Sunday 31 May 2009

Synecdoche NY

We went to see Synecdoche NY this evening and came back disappointed. The acting was good and it had some good moments and funny lines, but was overlong (one hundred and twenty minutes) and slightly pretentious. We also thought it was a rip-off of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, but a very bad one – and it had a late-Nineties Allenesque atmosphere about it which we didn't like.

This is from an interview to Charlie Kaufman, the director of the movie, which you can find here in its entirety:

I found a lot of similarities between Synecdoche and this novel, Remainder, by Tom McCarthy...

This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it.

It’s interesting to know that you haven’t read it.

It’s an idea that…that idea is not new to me, in my work. This particular version of it…What I’m saying is, it’s an attractive idea. I would look at that novel and think, Oh, cool. But I couldn’t in this case.

It’s got a similar kind of self-contained illogic.

He builds an apartment house and hires actors?


[Sarcastically] I wonder if McCarthy read the script...

* * *

A few people left before the end of the screening. There were about fifteen-twenty people to start with, and the only person who really seemed to like the film was a guy sitting alone in the row in front of us and laughing at every joke, including the lame ones. We thought he was mad, but when the credits started rolling and we got up to go, we noticed there was a bunch of flowers in the seat next to his. He had been stood up.

Since this wasn't exactly the sort of movie you invite your date to, I think he deserved his fate.


Saturday 30 May 2009

Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey storms into the Top Ten Chart…

…In Sweden (see chart from this week’s Bookseller). And I don’t think this is a Vampire or Zombie version, but the real thing. I wonder what happened – maybe there’s a film tie-in with Ulrika Jonsson and Bjorn Borg in the lead roles (doesn’t look like from the cover). Or perhaps it’s been selected by the Swedish equivalent of Richard & Judy. One thing is certain: it has received wonderful reviews. I’ll try to find out – I’m intrigued. And I will try to understand what it means to be number six in Sweden – the book may have sold 235 copies for all I know.

But as a Brontë lover, I am delighted to see Anne’s novel getting this sort of recognition in our day and age. After all, she is a very fine novelist, whose only misfortune was to be the sister of two of the greatest novelists who ever lived.

This surprise entry of a translation of Agnes Grey in a top-ten chart in Sweden 162 years since its first publication, and the number one spot gained by Zweig’s Journey into the Past (just released in UK by Pushkin Press) recently in France show us at least two things: first, the incredible power of classics across time and space, their ability to speak to and excite different people of different countries, ages and times; and secondly, that whereas a classic can still get into the bestsellers’ charts in Europe, the same is almost an impossibility in UK or US.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the education system, the publishing system, the newspapers (who hardly review classics) or all of them, but I think it’s sad, because classics are – generally speaking – much more enriching than the escapist tripe you can find on bookshop tables these days.


Friday 29 May 2009

Improvisatore or cabinet-maker?

I have just finished reading Clare Dudman's interview with Tibor Fischer, one of the funniest I have read for some time. I have been keeping an eye on The Keeper of the Snails, and if you don't know this blog, I highly recommend it. It's full of life. . . in every sense.

One of Tibor's points – "I don’t think any two writers work in exactly the same way. It’s not like making a chair, whatever Socrates says. I start with a vague idea, a character, a scene and I see what happens. I write as much to entertain myself as others" – reminded me of a conversation I had with another of our authors not so long ago, in which he told me he was not so much a novelist as a "cabinet-maker" and needed to have everything planned before he could set off writing something.

So – improvisatore or cabinet-maker? I think that writers should simply do what suits them best. My own way of writing is similar to Tibor's. I start with a general idea and then like to improvise. I do sometime take down extensive notes, but I like to interact with them and remain above them – keep a free-range mind about. I would find it boring to follow a detailed treatment to the letter, and just fill it with words.


Thursday 28 May 2009


Great to be back to England – I love taking a break, but I also love returning to the excitement of publishing. Today we received four more classics books, and they all look wonderful. My Inbox was full of interesting submissions – two poetry ones, two short-story collections and four novels. I can't wait to get my teeth into them.

It's also great to catch up with the books that are already out there or about to come out. There've been great reviews of Tibor's new book, which made it into the Small Publishers' chart last week. John Boyne (The Boy with a Striped Pyjamas) has written a wonderful endorsement for Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You, which says, "Without question one of the best debuts I've read in recent years" (full quote here). The Ice Chorus, Don Juan de la Mancha and Dear Everybody are doing fine and picking up nice reviews, excitement is growing for The Search, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, The Invisible City and The Shadow of a Smile, and Tsutsui Paprika is ticking along nicely, with the author expressing in a recent interview his belief that "the human race will be extinct before the printed word ceases to exist". I'll raise my glass to that.

So all in all there is reason to remain optimistic, despite the general doom-and-gloom atmosphere.

Fellow independent Canongate are also doing very well these days, and well done to them. But after reading Microsoft's big announcement today, I cannot help wondering that if Jamie Byng had registered and a few years ago rather than go into publishing, he'd be throwing much flashier parties by now.


Tuesday 26 May 2009

Total washout

Just as we were recovering from yesterday's microwave temperatures, the sky's cataracts burst open. "Paris est une ville bizarre," said our taxi driver today as we made our way back to our hotel after being surprised by a torrential downpour by the Seine. "Yesterday it was 32 degrees, today it's 18. We are all going to fall ill." And Emiliano was the first to go down with fever – with Elisabetta a close second. So we won't be meeting friends or John Calder tonight.

What I said yesterday about Paris was obviously caused by the high temperatures. I love the city and love the people. Yet, the prices I quoted yesterday (in response to yesterday's Parisian commentator) were not from around Notre Dame but from an anonymous bar-brasserie on rue de l'Hopital – and a more expensive bill was collected today near the Luxembourg Gardens. It didn't use to be like that seven or eight years ago.

Finally, my recollection of the Musée d'Orsay is also different. I don't remember having to queue for an hour an a half on a Tuesday afternoon in late May just to get in...

Back to Albion now.


Monday 25 May 2009

Total melt-down

I promised a few lines from Paris, and I am happy to oblige. We arrived in the midst of a terrible heatwave – it must be over 30 degrees centigrade – I haven't struggled so much with the outside temperature since my last August holiday in Apulia a few years ago.

I wouldn't complain if the kids were not with us – if it's tough for us, it's even tougher for them. Still, it seems as though they had a very good day at the nearby Jardin de plantes, paleontological museum and zoo. We also had a good day, and met a lot of like-minded publishers, including Liana Levy, Stock, Actes Sud and Quai Voltaire. Whenever we meet colleagues from France or Spain we realize we are working in the wrong country.

Having said that, we are not so much in love with Paris as we were, say, ten or twelve years ago. We don't think we could live here. I don't know if it's got to do with us – maybe we are getting older – but the city appears to have lost much of his charm and romantic atmosphere. And the Parisians' proverbial hauteur seems to have got worse.

I read today's blog by Tibor Fischer on Me and My Big Mouth, and I smiled when he described London as unliveable. He should try Paris – a place where a 20cl bottle of still water can be charged at 3.90 euros, and a small bottle of beer at 7.00 euros – where an absinthe-like cappuccino and a croissant will cost you 9.00 euros. If usury is a crime, then how can this indiscriminate ripp-off be tolerated?

I never thought I'd end up complaining on how expensive Paris is – there you go. Maybe I have been living in the UK for too long, and I have become a whinger too – too hot, too expensive... Maybe it's just time for me to go back to Italy.


Saturday 23 May 2009

Off to Paris

Packing up for an early start tomorrow – we'll drive (for the second time in little more than a month) all the way to Paris, where we'll meet a few French publishers and hopefully have a whale of a time.

The weather forecast is good, the Roland Garros starts tomorrow, John Calder is around in Montreuil, the kids are coming with us – so I'm sure we'll be busy as hell, but I hope I'll be able to post a few lines from ze Frenntsch capital over the long weekend.


Friday 22 May 2009

The Alessandro Gallenzi Century

I see with pleasure that the time-honoured tradition of making up lists of the One Hundred Most or Greatest Something is still alive and kicking. I remember reading, a few years ago, Prospero Mandosio's Centuriae (1682). More recently, I studied the BBC Big Read list, and today I came across that most edifying of roll-calls, The Bookseller's Century.

So I have decided to rock the world and declare the one hundred authors who have been most influential in creating that worldwide phenomenon, Alessandro Gallenzi. Not as a spoiler, but as a reality check, I will warn any Austen fan here that they are in for a surprise, as I am not including their pet author in my list.

Here we go, in alphabetical order:

Brontë (Charlotte)
Brontë (Emily)
Cecco Angiolieri
Eliot (George)
Eliot (T.S)
Lawrence (DH)
Pope (Alexander)
Shelley (Mary)
Shelley (Percy Bisshe)
St John the Evangelist
Thomas (Dylan)

No surprises there. I have written down this list by memory, so I may have missed out some of the greatest writers of all time. Apologies if I have done that. I will only add that I have read one or more books by all of these authors, apart from Céline, whose works I have read only in bits – but that was enough to impress me, and I look forward to reading his novels from cover to cover.

I know that this list is going to divide critics for "centuries", so I will leave at this.


A Quiet Tour de Force

There's a great review of Dear Everybody up at The View From Here. Charlie Wykes calls Dear Everybody "a quiet tour de force" and also says this: "Writing a novel with a moral centre without being ‘preachy’ is not easy. Michael Kimball deserves great praise." And Charlie also says some other nice things that nobody else has said. Thanks, Charlie.

Thursday 21 May 2009

A bright day - at last!

But only meteorologically, as more bad publishing news hit the fan today – don't worry, I won't bore you with any of that today.

Elisabetta and I took a half day off this afternoon, and went to the Chelsea Flower Show. It was the first time we visited it, and we loved it. My only criticism: too many people – it was almost impossible to walk around and look at things properly. But the plants and the flowers were extraordinary. And the show, unlike some other trade exhibitions – including our gloomy book fairs – is far from depressing. The exhibitors are nice, relaxed people – which reminded me that there's another reality out there that is not so desperately cutthroat and deadline-driven as our idiotic world of media.

I will leave you with the first twenty-four lines of Keats's Endymion. I am planning to pay a visit to his tomb in Rome very soon.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever –
Its loveliness increases: it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching – yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep – and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in, and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season – the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms.
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.


Tuesday 19 May 2009

Suicide-inducing news

There's no shortage of causes to make you depressed these days if you are a publisher. You read about Richard & Judy's successor, a Twitter-based book club run by Amanda Ross's brother-in-law, the film critic and presenter Jonathan Ross. You read about independent bookshops being shut down every day, Waterstone's cutting staff, Borders being on its last legs, a new Kindle reader being launched. And then, as if that is not enough, you get some sobering, deeply depressing official figures about the publishing industry. There's an interesting article in the Bookseller online today about the number of books published in US and UK by traditional publishers and self-published authors last year. The results, if they are to be believed, are as follows:

US title output in 2008 was 275,232 (new titles and editions), down 3.2% from 284,370 in 2007. In addition to these, around 285,394 "on demand" books "were produced last year" [italic mine – I like the choice of word], up 132% compared to 2007. The number of new books published in the UK in 2008 was, on the other hand, a pitiful 120,947 – we have a long way to go to match our American cousins. If I interpret the figures correctly, around 17% of the books "traditionally" published in US in 2008 were fiction titles – fiction representing by far the largest component.

Looking at these figures, if you are a small publisher of any integrity, you can only reach for the gun – perhaps after writing a short note saying: "I published 15 of those 275,232 new titles". Clearly, considering how much paper is wasted on all this books – and not mentioning any other kinds of alcoholic and non-alcoholic waste connected to the publishing industry – there is a strong argument that a very large percentage of these books could go digital without making the world any poorer.

The only problem is... where to start?


Monday 18 May 2009

What the Dickens!

I have asked Tim Waterstone to tell me more about that Dickens letter – and it turns out I had got a few details wrong. He had not been shown that letter the day before our dinner or even recently, but something like twenty years ago – and that had been at one of the famous Punch parties. The letter was part of the Chapman & Hall archive – Chapman & Hall being dead and gone now, like Punch, my only hope is to track the letter down at the British Library or at the London Library.

I'm planning to go soon, so I'll keep you posted on this little saga.

Meanwhile, can I report that there were actually four reviews of Good to Be God last weekend, not just one or two. And today there was a wonderful review of Paprika in the Independent. And I have just been sent a lovely review of Don Juan de la Mancha in the TLS. A very good week for our publicity department. . .


Saturday 16 May 2009

Taking the Epistolary Form to a Special Place

M. T. Fallon put a super thoughtful review of Dear Everybody up at Trestle. He says: "In Kimball's careful hands the epistolary form really gets to a special place. The assemblage of textual evidence of Jonathan's dissolution feels like a personal discovery. You don't feel as if there is a story being told, it's as if you are uncovering the story and telling it to yourself. I think that's where Kimball really succeeds, he pieces this novel together in just the right way so you don't really know that he pieced together this novel in just the right way." Plus, he has a bunch of other really smart observations about "transparent prose."

Hungarian talent 2

Following on Thursday's post – it's good to see Tibor's latest book, Good to Be God, reviewed positively by Nick Lezard in the Guardian Paperback of the Week column. There is also a nice mention of it in The Times Paperback section. The book is currently in promotion nationwide, and selling very well despite the crisis so, if you have not yet read it, go out and fetch a copy, PLEASE.

If you are too lazy or penniless and still want to read it, all right, I'll send a free hardback copy to the first two Bloggerel readers who will send me an email (using "info" followed by @ followed by "" or "") with the heading "TIBOR".

Also following on Thursday's post, I received two separate requests – from two of our authors it must be said – to try and locate the Dickens letter mentioned therein. Obviously they suspect I made it up. I can understand that: it's too good and exemplary to be true. But I swear the story – at least the Tim Waterstone's part of it, i.e. his telling me the story – is genuine. I'll ask Tim to provide further details, and hopefully – if the letter does exist and is in the public domain – I'll reproduce it on this blog verbatim.

If I was the victim of a hoax from the founder of the biggest bookselling chain in the country, I hope I'll be excused.


Thursday 14 May 2009

Hungarian talent

I am just back from a two-day literary bender.

This began yesterday when Elisabetta and I had dinner with Mr and Mrs Tim Waterstone and Mr and Mrs Anthony Cheetham. A delightful evening with great food, fine wines and excellent company. Who would have said that I’d end up talking with Anthony Cheetham about Boetius’ Consolation of Philosophy as we ate panforte? But even more remarkable was Tim’s anecdote about Charles Dickens, a story he was quoting from memory, and thus not necessarily very reliable, especially as I am quoting from memory myself. He said that he had been shown an autographed letter by Dickens to his publisher, Chapman & Hall, in which he complained that such and such bookshop in Kent had only one or two copies of Dombey and Son, and another bookshop – quite shockingly – had no stock at all, and the “travellers” (i.e. the reps) had not visited the shop for a long time.

Does this story sound familiar? I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s eternally funny.

It was a splendid evening, as I say, but it was marred by a secret sense of guilt, as we were supposed to be at another literary event, the British Library “European Literature Night”. Leading novelists from across Europe had been invited to talk: there was – as advertised on the British Library website – Simonetta Agnello Hornby from Italy, Mircea Cartarescu from Romania, Pawel Huelle from Poland, Petra Hulova from the Czech Republic, Gilles Petel from France and... Tibor Fischer from Hungary.

Tibor, who is one of our authors, played ball, and was much appreciated for his wit and humour, and complimented at the end of the talk for his fluent English, something he must have worked on very hard since his birth in Stockport in 1959. He also sold a few copies of his latest book, Good to Be God, brilliantly translated into English by himself.

Today we met again the Waterstones – and Tibor, at his most “scazzato” – at Tate Britain, where the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded. The winner was The Armies by Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean and published by the MacLehose Press. It was a bit of a surprise to be honest – I think Ladbrokes had it 3,650/1. The favourite was a book by another McLean-translated Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Informers, a book we turned down the year we launched Alma. Retrospectively, we should have gone for it: it had been offered to us on a silver plate. But we were young and inexperienced at the time. Un peccato di gioventù. It is now published, beautifully, by Bloomsbury.

To everybody’s surprise, Christopher MacLehose (and his dog Misha) was not around to collect the award. He was in China – a soft-spoken assistant explained – looking for more literary talent. Or maybe he thought his Colombian book didn’t stand a chance of winning the award. Be as it might – well done Christopher, and here’s to many more years of translated literature in Britain!


Wednesday 13 May 2009

The Queen's Necklace

I've just finished working on a wonderful Pushkin Press title: The Queen's Necklace, by Antal Szerb. It is the first Szerb book that I have had the pleasure to read, and it won me over within a few pages. It's a history of the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace – a scandal that rocked the French Royal Court in the years preceding the Revolution.

Szerb's approach is relaxed, and he takes great pains to avoid stuffiness, with the result that the work is distinctly more playful than your average history, and far more enjoyable. At times his evident erudition, love of pan-European culture and deeply sympathetic humanism remind me of fellow Pushkin-Press author Stefan Zweig. The book is made even more of a pleasure to read by Len Rix's extremely impressive translation, which allows us to forget it is a translation at all. He also gives us a very interesting translator's note – so interesting in fact, that I will now quote it almost in its entirety here:

"Antal Szerb’s English readers might be surprised that a writer they know only as a novelist should, at the height of his powers, have turned his attention to history. They might equally feel that not all the explanations he offers for this change of direction tell the full story. When he informs us that ‘since the age of four, whether you believe this or not, dear reader, his single greatest interest has been in history’, we must believe him, and the remark certainly rings true when placed against certain passages in Journey by Moonlight. But such enthusiasms rarely lead to full scholarly studies on this scale. There must be more to it than this.

In his Foreword he offers other suggestions. First, he ascribes the shift to ‘the times we live in’, and this does seem to make sense, those times being 1941–1942, when history, in a rather more pressing form, had begun to show an interest in him, or rather, in his once-irrelevant Jewish descent. So when he adds that the first duty of any historian is to describe the past of his own country, it would seem reasonable to expect a book about wartime, oppression, or indeed the Hungarian past. Ah, but you see, he continues, there are two periods—the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution—that were so seminal they can be thought of as part of the common European inheritance; the latter of course being the more pertinent to his own times. True again. But perhaps more telling is the subsequent remark that, with the world closing in on him, the past had become, as he puts it, ‘my home, or rather my country of refuge’.

The significance of all this becomes clear if for the Italian Renaissance we read high European civilisation, and for France the birth of human freedom. By 1941 both were staring into the abyss. To go on writing this book amidst the degradation all around him was—as it had been with the defiantly insouciant novel (Oliver VII) he had just finished—to make a very clear statement: a celebration of those values that mattered to him most. And with his own identity as a Hungarian, and indeed as a human being, under attack, it was also an affirmation of his deepest sense of himself.

This might also explain why he poured into it not only the vast mass of material he had gathered over the years, in the great libraries of Paris ‘now closed to me for the indeterminate future’, but also the full range of his literary experience—as poet, essayist, reviewer, literary historian and novelist. That experience was central to his sense of who he was, and was determined to remain. The resulting many-sidedness makes it a highly personal document, and is the source of its great
strength and charm.

For some readers, however, that might also make a problem. Serious historical arguments, based on political, social, constitutional and economic data, are not usually presented in such an apparently freewheeling manner, with the lightness and gaiety, the irrepressible playfulness, that characterise this book. Could anyone having so much fun really be serious?

The objection was a familiar one. It had been applied to his work many times before, not least to his (still used, and still highly regarded) histories of Hungarian and World Literature;and he deals with it directly:

People in this country expect scholarly works to be unreadable; from which they are led, quite logically, to the erroneous conclusion that anything that is readable cannot therefore be scholarly. A great many critics have reproved the relaxed, often slightly mocking, tone of my books, insisting that I cannot possibly respect literature if I talk about it in such a cheerfully familiar way.

But he remains unrepentant. His way is ‘to speak as one human being to another, looking to find kindred spirits and good company’.

His notion of ‘good company’ means treating the reader like an old friend, a congenial companion with whom he is sharing a relaxed conversation, without the slightest pressure in the world. Thus he defers the decisive ‘action’ to Chapter Five, turns aside for two further chapters, revisits it briefly, then regales us with an Intermezzo that sets off in the general direction of Sweden before returning, very gently, by way of a great many other curiosities. Topics covered elsewhere in the writing include a history of the changing fashions in clothing, manners, music, theatre and landscape gardening. These ‘digressions’ occupy a significant part of the book. Unlike most accounts of this period, we get no demagoguery, no Robespierre, no tumbrils, no guillotine. The reader, he tells us, already knows about all that.

Such an attitude might also reflect a sensitive person’s unwillingness to face up to the savagery, the gratuitous cruelty and carnage that ensued—especially as these had so dramatically resurfaced in the immediate world around him. On the other hand, what Szerb does give us spares us none of the greed, folly, cynicism and selfishness that mark every human age. But in the end, they too are not his final concern. There are dimensions of experience that interest him beyond the world of politics and the mechanics of social change.

And so we get the Epilogue, with its quite unexpected stress on what Talleyrand called ‘the sweetness of life’.

The reader might well be left with the impression that the final hours of the Ancien Régime were care-worn and oppressive, a “moral wasteland”, a time of drought before the storm, and he would perhaps be glad not to have lived then. Which would be quite wrong. To have been alive then must have been to experience one of the most delightful of European centuries.

There follows yet another ‘digression’, about the (then as now) somewhat unfashionable paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, and it too confirms, if we ever doubted it, what
an intensely personal document the book is; what a naked expression of the writer’s own mind and sensibility. We are back in Mihály’s world of Journey by Moonlight.

With a kind of dreamlike intensity, (these) works conjure up in our souls the eternal myth of the great woodlands: mighty trees, tiny human and animal figures; the trees bent in sorrow, the men and women depicted beneath them existing in a kind of superhuman joy that almost succeeds in making their baby faces seem serious: a joy that, like music, is almost painful … The viewer is filled with a rich, complex yearning, an intense desire to know their secret, their unspoken mystery, a desire to return to the woodland world that is sweeter than anything in this life; and finally, the desire for something—one knows not what—that great and inexpressible nostalgia which truly creative art awakens in the soul.

At which point the real Antal Szerb steps forward.

And then it begins to dawn on one: this age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace; as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

The Queen’s Necklace bristles with such unexpected moments. Its blend of the orthodox and the eccentric, the objective and the intensely personal, the formal and the seemingly irresponsible, results in a work that, he concedes, ‘is somewhat experimental, and I am naturally curious to see how it will be received by the public’. Its immediate reception took the form of an instant and total ban; but with time, and in spite of its disconcerting charm and readableness, it has come to take its place in his native Hungary along with his great scholarly works, the histories of Hungarian and World Literature. One can only hope that in the anglophone world, where Szerb is known only as a novelist, albeit a fine and subtle one, it will both broaden and deepen our understanding of this highly original writer.

Len Rix, February 2009."

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Stranger than fiction. . .

Last Sunday Elisabetta and I went to the May Literary Picnic on Richmond’s Green. This year, veteran writer PD James was in discussion with two other novelists, Lee Langley and Gyles Brandreth. The way it works is that you bring some food and wine, share it with the people at your table (tables are pre-arranged, and we always end up at the Publishers Association’s table, courtesy of our friend and event organizer Clive Bradley) and listen to the talk as you eat and drink. In short, a very civilized way to spend a sunny day in May in England.

This year’s debate was one of the most interesting in years, and people especially enjoyed the joke-riddled contribution by Gyles Brandreth, an Oscar Wilde fan and a clever speaker. The highlight of the day – apart from Elisabetta’s cataclysmic fall on the floor when she tried to sit down on a non-existent chair – was when Gyles recounted how Oscar Wilde once invited an audience to ask him about any subject they might think of. Someone shouted: “I have a question about the Queen”, and Oscar Wilde replied coolly: “The Queen is not a subject.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s funny. There was also an evocation of a dinner on 10th May Eighteen-something, when Oscar Wilde got together with Arthur Conan-Doyle, JM Barrie, Bram Stoker and two more famous writers whose name now escapes me. That also sounded a bit spurious, but it’s the sort of thing any wine-sipping and cheese-nipping audience gladly sucks up to on a day like that, and I was more than happy to join the crowd in the final applause.

The gentleman sitting next to me, Tony, turned out to be a literary agent. As the conversation went on, it became clear that he knew very well about many of the authors and books I referred to. More often than not, when you talk about Ionesco or Journey to the End of the Night, you get a funny, quizzical face, but Tony seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. It emerged that he had directed for years the Richmond Theatre (the big one, not the Orange Tree Theatre) and that – surprise of surprises – he was the agent not only of John Arden and many other famous dramatists but of . . . Bettina Jonic, i.e. John Calder’s second wife, with whom he split up acrimoniously a few decades ago. And sure as hell Bettina’s writing a memoir, My Life with . . . – no, it’s not what you think, wait for this – My Life with Samuel Beckett !

Isn’t life stranger than fiction at times? Fancy me publishing that book one day – maybe under the Calder imprint. . . Perhaps I should ask John if he’d like to edit it. . .


Monday 11 May 2009

A Belinsky moment. . .

I think I mentioned, in one of my previous blogs, that I spent five years translating the Rape of the Lock into Italian rhyming couplets. What I may have not mentioned is that around ten years ago, when I finished my translation, I sent it to two Italian publishers, the only ones who I believed could do a good job with it, Mondadori (the publisher of my other translations) and Adelphi, a literary house I have always admired for their uncompromising taste.

Mondadori sent me a very nice letter, saying that they liked my translation but didn't think that there was a market for a new edition of The Rape of the Lock (I can well understand them: they are a very big concern, and they'd struggle to find a mainstream market for it). Adelphi also loved my translation, but could not find a way to make this project happen at the time.

Then I recently had lunch with Adelphi's publisher in London, and my translation of Pope was brought up again – imagine – after ten long years. I was asked to revise the translation and resubmit, because there was a chance that it could now be published. I sent it by courier, and the following day I got a call on my mobile to say that they really love my translation and there's every chance it may be published by Adelphi.

Now, why did I say this? It's because it reminded me of a Dostoevsky anecdote. After he finished writing Poor People (a book I published at Hesperus, incidentally), Dostoevsky gave a manuscript copy to his friend Dmitri Grigorovich, who in turn brought it to the poet Nikolai Nekrasov. They read Dostoevsky’s manuscript aloud, and were so overwhelmed that, although it was close to 4:00 am, they went straight to Dostoevsky to congratulate him. Later that day, Nekrasov brought Poor People to one of the leading critics of the day, Vissarion Belinsky. “A new Gogol has appeared!” Nekrasov announced – to which Belinsky replied, “With you, Gogols spring up like mushrooms!” But Belinsky soon communicated his own enthusiasm to Dostoevsky: “Do you realize what it is that you have written?” In his Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky remembered this as the happiest moment of his life.

Obviously I am no Dostoevsky, and this is only a translation – but this was my Belinsky moment, and it goes to show how publishing is still able, even in our unromantic digital age, to create such moments of pure bliss in a man's life.


Friday 8 May 2009

Murdoch Me...

"The current days of the Internet are over," Rupert Murdoch has said in The Guardian article News Corp will charge for newspaper websites. While it's true that the Wall St Journal has been doing well, it makes me wonder whether less specialized newspapers are also likely to in the current climate, and how they will manage to time the switch – if they make it – to paid content with other competitors. I do believe that we are in a transitional phase of the Internet (I'm sure it'll be known as a 'Golden Age', rather like the 'Golden Age of Piracy' of the 18th century) – either quality journals will die out or they will start charging for content. We already have a glut of cheap, advert-driven, rapidly churned-out tat which seems to fulfil a certain portion of society's needs, but whether newspapers can convince enough people that it's actually worth paying for well-researched and intelligent news any more is another matter...

Thursday 7 May 2009

A Huge Chunk of His Heart on the Page

Katrina Denza has a very nice write-up of my Dear Everybody and Paul Lisicky's Lawnboy at Illuminate; Ruminate; Create. She calls Dear Everybody a "brilliantly designed novel ... It left me feeling as if the author left a huge chunk of his heart on the page and it is this generosity and depth that left me stunned."

The Decline and Fall of Books

I thought I would draw your attention to a sobering article in the Times today. I'm not convinced the book is dead, but as for the future of bookshops...

Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Art of Sinking in Poetry

I’ve just finished working on one of our upcoming titles, The Art of Sinking in Poetry, and, since I enjoyed it so much, I thought I’d write a few words about it. Penned by the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, it takes the form of a tongue-in-cheek guide to writing “profound”, or in other words “low”, poetry – a device that enables Pope to turn his acerbic wit on the work of his peers. As such the essay consists mainly of extracts of poetry that Pope considered low, accompanied by his ironic commentaries thereon. The poems Pope quotes are often excruciatingly bad, and his sarcastic mockery hilarious, but The Art of Sinking in Poetry also makes informative reading for anyone interested in the art of writing, and in avoiding the pitfalls of style that Pope amusingly ridicules in this book.

A choice extract:
[Leading on from a list of examples...] So astonishing as these are, they yield to the following, which is profundity itself:

"None but himself can be his parallel."

Unless it may seem borrowed from that master of a show in Smithfield who writ in large letters, over the picture of his elephant: "This is the greatest elephant in the world, except himself."
And another, in which Pope offers us an example of the depths of inanity:
Ah silly I, more silly than my sheep
(Which on the flowery plain I once did keep).
At times Pope’s criticisms can verge on pedantry, and his insistence on what seem now rather outdated notions of “high” and “low” subject matter, and the inadvisability of mixing the two, can be a little alienating for a modern reader. However, the great majority of the extracts Pope singles out for his scathing treatment richly deserve it. Nor does Pope pick on small-fry: his principle targets were eminent poets of the day, including the then Poet Laureate. In fact, even the Bard himself does not escape some oblique mockery, for these lines adapted by Dryden from the Tempest:
Advance the fringèd curtains of thy eyes,
And tell me who comes yonder…
Lastly, lest we should consider Pope free of faults as a writer, it is thought that a good number of the most amusing examples of bad verse contained in this volume are quotations from, or paraphrasings of, an epic poem he wrote himself in his youth – and burned once he realised how bad it was. For example, a wonderfully precious description of the closing of a door, which I have been unsuccessfully trying to slip into conversation ever since I read it:
The wooden guardian of our privacy
Quick on its axle turn…

Tuesday 5 May 2009


I had a great time on my UK blog tour for the paperback of DEAR EVERYBODY that Alma Books just put out (US paperback coming in September). Here’s the wrap up with links to everything:

Me & My Big Mouth: DEAR EVERYBODY is “a wonderful, clever, imaginative and moving book. It really is quite something ... a fucking marvelous book." There’s also a nice interview.

Dogmatika: A fantastic interview that is assembled in the spirit of DEAR EVERYBODY, many different pieces.

The View From Here: An article about the writing of DEAR EVERYBODY that’s called "349 Pieces" because that's how many pieces make up the novel.

3:AM Magazine: Top 5 (novels that you may not have heard of).

Lizzy’s Literary Life: DEAR EVERYBODY is "unputdownable ... the most searingly honest and authentic sentiments I have ever read ... I had to pick myself up off the floor at the end ... easily the best read of 2009 thus far." Plus, there's a smart interview.

Digital Fiction Show: DEAR EVERYBODY "lives in the head of the reader after we have read it ... The letters combine to create a wonderful resonance that feels immensely vivid and real ... a lot of writers will read DEAR EVERYBODY wishing they had thought of something like this themselves." Plus, there's an excerpt and the trailer.

Planting Words: Michael Kimball "made me cry by creating a character called Jonathon, and making me care about him as if he were a member of my own family." Plus, there is a nice conversation.

Elizabeth Baines: DEAR EVERYBODY is "striking, witty, and above all moving … And here’s the most impressive thing to me – what Michael Kimball has done is to portray formally the fragmentation of a life (yet in a holistic and wholly satisfying way) – something which the form of a traditional novel would belie." Plus, Elizabeth calls out the publishing industry for its culturally disgraceful ways.

Writing Neuroses: A smart interview about the antithesis of the great American novel and ghastly characters.

Just William's Luck: DEAR EVERYBODY is "... the perfect way to tell the story of a man who has fallen through the net ... remembering that he has taken his own life gives a forensic importance to the documents. As you go through the evidence you may find yourself caring more with each page not only about his sad, short life but the continuing narrative of those other voices around him." Plus, there’s a thoughtful interview about unreliable narrators.

In Spring It Is Dawn: DEAR EVERYBODY is "a touching story of human relationships and how they can go wrong, and a story which made me stop to ponder the long-lasting effects our actions can have on others."

Thank you, Daniel, Scott, Susan, Mike, Marcia, Adrian, Fiona, Elizabeth, Kay, William, and Tanabata.

Burning Books

There has been a great deal of news recently over the forthcoming publication of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished work The Original of Laura, due to emerge in November (see the article in The Telegraph and try to ignore poor "Dimitry Nabakov's" mangled name). It is hard to believe that Nabokov would have been terribly happy about this event: although an admirer of Kafka, whose requests to have his work burnt after his death never seemed especially plausible, he expressed regret that Gogol had not fully destroyed the second part of Dead Souls. Nabokov had always been piqued by the relentless attention he received from the shoals of academics belonging to the Venetian witchdoctor's school – to the extent that a great deal of the prefaces he wrote to his own books usually allude nastily to them in one way or another – and he saw the publication of unfinished manuscripts, authors' diaries and letters not designed for publication as something that missed the point completely about a work of art, and instead promoted a sort of literary muckraking, rummaging in the drawers (both types) of literary celebrities.

The BBC, true to its increasingly tabloid tone, jollies the prospective reader along: "Perhaps it is true that his final work is even more scandalising than the earlier book, that it has 'all the sex' in it." But I find Tom Stoppard's opinion far more agreeable: that Nabokov's dying wish (which he consistently expressed throughout his life) ought to have been respected; "since he didn't want me to read it, I won't". The book was a long way from being finished - all that remains is 138 index cards (compared to around 2,000 for Ada) in a non-linear order. It has been described by the publisher (Penguin Classics) as 'not necessarily extremely polished' but 'incredibly interesting', which is exactly the kind of thing Nabokov would have loathed. It's difficult to see why, after hinting at first that he would destroy the manuscript (see an article in the Guardian from last year), the writer's son Dmitry changed his mind so quickly, against his father's express wishes.

Nabokov always had something of the schoolmaster about him. From his mode of writing – standing at a lecturn for hours on end, pencilling his work onto index cards – to his tirelessly sententious tone and "strong opinions", it's hard not to imagine the disapproving wagging of a pedagogical finger from beyond the grave. Of course this isn't an appropriate image because Nabokov naturally chose to be cremated, which fact doesn't surprise me in the least.

Sunday 3 May 2009

No Gilt Edges

I have sent a quotation request to a dozen printers the other day. It was for a gift hardback for Christmas, and since I wanted to have some fun with the production I've asked for gilt edges as an option. All printers, invariably, have told me that they can't do gilt edges for me – with the exception of one, who said that there's a company they've used some time ago who can do it, but the price per unit is prohibitive, one pound or more.

I have been watching the rapid demise of hardbacks in the last few years, so I am not surprised in the least. But to say I don't feel bad about this would be a lie. Let me make this clear: I am not advocating the return of laid paper, gilt edges and wooden movable types, but it's depressing to see how what was once a craft is so much devalued and has become so irrelevant.

The fact that fewer and fewer people care about the production quality of a book, and that paper seems to have become for many just as good a vehicle as a computer screen or a hand-held device can only be good news for the likes of Google and Amazon. For me, it's the end of publishing as we know it.

The sixteenth-century Italian writer Aretino once famously said to his printer that he wanted no other recompense than being published on the very best paper. Perhaps he had a prophetic feeling that his books – that all books would be one day museum pieces, like the wax tables of the Romans.

And it's almost happening, I'm afraid.


Saturday 2 May 2009

Machiavelli’s Prince - the jury is in

I still haven’t managed to find the Ionesco books I wanted to read, so I got my teeth into a good old Italian classic, Machiavelli’s Prince, newly translated by Florio Prize and Monselice Prize winner JG Nichols. What I read were actually the proofs of the Oneworld Classics edition to be published in June 2009.

Did I like the book?
I did – I find it a shockingly modern book – I suppose that’s why it’s a classic. But I must admit it was strange to read it in another language. I have read it a few times in Italian in the past, and I’m afraid that the beauty and flavour of Renaissance Italian (Florentine) cannot be rendered in translation, although Nichols’s version is – as usual – lucid, elegant and accurate. I must confess that from time to time I had a peek at the original and reread entire passages in Italian.

What did I like most?
The author's seriousness of intent. His disregard for political correctness. His clever and unbiased analysis of recent and ancient history.

What didn’t work for me?
Machiavelli is not exactly the greatest stylist in our language. And he’s slightly repetitious at times. But his prose is concise and full of soundbites. Sometimes it feels as if you are reading a collection of aphorisms.

Would I publish it?
I am publishing it next month.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I think it'd come via the Medici family.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes. The book is short and to the point. There’s hardly a boring page throughout the piece.

The best bit in the book?
I liked when Machiavelli talks about how fate and fortune affect human destiny.

The best scene in the book?
Chapter 8: Oliverotto’s killing of his uncle and his other dinner guests.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
It’s not printed yet, but I can tell you that it’s going to be printed on Arctic paper, will have flaps, an 8-page plate section – and no orphans and widows. . . although in fact there’s quite a few of them in Machiavelli’s text.

My final verdict?
A great classic. It never bores me, however many times I read it. It’s a revolutionary book, and one of the most influential books ever written. It goes to show that you don’t have to write fifty novels or 800-page books to change the world.

I hope I’ll manage to lay my hands on the Ionesco books in the weeks to come.


Friday 1 May 2009

A visit to the Louvre

I was mildly depressed yesterday after hearing the gloomy news about the mighty Waterstone’s axing hundreds of job. I thought there must be a “W” curse – after Woolworth's and Whittard's, now it’s Waterstone’s turn to tread dangerously on the brink. I think that shoppers will have to queue even longer at the till this Christmas – not because of longer queues, but because of staff reductions. And I have a feeling that publishers will soon have to start selling their books door to door, pace Google and Amazon.

To cheer up, I went to Calder Bookshop for a Finnegans Wake recital. The bookshop was packed – there were at least sixty people – eighty per cent nostalgic Irishmen I think. But the event, Mark Ryan’s flawless recital of the famous Anne Livia Plurabelle passage entirely by heart, was truly one of the most sensational things I have seen or heard in many years. The crowd of course was delighted, not only by the performance, but also by the ensuing conversation, which “cast some obscurity” on the most difficult bits of this dense and hardly intelligible text. I must admit that hearing Finnegans Wake out loud won me over completely. As you may remember, I recently gave up reading the book after only a few pages. I may try again reading it when I retire.

After the event, Mark and I joined John Calder for dinner at the nearby Italian restaurant, where wine and spirits are served with great liberality to habitués, especially those who are Italian or speak Italian (Mark’s wife is from Sardinia).

The dinner was the cherry on the cake of an unforgettable evening. John was, as usual, in full reminiscing mode. He told us how he used to spend afternoons playing chess with Max Frisch, Beckett and Vicky (an artist), coming always bottom of the table (not surprisingly), or about his occasional meetings with Graham Greene or Trevelyan (it's got to be GM Trevelyan, not the nineteenth-century Trevelyan), or some story about Alexander Trocchi or Sadegh Hedayat, or about a thousand editorial projects he would like me to pursue. In short, after a couple of hours with John, your mind goes into intellectual overload, just like when you see too many paintings at the Louvre or at the National Gallery.

Just before I tottered back to Waterloo station, Mark also explained the meaning of the Irish expression “fond of the drink” – and I could not help but think that all the people we had talked about during the evening fitted very well with this description – the three of us included.