Roman Muradov on designing for Norah Lange’s People in the Room.
Cover design is mainly reading. I like to tell my students this—in part so they will sit down quietly and read instead of bothering me, and also because it’s true. Sometimes, though, you don’t really get to read the thing until it’s out—when I began work on Norah Lange’s People in the Room I only had a general description and the first two chapters. It’s not much, but I do believe that reading an incomplete (or even nonexistent) book is still reading, even if it doesn’t involve the usual business of sticking your face into the printed words. Ideally, having read enough (and read it well, with that obsessive degree of inquiry Nabokov demanded of his students), a kind of readerly intuition should emerge, allowing a glimpse beyond the given lines.
That intuition is often hard to decipher, and it’s less of the metaphorical puzzle-solving that is the domain of conceptual illustration, and more of a cautious fumbling towards an image that sums up the book without exactly summing it up. Some summing up is of course required, and then it’s a matter of trimming it down into an elegant, inviting shape.
Norah Lange was a prominent figure in the Argentinian avant-garde, but until recently she’d been largely remembered in the English-speaking world (unfortunately and unsurprisingly) as a saucy footnote in Borges’s biography. Her literary career was bold and varied, from poetry and memoirs to the more overtly modernist novels like People in the Room. There are hints of Robbe-Grillet and early Georges Perec—spaces as characters and characters stripped bare, with touches of quiet humor and quieter desperation.
The book starts off and stays in a tone of determined indirectness, so I thought it wouldn’t be quite right for the cover to simply show a bunch of people in a room. Lange’s way with words hints right away that there won’t be much in the way of narrative and character development. There is a mystery of sorts, strange missives and a mystery man, and those may all be read as cyphers to some grand uniting metaphor, but I’m more tempted to read them at face value—as pieces of a fragmented image that gains a greater depth and lightness in its unfinished state. There’s longing, love and isolation, and the premonition of death. Lange toys with our innate need to make sense of things and fit them into a coherent narrative. She discards symbols and signs as easily as she introduces them, so that the picture remains a blur throughout the whole book—the only thing consistent is the canvas.
You can read the rest of Roman Muradov’s piece on Lithub.
Follow Roman on Instagram at @roman_m