The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, Arion Press (2013)

The Day of the Locust is frequently considered the best novel ever written about Hollywood. It takes place during the Great Depression and highlights that non-glamerous side of Hollywood including the desperation, false hopes, seediness and failure that permeates the industry for most who go there to follow their dreams. Author Nathanael West (1903-1940) was not well-known in his lifetime, dying in a car accident soon after The Day of the Locust was published.  Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, is usually considered his greatest work. For much of the 1930’s he was a screenwriter in Hollywood.

With this edition in hand, I read this story for the first time. I cannot say I loved the story, though at the same time I could not put it down. It is dark, drab and negative, with characters that do not evoke much of any sympathy from the reader. Yet, it seems to emit a grisly reality of lost illusions and poverty that permeate the unsuccessful side of Hollywood, especially in a time as wanting as that during the Great Depression. The work is certainly deserving of fine press treatment, and I am glad Arion Press took this on.

The design of the book is appropriately stark, in my opinion.  By stark, I mean not a lot of frills — just good paper, nicely imprinted text and nicely re-produced dark photographs. The paper and typography is, as expected from Arion, top-notch. The lack of frills and darkness are an exact match with the writing style and story theme. A bright cover turns into a much darker story. As many of you know, artist  Ed Ruscha was slated to illustrate this book, and it is hard not to wish that would have happened. His background on photography and film, in addition to his huge influence on art, means his take on this work would have been interesting. Yet, I wonder if his work would have gone well here. I would love to see Arion Press do a more large scale livre d’artiste book matching Ruscha with Jack Kerouac or someone of that ilk. In any case, this edition works for me and I am happy to have it.

{Ed. Note 8/8/2013: Andrew Hoyem just informed me that Ed Ruscha made photographs for a deluxe limited edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road just a couple of years ago, in large format, published by Steidl in Germany and the Gagosian Gallery in New York. The photographs are die-cut to the shapes of the images (a saxophone turned on its side and tipped into recessions in the pages of heavy paper). }

Here is a brief biography from Arion press on David Thomson, who introduces the novel, and Lucy Gray, whose photographs provide the illustrations.

The introductory essay by the distinguished film critic and historian David Thomson elucidates the novel and its relationship to Hollywood and the movies in the Golden Age of the late thirties, its importance to American fiction, and its continuing relevance today. David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and former director of Film Studies at Dartmouth College. He has served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival and is on the board of advisors to the Telluride Film Festival. Among his many books are The Biographical Dictionary of Film (now in its fifth edition), Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, and The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies. He also wrote the script for the documentary film, “The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind”.

Lucy Gray is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, The Independent, and Brick. Her book of photographs of prima ballerinas who are mothers will be published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014. Her short film, Genevieve Goes Boating, narrated by Tilda Swinton, was named one of the ten best of 2012 by Film Threat. She is married to David Thomson, he of the introduction.

Well known writer and critic Greil Marcus says of this edition and the photographs:

No one remembers the 1975 film of The Day of the Locust because the casting was terrible. Images from the film never entered the folklore of the nation as the book has, but Lucy Gray’s images—conceived as stills for the movie that remains to be made—very well may.  Her pictures—with buildings such as Homer Simpson’s rotting cottage or the San Bernadino Arms communicating as fully as faces or bodies—are at once familiar and revelatory.  That’s exactly who Faye Greener is, you might say, even if you’ve never pictured her before—and no wonder Tod Hackett never did a thing for her.  You don’t have to page back and forth between the text and the photographs; the pictures glow in the reader’s mind from first sight.

The well respected and awarded writer and essayist Diane Johnson, famous for among other writings co-authoring the screenplay to The Shiningwrote of this Arion edition:

Thomson and Gray are absolutely the most brilliant interpreters of West’s bleak, terrifying classic. Gray might have been there, so evocative is her camera, and no one knows more than David Thomson about Hollywood and about West himself. It’s perfect.

It is always tough to illustrate well known novels with photographs, since most people have pretty strong mental images of the characters and settings (especially true when well known films burn an image into the readers head, which at least this book does not have to contend with). Hopefully the images below give you a glimpse into the success in this case.  Having read this edition immediately when I received it, I can say that I enjoyed the quality of the book production, probably more so than the story itself.

About the Edition

  • Photographs by Lucy Gray
  • Introduction by David Thomson
  • The format is 9-3/4 by 7 inches, with 180 numbered pages plus twenty unnumbered pages for the photographs.
  • The paper is Italian mouldmade Magnani Velata, in two weights, lighter for the text and heavier for photographs which are tipped into die-stamped recesses.
  • The text and photograph captions were printed by letterpress from Monotype Bodoni Book.
  • The photographs were printed via offset lithography in duotone over a metallic silver ground, overlaid with varnish. Done under the direction of Susan Schaefer.
  • The binding is full cloth, in a chartreuse color, over boards with titling and the image of a rising cloud of locusts on the cover.
  • The book is presented in a cloth and paper covered slipcase.
  • The edition is limited to four hundred numbered copies for sale and twenty-six lettered copies for complimentary distribution.
  • All copies are signed by the photographer.

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Cover and Slipcase
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Cover
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Cover
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Macro of Pages
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Prospectus
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Title Page
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Copyright
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample of Introduction
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample Text
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample Text Macro
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample Text and Photograph #1
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample Text and Photograph #2
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Sample Text and Photograph #3
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Colophon
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The Day of the Locust, Arion Press, Signature

5 thoughts on “The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, Arion Press (2013)

  1. I read the West bppk years ago. I will have to see if Arion has published a trade edition since I generally find Arion books are too expensive for my taste.

    Chris, perhaps you could review the movie starring, I think, Burgess Meredith.

  2. The Arion Press ‘Day of the Locust’ seems to have generated nearly as much controversy as Julie Nehretu’s scribbling and doodling for their elaborate production of ‘Poetry of Sappho’. My random thoughts:

    1. I am pleased to see this book get the “private press” treatment as it is a bit of a cult classic, exposing the underbelly of Los Angeles, the 1930’s Hollywood hierarchy and film industry, and the wannabes, dreamers, and grifters that were part of this scene.

    2. The book design is attractive and the quality of materials is excellent. I particularly like the idea of taking tiny crucifixes of varying size and using them to span the front and rear cloth-covered boards to form a swarm of locusts, a cynical and sarcastic touch highly appropriate to this novel.

    3. Julie Gray’s staged photographs seem to have missed the mark with many, with complaints and criticism that the staged, somewhat campy illustrations pale in comparison to the film noir cinematography of the 1930’s and 1940’s film noir movies. I would argue that the polish, technical
    skill, shadows, and glamour of the movie stills from Bogart and Bacall films would have been out of place in this book. The characters is Nathaniel West’s novel are not glamorous, they are outcasts, losers and people simply looking to survive day to day. Lucy Gray’s campy, over-the-top, obviously staged and posed photographs are not meant to be natural and they are in keeping the fantasy world the characters in ‘Locust’ inhabit. Printing the photographs over a metallic silver ground and overlaying with varnish complements Gray’s photographs and is consistent with the artificial look of the characters and scenic locales in her photos.

    This is a book I will at some point acquire. It is well done and done at a reasonable price point for a private press book with letterpress work on top quality paper, a commissioned suite of photos from a well known photographer and an original introduction from a knowledgeable and highly regarded film critic and historian.

  3. All I get when clicking on the links is the “oops” page. Otherwise everything is great and I have really enjoyed your posts.

    Jim Lewis

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