The Transposed Heads
The book in question is The Transposed Heads by Thomas Mann, and this edition was published by Albert A. Knopf. The Transposed Heads is one of those rare books where the story, the language and the design of the book itself work perfectly in tandem to create a mystic, dreamlike experience that’s immensely pleasurable.
The credit for such beauty must go to three geniuses. Firstly, to the indologist Heinrich Zimmer, who probably first narrated this story to Mann, and to whom the book is dedicated. The story comes from the Indian scripture, the Bhagavat Purana, and is a curious tale of two friends whose heads are exchanged, and the strange events that ensue. The second genius is that of Thomas Mann, who handles this tale with a pithy lightness that is just mesmerising. The language is just quaint enough to convey the sense that this is a very old story indeed, and its magic is certainly not lost in translation. The third genius is Paul Rand, who designed this cover in 1941.
Lance Esplund, in Rand’s biography, writes:
Rand merges three heads, three necks, three sets of shoulders and chests, with three sets of hips, waists and bellies, all into one black, hourglass, figurative form that moves like a Jesse tree. This is placed over a ground made up of an acidic-yellow and orange Indian cloth, with a pattern of tiny headless bodies, and a shocking-pink rectangle; both are separated by a slicing, horizontal white stripe. Pregnancy, the interchangeability and compatibility of forms, the flowing and intermixing of energies and bodily fluids, generational growth and decapitation—all are experienced in this poignant, though oddly anonymous, multi- onion-domed, sexy, Arp-like form.
I’ve paused just long enough to write this review, and now I’m going to read The Transposed Heads for the second time in a single day.