The Astonished Man

The Astonished Man
By Blaise Cendrars
Cover by Keith Cunningham
Peter Owen 1970

During the 1960s and 1970s Keith Cunningham produced some strikingly original jacket designs for Peter Owen. The cover brief for The Astonished Man, the first volume of Blaise Cendrars’ autobiography, was typical of the challenges he faced: his task was to introduce avant-garde writers in translation to the insular British book market – often on a budget that only ran to two-colour printing.

In this case the brief was made more challenging by the material. Cendrars is a difficult writer to pin down – one of the most influential of literary modernists, the facts of his life read as though scripted by Thomas Pynchon, and his approach to autobiography was more than unconventional: peripatetic and peppered with jokes, half-truths and omissions.

Cunningham’s response was characteristically succinct. Against the black background he splashes the large white silhouette of a palm reaching out towards the viewer, the fingers spreading on to the spine. It is vivid but also strangely ghostly, appropriate for the autobiography of a man who lost an arm fighting in the first world war (the astonished man of the title refers to one of his not-so-lucky compatriots, caught by an exploding shell). The violence of the grasping palm is accentuated by a white line that seems to cut through it, breaking up the outline.

The photograph of the naked woman is a reference to the numerous lovers detailed in the text. The juxtaposition, like much of Cendrars’ writing, is both comic and unsettling. All that was left was to add the relatively subdued typography and the only splash of colour: the green of the book’s title. Sheer graphic economy.

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