Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Assignment Two – some research & thinking

Assignment Two asks me to design a book jacket – front, spine and back, for a work of fiction selected from a list of titles in the notes.  I have chosen ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus.  It’s a book that I (along with several million other people) originally read in my twenties, alongside his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ essay.  The philosophy of the absurd has stayed with me ever since.  It’s a short book, but I’ve re-read it twice to make up for that (really!).  Since I already knew it quite well, I was fully aware, when I made this choice, that it might not be an easy one to represent in a cover.  The research that I’ve done certainly confirms that!  I’ll come back to the challenge and possible solutions, but to summarise, the philosophy that ‘life has no higher meaning and so man’s strivings are absurd’ (something of a simplification but not far off) doesn’t necessarily have easy visual connotations – except, perhaps, Sisyphus rolling his stone.

One piece of research was to find some examples of the way that it has been represented on covers before.  The book was first published, as “L’Etranger”, in 1942, so there were likely to be a few to go at.  I went onto the Book Cover Archive and Amazon (UK, France, USA, Germany, Italy), where I found 16 different versions, which are illustrated here:

I have to say that I don’t find any of them especially inspiring; confirming my concerns that this book is not an easy one to deal with.  There are, natuarlly, several lone figures, with the ‘folio’ French edition showing a sillhouetted male figure against abrightly lit background is the most ‘obvious’;  but this one, in truth, doesn’t bear any relation that I can see to the novel itself.  I quite like the German ‘Der Fremde’ version, for its simplicity and because the bright light and heat that the photo implies, are recurring themes in the book and the suited figure with his umbrella could well be attending Meursault’s mother’s funeral.  The Italian version does ‘place’ quite well – the novel is set in Algiers – but I have no idea what is going on in the version with a man sitting on a desk talking to two other characters!

Some further Internet research revealed that, in late 2010, The Folio Society chose ‘The Outsider’ for its inaugural illustration competition.  Their News Article from August 2011 says, of The Outsider’s main character, Meursault:

It is his failure to show remorse, perhaps, more than his crime, that condemns him.  Expressing this alienation visually is a challenge.  [My emphasis]

Reading that confirmed, again, my sense that this is not an easy book to deal with visually.  The problem, I guess, is precisely its philosophical connotations.  One is drawn into trying to present concepts such as alienation (though it is debateable to what extent that is actually a theme in the book) and the absurdity of human existence.  The winner of the Folio Society’s competition, Matthew Richardson, at least had the relative luxury of a series of illustrations as opposed to a single cover image.  The Book was published this year and won a V&A award.  The illustrations are shown in full on Matthew Richardson's website. The use of collage, the feel of ‘the time’ (shades of mid-twentieth century surrealism), and the selection of colours achieve an effective combination of ordinariness and strangeness, all at once – absurdity!

Of course, researching what other people have done with this challenge is all very well, but this needs to be my illustration.  I have also accessed the Spark Notes information about The Stranger (the books title in the USA).  It has helpful summaries of the main themes – the irrationality of the universe; the meaninglessness of human life; the importance of the physical world – and motifs – decay & death; watching and observation.  As I’ve already observed, these are not simple ideas to convey in a single cover, but at least this provides useful definitions of the concepts with which I’m dealing.

I have, also, been thinking about possible approaches for the cover.  My thoughts have included:

·         Finding a specific scene from the book and illustrating it – this has its merits and is an approach often taken, of course.  In fact, one of the sample covers above does exactly that, with a line drawing of the actual ‘shooting’ scene.  One of the merits is that, having chosen the scene, the way forward from there is neatly focused – set up the scene, find the props, find the model(s), and so on.  It is potentially quite a bit of work, but it is focused.  The downsides are a) choosing a scene (the one above makes it look like a crime novel!) and b) the tendency to over-simplify what is a complex, if short, novel.

·         I have given some thought to the idea of bringing the story into the present day, maybe even bringing it close to ‘home’.  Two particular versions of this approach might be:

§  A contemporary take, exploring what might characterise a Meursault-like individual in the early 21st century; for example, rather than the ideas of ‘sun, heat and bright light’ that seem to contribute to Meursault’s alienation in 1940s Algiers, what about ‘Technology’ as the alienating force?  I can see possibilities in this one – though I’d need to be confident that such a contemporary approach was valid.

§  Another somewhat ‘off-the-wall’ idea is the set the novel in Yorkshire – again, perhaps, in the 21st century.  I do recognise that I’m partly motivated by finding an approach that is conveniently manageable for me, personally, but I also quite like the idea of thinking through such an adaptation.

·         Going back to the themes and motifs is still, perhaps, the most likely, and one of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations has set me thinking.  I could work around the theme of ‘the importance of the physical world’ and combine that with the motif of ‘watching and observation’.  I’m thinking of an eye, maybe a pair of eyes, with one wrapping round the spine and onto the back.  I can see this linking with the idea of the eyes as the window of the mind, a way into Meursault’s thoughts.  Then I’m wondering about layered images (faintly visible through the eye) of some of the stronger physical scenes or elements in the novel – the beach; sun and heat; looking at the sky – and maybe some beads of sweat running down a forehead above the eye(s).  The eye(s) is/are in the lower half of the cover; there is a suggestion of a forehead above, fading away into a single colour (the bright sunlight, maybe), across which the title and author appear.

This as far as I should take things at the moment, I reckon.  I have read the book a couple of times in the last few weeks, and made some notes of scenes/ideas from that.  I need to let these things wash over me, perhaps play around with one or two of the ideas above – but I’m making some progress, I think.

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