One Book, Six Covers: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave
One of the books I read last month. When I was finished with it I checked out the different covers and decided to do a Four Covers posts.
Here’s what the book’s about: It’s the 17th century. A Jewish scholar is captured and sold into slavery after his town is massacred. He is devout, and does his best to maintain his faith among the rustic peasants he must now live among. His position among them is tenuous and he fears for his life. The one bright spot is the kindness shown to him by his owner’s widowed daughter. The two fall in love and plan to escape the village. They succeed, but only to now have to confront a new series of threats.
It’s a sad book, and much of the conflict is internal as the characters wrestle with their desires. From some of these covers you’d hardly know that. They’re selling some kind of Doctor Zhivago romance.
Cover one is bland. Cover two is Doctor Zhivago. Cover three is Ben Shahn inspired with Singer’s name larger than the title and selling the author. (This style is used for other Singer books by the same publisher.) Cover four is more Doctor Zhivago, putting me in mind of an adventure novel with its bright covers. Cover five is the version I read. It’s dull, and you can see how it’s taken from cover six. Cover six might be my favorite, in that it matches the book by suggesting emotional distress and suffering. Though you might think the woman is the slave, and for some reason it makes me think of a Thomas Hardy novel.
I bought the book because a) I like Singer, b) I found it for a buck in a used book store. If anything the cover with its blandness was more of a turn off than anything else, but still I enjoy seeing the different way books are packaged and sold. Especially ones like this, historical fiction by an author with literary status. You’re not simply reading a book, you’re reading a book by a Nobel Laureate. Someone deemed important.
Yes, cover six (and five) does look like it could be for a Hardy novel, and not only does it (and five) suggest that the woman is the slave, but so does no. 4, what with the woman being naked and the fellow being in a Hussar’s outfit–though presumably actually it’s the guy being chased who’s the main character and therefore the slave.
Given sexism I think we default to thinking that it’s the woman who’s going to be the slave, though when we see that the novel is by Singer (i.e., it’s going to be a literary novel not a potboiler), then all bets are off, and indeed, the term “slave” could be meaning emotional or spiritual slavery.
I like Penguin’s art covers, generally–but they do tell prospective buyers, “This is not a contemporary novel. This is a classic. Prepare for That Sort of Read.” Not necessarily a bad thing, but limits who will pick them up, probably.
Yeah, default sexism does make you think it’ll be the woman who’s to be the slave, and like you guess there are multiple uses of “slavery” at work in the novel: physical slavery, slavery to societal norms, and slavery to desire.
There was another Penguin cover (at least I think it was a Penguin cover) that didn’t even have a person in it, just some agrarian landscape. That one really screamed CLASSIC in all its dullest.
For what it’s worth, my favorites are covers three and four, although four is misleading and makes you think the book will be a lot more exciting than it was. That said, I had no problem turning the pages.
I find that covers are more often a reflection of the era the book was printed in than what is actually in the book.
Singer is one of my favorite authors, but I have yet to read this novel.
I agree with both you and Asakiyume. Book covers serve as signals, either of genre or as a status marker (“I read literature!”), while also being a reflection of the era when the book’s printed.
What other Singer do you recommend? I’ve read some short stories (ghost stories and non-ghost) and another historical novel, “The King in the Fields”. I get the impression his historical stuff is considered less than his other works, which shouldn’t stop you from reading KitF, because it’s an amazing novel, especially when read as a fantasy novel.
You must read “In My Father’s Court.” They are semi-autobiographical sketches of his early childhood. I have his collected short stories, which has a similar cover as #3 above. I could recommend a few stories from it if you haven’t read those yet.
I’ll check them out. Thanks!