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!


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