Saturday 31 January 2009

Bestseller – so, the news is out. . .

From today’s The Guardian:

‘A publisher of literary fiction has just been outed as the author of a satire of UK publishing which presents thinly veiled portraits of some of the leading figures in the books world. Speculation about the identity of the author of the optimistically titled Bestseller, about the increasingly deranged attempts of an author to get published, has been rampant in London’s publishing circles, but Alessandro Gallenzi, a poet and founder of the literary publisher Alma Books, has decided to emerge from the closet and claim ownership of the novel. “I read a lot of blogs and I always hate it when the people who come out with the most opinionated things don’t have the guts to put down their own name,” Gallenzi said. He thought it would be cowardly if he didn’t own up.

‘One major character in the book is the troubled, fondly depicted head of “a small but prestigious independent publishing house that had somehow managed to survive - even if in a state of near-continuous bankruptcy – for 30 years in a fragile shell of literary quality despite the crushing advance of the corporate giants”. Gallenzi admits to having a combination of famed literary publisher – and acquirer of Haruki Murakami and Peter Høeg – Christopher MacLehose in mind when sketching out the character, as well as John Calder, the legendary publisher of Samuel Beckett. There’s also a “very recognisable” literary agent (“Style is all very well – but we need to get to the nitty-gritty, y’know: less description, more death, and a bit of bonking. How many copies do you want to sell?”), and guest appearances from a host of literary personalities. “John [Calder] knows I’ve written a book but I haven’t had the guts to show him - we’ll have to have a conversation before I publish,” said Gallenzi. The manuscript is currently doing the rounds of major publishing houses.’

Well, not quite – the manuscript will be sent out in a week or so, after I have another careful read through. No, not for libel. I have spent the last three and a half years working on this book – mostly working at night – and I was secretly amused when rumours started to spread at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair and Scott Pack was forced to deny he had anything to do with the book.

I will be curious to see what my fellow publishers make of it.


Friday 30 January 2009

“The wee carafe timmit down till the dregs.” (Robert Garioch after Belli)

The beauty of Italian events is that there’s always a lot of food and good wines at the end of them – which perhaps explains why we had a full house at the Italian Institute of Edinburgh yesterday for the launch of our new edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was a good event: the three speakers kept to twenty minutes exactly, delivering a brilliant, informative talk. JG Nichols touched on some of the main challenges of translating the Decameron, Prof. Jon Usher put this work in the context of Boccaccio’s career, while Prof. Ó Cuilleanáin (pron. O’Kooinoin) provided a short history of some of the previous translations of the Decameron, starting from the 1620 one, attributed to John Florio. The highlight of the talk was when JG Nichols, to explain Boccaccio’s warped humour in a particular passage, mentioned the Yiddish joke of the boy who is about to be sentenced for killing his parents and asks the judge to be lenient on the ground that he is an orphan.

After some stuzzichini at the Institute – which included olive ascolane and farfalle al sugo – a couple of cabs whizzed us over to Giuliano’s, a restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place on Piazza Dante in Naples. On the way to our table, I walked past the usual trio of fat Mafioso-looking guys that you’ll find in any respectable Italian restaurant abroad – only this time one of them nodded his hello to me as if he’d known me for a long time. Obviously I craned my neck in and walked on with nonchalance.

The food, the wines and the company were excellent – and the English people around the table spoke flawless Italian, which was a joy to my ears – but after an hour I had to leave for my dinner with Mike Stocks. Mike is one of our best authors, and he has promised that he will contribute to Bloggerel in due course. He has also started a blog for The Elephant House, one of the cafés where JK Rowling is rumoured to have written her Harry Potter books. Our dinner was at Lazy Lohan’s, 158 Canongate. It’s a lovely little place, but for the first half of our meal we’d have renamed it “Loud Lohan” or “Clumsy Lohan”, on account of two preposterously noisy tables and the staff’s almost metronomic dropping of cutlery, glasses and dishes. The food and the wine, however, were delicious, and if you are into “slow food” and don’t want to pay extortionate prices for it, then I suggest you pay this bistro a visit next time you are in Edinburgh.

After the meal, we went to a nearby wine bar for a night-cap. We were really good boys, and were home just before midnight.

I was glad, this morning, to read the feature on John Calder in The Bookseller, and a good TLS review of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli’s Sonnets, which Mike and I spent more than two years working on.

In both cases, better late than never.


Thursday 29 January 2009

"Si le lecteur est scandalisé de toutes les badineries qu'il a vues dans ce livre, il fera fort bien de n'en lire pas davantage..." (Paul Scarron)

"If the reader is outraged by all the banter he has seen in this book, he would do well not to read on..."

Unfairly ignored in the English-speaking world, the seventeenth-century writer Paul Scarron is arguably one of the most important French literary figures of his century, famous for his splendid style, and for his considerable contribution to the burlesque and picaresque novel genres. He was born in Paris to a family of lawyers, clergymen and politicians in 1610, but spent much of his youth in Le Mans. There he became an abbot and worked under the bishop of Le Mans, although it seems that his monastic status did not temper his resolutely libertine lifestyle. In his late twenties he was suddenly afflicted by an unspecified crippling condition which paralysed both of his legs – an ailment which would affect him for the rest of his life. Legend has it that this was due to a naked bath he had during a local carnival.

Despite his physical suffering, his razor-sharp wit and his zest for life remained intact – he would even write ironically of his own condition on several occasion – and he returned to Paris, where he frequented literary salons and joined a coterie of intellectual friends. He devoted himself to literature and the life of modest means this entailed, and – inspired by Italian writers such as Tassoni, Lalli and Bracciolini – published his first collection of burlesque verse in 1643, before launching into epic parodies, such as Typhon (1644) and the acclaimed Virgile travesti (1648–52), a pastiche of the Aeneid. By this time the burlesque was all the rage in literary circles, producing many vulgar and inferior exponents of the genre, whilst Scarron remained a cut above the rest, both stylistically and in terms of content. He was keen to avoid light-hearted flippancy and to espouse a literary philosophy based on joie de vivre and corporeal delights in the face of the prevailing trend of austere high-minded classicism. He began to abandon verse and concentrated on prose stories and novellas, as well as plays inspired by Spanish dramatists such as Tirso de Molina, which were very much en vogue in Paris at the time.

In 1652, he married the young Françoise d’Aubigné – granddaughter of the famous French baroque poet Agrippa d’Aubigné and future mistress then wife of King Louis XIV – in order to save her from the clutches of the convent. His most influential work, the prose novel Le Roman comique, was published between 1651 and 1657 – and unfortunately he was not able to finish the third and final part of it before his death in 1660. It recounts the adventures of a troupe of itinerant actors in provincial France, masterfully weaving comic anecdotes of their amorous exploits and a love story between the one of them, Léandre, and his beloved Angélique into a rich and realistic tapestry depicting rural France. The Roman comique spawned countless picaresque novels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was championed in the nineteenth centuries by literary figures such as Théophile Gautier. Surely the book’s canonical importance and timeless stylistic brilliance warrants a new English translation…

Wednesday 28 January 2009

“Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting guttural.” (Lord Byron)

Another hard day at work – its highlight, a lunch in Notting Hill with Max Scott, the publisher of Stacey International and Capuchin Classics. I have known Max for close to ten years, and can confidently say that he is – by common consensus – the poshest-speaking publisher in the world. Imagine Hugh Grant after a couple of Martinis too many, or Prince Charles rehearsing a best-man speech in front of a mirror. I have to say that, after twelve years in this country, I have come to understand the man o’ the street quite well – yet, I can only just about grasp ten to fifteen per cent of Max’s half-whispered mumbling. I do exaggerate, of course (and Max, please do not take offence, as I know you will be reading this), but I wish I could do lip-reading when I am in his company.

Stacey’s headquarters in Notting Hill are nothing short of grand. It is a real three-storey publishing “house” and, wherever you turn, you’ll see paintings, sculptures and other priceless museum pieces. I am sure it’s all insured. I’d only apply for a job there to be able to finger by stealth, during my lunch break, one of the rare volumes in the hall. As Max went upstairs to get his coat, I casually picked up volume eight of a nineteenth-century edition of Swift’s Works, edited by Sir Walter Scott. The whiff I caught as I opened the book almost sent me into sensory overload.

Lunch was at a very fine traditional English pub. Beer was our beverage today, and sausage and mash (which is Cockney for “cash”) our fare. You might think that this was something of an anticlimax, but you’d be wrong, as the food was simple and delicious. We were joined at the table by David Birkett, another lovely chap that I have known for years. He is now Stacey’s sales director, but he used to work for Troika, the rep force we used when we launched Hesperus in 2002. David was instrumental in getting us off to a flying start, and I was happy to see that his enthusiasm for books is undiminished.

Our lunch was a long trip down memory lane – with Max reminiscing at length about a mutual middle-eastern acquaintance who was, shall we say, a little bit too open about some intimate details of her body functions – with frequent detours into gossip alley.

Since I talked about Hesperus, I’d like to add here a couple of words about John Updike, who not only was a great writer, but a great gentleman. He, with Doris Lessing, was one of the first authors who replied to our invitation to write a foreword to one of our classics. And the Diaries of Adam and Eve (which is now being republished by Oneworld Classics) were as much his idea as ours, because he pointed us in the right direction for more little-known “Adamic” stories by Twain. The money we offered him for his introduction was pitiful – and I still remember one of his hand-written cards or letters saying: “I don’t know why I am doing this, as it doesn’t even cover the cost of the stamps.” He had a wonderful sense of humour.

Finally, a reminder of another exciting Thursday night event at the Calder Bookshop tomorrow: Mike David will be reading from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The reading starts at 7:00 pm and tickets are only £6/£4. Unfortunately I won’t be there tomorrow, as I am due to show up at a big Boccaccio event at the Italian Institute in Edinburgh (details here – the event starts at 6:00pm). I hope I’ll be able to post a blog from there, otherwise see you on Friday.


Tuesday 27 January 2009

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Take Two

I don’t tend to go to the same book reading twice – but yesterday was an exception, and I was delighted to hear again Kate Summerscale talk about The Suspicions of Mr Whicher at the Chelsea Arts Club. It was just pure coincidence, as I haven’t even read the book. Unlike the previous event I attended at the Calder Bookshop, this was an open dialogue with the audience rather than a straight talk. In general, I think that a dialogue with readers is more satisfactory than hearing a writer's monologues.

Elisabetta and I were invited to the Chelsea Arts Club by Penny Wools, who looks after the club’s art exhibitions. I had never been there, and was slightly taken aback when, after arriving late and sitting towards the back of the room, I was confronted by an obscene painting of a red-haired woman with the most enormous boobs. I looked around in dismay, and even dirtier pictures were hanging from the walls. This was in stark contrast to the demure-looking members of the public.

After the event and a quick drink or two, we had a lovely dinner with Penny, Sarah (the literary-event organizer), Kate Summerscale, plus Richard Charkin and Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury (accompanied by their spouses). I enjoyed everybody’s company, but it was especially good to see Richard again after our fleeting appearance at the Canon Tales in July last year, and to get to know him better. As well as talking about Cricket, Rugby and the accuracy of management accounts, he gave us some fiendishly good tips, debunking once and for all some widely accepted publishing categories.

“Quirky”, he explained, means either “unsalable” or “loss-making”.

“Edgy”, possibly from the Old Norse aidg for “unkempt” or “untidy”, is another way of saying “terrible”.

“Authoritative” is “good”.

“Boring” = “profitable”.

After the delicious meal, it was time to settle the bill and go back to Richmond. Elisabetta went up to pay and came back looking crestfallen, saying she had “lost her card”.

“A stroke of genius”, I thought. “That’s why I’ve married you.” But then I realized that she was serious, so I ended up on the phone to our bank, ricocheting from one department to another – a pathetic end to an otherwise most enjoyable and memorable evening.


Monday 26 January 2009

There’s no such thing as a “favourite classic”.

After a long career of publishing books, I find it impossible to pick an overall favourite that stands above all the others. Instead of a single favourite text, I tend to think in terms of a “parliament of books”, a substantial list of the greatest works, from ancient Greece to the present day, all of which talk to me in different ways.

My appreciation of them has varied over time, depending on such factors as my age, experiences and mood. To give an example, I find Homer’s Odyssey one of the most pleasurable to read – it is the birth of literature, and even of western culture. Another example, from a very different time and place, would be Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In addition to accepted canonical works, there are also the numerous books by many writers that I have published over the years, which I would never have done if I had not found something to admire and feel enthusiasm for in each of them. I hope that they will continue to delight readers of future generations, as they have done ours.

John Calder

Sunday 25 January 2009

"Ch'eo so lo pungiglion, e tu se' 'l bue." (Cecco Angiolieri)

For I’m the gadfly now, and you’re the ox.

No portrait has survived of Cecco Angiolieri of Siena (1260–c.1312), Dante’s contemporary and rival, but a long tradition has perpetuated the image of a bohemian poet, a lover of gambling, women and wine. Frustrated by the longevity of his rich but miserly father and his beloved Becchina’s constant rebuffing of his advances, Cecco vented his spleen through venomous sonnets in the same language as Dante and Cavalcanti, but in a completely different tone and spirit. In open opposition to the niceties of courtly poetry and the Stil novo, he favours a more realistic and light-hearted approach. A classic in Italy, where he is widely studied, Cecco is largely unknown in this country. He has been very rarely translated into English – most famously by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1870s, and since then only by a handful of Italian academics or enthusiasts.

If few people have heard of Cecco Angiolieri, certainly fewer still have had the privilege to read the beautiful verse translation of Cecco’s sonnets by C.H. Scott. Printed originally in 1925 in a limited edition of thirty copies for private circulation, this little gem – clearly a labour of love – remained unnoticed for decades until I stumbled across it at the British Library, and decided to publish it under the Oneworld Classics imprint. Here’s one of Cecco's most famous sonnets:

If, Dante, I’m a born buffoon, I swear
You run a tilt against me quite as hard;
If I with others dine, you supper there,
And if I bite the fat, you suck the lard;
If cloth I shear, the nap on it you raise,
And if I’m dissolute, you’re just as free;
If I’ve the noble, you’ve the learnèd ways;
If I’m for Rome – well, you’re for Lombardy.
Then, thank the Lord, there’s little to be said
Of vantage won for either at this hour:
To want of wit or luck we owe our knocks.
And if you’ve more to say upon this head,
Dante Alighier, I’ve got you in my power:
For I’m the gadfly now, and you’re the ox.

Prof Anthony Mortimer, the acclaimed translator of Petrarch and Michelangelo, has revised the translation extensively, making it even sharper and closer to the original.

Ironically, we printed the book back in March last year, but our distributor misplaced it, and it re-emerged from their warehouse only last week. So it will be sent out to journalists together with Dante's Rime. I hope they are not going to fight with each other for a review.


Saturday 24 January 2009

Net Book Agreement debate

I have heard through the grapevine that The Bookseller are planning to run a feature on the Net Book Agreement. As I mentioned before on this blog, even if the NBA cannot be reinstated as such, it would be great to open a new debate among publishers and booksellers, and see if a twenty-first-century version of it – adapted to the reality of the current situation – can in due course be introduced.

I'll look out for it.


Friday 23 January 2009

“What has this bugbear, death, to frighten man.” (John Dryden, after Lucretius)

I have never felt so ubiquitous as in the past few days – and yesterday I reached the apogee of my ubiquitousness, having managed somehow to double-book myself for the evening. After quick drinks in Bloomsbury, I whizzed to the Calder Bookshop in Waterloo, where I introduced a very successful reading event with Richard Stokes and Tony Rohr. Then, after the final round of applause and the usual question-and-answer session, I zipped back with Elisabetta to the Galley Club for the printers’ annual Christmas party.

That’s right: a Christmas party on the 22nd of January. You might think that, seeing as three or four major printers have closed down in as many months, this could have been a very early 2009 Christmas party – before the money runs out and we are all credit-crunched into oblivion. But it was only a late 2008 Christmas party, one of the latest I have ever been to, actually – nonetheless outrageously alcoholic and very well attended: wherever there’s free booze, there’s little chance of a poor turn-out.

I sat at a table with J***, the best salesman I have ever met, by a long mile. I am saying this because he confessed – to my dismay – that he has been reading my blog, so there’s a chance he’ll read this post too. But he really is good, and even handsome, and nice, and he always invites me to lunches or nice parties like this. There was also a lovely couple from CompletelyNovel, this interesting new venture which is a kind of one-stop-shop for writers, agents, publishers, book clubs and readers. I wish them all the best, as they are very enthusiastic about what they do.

What is strange about these parties is to discover the Jekyll-and-Hyde natures of many ordinary guys you’ve know for years as the quietest and most reserved people on earth. There’s this priceless guy, another salesman, whom I’ll call D*** out of pity – he came to our table slurring like John Calder after a lunch with Peter Ackroyd and Beryl Bainbridge, and by the end of the night he was trying to convince Elisabetta that there was nothing to worry about, because the worst that could happen was death. It was depressing. And towards the end of the evening, a man wearing a perfectly ironed kilt – whom I’ll also call D*** – tottered to our table with what looked like a jug of bitter and started guessing who all the people round the table were. “Cringing,” you’ll say. Well, I’ll reply “scary”: he appeared to know everybody, although he was known by none. And it was a near-miss when he thought that Elisabetta was in fact Alessandro. When I met him later on the way out, he embraced me and cried “Alessssandrrro”, letting the old “r” roll away before jigging into the ladies’ toilet.

The party was adjourned to a nearby pub, and thence to a place which would serve alcohol until three o’clock in the morning. There’s certainly something decadent about the publishing industry these days.


Thursday 22 January 2009

“L’essilio che m’è dato, onor mi tegno.” (Dante)

Exile becomes an honour that I prize.

After an agonizing wait, we have finally received advance copies of Dante’s Rime, which is to be published later this month in the Oneworld Classics series. You will remember I had instant DTs when misbound copies were delivered to us a couple of weeks ago. Well, today’s joy amply compensates for the heartbreak we experienced then.

This compact 220-page volume is a book lover’s delight: printed on cream Arctic paper, with sewn binding, plates, matt-laminated cover with flaps, Botticelli’s portrait of Dante on the front… you’ll turn it over in your hands and riffle through it a hundred times for the sheer pleasure of it.

Dante spent most of his adult life away from Florence as an exile. These days, we would call him a “political refugee”. He lived at the court of several noblemen in northern Italy, and it is during these years of wandering that he wrote most of his Divine Comedy. Few people know Dante’s other works, and how he came to write one of the greatest poetical works of all time. The Vita nuova offers only a limited glimpse into Dante’s early life and poetical career – his love for Beatrice, his Troubadour influences, his passion for courtly-love poetry. The Rime (or “Lyrics”), on the other hand, provide all the missing links in Dante’s poetical apprenticeship, from formulaic early pieces to experimental poems and the great canzoni of his later years. The importance of this volume can be compared, in many ways, to that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Still, there is no other mainstream edition available in the English market. Calling this a disgrace is an understatement.

These poems have been rarely seen in English, although I’m sure you’ll be able to find some awful translation on the net. The translators of this edition are J.G. Nichols and Anthony Mortimer, two of the finest translators of Italian poetry, and the recipients of several prizes and much critical acclaim.

As a taster, I am going to include a couple of poems – an entertaining sonnet and one of Dante’s most famous petrose.

Dante to Forese

To hear how Bicci’s luckless wife keeps coughing
(Though now he’s called Forese, so I’m told),
You’d think that she had spent the winter off in
Some land where things turn crystal from the cold.
To see her freeze in August is quite shocking,
In other months just guess the cold she caught;
It doesn’t help to go to bed in stockings
If then what covers her is much too short.
This coughing and cold humours and the rest
Don’t come from age, but the poor girl at night
Feels something lacking in her little nest.
Her mother, sad on more than one account,
Weeps: “For a dowry of dried figs I might
Have set her up with Guido who’s a count.”

[Translated by Anthony Mortimer]


Now I have reached the point on heaven’s wheel
When the horizon, as the sun goes down,
Gives birth to those clear twins that light the sky,
And when love’s star is far from us and pale
Because the sidelong beam cast by the sun
Bestrides it so and veils it from the eye;
And the cold planet stands revealed on high
Fully to us in that great arching way
Where each of seven casts a shorter shade:
And yet I have not laid
Aside one single thought of love: it weighs
Upon my mind, that’s harder than a stone
In holding fast the image of a stone.

A vagrant wind from Ethiopian sands,
Darkening all the air, arises now,
Moved by the heat that comes from the sun’s sphere;
And drives across the sea so dense a band
Of cloud that, if no adverse wind should blow,
It closes in and seals our hemisphere;
And then dissolves, descending on us here
In cold white flakes of snow and dismal rain,
So that the very air must weep and mourn:
Yet Love, whose webs are drawn
Aloft whenever the wind mounts again,
Still leaves me not, so fair she is, this lady,
The cruel one, assigned as my liege-lady.

Each bird that follows warmth has flown away,
Leaving the lands of Europe, whose bleak sky
Can never lose the seven freezing stars;
And others have made truce with tongue to stay
Silent until the time of green comes by,
Unless the sound be to lament their woes;
And all the animals whose nature shows
In lustiness are now from love untied,
So dampened is their spirit by the cold;
And yet my spirit holds
Ever more love; sweet thoughts are not denied
Or given to me by any change of season,
But by a lady in her youthful season.

The leaves that once the power of the Ram
Drew forth in beauty to adorn the world
Are now long past their term, the grass is dead;
Hidden from us the green of branch or stem,
Except in bay or pine or fir which hold
A foliage evergreen that does not fade;
And so harsh is the season and so hard
It kills the tender flowers the meadows wear
With a sharp frost too piercing to be borne:
And yet Love has not drawn
Out of my heart the thorn he planted there;
So I resolve to bear it with me ever,
All my life long, though I should live for ever.

From hidden veins the various springs give vent
To waters that the earth draws up in steam
And vapours from its bowels underground;
So that the path that pleased me when I went
Along it one fine day is now a stream
And will be so till winter’s siege is done;
The face of earth resembles polished stone,
And the dead waters harden into glass,
Held in a vice by the contracting cold:
Yet in this war I hold
My ground and do not yield a single pace,
Nor will I yield; for if this pain be sweet,
Death must surpass whatever else is sweet.

My song, what will become of me in that
Sweet other season, new and freshly fair,
When love rains from the heavens on earth below,
If here, in frost and snow,
Love is in me alone, and not elsewhere?
I shall be like a man that’s made of marble,
If this young girl still keeps a heart of marble.

[Translated by Anthony Mortimer]

If you would like to meet the translators and listen to some of Dante’s lesser-known poems, please do come to our launch event at the Calder Bookshop on 5th February.


Wednesday 21 January 2009

Kafka's "Dearest Father" at the Calder Bookshop

Before I drop off, a quick reminder about tomorrow night's reading at the Calder Bookshop on The Cut, near Waterloo.

Richard Stokes will read from Dearest Father (also known as Letter to My Father), his new translation of Franz Kafka’s confessional and impassioned – though unsent – letter to his father. A touching account of the turbulent relationship between unflinching parent and sensitive child, this letter offers a new insight into the private world one of the most influential and enigmatic writers of the twentieth century.

Opera specialist and Faber author Richard Stokes has published books on German, French and Spanish song, and his singing translations of Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, and Wagner’s Parsifal have met with critical acclaim. He collaborated with Alfred Brendel on his volume of poems, One Finger Too Many and, more recently, The Veil of Order: Conversations with Martin Meyer.

He will be joined by actor Tony Rohr.

As usual, entry is £6/£4 (which includes a glass of wine) – and we start at 7.00 p.m.

Please call or email the bookshop if you would like to reserve a place.

Hope to see you there.


Murphy by Samuel Beckett – the jury is in

I should point out a few things before passing judgement on this book. This is the only prose work by Beckett I have read so far: I know it’s a very early work, and I am not able to put it into the context of Beckett’s later writing career. I think this was the wrong Beckett title to start with. I should probably have started with his Trilogy, as litlove suggested in one of his comments.

I have read some of Beckett’s most famous plays years ago, and liked them very much. More recently, I read his complete poems, but was unimpressed. I have been at many Beckett readings at the Calder Bookshop and enjoyed them. My impression, so far, is that Beckett works better when performed than on the written page.

Did I like the book?
No, I struggled with it from the very beginning. For me, reading equals entertainment, and I got through this book with gritted teeth. I disliked its underlying pessimism, its negativity, its cynicism. I think this book is a sapper. It made me depressed.

What did I like most?
Some of the philosophical ideas he deals with. But I generally don’t like novelists who play the philosopher when they write.

What didn’t work for me?
I found the style irritating. Beckett is constantly trying to be clever – linguistically, stylistically – and the result is that he comes across as patronizing. As I mentioned yesterday, my impression was that every word of this book had been written in a drunken state.

Would I publish it?
As you may have heard or read elsewhere, a few months before we acquired the Calder business, John Calder sold all his Beckett titles – including Murphy – to Faber. At the time we would have liked to keep all the titles under our Oneworld Classics imprint, but their negotiations had already gone too far, so we had to let the Beckett titles go. What do I think now, eighteen months later? I’m still not sure. Perhaps there are better books than Murphy in the Calder series, but based on this book I think I would pass. I can see that this is a very important novel from an historical point of view, but it’s not life-enhancing enough for my taste. As to the other prose works, I’ll reserve my judgement until I can read them.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d most probably turn it down. Unless someone could lend me a time machine before I reject it.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Oh God, no. A comic masterpiece? Give me Humphry Clinker or The Pickwick Papers every day. I’ll admit, I smirked once or twice. Perhaps I can’t get the Irish humour.

The best bit in the book?
The first couple of pages.

The best scene in the book?
Perhaps the chess game between Murphy and Mr Endon.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
Oh dear. I should be diplomatic, shouldn’t I? Well, on the positive front, I like the look of the cover: it’s simple, distinctive and effective. It does the job. It’s printed both sides, so there’s no waste. The paper is also good, but the quality of printing is – er – not great. This 1998 edition looks as if it’s a reprint of a reprint of a photocopy of the films of the 1938 Routledge edition. There’s orphans and widows galore. I have spotted a few clear typos – but then some of them could be intentional, for all I know. But the great Calder personal touch is evident in the hand-cut white sticker covering the barcode so that only the ISBN number can be read – if you peel it off, you’ll realize the number at the bottom doesn’t match with the one above. And, of course, the trademark Calder cover blurb is worth the £8.99 cover price, with sentences such as “It is also a comic masterpiece, full of the grim humour that had characterized his earlier More Pricks than Kicks, and of little perceptions that cause the reader to stop and ponder or chuckle, rabelaisian in its bawdy, tragic in its relentless grim view of human life. It has for many years been one of the most popular novels of one of the most seminal figures of the twentieth century…” I hope someone from Faber is listening.

My final verdict?
Not a memorable read. But I’ll give Beckett another go soon – I’ll wait a little bit before tackling the Trilogy. Now I want to turn my attention to Stefan Zweig, and I will probably start with a collection of his best stories, Fantastic Night and Other Stories, published by the inimitable Pushkin Press.


Tuesday 20 January 2009

“Hence Burgundy, Claret and Port!” (John Keats)

Another phenomenally alcoholic lunch “meeting” today. Sherry, aperitif (a large white-wine glass), a bottle of red wine and dessert wine… These publishing types! Had a shrewd agent been there, I’d have signed anything by the end of the meal.

My lunch companions were Clive Bradley (ex chief of the PA) and the copyright lawyer Alan Williams, two inexhaustible sources of publishing gossip and anecdotes. I have come out of this lunch all the wiser for knowing that Christopher Maclehose is the nephew of the ex Governor – and the tallest man, at six foot five – of Hong Kong. As anybody who has met him personally knows, Christopher has been for many years a towering figure in the publishing world. It’s hard to miss him at any party, and if you want to call him a publishing “giant” or “titan”, you are very much within your rights.

The subject of the Net Book Agreement was discussed at length, and I am pleased to report that Clive was less negative than the last time we spoke. He offered some practical tips and strategic approaches, which I will follow up in the next few days.

That’s all I remember, frankly. After that, a very hazy afternoon. Now back to Murphy – which is a perfect read at the moment, as every word of it seems to have been written in a drunken state.


Monday 19 January 2009

“Some time I shall sleep out, the rest I’ll whistle.” (William Shakespeare)

A very interesting lunch meeting with Christopher Maclehose and John Calder today. On my way to the Turkish restaurant on The Cut, I popped by the Calder Bookshop, and there I met the actors Peter Pacey and Henry Woolf, who are going to tour Ireland with John Calder in a new production of Beckett’s Endgame in February.

I knew both actors already – they have done some readings at the bookshop, and every now and then I spot them on TV or on some theatre programme. That’s a great thing about the Calder Bookshop: because it’s so close to the Old Vic and the Young Vic, it attracts many great actors, playwrights, novelists and screenwriters. We recently had Simon Callow and Kazuo Ishiguro among our clients, and five A-list Hollywood actors rehearsed at our shop on a Sunday afternoon in December.

Henry Woolf is always full of jokes and anecdotes. Seeing that I had a copy of Murphy in my hands, he told us the story of when Harold Pinter stole a copy of it from the London Library. They were at school together, in 1947 or 1948 – Pinter must have been around seventeen – and Henry and his friends were united in their condemnation of such an antisocial act. “Some poor kid won’t be able to read that book, Harold,” they said. “I don’t think so,” Pinter replied coolly. “The only other time it was taken out was in 1939.” At the time of Pinter's theft, no one had heard of Beckett yet, but Pinter – Henry says – was far ahead of everyone else. John Calder added that the original Routledge edition of Murphy only sold 51 copies. Comforting.

At the restaurant, John and Christopher – both in full reminiscing mood – regaled me with a hundred thousand stories and anecdotes from a different publishing era. I was surprised to learn that their friendship goes back a very long way, since the early Sixties at least. And they know the same people – mostly names I have never heard of. But we also talked about Harvill, Alma, the Maclehose press, its phenomenally successful Stieg Larsson series and many other authors and publishing figures. My only regret: I forgot to ask Christopher about his dog Mishka.

I love these lunches with John Calder. The one drawback is that Mr Calder – at the venerable age of eighty-two – is able to outdrink the most consummate publishing executive. So the very thought of doing any work after one of these “meetings”, or writing a vaguely meaningful blog entry, is impossible. You will excuse me then, if I end this post here.


Sunday 18 January 2009

“To laugh were want of goodness and of grace, And to be grave exceeds all power of face.” (Alexander Pope)

I love Sunday evenings. It’s the time when I can really unwind and start pumping myself up for another week of hard work – yeah, right.

It is also the time when Elisabetta and I go through the ever-growing pile of submissions and proposals. Some of them are absolutely barmy and can be discarded after a few seconds, others take three or four pages before they are given the axe, while a few require a little bit more attention.

But the quality of submissions, whether unsolicited or agented, is by and large very low. What is shocking is the total carelessness in presenting the work. These submissions are often scattered with typos and grammar mistakes, giving the impression that neither the author nor the agent could be bothered reading the document through or even spell-checking it before sending it off. This I don’t really understand. If you spend one or two years writing a book, you want to make sure – whether you are a well-known author or an unpublished writer – that it is as polished and accurate as possible before it’s submitted to a critical reader.

The two submissions I’ll be reading this evening are from very reputable agents. The first one has been pitched to me as a “modern picaresque novel told by a clairvoyant hermaphrodite from beyond the grave”. On the first page of the second one I can see some “petrified cows leaping away from the flames”.

I think there is a strong possibility that I am going to have an early night tonight.


Saturday 17 January 2009

Finnegans Wake

Well, I've had a quick look, and decided I'm not even going to try. I can see what Joyce is trying to do. . . but life's too short. I'd rather read the Gazzetta dello Sport, and wait until Monday for the Beckett books.


"Unfold th’impenetrable mystery" (Ann Radcliffe)

As it turns out, I will only lay my hands on Murphy and Malone Dies on Monday or Tuesday, so I thought I’d have another look at Finnegans Wake in the meantime. I remember I bought a copy of it back in 1991, during my first trip to the UK. It was a second-hand edition that I found at SKOOB’s, off Marchmont Street. I’ve never been back since then, but a quick search on the net tells me they are still there and, by the look of it, thriving. I must pop by again one of these days.

At the time, I had just finished rereading Ulysses in English, and was curious to sound the formidable depths of Joyce’s last novel. I tried several times over the years, but couldn’t get past the first thirty pages. I don’t know what happened to that copy, because it’s no longer on our shelves. My memory of it is that it was a relatively slim book with a green cover – around 250 pages or so. So I was mightily surprised when I picked up from our local library Faber’s “Copyright” edition, which runs to 628 pages. It took Joyce eighteen years to write, and will probably take me thirty-six years to read, if I can stick with it. Mmm, we’ll see.

Calder’s books are known in the States under the imprint Riverrun Press (named after the first word of Finnegans Wake), so in a way I feel even more guilty that I haven't read this book. On the other hand, looking inside at random, I find sentences such as “Here, and it goes on to appear now, she comes, a peacefugle, a parody’s bird, a peri potmother, a pringlpik in the ilandiskippy, with peewee and powwows in beggybaggy on her bickybacky and a flick flask fleckflinging its pixylighting pacts’ huemeramybows, picking here, pecking there, pussypussy plunderpussy.” I have a hunch I won’t enjoy it this time either.

There’s an Irish actor who knows large parts of it by heart, and last year he performed at the Calder Bookshop in front of a small but ravished audience. We are trying to organize another Finnegans event soon – possibly in March or April – and involve Tom McCarthy in the proceedings. Tom is a great fan of this work, and claims to have been greatly influenced by it. I am curious to hear how.


Friday 16 January 2009

On digitization

Many are predicting the demise of the book-publishing world as we know it. Last year, in one of his columns for the Independent on Sunday, Toby Young espoused the common viewpoint that book publishers would simply be redundant in the future, since the advent of digital technology, including e-books, the Internet and print-on-demand services would enable authors to bypass them entirely. The idea, roughly speaking, is that authors will rise to fame by word-of-mouth via the Internet, and use print-on-demand services and/or e-books to provide readers with their work, leaving nothing whatsoever for publishers to do. I’ve heard this point made a number of times, but is it really true?

It is, of course, impossible to predict the future, but I think there are a number of points worth making against this future scenario. For a start, digital technology is, at present, a much greater threat to traditional book retailers than it is to publishing companies. My tentative hope is that book publishers are in a much stronger position to adapt and incorporate new technology into their business strategy.

There are, I believe, reasons for this hope. I think what people like Toby Young don’t fully comprehend is the number of aspiring authors out there, and what it takes for publishing companies to sort the wheat from the chaff to find work that is publishable, sellable and hopefully worth reading. There are many people who are already saying that there are too many books published as it is. If we imagine that every aspiring author puts their work on the Internet, and readers at large are honestly expected to sift through this deluge of words to find genuine quality work, and once they’ve found it, to persuade other people to like it, do we really expect this to work as well as the traditional filter system of agents and publishers?

Another point is that the media that have been successfully broadcast over the Internet to a mass audience so far have been music and video. There are reasons for this. Music and video (particularly the kind of short video you get on YouTube) are easily and quickly consumed. A novel-length book is not. Many people object to reading on-screen rather than on paper. We’ve yet to see whether e-books are successful.

A slightly more trivial point is the importance of quality typesetting and editing. These things may be underrated by supporters of the Toby-Young viewpoint, but those in publishing are well aware that there’s a world of difference between reading a word document and reading a well-edited book that has been well typeset.

So, to bring these points together, in our future scenario we are being asked to imagine that readers of the world will be hunched over flickering computer screens, reading for hours on end an unknown author’s work that’s probably not very good, complete with typos and huge factual mistakes, in the probably vain hope that it might turn into Proust after webpage 151, so that they can tell all their friends in order to make money for someone else. Doesn’t that sound more like what publishers do today than the consumer of the future? – who will, no doubt, still be watching porn.


Thursday 15 January 2009

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit – a fast-track process

I regret to announce that I have given up reading Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt after only five chapters. And here’s my verdict:

Did I like the book?
Not really – not what I have seen at least. It was a huge disappointment, as this was one of Elisabetta’s favourites (but she admits reading it in translation many years ago, when she was at university). Perhaps what killed it for me was reading it straight after Salinger, who is almost the opposite from a stylistic point of view, and vastly superior in my opinion.

What did I like most?
I liked the sound of it. The premise was promising, but the delivery is poor, I think.

What didn’t work for me?
Essentially, the style, but also the language. The prose is verbose, and scarcely a noun goes by without three or four adjectives appended to it. Just a quick example: “He dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pyjamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers.” Strange that the author didn’t say “soft slippers” or something here. This kind of prose gets on my nerves.

Would I publish it?
Not really, not even in 2022, when it goes into the public domain. I was reading from the 1987 Penguin edition. Now I see it’s Vintage who does it – I can’t blame Penguin for letting this one go.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d be intrigued by the story, but would probably turn it down. Unless I could do swingeing cuts. But I couldn't do it without checking with the author, so I'd need a medium.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
I got bored immediately. The story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I soon lost my interest. And the way the story is told is too grotesque.

The best bit in the book?
Couldn’t find one to be honest, in the fifty-odd pages I read.

The best scene in the book?

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
This Penguin edition is a dreadful affair: it’s all yellow and falling apart. I wouldn’t pick it up for 20p at a car-boot sale, that's how bad it is. I can’t really comment on pricing, but I think that with £4.95 in 1987 you could have bought a frozen turkey. I can see that there are orphans and widows all right, and I picked up a couple of typos. So, overall, it’s not a thing of beauty. The editing is not too bad: they’ve anglicized the text, which I think was the wrong choice, but left Americanisms such as “toward” instead of “towards”.

My final verdict?
Not one for me. I don’t think Babbitt will be read by many in fifty or a hundred years’ time. But then maybe few people will read at all in fifty or a hundred years’ time. At least I will no longer feel guilty when I see the book unread on my shelves.

The next book I’m going to try will either be Murphy or Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett. I haven’t read any of Beckett’s prose works, so I am curious to see what I will make of them.


Wednesday 14 January 2009

Germinal by Émile Zola

When I was at Waterstone’s Gower Street in December for an event with Tibor Fischer, I had an interesting conversation with Nicholas Crane, author of Great British Journeys. He asked me what my favourite book was, and my immediate reply was Germinal by Émile Zola.

I translated Germinal in 1996 for Frassinelli Editore (now part of Mondadori), having previously translated a collection of his short-stories for a small independent publisher. I was delighted when I was commissioned this translation, because Zola has always been one of my favourite writers since my university years in Rome, and Germinal one of the “important” books I still had not had the chance to read. So when I replaced the receiver I said to myself: “How lucky… at least an author I like.”

That same day I started reading the book, and was totally hooked from page one. The opening, with Étienne Lantier walking across the dark fields and the night-time description of the mine – the Voreux – is breathtaking.

What I liked about Germinal is the way Zola manages to conjure up an entire world in a coherent and realistic way, developing at the same time universal themes of love, death, solitude, betrayal and rebellion. Nobody is a winner in his world – neither the rich nor the poor – with the mine constantly devouring humans like a fiendish beast.

A real masterpiece and a very modern novel – a book I would recommend to anybody.


Tuesday 13 January 2009

Net Book Disagreement

Thanks for all your messages and comments, a couple of which I published – it's comforting to know there are so many people out there in support of a revival of the NBA, or at least a discussion about it. I'll meet Clive Bradley next week, and I'll let be guided by him on whether a new campaign for the NBA – or something similar – can be revived. There was an interesting article in the Bookseller today. If you have not seen it, here's a link:

I'll be having lunch with John Calder tomorrow and Thursday, and then again on Monday with Christopher Maclehose (I'll ask him what he thinks about this), and I am hoping to come up with some ideas and a strategy of action. All this news of cuts and job losses should be a wake up call not just for small independents but also for chains and conglomerates.


Monday 12 January 2009

The Catcher in the Rye – the jury is in.

Yesterday I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, and here’s my verdict:

Did I like the book?
Yes, I liked it very much. It was a thoroughly entertaining read, and was glad to have given it another go after reading it in a bad Italian translation over fifteen years ago.

What did I like most?
Language, style, humour and characterization. It made me laugh out loud many times.

What didn’t work for me?
The ending is not strong enough, and the novel is not ambitious enough in terms of themes and ideas. The bit were Holden talks about being a “catcher in the rye” came across as a bit forced to me.

Would I publish it?
I’d sign a contract tomorrow, and pay six figures if I had the money.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
Difficult to say, but I think I would probably spot its qualities from the first two or three pages. Hopefully.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes, it did. But the middle part is a bit slow, and the ending doesn’t deliver the punch I was expecting.

The best bit in the book?
There are many fantastic one-liners, but if I have to choose one bit, I’d go for: “Old Spencer started nodding again. He also started picking his nose. He made out like he was only pinching it, but he was really getting the old thumb right in there.”

The best scene in the book?
Probably Chapter 4 – Holden’s conversation with the Ackley boy.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
I love the package and the cover, and I think it’s a brave idea to have a book without a blurb and quotes on the cover or inside. I was told by the editor who worked on this book that the author gave strict rules about the size of his name on the front cover in relation to the size of the title, and that it took them about six months to agree on the exact wording of the short strap line on the back cover. The text has been very well edited and I would have quibbled only a handful of words or sentences. Apart from a few missing hyphens, I found only four clear-cut typos – which, considering the book was first published by Penguin in 1958 and then reprinted only seventy-two times, it’s not too bad… The typesetting is good, and there are only a few orphans – no widows to be reported. The paper is not great, so £8.99 is slightly on the steep side.

My final verdict?
While it’s not up there, for me, with American authors such as Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, Salinger is still a remarkable writer, and I believe this book will be read for many years to come, and possibly become a classic.

The next book I’m going to read is Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, one of my wife’s favourites. I don’t have particularly high expectations, so I hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Sunday 11 January 2009

“And only death will give me fame and rest.” (Foscolo)

Another of my pet projects for 2009 is the first English translation of a collection of poems by the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, to be published in March 2009 under the Oneworld Classics imprint. Foscolo cuts quite a remarkable figure in the history of Italian literature. He’s perhaps the most studied poet in Italy after Dante and Leopardi. He was born in the Ionian island of Zakynthos – then under Venetian dominion – in 1778. He had a very adventurous life, and ended up living in England as an exile fleeing from political persecution. Some of his works were published here by John Murray during his lifetime, and for a while he corresponded and hung around with Byron and the crème de la crème of English society. He got into serious debt and died in abject poverty in 1827 in the small village of Turnham Green, now part of London. If you have a chance, go and visit his tomb in Chiswick’s old cemetery – it’s a very moving experience. Foscolo’s masterpiece is a 295-line poem called ‘Of Tombs’ (‘Carme de’ sepolcri’), but I am going to offer you, as a taster of his work, one of his best sonnets, a self-portrait in verse:

A furrowed brow; eyes staring and sunk deep;
Hair tawny; cheek-bones showing through; bold-faced;
Lips that are full and red, with gleaming teeth;
Head bent; a fine-set neck; and a broad chest;

Good limbs; clothes that are choice and plain and neat;
Rapid in walking, thoughts, deeds, what I say;
Sober, humane, loyal, prodigal, and straight;
Cold to the world, which turns away from me;

Sometimes in speech, and often brave in deed;
Sad most days and alone, thoughtful at best,
Prompt, and quick to be angry, restless, strong;

Rich in virtues and vice, I praise and laud
Reason, but, where my heart goes, go along:
And only death will give me fame and rest.
[translated by JG Nichols]

At his best, Foscolo is second to none of our poets. His verse can be incredibly pithy and poignant. The trouble with him is that he is a rather uneven poet – some of his lines don’t seem to scan properly, however hard you try to read them, and his use of language (perhaps because, as some critics claim, Italian wasn’t his mother tongue after all) is sometimes irritatingly rugged, although he is at other times wonderfully polished.

Foscolo was also a fine prose writer (I published his only novel, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, based on Goethe’s Werther, with Hesperus in 2002) and an excellent translator. Among other things, he translated – or rather adapted – Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, which is still read in his version to this day.

If you are in the mood, please give old Foscolo a try. He deserves to be better known in this country.


Saturday 10 January 2009

“We’ve got to get together, sooner or later, because the revolution’s here – and you know it’s right…” (Thunderclap Newman)

I have read John Calder’s blog post with interest, especially the second part, where he talks about the Net Book Agreement. Wikipedia’s article will fill you in if you don’t know what the NBA means or what side effects its abolishment in March 1997 caused.

I have in touch with the lawyer who tried to defend the NBA back in 1997 at the European Courts, and a few months ago he told me that, in practice, it would be impossible to reinstate it, because it’s against the current economic thinking and against free-competition laws. But since many economic rules and concepts are now being rewritten, I think it might be worth campaigning again for the revival of the agreement.

It is clear that since its abolishment big conglomerate publishers, as well as book chains and supermarkets, have benefited enormously, while small independent bookstores and publishers have almost been wiped out, with obvious knock-on effects on the quality of what is being published today.

John phoned me yesterday, after reading the letter sent to the Bookseller by News from Nowhere, and said that we should try and get together a petition, or at least collect a few signatures from across the industry, and try to revive, if not the agreement, at least a discussion about it. The future of publishing as we know it – or perhaps as we knew it – is at stake.

I will soon have launch with Clive Bradley, the NBA lawyer (and ex-chief of the Publishers’ Association), who I am sure knows all the technicalities and intricacies of the matter, and I’ll get in touch with all my publishing contacts, but if there’s anybody out there who’s reading this and is for the NBA, I’d be grateful if they could write to me or give me a call. The more we are, the stronger we can make our point.


Friday 9 January 2009

A revolution for Culture

Who can doubt that 2009 will go down in history as one those fateful years that stand out in the history books, such as 1066, 1789, 1815, 1848, 1914, 1929 and 1939, an annus mirabilis, or, as the Queen called a more recent year that touched her family closely, an annus horribilis? The events of 1929, which ended with the Wall Street crash that brought in the Great Depression of the 1930s, have been forgotten, but recently rereading Galbraith’s The Great Crash of 1929 was very much like reading a history of today. We have forgotten everything and learned nothing.

And yet we are told that history is hardly taught at all any more, that school libraries are being thrown away, that reading is considered by teachers a rare eccentricity among their pupils. Indeed a history professor at St Andrews University recently told me that none of their first-year students had even heard of the French Revolution.

Of course, the advent of computers in the 1960s – and, since then, the spread of electronic media to convey information – is useful, but only a blinkered philistine can think that the printed word in book or newspaper form is finished. This year is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and his theories of evolution, which have inspired such literary philosophers as Nietzsche and Shaw, and which have opened the way to a better understanding of what this human species is all about, have also spurred on science to ever more important discoveries, even while they have forced the non-philosophical religions to re-examine the premise that they have taken for granted for so long.

The thought inevitably arises: have we invented our own successors? Has the growth of artificial intelligence actively had the effect of reducing the intelligence of the human mind that has evolved over millions of years? How many people can work out figures in their heads having never learned a times-table and how to multiply and divide without a calculator? We know the low level of spelling ability in school children and how little general knowledge is about – other than that promoted by the fashion industry. Our long tradition of high culture in literature, music, drama, painting and philosophy, and their equivalents in the scientific world, is increasingly derided by uneducated politicians whose populist, lower-common-denominator outlook makes a nonsense of democracy, something which only works where the electorate is educated to the highest possible standard.

Around the world we see ruthless dictators using democracy to reduce education, increase their power, enslave the masses and spread poverty, disease and hunger. In what – up to now – have been the richer parts of the world, regulation has been reduced to the point where many countries are now ungovernable, and the party system is so broken down that a majority of thinking people see no party they want to vote for with confidence.

These issues are too many and too varied for a blog, so I shall return to history, something which is still best understood through the newly despised book, which for my generation at least is still highly prized. The book can last for centuries, and is still the cheapest and easiest way of retaining and spreading knowledge. It was dealt a heavy blow when the two major political parties in Britain, on the most spurious argument, one long since disproved, decided that the Net Book Agreement, which had protected the responsible book-producers for nearly a century, was anti-competitive. Behind this political move lay the greed and ambition of giant, globalized publishers, not interested in the book as a vehicle of culture and knowledge, but only in killing off competition from real publishers and real booksellers who took pride in their profession and what they gave the world. Increasingly, the books that are most needed are not available or not being published.

There can be little doubt that 2009 will see many extraordinary events and some revolutions. It is time for a counter-revolution concerning books. First of all, reading from infancy onwards must be revived. That means that from the new army of unemployed new teachers must be trained and put to work. Secondly, a new campaign to make books more available, in every kind of library, in new bookshops, and in homes is needed. New methods of disseminating books must be thought out and more should be published. I think there is a frustrated minority that can grow, people who want to know more, read more, become more interesting. What is needed is to find those people – who must be somewhere – who can lead a new movement towards a wider and better culture, away from shallow fashion and ignorant politicians.

A revival of the Net Book Agreement is possible, but like all reforms it will take time and much lobbying. We have, for years, been undergoing a cultural revolution, less severe than the Chinese one of the 1960s. It was, of course, misnamed: it was a revolution against culture. Now we need one for culture, and for the spread of knowledge and civilized values in a world that is deteriorating. The bleak economic present is not necessarily all that bad. It might revive community spirit and bring back what the human brain and imagination can produce, as against the pap on so many television screens.

Recent articles in the Bookseller show that minds are working on the same lines. Perhaps 2009 might produce some positive events after all.

John Calder

Thursday 8 January 2009

“I have seen the ruined ‘Dorata’ ” (Ezra Pound)

Disaster struck again this morning, when we received some mis-bound advance copies of a January title. We haven't had a faulty title in six years, so to receive three in a few days (two mis-trimmed titles arrived yesterday from a different printer) is hard cheese. All the more so as this was Dante’s Rime, one of my pet projects for 2009, a labour of love which I have followed through step by step with almost paternal care. I was really looking forward to receiving it, and when I opened the first box I let out a death-wish sigh.

But I suppose one must be philosophical about these things, and luckily enough it’s something that can be remedied without having to pulp the whole stock. I will talk about this book in more detail when I receive perfect copies of it in a week or so. It’s one of my favourite books of all time – I have grown up with these poems, and know most of them by heart (in Italian, of course). It’s been translated by Florio and Monselice Prize winner JG Nichols in collaboration with Anthony Mortimer, who also translated Petrarch and Michelangelo for Penguin to great critical acclaim. If you would like to hear some of the poems and meet the translators, you can come along to the launch of the book at the Calder Bookshop on 5th February.

Talking of which, I was at there again today, and gave John Calder the bad news of Richard Seaver’s death. Richard Seaver features prominently in The Garden of Eros, John’s forthcoming book about the publishing scene in the Fifties and Sixties, and I gather they were good friends. When we met in December, Barney Rosset mentioned that I should meet “Dick” Seaver and have lunch with him next time I was in New York. I am gutted to have lost the opportunity to meet him – for ever.


Wednesday 7 January 2009

Butt was uninjured . . .

I had one of those it-never-rains-but-it-pours days today – one mishap and disruption after another. But certainly nothing nearly as bad as what happened to a poor US skier. Thanks, Mike, for alerting me to this story and wrangle a smile from me. You can see the picture on the BBC website, here:

Now, going back to what I said yesterday about typos and punctuation, I think the editor here missed a trick. The final paragraph could have read, much more perspicuously:

"The resort operator said the 48-year-old man was suspended for about seven minutes – butt was uninjured."

* * *

I had lunch with John Calder today – which is a dangerous affair if you are planning to go back to your office and do some work in the afternoon. He gave me some wonderful tips which I'll look into tonight, plus the typescript of his 600-page magnum opus, The Garden of Eros, which I am hoping to publish towards the end of the year. It's a partly biographical, partly autobiographical account of his life in publishing, with a focus on the publishing and cultural scene in the Fifties and Sixties, and such iconic figures as Girodias (Olympia Press) and Barney Rosset (Grove), whom I met in December in New York. I read the first draft last year, and the revised draft promises to be even better and chock-full of anecdotes.

John is in great demand these days, and extremely busy with a number of literary and theatre projects. As well as penning articles, giving lectures, touring with his company of actors and giving talks at literary festivals, he keeps writing obituaries (he's written thousands apparently) and adding to his opera diary, which he has been keeping for at least the last sixty years. He has promised to contribute again soon to this blog, so be on the lookout. . .


Tuesday 6 January 2009

“Commas and points they set exactly right, And 'twere a sin to rob them of their mite.” (Alexander Pope)

As if aspiring authors were not enough of a bane for publishers (especially those starting with the letter “A”) with their paper, email and phone submissions, every day we receive a mountain of letters and emails from people offering us proofreading and editorial services. Although we have five editors in our six-strong team – a bit of an anomaly in British publishing – we occasionally could use an extra editor or two to help us on big projects with tight deadlines, so it would be great to find some good external proofreaders. The trouble is, finding a good proofreader is almost as difficult, if not more difficult, than finding a good writer.

Most of the people who approach us boast years of experience working for big and small publishers, enclose copies of their proofreading diplomas and offer the most competitive rates. We duly send them our standard proofreading test, and they post it back the following day by special delivery (bad sign, as you know this will be charged to you at a premium rate when you send them a real job), having missed between thirty and fifty per cent of the typos we had planted into the texts, and querying things they were not supposed to correct.

But the most annoying kind of would-be proofreader is the one who litters his introductory letter with spelling mistakes or bad punctuation. I had two such submissions today, which is what prompted me to this post. I’ll give you an example, and I am not making it up – hearken, ye Lynne Truss!

From the cover email:

“I’m a trained journalist with three years experience…” (missing apostrophe after “years”)

From the attached CV:

“I also organise interviews, photography and illustrations, as well as managing an editorial assistant and a number of volunteers, contributors and work placement staff.” (slightly dodgy grammar, plus missing hyphen between “work” and “placement” – poor editorial assistant…)

This will be enough, I hope, to prove my point. You’ll say these are little things, and that I am of the pernickety sort. Well, no: if you want to be an editor, you should know the basics of your job, so that is simply unforgivable. I wouldn’t use or recommend a mechanic who forgets to tighten the bolt that drains the oil out of the pan – would you?


Monday 5 January 2009

Back to business

I hate Mondays – they are an unwelcome necessity – and Monday the 5th of January is a day that should be scrapped altogether from all calendars. Significantly, our Italian and Spanish friends (and probably the rest of civilized Europe) go back to work only on Wednesday 7th.

But I'll have to admit it wasn't a bad day at all: it was actually quite well organized and somehow even relaxing. We sent two books to the printers and prepared two more to go tomorrow. Apart from an excessive consumption of caffeine (or rather teine) and a translator's rant against some other publishing company I will not name – described as a "bunch of clowns" – there's very little to report on this page.

I am getting on with The Catcher in the Rye, and I am finding it very well written and tremendously funny. I'll ask Einaudi if they'll let me translate it for them at the next printing. The trouble is that in standard Italian there's no equivalent to the kind of jargon used by young Holden. I suppose colloquial here wouldn't do: ideally it would have to be translated in one of the national dialects – but nobody would publish it then. I can see why Motti's translation didn't work.


Sunday 4 January 2009

Bely's Petersburg

Not only have I the great fortune of choosing all the titles for our Oneworld Classics list, but I have also had the pleasure to work with Pushkin Press for the last three years, becoming more and more familiar with their wonderful list. Next month, they’ll be publishing one of my favourite books of all time (but don’t worry, I am in good company: Vladimir Nabokov rated it one of the four most important novels of the twentieth century): Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (first published in 1916 – a revised edition published in 1922). It’s a wacky, 576-page-long book – a bit like The Master and Margarita and Ulysses – and the great thing is that the Pushkin edition is a brand new translation by Bely specialist and scholar, Prof. John Elsworth.

Here’s how Petersburg begins:

“Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was of exceedingly venerable stock: he had Adam for his ancestor. And that is not the main thing: incomparably more important here is the fact that a high-born ancestor of his was Shem, that is to say, the very progenitor of the Semitic, Hessitic and red-skinned peoples.

Here we shall make a transition to ancestors of less distant times.

These ancestors (so it appears) had their dwelling in the Kirgiz-Kaisak Horde, from where, in the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, Mirza Ab-Lai, the senator’s great-great-grandfather, valiantly entered the service of Russia, receiving at his baptism the Christian name Andrei and the sobriquet Ukhov. Thus the Armorial of the Russian Empire discourses upon this descendant scion of the Mongol race. For the sake of brevity Ablai-Ukhov was later turned into simply Ableukhov.

This great-great-grandfather, it is said, proved to be the source of the line.”

Well, I hope this will persuade you to reserve a copy from Pushkin’s website or our Calder Bookshop. The book should be in the shops by the end of January, and if you order from us you’ll get it about ten days earlier.


Saturday 3 January 2009

J.D. Salinger - Lost in Translation

Going back to what I said the other day – my belief that "a book speaks differently to different people at different ages" and that our perception of certain authors and books may vary over the years – on reading that J.D. Salinger has just turned ninety, I thought I'd grab a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and see what my impressions would be fifteen years after I read it first.

At that time, I remember I mostly read poetry. The little prose I read were works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin and, from the English front, Joyce, Carver, Arden and McEwan. Salinger was recommended to me by a young student who I had met at a local creative-writing course. She was a promising writer, so I was curious to have an insight into one of her major influences.

I read The Catcher in the Rye (Il giovane Holden in Italian) and a collection of short stories, but was left completely unimpressed. I missed the point of the stories, and didn't particularly respond to the novel. My friend was disappointed when I told her.

Now, reading The Catcher in the Rye in English for the first time, I can appreciate its idiosyncratic style and language. This was totally lost in translation. I have been reading readers' comments on an Italian online bookstore, and many seem to criticize the writing itself. "True, the story may be interesting, but Salinger's writing is absolutely atrocious," says one reader. That had been my original impression too: maybe the translation wasn't that good.

So I look forward to reading the novel again with a fresh mind, and possibly rehabilitate an author who has long been banned from my bookshelves.


Friday 2 January 2009

Notes from the Necronauts

Just a quick post to let you know that on Saturday 17th January, at 4.30 p.m., the INS Joint Declaration on Inauthenticity, by Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley, is to be delivered in the Clore Auditorium of Tate Britain. This is the statement, originally delivered in The Drawing Center, New York, that Zadie Smith goes on about at some length in her recent New York Review of Books piece on Remainder, and that Peter Schwenger claims in Triple Canopy "didn't actually take place". Please go and decide for yourself how authentic or in- it is, and say hello to Tom and Simon afterwards (the Tate's generously serving free drinks to all who come).

You have to buy a ticket in advance: or 020 7887 8888

If you think you qualify for a press pass, contact INS Propaganda Dept, explain who you're writing/filming for and you'll get in free: or Anthony Auerbach on 07775 785112

INS Propaganda Dept has provided "additional notes" here:


The event is the fulcrum of the Tate Triennial Prologue, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud:

Hope to see you there!

AG & Tom McCarthy

Thursday 1 January 2009

“Gli eroi dimenticati il suol quasi dischiude.” (Giacomo Leopardi)

“Forgotten heroes almost springing up from the earth.”

I love reading the “Heroes and Villains” pieces at the end of the year. Elisabetta and I were made into heroes once – by mistake I suppose – in the Independent’s end-of-the-year roll call when we launched Hesperus.

I especially loved these two comments, posted on the Bookseller online.


“By Bunny
Villain. How about J K Rowling. Rolling in cash, pal of PMs wife. Chooses to hand over one million to the mendacious coward Gordon Brown and his party of goons. He wrote the cheques for the Iraq war and sat ildly by for eleven years as Chancellor with his 'light touch regulation' attitude to the banks. Oh and her latest offering is shockingly bad.
30 Dec 08 13:20”

I doubt Bunny will vote labour at the next general election. A quick search will show you that “Rolling” Rowling’s gift to Gordon the “Moron” Brown is one of the most criticized celebrity acts of 2008. People think that being charitable to labour, these days, is a huge mistake: euthanasia would be a much more humane solution.

“By Ray Hollingsworth
I'm told JKR's latest offering is complete rubbish ... both by children and adults. She burned out long ago. Fair play to the woman for saving the book trade from a worst fate though ... but, if I was her, I'd look to do something else.
30 Dec 08 16:21”

Ray Hollingsworth has quickly established himself as the voice of dissent and controversy in the bookselling world. He comes across as a nice chap who says what he thinks – and, usually, what I think too! Truths tend to be unpalatable, so reaction to his comments are usually mocking or splenetic, but his assessments are generally spot-on. It has to be said, in Rowling’s defence, that killing off reputations is one of the nation’s national sports, more popular than fox-hunting or darts, I reckon.

Luckily it’s not all bad news for women in publishing, as Victoria Barnsley of Fourth Estate and HarperCollins glory got an OBE for her services to publishing. I am just amazed and slightly peeved off that Jamie Oliver, Ian Rankin or A*** C*** weren’t knighted. Sexism in reverse, I suppose.