Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Cover Art For 1934's 'Tropic Of Cancer'

Judged out of context, it's a pretty sorry piece of pulp cover art. A silhouetted human being carried off by a giant crab. The artist tries to interpret the title too literally on two counts: with the zodiacal crab and with the geographical tropic zone shown in the background. But judge this in context and it's pretty impressive work for a 14-year old boy.

The young teen who designed the cover [above] for the first edition of Tropic Of Cancer was Maurice Kahane: the son of the publisher, Jack Kahane of Obelisk Press. At only age 18, Maurice would take over the reigns of Obelisk after his father's death in 1939. During the war, he took on his mother's maiden name, Girodias, in order to help cover the fact that he was Jewish. As Maurice Girodias, he went on to create Olympia Press in 1953.

In his autobiography, The Frog Prince, Girodias [pictured in 1981, below left] tells of his assignment [p.118]:

"[My father] gave me the galley proofs of Tropic Of Cancer to read [...] and [this] made a huge impression on me, although my understanding must have been somewhat incomplete. Seeing me so deeply absorbed in those proofs, my father was suddenly tempted to do a very rash and unreasonable thing: He asked me to draw the cover [of Tropic], and told me that I would be paid the going rate for it.

"It did not make much sense, quite obviously! My father knew me as a prolific doodler; but that could hardly be seen as an adequate qualification, all the more as they only were the doodles of a fourteen-year-old. But it goes without saying that I accepted the assignment without the slightest qualms. It would have been a sensible move for my father to ask a young Montparnasse artist, like Picasso or the others. They might even have done it for nothing, for all we know! But I was the chosen one, due to my father's sudden bout of paternal pride, and all I had to do was to sit down at my desk and fill the order.

"Having the use of two colors only, black and green and gray paper, all I could come up with was an enormous black crab shape sprawled out over a terrestrial globe, and holding in its gigantic claws a human silhouette, prostrate. With smudges and bristles, and trails of snot to make it all really lifelike. Convinced that I had done a masterpiece, I handed it to my father, who looked tremendously impressed by it. Or was it flabbergasted? Anyway he handed me fifty francs, the agreed price, and the thing went straight into production."

The book, with Maurice's cover art, was released by Obelisk in Paris just three weeks later, on September 1, 1934. Miller moved into 18 Villa Seurat that very day; Jack Kahane went there to personally deliver a copy. Young Maurice went to the Brentano bookshop on avenue de l'Opera to admire his work in the shop window. Bretano was one of the few shops to defy the orders on the paper band that surrounded the book: "This book must not be displayed in the window."

Later on in his book [p.272], Girodias mentions that Henry "never even compalined" about the cover art. Henry managed this by not saying anything all about it. In fact, Miller appears not to have been pleased with the artwork, yet was too excited by his work's publication to be bothered much by it.

Everything you could possibly want to know about the publication history of Tropic Of Cancer can be found at the University Of Illionois Urbana-Champaign website and, of course, at William Ashley's website.

The photograph of Maurice Girodias included on this post was taken by Gilles Larrain.


Anonymous Jen said...

It's so great coming here and knowing there is someone else out there who enjoys studying and knowing these facts about Miller and his work. It's as if I've been searching high and low for someone who "got" Miller the same way I did. Briliant.

And in case I haven't mentioned this before, this is a wonderful blog.

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