Submission [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I’m just back from seeing Houellebecq’s new cover, Submission, and am writing you to try to make sense of it. My first impression is that it’s asking the viewer to do a lot of work. And I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, commercially, to have taken this approach, but it has been taken and here we are.
The canvas is bleached white, the material left untreated. No gloss. No coating at all. The visual elements consist mostly—with one enigmatic exception—of black text, all in the same elegantly simplistic serif font employed with a few variations on style and formatting. SUBMISSION itself appears in all capital letters, centered horizontally (as is all of the text). It’s also the largest of the words on the canvas, sitting atop the others in an obvious position of primacy. Below this are the words A NOVEL, also in all caps, but so much smaller that it seems almost inessential, a presumed fact, perhaps, or, on the other hand, something no one particularly cares if the viewer incorporates into the overall message. On either side of these two words, stretching to the width of the word SUBMISSION, are thin black lines that serve to separate SUBMISSION from the text below. Bracketing A NOVEL in between these division lines only further enhances the impression that the proviso was included reluctantly. That said, I admit the possibility that rather than it being a bit player in the visual drama unfolding, it might be the most subtly important clue to understanding the assemblage, a nuanced sort of knowing nod, the artist saying, basically, “I know you know it’s a novel; no need to shout.” I’m unsure. Beneath the line is Michel Houellebecq’s name, centered, with his first and last names occupying their own lines. Michel is formatted slightly smaller than Houellebecq, the latter of which is in all caps while the former is not. It seems obvious that the artist wanted HOUELLEBECQ to be as large as possible within the decided-upon design, by which I mean that it couldn’t be wider than the word SUBMISSION above. The length of the name prevents an equivalent size, and so the result is that it’s smaller. Alas. My eyes, for what’s it worth, are consistently drawn to the tail on the capital Q at the end of HOUELLEBECQ. It seems, to me, to be somewhat ostentatious, as though the font was largely designed with great restraint, apart for a few flourishes, this Q included. Lacking any other tailed letters, this Q stands out and hints at a certain disassociative quality to the work. Below HOUELLEBECQ is another line, and beneath that, in nearly the same size font as A NOVEL above, is a line that reads AUTHOR OF, and below that, in a slightly larger although still quite small all-caps letters (the three words don’t span the width of the words SUBMISSION or HOUELLEBECQ) is a previous work’s title, THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. All of these elements, I should add, are debossed, which definitely made me smile to myself when I realized this fact. Submission, recession, blending in… there’s something playful happening here, and I appreciate it.
There is one remaining design element to mention, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to make sense of. Stretching from the top of the frame to the bottom, edge to edge, is a thin red line. Writing that phrase (thin red line), made me, just now, think of the Terrance Malick film, which led me to the Internet for a few minutes of research on the possible origins and meaning of the term and, perhaps, I’d hoped, an indication to its visual manifestation here. (You see what I mean about asking the viewer to do a lot of work?) Wikipedia’s page on “Red Line (Phrase)” includes the following in its “Thin Red Line” subsection:
From British English, an entirely different figure of speech for an act of great courage against impossible order or thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack, a or the “thin red line”, originates from reports of a red-coated Scottish regiment at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A journalist described a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” with the appearance of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment and parts of the Turkish army as they stood before (and repelled) a vastly superior force of Russian cavalry. The reference soon became apocopated into the thin red line, and famously described by Rudyard Kipling in the poem “Tommy” as “the thin red line of ‘eroes [heroes].”
Is it safe to assume the artist’s intention was an allusion to this sort of militaristic framework? I mean, it’s never safe to assume such things, but we do it all the time. We’re incapable of refraining.
Having gotten these thoughts down in writing, I am still of the opinion that the cover shirks some of its responsibilities in terms of providing context or access points. But to be fair to the artist, a lot of that work has been done by the media, which has repeated Houellebecq’s name and the title and a brief (if perhaps inaccurate) summary of the work ad nauseam over the last year or so. Its fame precedes itself, as they say. And so the artist needs only to convey the bare essentials, to remind viewers of certain recent events, of discussions and articles and pictorial cues that may have already left a deep impression on the viewer. It’s communication via nudging. Everything else—the debossed text, the thin red line—is fun and games, a friendly wink to the cognoscenti.
I think I like it.