Delicious: Elise Blackwell's Hunger is back in print with a sumptuous new cover
A few years ago, I was poking through a bin marked "Fictions at English" outside a souvie shop in a small town in France and came upon Elise Blackwell's luminous novel Hunger. I'm particular about my traveling books; they have to be worth their weight, and when I'm in a place where I'm hearing little or no English spoken, I want a book that gives me the loveliest possible experience of the language. My traveling books rarely return home with me, but this one did. I knew I'd want to revisit this beautifully rendered and deeply emotional story about a botanist who struggles to reconcile with his own appetites while trying to preserve a collection of plants and seeds during Hitler's siege of Leningrad.
Flash forward about four years.
This week Unbridled Books is rereleasing two of Blackwell's critically acclaimed novels: Hunger, which had gone out of print, and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which came out in hardcover last year. I was flipping through the current Unbridled catalogue, and a lush cover featuring a very Georgia O'Keefy sort of image caught my eye. The description rang a bell, but it took a bit of Googling for me to clap on; this was the same book I'd read and loved in France.
Publisher Fred Ramey says, "When I was first contacted by Elise Blackwell about The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, I responded before I had read the entirety of her e-mail message because I knew her name. And I knew her name because I had read and adored Hunger when it first came out. It is a remarkably lyrical and sensuous novel hiding behind the voice of an apparently dispassionate, unnamed narrator. That's a feat. And it's what I wanted from the cover of our edition – some blending of the seed-sample gathering aspect of the novel's situation and the sensuousness of the story."
"Part of the fun of seeing Hunger in different editions and translations has been the variety of covers," says Blackwell. "It amazes me how much a cover can color a browser's sense of a book."
When I Googled the book, I was struck by the vast difference in the way the book was designed from one incarnation to the next and asked the author and publisher to comment on it. The version I had long since passed along to my sister (a master gardener and very smart reader) featured the bottomless black eye of a sunflower.
Blackwell says she was excited about the initial idea for that original hardcover. "The art director froze various fruits and flowers, with their seeds, in blocks of ice. I was told she had to take the project home and borrow a neighbor's large freezer. She then photographed the blocks of ice with different colored filters, including the eventual blue. I adored and still adore these photographs, and they seemed to perfectly capture some of the books themes of frozen potential and so forth. But I confess that I was disappointed by the final design (though the front more than the back, which is quite stunning), because the beautiful images are shrunk like cameos into the black background. Combined with the book's small size (which was my doing!) and the faint, scrolling script, the book looked to me like a small volume of sentimental poetry. Yet still I loved the images the art director had generated, and I loved the book's flypaper, and so much else about the design."
"As striking as it is," says Ramey, "I found the cover of the original Little/Brown edition to be painfully cold, as though not to acknowledge the hidden novel. And I felt that the cover of the Back Bay edition was a bit Scott and Zelda – it presented to my eye like a little biography, leaning too heavily, I thought, on the novel's arising from a real situation (Vavilov's experience at the Research Institute in Leningrad). All of the characters in this novel are fictional and the story is, I think, more fully about want than it is about that core historical moment of tragic deprivation."
Blackwell, who never saw the Back Bay cover until the book was finished, says, "My understanding is that the human faces were supposed to appeal to a different readership, particularly to bookclub members, and I guess that makes sense. But the man doesn't look at all how I picture the narrator, and the woman looks just enough like me (with a certain haircut) that people ask if it's me. It's a bit (soap) operatic, yet I wasn't disappointed because I was so happy to have the book out in paperback and to have blurbs and reviews (which had not arrived in time to make the hardcover) to smile at."
The UK edition of Hunger features a scene from the siege of Leningrad, which Blackwell says features "some lovely color" but notes that nothing in the book suggests the image of the woman with the little girls. "The Spanish edition was lovely--a botanical image with additional botanical illustrations spaced throughout the book itself. The French cover screamed Robbe-Grillet: a flowering plant with a man's face emerging from one of the flowers. Muted colors. Quite angst ridden. Very nifty." But Blackwell says her favorite cover is this new one. "I love the way that, even in its simplicity, it marries the opposites of ampleness and famine while suggesting the novel's other themes, including its linking of various appetites, including for variety in sex as well as food."
"Hunger is a title that refers to more than one kind of desire," Ramey says. "We needed an image that served such a subtly flowing confluence. And I suppose the apple is the obvious choice for that (even though the seeds Vavilov (and the protagonist) gathered were, perhaps, primarily of grains). Of the apple photos we reviewed, I have to admit to having picked the one I thought most sensuous."
Blackwell adds that she's partial to the Unbridled cover for the simple reason that she was so happy to see Hunger back in print. "There are few days sadder for a writer than the day her book goes out of print."