well, at least no fewer that 31 titles (28 of them unique) are still in print. Scorned by the highbrows, critics and readers alike, Maugham is still in demand by the reading public at large.

PS Note that this edition of Short Stories is the same selection by Antony Curtis as first published by Reinhardt in 1990. Sadly, the original introduction by Mr Curtis is missing in the Vintage reprints. Why? You tell me.

Vintage oddities
These are mostly movie tie-ins, plus some miscellaneous editions. No noticeable improvement over the last two series – except, perhaps, for The Painted Veil.

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