Wednesday 17 October 2012

Book Review: Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household (Michael Joseph, 1968): Michael Trevithick Cover; a Lewes Book Bargain

I've been chronicling the books I buy in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live and work (and from which I write tedious blog posts – like this one), for over three years now, introducing the catch-all headers Lewes Book Bargains and Lewes Bookshop Bargains around two years ago. In that time I've found some cracking books, mostly in the town's multitudinous charity shops, but this latest Lewes Book Bargain, which I nabbed in the Lewes branch of Oxfam just last week, may well be the biggest bargain yet:

A hardback first edition of Geoffrey Household's Dance of the Dwarfs, published by Michael Joseph in 1968. One of Household's scarcest books in first, the cheapest copy I've seen for sale in the UK is currently listed at £100, which is rather more than the £2.99 I paid for this one. Of course, I seriously doubt whether anyone would actually hand over £100 for a first edition of Dance of the Dwarfs – which is one of the reasons why I feel no guilt at having paid so little for this copy, the other reason being that, all told, over the past three years, I've paid out considerably more than £100 for books in Lewes' various charity shops – but even so: I was dead chuffed to find it, not least because I'm a great admirer of Household's work.

As it turns out, however, Dance of the Dwarfs is a decidedly strange kettle of fish. Written in the form of a diary by agriculturist Dr. Owen Dawnay, parts of it are compelling, notably those detailing Dawnay's hunt for the eponymous "dwarfs" – or "duendes" as they're also referred to, although they turn out to be neither (and nor are they lizards, as the book's bizarre-sounding 1983 film adaptation apparently reveals) – through the Colombian jungle – unsurprising really, since the theme of man stalking beast in the wilderness is one Household returned to repeatedly (see Rogue Male, A Rough Shoot, etc.). These passages in Dance of the Dwarfs are as vivid as any others in Household's books, but set against that is some rum business concerning Chucha, a young Indian girl Dawnay shacks up with. This street urchin is sent to him by a friend for Dawnay's use, which is distasteful enough; but then towards the end of the novel Dawnay writes that he's "nearly twenty years older than Chucha", which, given that he's thirty-three years old, would make her thirteen or fourteen! That he eventually falls in love with her is no excuse, especially since, ultimately, being with him also seals her fate.

The striking dust jacket design on the Joseph edition is by Michael Trevithick, an artist and illustrator with a distinctive style who worked for Punch magazine and created covers for Penguin (including some Richard Gordon novels), but who's best remembered these days for illustrating the sleeve of Nick Drake's third and final album, Pink Moon (1972). (Trevithick was either the friend or boyfriend – depending on which account you read – of Drake's sister, Gabrielle.) Trevithick's wraparound wrapper for Dance of the Dwarfs is the 97th addition to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, which means that there are just three covers to go before the page reaches the magic number of 100 dust jackets. And to get us there, it just so happens that I have three wrappers by one of my favourite cover artists waiting in the wings...


  1. I read Dwarfs years and years ago and remember it fondly, but I have to say this cover seems to have nothing to do with the contents therein. It's a beautiful job by the illustrator, but I wonder if he actually read the book. That landscape is strangely weasel-free.

  2. Ha, true... but the cover does depict a man with a rifle across his back on a horse, so Trevethick must have had some familiarity with the book. At least, I *think* that's a horse; it might actually be a big dog...

  3. "Dwarfs" is certainly pretty bonkers but Household's rarest book must be his 1958 autobiography "Against the Wind". I was told about this book by Anthony Beevor the historian, who quoted it in his book on the fall of Crete. Even Household's London agent does not have a file copy. (But I have!)

  4. Oddly enough I was looking up Household's autobiography the other day, Mike, as I'd quite like to read it, and you're right: it's not easy to find a decent copy. It's rarer even than Tales of Adventurers, which similarly had just two printings: a British and an American first edition.

  5. Great book, very suspenseful and disturbing. I’m killing myself over the fact I lost the ratty old paperback edition I owned, because a replacement copy—even one in shoddy condition—is so damned expensive.

  6. Dance of the Dwarfs is one of the best books I have ever read.

    Thank you Sir Geoffrey Household!

    Mine was a paperback if I remember and did not have this cover.
    That cover was a jungle montage with a hazy sun in the sky behind the overarching trees.

    Wonderful literary construction with a diary serving to retell the story of the previous inhabitants of the remote station in/near the jungle. Building to a wonderfully spooky climax.

    Perhaps in the same manner as the Blair Witch Project.
    Nothing new under the sun indeed.