20 September 2009

Frank Newfeld's Masterpiece (and Leonard Cohen's Unseen Face for Tits)

The Spice-Box of Earth
Leonard Cohen
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961
Let's get this out of the way. Leonard Cohen doesn't really have much of a place in a blog devoted to the suppressed, ignored and forgotten in our literature. Anyone doubting his stature in this country need only look at the media's treatment of this weekend's news out of Valencia. Not to say that there aren't Cohen works that are forgotten and ignored – the short story 'Lovers and Barbers' comes to mind – but this isn't one of them. Most of the poems in The Spice-Box of Earth have reappeared at some point or other – twenty-eight are currently in print as part of Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs – and yet, Frank Newfeld's accomplished, award-winning design has never been reprinted.
Of the many books the designer created for McClelland and Stewart, The Spice-Box of Earth ranks as is one of the more elaborate. Issued in simultaneous cloth and paper editions, the book has a cut-out jacket through which the poet's portrait is displayed, while nearly every page features pen and ink illustrations and other design elements printed in red, black and gold.
This was not at all what Cohen had first envisioned. Two years before publication, he'd rejected editor Claire Pratt's proposal that the collection be included as part of M&S's hardcover Indian File poetry series (where it would have followed John Glassco's The Deficit Made Flesh), arguing for a cheaper paperback edition. However, biographer Ira Nadel tells us that the poet underwent a change of heart; when asked to choose between a basic edition and one with a Newfeld design, Cohen opted for the latter. The result is, I think, the designer's finest work.

Access: Canadians, look to your university libraries. There are copies out there for sale, the cheapest being the 1968 Bantam mass market edition (expect to pay at least C$20), but only the 3000 copy first edition features the Newfeld design in its full glory. Cohen being Cohen, Near Fine copies in cloth fetch a very high price – usually somewhere in the area of C$750. One problem is that cut-out jacket, which is easily damaged and, it seems, all too readily discarded. I bought my paperbound copy – signed – as a university student for all of four dollars. The vendor, a long-gone used bookshop on Montreal's Monkland Avenue, was just around the corner from Irving Layton's house. Coincidence? I have my doubts. During that same visit I noticed new copies of Layton's For My Neighbours in Hell (1980) and The Gucci Bag (1983) piled a dozen deep. All were signed.

Beware: the first American edition, published by Viking that same year, incorporates select elements of Newfeld's work, but is considerably less ambitious. It's also not nearly as beautiful or desirable. Lacking the cut-out jacket, it replaces Newfeld's elegant black and gold design with brown and butter.
Let us compare covers: In retrospect, The Spice-Box of Earth seems to have enjoyed a fairly easy birth. Not so, Flowers for Hitler, Cohen's next book of verse. Jack McClelland thought the quality of the poems uneven, while Cohen considered the collection 'a masterpiece'. Then, there was the matter of the proposed title, Opium and Hitler, on which publisher and poet could not agree. The two were still arguing in September 1964, mere months before the pub date, when a new battle flared up. At issue was Newfeld's cover image. I've not seen the design, so rely on imagination coupled with Cohen's own description in a letter to McClelland:

Nobody is going to buy a book the cover of which is a female body with my face for tits. You couldn't give that picture away. It doesn't matter what the title is now because the picture is simply offensive. It is dirty in the worst sense. It hasn't the sincerity of a stag movie or the imagination of a filthy postcard or the energy of real surrealist humour. It is dirty to the brain.
Adding that he refused to 'preside over the distribution of a crude hermaphrodotic distortion of the image of my person', Cohen suggested canceling the book altogether. With the book in production, McClelland could only back down.
What became the cover is, according to Nadel, an amalgamation of six designs Cohen himself provided.

As the biographer suggests, the result appears as 'a Valentine's Day card of sorts.' After The Spice-Box of Earth, it's difficult to see the design as anything but a disappointment. (And it is hard to get past the boyish Hitler in the bottom right... George Gobel's square.) Understandable, then, that it wasn't used when Jonathan Cape issued the first foreign edition in 1973.

But is this really any better?


  1. This is fascinating. I'd love to see the 1st of 'Spice-Box' in the flesh.

    Those 'Flowers for Hitler' covers really are a bit of a mish-mash, aren't they? The second one looks like all of the books from the 1970s that sit in the 'modern firsts' sections of decrepit old second-hand bookshops; books by the faded and forgotten, priced at a hopeful $15.

  2. Two years ago, Ecco brought out a '50th anniversary facsimile edition' of Let Us Compare Mythologies. A great idea. Sadly, it wasn't available in Canada. We had to make do with a new paperback edition from McClelland & Stewart. Dare we hope that M&S offers up a 50th anniversary facsimile edition of The Spice-Box of Earth in 2011? No, we dare not.

    The Jonathan Cape Flowers for Hitler reminds me a bit of the old Beggar's Banquet cover - the one Decca slapped together after rejecting the Stones' toilet design. Get yer letraset out!

  3. As a Penguin Classics fiend, I'm disappointed too that Penguin Canada seems to have abandoned their line of Modern Classics. We got most of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies and Timothy Findley, plus a few others (a single Brian Moore, that sort of thing), but not much else.