Robin Heighway-Bury's take on W.G.Sebald's, Austerlitz.
This is my take on the cover of Sebald’s fascinating, intriguing, unsettling novel.
When, as an illustrator, you reimagine the cover of a book, or indeed anything else that pre-exists such as an album/cd cover or advertising poster, you immediately put yourself in the position of appearing to try and improve on the original, why redesign it otherwise? Self criticism and that of others must surely follow. Another area where this is often true is when a song by one artist is covered by another and, in this case, I’m sure we can all come up with personal examples where self criticism from the cover artist should have kicked in long before they ever entered the recording studio. But there are many examples when a new version of a song succeeds and sometimes surpasses the original. Usually this is when something new is brought to it or it is so different to the original that the comparison is meaningless.
I read the Penguin paperback of Austerlitz a couple of years ago and the cover, which will be familiar to many, shows a small boy dressed in a strange fancy-dress style cavalier outfit in an open, rural landscape. The photograph, from it’s tones and patina appears to have been taken between some point towards the end of the nineteenth century and before the second world war and at first I took it to be by the great German documentary photographer August Sander, though more damaged and distressed than other works of his that I’ve seen. Rick Poyner writes very interestingly about this image and those within the text and their relationship to that text in an article in The Design Observer. Anyone who has read Austerlitz (or at least those who enjoyed it – if enjoyed is the right word?) will have noticed the unusual use of imagery in the story as it seems so intimately related to this piece of fiction rather than simply illustrating it.
And that is the point: the design of the penguin paperback I have in front of me cannot be improved upon. The image is not illustrating the novel, it is integral to it.
In my version this original image would have to appear prominently within the pages as my illustration could not replace it, merely displace it. Mine is simply a different and personal reaction to the book. Where the original photograph seems to portray the central character (not to give too much away in case you haven’t yet read it) mine is about a sense of place and time, architecture and atmosphere – viewed perhaps through snippets of memory or maybe dreams rendering that landscape unreal, imagined, half remembered.
Not an improvement, an adjunct.