97. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, with an introduction by David Thomson, and photographs by Lucy Gray.
The Day of the Locust, the novel by Nathanael West, with an introduction by David Thomson, and twenty photographs by Lucy Gray, July 2013.
When Nathanael West died, in a car crash that also killed his wife Eileen, on December 22, 1940, he was not a well-known author. In 1939 his novel The Day of the Locust was published. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died the day before the Wests, had written: “The Day of the Locust has scenes of extraordinary power. Especially I was impressed by the pathological crowd at the premiere, the character and handling of the aspirant actress, and the uncanny almost medieval feeling of some of his Hollywood background set off by those vividly drawn grotesques.” Despite this appreciation, it took years for the book to become recognized as a modern American classic and for critics to agree that The Day of the Locust is the best novel ever written about Hollywood.
The novel is pivotal in literary history. It is by turns surreal, revealing of the shams of the motion-picture business, seedy, sinister, macabre, doped-up, sexy, funny, and tragic. As David Thomson states in his introduction: “Nathanael West was one of the first writers to feel that disappointment in America, and to relate it to the false promises, the shine of advertising, and the cult of being good-looking and happy, that had come with the movies. . . . This is the classic American dream slipping over into nightmare; it is the locusts eclipsing the sunlight”.
Nathanael West (1903-1940), was born in New York City as Nathan Weinstein to Ashkenazi Jewish parents from Lithuania. A high school dropout, he got into Tufts College and Brown University through ruses. At Brown he became friends with S. J. Perelman, who was to become a major humor writer and eventually his brother-in-law. (Another talented in-law, Ruth McKenney, wrote My Sister Eileen, about West’s wife, which was the basis for the long-running Broadway hit.) After graduation Weinstein went to Paris for three months and changed his name. In the late twenties, he worked as night manager in a New York hotel, an experience that inspired the character of Homer Simpson and the incident with Romola Martin in The Day of the Locust. His first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, was published in 1931. He moved to Hollywood in 1933 to be a scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures. That year the novella Miss Lonelyhearts was published, followed in 1934 by his third novel, A Cool Million. Then, while writing screenplays for B-movies to make a living because his fiction did not sell well, he wrote The Day of the Locust.
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. Without giving too much away, it provides the reader with an outline of the story and a guide to an appreciation of its broad and subtle effects.
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”.
The twenty photographs are done in the manner of movie stills, as if taken at night. Discrete captions below the photographs identify the subjects.
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, with an introduction by Hilton Als. 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.
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. 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 in duotone over a metallic silver ground, overlaid with varnish. 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 price of the book is $650. Available.
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Edition: 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. The photographs were printed in duotone over a metallic silver ground, overlaid with varnish. 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 400 copies for sale, signed by the photographer. The price of the book is $650.
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“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.”
“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 imagesconceived as stills for the movie that remains to be madevery well may. Her pictureswith buildings such as Homer Simpson’s rotting cottage or the San Bernadino Arms communicating as fully as faces or bodiesare at once familiar and revelatory. That’s exactly who Faye Greener is, you might say, even if you’ve never pictured her beforeand 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.”
“Auden said about The Day of the Locust, that, if it was a parable about Hollywood as Hell, it was a hell in which the devil was not the father of lies but the father of wishes. Lucy Gray’s photographs catch that exactly, the moment when, as David Thomson writes in an introduction to the book, ‘the wishes that constitute the American dream are slipping into nightmare.’ But as with so many great photographs it’s not the nightmare that gives them power, it’s the ordinariness that this dark, luminous wishing comes from. How brilliant the staging of the completely artificial ‘natural light’ and the completely awkward ‘natural poses’ in Gray's photographs. It’s a perfect equivalent for what’s so awful and heartbreaking and beautiful in West’s novel.”
"If, as David Thomson suggests in his introduction, The Day of the Locust is Hollywood seen by an eclipse of the sun, Lucy Gray’s photographs capture exactly that eerie light, which glances but doesn’t probe, shimmers but doesn’t flatter. It’s as if the separate shadows of all the book’s desperate wannabes are stripped away, mixed up together, and evenly smeared over the surface of their world like smog residue. Gray catches the marvellous cast of characters—Faye Greener and her father, the peddler-clown Harry, the dwarf Abe Kusich, the sap Tod Hackett, the dupe Homer Simpson, the dude Earle Shoop—at moments when they are oblivious, either in the grip of a dream or spinning in a vortex of need or rage, when the gap between what they are and what they dream is most pathetically exposed."
Columnist Leah Garchick covers The Day of the Locust launch party in the San Francisco Chronicle.