Dust Jacket Coward
I once had a book about European witchcraft in the Middle Ages – an unlikely choice for a coward. Despite my bookcase having pride of place in my bedroom, this book was always left downstairs; it would never be bedtime reading. It was not so much the loathsome hags depicted on the cover that scared the living lights out of me, as the fate I knew awaited them in that unforgiving time – I was still suffering from post-traumatic stress after reading descriptions of some horrendous methods of interrogation and execution rubber stamped by the Inquisition. This was the paraphernalia of ‘nocturnal violations.’
About twenty years ago I had the dubious pleasure of staying in a room where a biography of Padre Pio stared out at me last thing at night and first thing in the morning – wearing that maddeningly incongruous saintly expression that lies exactly halfway between howling with grief and roaring with laughter. The stigmata is not what you want to be looking at before you surrender to the sandman because, despite your best efforts, you bring it with you – like when you look at the sun and close your eyes and see a big white ball for ages. Then, of course, you spend a fitful night and awaken at dawn to see him looking at you with that brown cowl and those brown mittens. You need to get up and do anything to distract you from what lies beneath those mittens.
Serendipity you might call it, but it was just around this time that I also experienced another saintly encounter. It must have been in one of those coffee table art books. It was The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian – that’s the one where he is tied to a tree to face a bow and arrow squad. He has a few in him already, and there is a gang of thugs loading up for another session. I’m guessing he was like a pin cushion and very dead by the time they were finished making a martyr of him. Years later I saw the original in The National Gallery in London and learned that it was painted by brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. They must have been gas crack – sure you’d only do that for the money.
A more disturbing saintly image was on the cover of a German magazine that caught my eye in a hairdressing salon in the village of Ruhpolding in Bavaria. It was like Mary Poppins had accidentally stumbled onto the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Her name was Therese Neumann; she had the full stigmata; and I mean the full enchilada. She looked at me with that Padre Pio expression – ecstatic, it would seem, even though blood was flowing from her eyes. To be honest, I am not even comfortable reading this. However, I’ll soldier on.
I never slept a wink for the remainder of my stay in Bavaria. Every time I closed my eyes I pictured her walking towards me. I almost kissed the ground when I landed back in the city of good old Matt Talbot. He was only in the halfpenny place with that bit of a chain around his leg.
Another work that played on my cowardly disposition was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The dust jacket rendered me incapable of gleaning anything from this fine piece of literature. I was too scared to learn. If I looked at the kid on the cover of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I couldn’t help being creeped out by any other kid I met that day. They could see into my soul – those staring eyes told me that they knew stuff, powerful stuff – that I could never know. The longer I dallied in the grip of their stares the more supernatural power they had over me; I had to get away from all staring kids. And those kids with the quizzical stare – they were the worst of all – they were conjuring up new ways to hurt me. This was not my best baby-sitting time.
I have Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum lined up in the queue but I keep pushing it to the back because of the gruesome cover – a bunch of people being burnt at the stake. They seem resigned to their fate as they kneel in the flames which are being stoked by some pretty rough looking medieval types. I am not the better for recently reading about the fiery demises of Jan Hus and Giordano Bruno among others in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. It’s too soon for my weak constitution to revisit such sizzling scenarios.
Backing away from the heat then, what I would like is for all books to have a plain cover with just the title and the author printed in large, clear, black lettering; that’s all. This way, not even a smidgen of interpretation is being done for me. No artist’s impressions of the most unsettling scene in the work; no sickening depiction of an historical event. It’s all mine to interpret, imagine and misunderstand as I please.
©Copyright Berni Dwan 2014
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