Friday 31 July 2009

A Writer Who Can Fit Your Entire Life On A Postcard

The wonderful Madeleine Brand interviewed me about Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) for NPR's All Things Considered. The piece aired yesterday, July 30th, but you can still listen to it here. Plus, there is a written piece about the project that covers some different ground at the same link. And there is a slideshow build-out that includes the postcard life stories Adam Robinson, Moose the Cat, Jessica Anya Blau, Shanti Perez, Rachel Joy, Nate Jackson, Kaya Larsen, and Madeleine Brand. Thank you to Madeleine for the good questions, Shereen for the great editing, and Erin for the beautiful build-out.

Thursday 30 July 2009


Printed in the Journals, 1730

WHEREAS, upon occasion of certain pieces relating to the gentlemen of the Dunciad, some have been willing to suggest as if they look upon them as an abuse, we can do no less than own it is our opinion that to call these gentlemen "bad authors" is no sort of abuse, but a great truth. We cannot alter this opinion without some reason; but we promise to do it in respect to every person who thinks it an injury to be represented as no wit or poet, provided he procures a certificate of his being really such from any three of his companions in the Dunciad, or from Mr Dennis singly, who is esteemed equal to any three of the number.

From Alexander Pope's Dunciad Variorum, 1743 edition.

Book deal

Thanks to my spendaholic parents, I ended up in Kingston's Oxfam bookshop the other day, where I met a well-informed and talkative bookseller who showed me some of their best deals on offer. I soon fell for The Complete Poetical Works by Alexander Pope, published by Bradbury and Evans in 1849, a small hardback volume with gilt edges and the most addictive paper on the planet.

The great thing about this book is, apart from its production values, a hand-written inscription and a pencil note that read: "Malvern Wells, July 1874, Prize awarded to A.E. Brooke – first in Second French Class – first in IIa Euclid (?) Division" signed by H.W. Gadger (or something like that) and the pencil note: "A.E. Brooke was Provost of Kings College Cambridge. I heard him lecture on 1st Epistle of John".

All this for £7.99 – what a deal (another copy is on sale on Abebooks for £40.). But there's a sting in the tail (or tale). As the title page declares, the book was "revised and arranged expressly for the use of young people" – in modern terms, Bowdlerized. My heart sank when I saw that – how can you "edit" Pope? Pope is so polished that he's uneditable by definition. And he's hardly the most risqué of authors. . .

I looked at The Rape of the Lock and searched for the naughtiest bits. For example, Canto IV, 53-54 – my OUP edition reads: "Men prove with child, as powerful fancy works, / And maids, turned bottles, cry aloud for corks." The Bradbury & Evans has it "Men mothers prove, as powerful fancy works, / And maids, turned bottles, cry aloud for corks." I would have thought that the second line was far more dangerous than the first one – but what do I know about mid-Nineteenth-century sensibility?

* * *

Tonight I spent a lovely evening with our author Sean Ashton. We had a seven-course meal at the local, Falty-Toweresque Japanese restaurant – a rite of passage for Westerners' taste buds – followed by readings from Dante's Inferno and Pope's works at my place round the corner. We ended up drinking Strega liquor to the dregs (courtesy of my parents again) and coming up with interpretative theories about an eighteenth-century engraving in which men at the foot of Mount Vesuvius appear to be drowning dogs.

Well, I think I must have given you one of the worst mental images in weeks, so . . . good night for now.


Tuesday 28 July 2009

Apes (of God)

“Chimpanzee's ‘autobiography’ is nominated for the Booker Man Prize” is the Twitter line fed to the hungry media today. As reported by The Guardian, the chimp confesses to a threesome with the actress Marlene Dietrich, claims that the “universally despised, impotent, alcoholic” Rex Harrison tried to murder him and damns Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane opposite Weismuller as “a harmless old trout”. I have posted already about the autobiographic genre, so I won't add any other comment than my usual "depressing" tagline. And I feel ashamed that I am talking about this.

“Now I think Me Cheeta" quoth Ion Trewin, "proves that it’s absolutely possible that any novel can get on (the list) if it’s done well enough. You don’t have to write what we used to call serious literary fiction to be considered for this prize.” This is stardust, Ion – if you really said that – absolutely priceless! I couldn't have made this up.

This is groundbreaking, revolutionary fiction from some of the best houses in the country. It's a shame the Man Booker is open only to books written in the last few months, otherwise Verlyn Klinkenborg's delightful Timothy's Book (2007), the autobiography of a turtle who spent some fifty years amongst humans, or Tibor Fischer's hilarious The Collector Collector (1997), the life story of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian bowl, or James Fenimore Cooper's Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief (1843) or even – stretching it – Tobias Smollett's History and Adventures of an Atom (1769) could have entered the fray and been plausible contenders.



So sorry to be out of the blogosphere for the last few days but I had my family over from Italy. As if their presence wasn't conspicuous enough, they came fully loaded with Italian goodies. Here's this year's inventory:

7 salami (of which three wild-boar ones and two spicy ones)
1 chunk of pecorino romano
1 large piece of Emmenthal
1 piece of pecorella cheese
1 piece of Auricchio dolce
5 packs of prosciutto
2 packs of porchetta
2 packs of mortadella
1 pack of pancetta (whole)
1 pack of pancetta (thinly sliced)
1 pack of coppa
2 large pieces of grana padano
1 pack of dried porcini mushrooms
9 tins of tuna in olive oil (yes, I did explain you can find it here too)
4 kg of pasta (ditto)
6 bags of ciambelle
1 pack of mints (don't ask me why)
2 bottles of Grecanico
1 bottle of Pinot Grigio
1 bottle of Chianti
1 bottle of Strega liquor

From this, I am sure you'll gather just how busy I have been.

On Saturday we went to Shepperton's car-boot sale, and on Sunday we went to Raynes Park's car-boot sale. Such fun. I found myself haggling over a £1 tea pot. Suffice it to say that today we shipped back to Italy 198 Kg of knick-knacks.

If you are foreigner living in Britain and your family is around three thousand miles away – cynical as this may sound, my suggestion is: don't invite them over . . .


Friday 24 July 2009

Art of Sinking in Poetry

It’s always nice to see your efforts being appreciated. The following appeared in a TLS review of our recent edition of The Art of Sinking in Poetry by Alexander Pope:

“This attractive edition makes the audacity of Pope’s critical wit and his mastery of poetic technique accessible to a modern audience... Those interested in poetic practice or pursuing Pope's career from An Essay on Criticism to The Rape of the Lock to The Dunciad will find it an essential companion.”

Thursday 23 July 2009

The Future of the Novel

There is a really great profile of my three novels and other projects in the fine Mexican journal Letras Libres. Mauricio Montiel Figueiras calls me "one of the authentic innovators in contemporary fiction," compares me to Raymond Carver and Italo Calvino, and says my writing "sings the most intimate tragedies of the Great American Family." He ends the profile with this: Michael Kimball "is already delivering the future of the novel."

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Chaucer's House of Fame versus Pope's Temple of Fame

Chris Lauer, our Chaucer translator (I would use the word "adapter" if it didn't sound like a connecting device), has recently sent me a few more of his wonderful translations from the great English poet. Among these, The House of Fame, a curious early work in three books in the tradition of the medieval dream visions. Some people say it's intended to be a sort of parody of the Divine Comedy – I didn't read it that way. What The House of Fame reminded me of, more than anything else, was a terza-rima poem by Petrarch, The Triumphs, a poem he wrote in a failed attempt to compete with Dante on his own ground. Chris's adaptation in modern English of The House of Fame is, as usual, superb – lively, witty and very close to the spirit of the original.

I was curious to see how Chaucer's poem compared to Alexander Pope's own version, The Temple of Fame, one of his earliest works (I call it a work, not a translation, as imitation was a form of art in Pope's time). The Temple of Fame strips most of the Chaucerian beginning and gets straight to the vision of the Temple of Fame, which only appears in the last book of Chaucer's poem. It is weird to see the same story recounted by two very great poets using two different languages and verse forms.

I must admit that, for once, Pope's heroic couplet didn't live up to my expectations. It felt too polished and constrained – it never came across as having the assurance of an original work. Perhaps there was a mismatch between language and theme – something I don't feel when I read his translation of the Iliad – perhaps it was its lack of humour that didn't work for me. The result was that it took me almost as long to read Pope's 524 lines as Chaucer's 2,000-odd lines.

Now on to the Book of the Duchess . . .


Monday 20 July 2009

Alma - a confession

When we launched Alma in 2005, we were asked, "Why Alma? What does it mean?" The easy answer was "Alma means 'soul' in Spanish. Alma is a 'publisher with a soul', as opposed to the anonymous, soulless world of conglomerate publishing. The real answer was much more complex. I first thought of Alma during a trip abroad, and I thought of Alma as in "Alma Venus", "life-giving, nourishing Venus" – the only moment in my adult life when my knowledge of Lucretius came in handy.

But the Latin word "alma" had a much bigger impact on me through the language of Petrarch, Tasso and Leopardi, who calls Italy "alma terra natia" – "alma mater". "Almus" in poetical Italian also means "noble", "high-spirited" ("l'alme leggi de l'umano consorzio"), and this perhaps is the main inspiration for my choice. Then of course it also means, the same way it does in Spanish, "soul" – Dante says: "ch'alma beata non poria mentire." But that was at the back of my mind.

Certainly it was a surprise to discover that "alma" in Turkish means "don't buy". Our rep for that region complained, and said we should change our name – or at least localize it. Well, I am open to suggestions, and if you know of any Turkish words that fit the bill, please let me know.


Thursday 16 July 2009

Giusepper Parini's The Day - the jury is in

Giuseppe Parini (1729–99) is one of the great Italian poets – arguably the greatest eighteenth-century Italian poet. His masterpiece, Il giorno (The Day), is a sort of heroicomical poem in three cantos, or perhaps more accurately a satire of high society (it describes the emptiness of a day in the life of a lazy young nobleman). It's just under three thousand lines long, and more or less unfinished, although the author worked on it for over thirty years. I remember studying it and loving it at school. I also remember finding it very funny. Now I went back to it with fresh eyes after many years, and this is my verdict.

Did I like the book?
I must admit I frowned a lot and smiled very little. I found the language so archaic and the style so convoluted that I needed a few sittings to go through it.

What did I like most?
The almost perfect flow of the verse.

What didn’t work for me?
I thought it was pretty dated, like the worst poems by Dryden and Pope. The only problem is that Parini hasn't got better works than this to his name.

Would I publish it?
I had pencilled it in for publication in 2008, but then the Calder takeover forced me to postpone this indefinitely. I still think it's a very important work. I am just not sure any more about how excellent the poetry is.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
This is an impossibility, so I am going to answer that if I received an unsolicited beautiful English translation, I would probably publish it.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
The first canto did, but I didn't think the other two were on a par with the brilliant beginning, which is what you usually study at school.

The best bit in the book?

Tu tra le veglie, e le canore scene,
e il patetico gioco oltre più assai
producesti la notte; e stanco alfine
in aureo cocchio, col fragor di calde
precipitose rote, e il calpestio
di volanti corsier, lunge agitasti
il queto aere notturno, e le tenèbre
con fiaccole superbe intorno apristi,
siccome allor che il siculo terreno
dall'uno all'altro mar rimbombar feo
Pluto col carro a cui splendeano innanzi
le tede de le Furie anguicrinite.

Apart from being a perfectly constructed long sentence, it contains one of my favourite lines of Italian poetry: "le tede de le Furie anguicrinite". Difficult to beat that one.

The best scene in the book?

The first canto, called "Il mattino" (The Morning).

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
I read the poem in this beautiful royal hardback published by Ricciardi in 1951. You cannot not love – or at least take seriously or admire – the poetry you read inside a book like that. It's nicely set, well edited, printed on high-quality paper, and it's got head and tail bands, ribbon – the works. Elisabetta didn't treat it as kindly as I would have, and I regret to report that it's full of her pencil annotations, which spoil the reading at time (some of them are hilarious though). I only forgive her because she didn't know me at the time she defaced the book. It would be a cause for divorce now.

My final verdict?
Not the best, not the worst of Italian poetry. Interesting, but dated. Connoisseurs' fodder, probably. Not something for the Twitter generation.


Triple Love

Dennis Cooper loves Dear Everybody and gives it a super nice profile here--along with super nice profiles of Shane Jones' Light Boxes and Scott McClanahan's Stories.

Tuesday 14 July 2009


You may think that, as a classics-obsessed, Dante-touting publisher, I might have a problem forking out a tenner to go and see Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest movie. You are absolutely right. Let’s put this straight: not even wild horses could drag me, in normal circumstances, to an Odeon cinema on a Sunday night. Give me Kanye West and Lady Gaga any time, but please don’t ask me to sit among a horde of popcorn-crunching, Pepsi-Cola slurping eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds and be subjected to the humiliation of watching a film like Brüno.

Having said that, a couple of friends invited me and Elisabetta to the cinema, and we happily obliged – it would have been rude to say no.

I had heard that the film trespassed a few boundaries, but to see the younger generation (sigh!) gulping down the breaking of every imaginable taboo and laughing heartily at it was as much of a shock to me as the movie itself. My first thought was that I must be getting old at twice the rate as a couple of years ago.

I’ll openly admit that I didn’t think it was completely crap, and also that I laughed out loud at some of the clownish bits, but I think good satire should remain above its subject, and I felt that Brüno was always, consistently, well below good taste. So it gets my thumbs-down, for what it's worth.


Thursday 9 July 2009

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

Of the many unfortunately neglected French writers in the English-speaking world these days, I’d like to highlight Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (full name Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam!), whose works have been translated on various occasions, but are now out of print.

Born in Brittany in 1840 into a declining aristocratic family (their already depleted fortune underwent even more strain due to his father’s costly efforts to find the long-lost treasure of his ancestor, who was a Knight-Hospitaller), he moved to Paris at the age of twenty, where he pursued a bohemian existence and gradually began to mingle with literary idols such as Charles Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier. In the following years he wrote verse and drama, which he contributed to various or journals or published at his own expense, without great success. In 1870, after having to return to France after a visit to Weimar to meet Wagner, because of the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, he briefly joined the army. As his finances were constantly dwindling, a situation which worsened when his benefactress Mlle de Kérinou died in 1871, he attempted various schemes to improve his lot – such as trying to obtain an attaché position at the French Embassy in London, asking a rich English heiress, Anna Eyre Powell, to marry him or desperately pushing to have one of his plays performed – all of which failed.

His literary breakthrough came relatively late in his life, when his collection of short stories, Cruel Tales, was published in 1883 and came to prominence when it was recommended in his friend Joris-Karl Huysmans’s influential decadent novel Against Nature in 1884. Praised by, among others, Stéphane Mallarmé, the tales were an original mixture of timely satire, the supernatural and tragic pathos, notable for the author’s elegant and at times poignant writing style. It is today by far the most widely read of his works.

Three years later, a second major work L’Ève Future (Tomorrow’s Eve) was finally published in full, after its initial serialization had been cut short in 1881. Influenced by modern advances in science, Tomorrow’s Eve was a fascinating and groundbreaking example of early science fiction, in which a fictionalized Thomas Edison creates a female “android” (the term itself is coined in the novel) at the behest of his friend Lord Ewald, only for events of a mystical and supernatural nature to occur.

The play Axël, which is considered his third major work – and which Villiers de l’Isle-Adam himself considered to be his crowning achievement – appeared posthumously in 1890. It is a drama in the Romantic tradition, highly influenced by the likes of Goethe and Wagner, in which Axël, the young lord of Auërsperg, falls in love with Sara, a nun who has escaped her convent and sought refuge in his family vault. The play ends tragically after they realize the ideal love they are after cannot be achieved in the real world and they find that suicide is the only solution.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Art of Sinking in Poetry - The Observer

Delighted to see the excellent review of Pope's The Art of Sinking in Poetry in the Observer on Sunday. For the second time in a row, they got the publisher wrong . . . the trouble is that Oneworld Classics and Oxford World Classics are not that far from each other, and they are both abbreviated OWC.

Never mind. As you know, it's one of my pet projects (see here for an old post about this book), and I hope to see more reviews of it soon.


Tuesday 7 July 2009

Memoirs of an Unborn Celebrity Kiddo, or My life in the Belly

Do you remember those days when memoirs and autobiographies were written by some grand dame or old artist at the end of a long, active, adventurous life? Do you remember Casanova’s monumental Histoire de ma vie, or Cellini’s Vita scritta da lui medesimo?

Well, that time is no more. I am not sure whether this is a reflection of our ageophobic society, but if you go into any bookshop or supermarket you’ll be submerged – as I am sure you have noticed – by a mass of ephemeral celebrity autobiographies. What is depressing about this is not only the poor quality of the writing, which is sometimes due to the fact that they are really written by the celebrities in question, but also the young age of some of the people involved.

Take David Beckham for example: he’s only thirty-four and he’s got already four or five autobiographies under his belt, the first one written over ten years ago. Obviously a lot must be happening in his life outside the pitch. Lewis Hamilton wrote his autobiography, My Story, when he was twenty-two. Four fifths of it, I imagine, must be devoted to him whizzing around a circuit on a racing car. When Andy Murray’s Hitting Back autobiography came out in June last year – in time for Wimbledon of course – he had just celebrated his twenty-first birthday. Good old Andy has a new autobiography coming out in November this year, ominously titled Coming of Age. Let’s hope he doesn’t flop again.

But this is nothing. You must have come across Miley Cyrus’s 272-page Miles to Go (at least some irony in the title!), which was published in March this year, well before the young singer’s sixteenth birthday. And what about Transworld’s recent publishing coup? They bought – for big money, no doubt – world English rights in the life story of Rubina Ali, the young star of Slumdog Millionaire, inventively titled Slumgirl Dreaming. Her age? She’s nine. I am sure she’ll have a lot to tell the world.

But I think publishers are missing a trick here. They should try and secure the rights in the life story of unborn celebrity babies. As soon as these babies are able to write, or talk – or even before birth, if they can detect their brainwaves with one of these new mind-reading machines – they could fill a 300-page autobiography detailing what goes on in the belly of a celebrity mum. Just a thought. I am sure there’s a big market out there for this sort of thing.


Monday 6 July 2009


Not me, but Elisabetta. And not by Queen Elizabeth II, but by M. Sarkozy.

Congratulations to Elisabetta for being awarded the prestigious title of Chevalier des arts et des lettres by the French government for her services to French literature.

Now back to work, lady!


Saturday 4 July 2009

Chicken publishing

By that I mean "lily-livered publishing" or "white-feather publishing".

Okay, these are hard times for the Man o' the Press, when even well-established Erotica publishing programmes are put on hold, but I think this is exactly the time to get more adventurous rather than entrench in more and more of the same gutless pap.

It is the chronic lack of ambition and the increasing copy-cat, series-based nature of most of what is published today – not only in terms of contents but also in terms of cover and packaging – that is driving the world of publishing (and with it writers, agents and booksellers) towards the abyss, not the heavy discounting or the ailing chains. We need something fresh, something new: we need to reinvent the wheel.

Instead, what we get is publishers bidding over Vikram Seth's sequel to A Suitable Boy – to be entitled, guess what, A Suitable Girl (to be published in Autumn 2013), and to be followed no doubt by A Suitable Mum, A Suitable Dad, A Suitable Granny etc. etc. in due course. The lucky bidder is rumoured to have offered something in the region of £1.7m, which means that the publisher either sees this as a giant loss leader or expects to sell a couple of million copies – probably the latter. "That's a gamble," I hear you say, "and it's far from being a safe bet – you are contradicting yourself." Well, maybe. But my idea of risk is slightly different, and I only see this as a reflection of our wasteful, celebrity-driven society.


Wednesday 1 July 2009

Vulture Publishing

This is not the name of a new imprint, but a tentative description of the UK publishing scene.

The King of Pop's demise – may his bald, scarred, skeletal body rest in peace – has encouraged a commissioning spree among some of our most valiant publishers.

John Blake was the first one to lay down his cards and make the bold move – due to trade and popular demand – of rushing out a half-baked biography of Michael Jackson (less than two months between commissioning and release, i.e. an instant biography). He was immediately followed by a busy bandwagon of brave publishers, including – among others – Michael O'Mara, Carlton and Montreal-based Transit Media, whose book – supposed to tie in with the popstar's London concerts – is undergoing "a frantic rewrite".

And Headline, one of the big guys, is today "entering the Jackson race" with a brand new book, and planning an initial print run of – wait for it – 175,000 copies.

What's going on, I wonder? Have we all gone mad? Are these heatwave-induced decisions? Publicity stunts? Isn't there a more responsible way to use paper? No doubt some of these books will crop up in the Top 50 chart, but what is the point of all this? Can somebody tell me? Please?