Saturday 19 December 2009

Vive la France! And Vivat Petronius!

"No summer sun," said W.H. Auden in one of his late poems, "will ever dismantle the global gloom / cast by the Daily Papers." Even more true today than when this was originally written in 1973.

But occasionally, amid the doom and gloom, there's also reason to smile or cheer. For example, these articles in The Guardian and The Times give me hope that the world will put up a fight against the greatest intellectual-property robbery in our history. Once again, it's the enlightened French who lead the way in organizing some sort of Résistance against the digital cowboys of our times.

And I was delighted, both for ourselves and for our translator Andrew Brown, to see two wonderful reviews of our Oneworld Classics edition of Satyricon in The Guardian and The Independent. That a book which has only survived in fragments could still find, after almost 2,000 years, so much resonance with readers and reviewers is confirmation – and do we need one in our dire days! – that true literature never dies.


PS: Read here our own blog piece on Satyricon.

Monday 14 December 2009

Rosie Alison - The Very Thought of You

Many congratulations to Rosie Alison for being longlisted for the Romantic Novel of the year award. Her debut novel, The Very Thought of You, published by Alma in June 2009, is competing with the likes of Katie Flynn, Erica James and Nicholas Sparks. Well done also to fellow independent Allison & Busby for clocking up two entries on the longlist. Alma and A&B are the only independents on the list.

The shortlist will be announced on 11th February 2010, and you can see the entire longlist of the Romantic Novel of the year award here.


Saturday 12 December 2009

Boy by James Hanley

When James Hanley died in 1985, the Times titled his obituary “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Until recently this situation continued to persist, but since his death his works have steadily gained the posthumous recognition he deserves. As Anthony Burgess remarks in his introduction to a reprint of Hanley’s 1931 novel Boy in reference to the Times obituary, “the geniuses who are neglected are usually those who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed”.

Hanley was not a writer endowed with a light, playful style: his language was visceral, sharp; his observation keen and uncompromising. And indeed, he had the power to disturb. In the first edition of Boy, the most risqué bits are covered with asterisks. The 1934 reprint was also deemed obscene, and then suppressed for decades. It has since been reprinted by Oneworld Classics to great critical acclaim.

Hanley clearly did not set out to shock readers for the sake of it or to enhance his reputation, but to represent reality – one that could be brutal and dehumanizing. Although he later claimed that the tragic story of Arthur Fearon – the ‘boy’ of the title – was not autobiographical, Hanley is certainly drawing upon his own experiences: his upbringing in Liverpool, where poverty and unemployment was rife; the frustration of having intelligence and ambition but no means of escape; the harshness of work at the docks and life at sea.

Arthur, a smart and sensitive boy, is forced to leave school by his desperately poor parents just before he turns thirteen. Initially sent to the docks, he cannot stand the dangerous and humiliating work there and stows aboard a ship in the hope of reaching America. Instead he is on a ship bound for Alexandria and beyond, and when discovered by the crew is put to work until they can bring him ashore. From then on, Fearon’s life follows a tragic path, until the novel reaches its fatal conclusion.

Young Fearon’s story of abuse and innocence lost in an unforgiving world is well observed and very real. Boy provides the modern reader with a non-sensational, unromantic depiction of the lives of dockhands, sailors and child-labourers. Hanley gives voice to everyday people in constrained circumstances, creating real characters who, despite their failings, are not entirely without humour. His portrayal of people who are unable to break free of their social constraints and even resent intelligence and education – thus perpetuating their misfortune onto their own children – has not lost its power to shake.

Boy – which the author once claimed to have written in ten days – lacks the polish of The Closed Harbour and other Hanley novels. However, this only adds to the force and realism of the novel, and makes it an outstanding and memorable piece of fiction.


Thursday 10 December 2009

Giulio Einaudi

One of my publishing idols and models has always been the Italian publisher Giulio Einaudi (1912–99), the founder of Giulio Einaudi Editore. I grew up on Einaudi books: I can see my well-thumbed edition of the Complete Short Stories by Chekhov, Musil’s Man without Quality, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Proust's Recherche, Yeats’s, Keats’s, Baudelaire’s and Dylan Thomas’s poems, the Apocryphal Gospels, Ian McEwan’s novels and dozens more volumes that I first coveted, then owned and enjoyed over many readings.

What made Einaudi’s books unique was the quality of the editing, translation, typesetting, paper, binding – the whole package oozed with quality. It is unfortunate and tragically ironic that this once great brand – associated with authors such as Calvino, Pavese, Vittorini, Carlo and Primo Levi, to name but a few, and with the Italian Left – has now ended up in the clutches of the Antichrist of Culture, Berlusconi.

I am currently reading Giulio Einaudi’s memoirs, or rather Fragments of Memories (Frammenti di memoria), as the title goes. It is a lovely volume that was sent to me by my friends at Nottetempo, a wonderful publishing house founded in 2002 by Roberta Einaudi and Ginevra Bompiani. It’s around 200 pages in large typeface and generous layout – quite a refreshing change from other publishing memoirs, such as Maurice Girodias’s two-volume A Day on the Earth or John Calder’s Pursuit, a densely printed royal hardback of over six hundred pages.

It’s not that Giulio Einaudi’s life was uneventful. On the contrary – he led a very industrious (and, at times, heroic) life and had dealings with some of the greatest twentieth-century writers and thinkers. But the impression I get from this book is that he was a decent and reserved man who tried to shun hype and walk away from the limelight.

His prose is terse, lucid, totally unpompous. “My interest for books,” he writes, “was driven at first by the pleasure of physical contact rather than by reading. Perhaps this is the reason why I have always taken extreme care, in my profession, in choosing the typeface, paper, printing, binding, typesetting and layout…” Hundreds of well-known authors and publishers are portrayed in finely chiselled cameos, and there’s a wealth of short but vivid publishing anecdotes.

The English publisher Sir Stanley Unwin reproaches him during an international conference in Florence for being three months late with a royalty payment. “However," he says in the next paragraph, "money was not the subject of my conversation with the old Peter Suhrkamp, publisher and friend of Bertolt Brecht. What we talked about instead was the progressive dumbing-down and depersonalization of international publishing, which is gradually turning into a huge business machine. And I didn’t talk about money with the young Klaus Wagenbach, devoted to the promotion of contemporary Italian literature in Germany; neither did I talk about money with Ledig Rowohlt, the publisher of Robert Musil… These are three publishers who love to know and “grow” their authors, whose manuscripts they read during long, sleepless nights…”


Tuesday 8 December 2009

My First Kindle

What I like about America is the warmth of the people and their sense of humour. It’s very easy to strike up a conversation or crack a joke with the man in the queue or the woman helping you at a crossroads. I have seen one entire train wagon laugh out loud at my friend’s joke the other day. If you allow me to indulge in some stereotyping, I can say that in England some people would have smirked, others mumbled “Mmm” and others, shaking their head in annoyance, would have gone back to their reading. Unless, of course, they were drunk.

At the Yale Club today I was told off by a zealous security guard before I even pulled the laptop out of my bag. “It’s against the club’s rules, Sir.” “Sorry,” I said. This I can understand – but when I picked up a card at the reception desk I was surprised to see that paper is not allowed either, “as it disrupts the other members’ peace”. So what are you supposed to do when you arrive early for your meeting – stare into the void? Whistle? Make cartwheels? The luddite in me applauded the ban of mobile phones and laptops, but do I dare disturb the universe with a few sheets of paper?

Talking of the paperless world ahead of us – I finally saw someone using one of the alleged one million Kindles sold in the US this year – but it was in the elevator of a publishing company, so I suppose it doesn’t really count, does it?


Sunday 6 December 2009

Snowed under

And the snow did come, punctual as ever, on my second day in New York. By the time I got back to my hotel in Short Hills, there were already a couple of inches of snow on the ground. The Christmas-decorated mansions in Summit, surrounded by white lawns and trees, seemed a postcard picture.

Before coming to New York, I had heard and read reports that Kindle had taken roots in America. Apparently more than a million Kindles have been sold over here, and publishers reckon that by 2015 thirty per cent of the sales will be electronic books, with futurologists predicting that mobile phones will be the tool of choice for most e-book readers.

Over the past couple of days I have used public transport and been in a few coffee shops, but did not see a single Kindle around. What I did see is lots of people watching movies from their phone or from a portable DVD-reader. But I also saw people reading traditional newspapers and magazines (not many books, admittedly!). Could it be only a little bit of hype?

I had lunch in town with Tom Lathrop, the excellent translator of our new edition of Don Quixote (to be published in May 2010) and his lovely wife Connie. He spent twenty years translating Cervantes's masterpiece, and he recently retired from his University teaching post. I asked him about the origins of his unusual family name, and he explained that the name comes from Britain, of all places – apparently his ancestor was a clergyman who left England in a bit of a hurry in the 1620s – not alone, but with a mistress.

I was surprised to learn he is not only a translator but also the publisher of over three hundred works both in English and in Spanish. He told me that he has converted all his vynils into iTunes, and showed me his iPhone with the mobile-phone version of Kindle (he also has the stand-alone version). I am always impressed and in awe with people who are more techno-savvy than I am, especially if they are from an older generation.

I wish I could grab a copy of yesterday's The Guardian: there a great review of Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press), and a wonderful review by Jay Parini of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. But then, I could it read it online for free (sigh!).


Saturday 5 December 2009

From the Other Side of the Atlantic

In New York for our December sales conference, and very much looking forward to meeting a few of our translators, authors and some fellow publishers.

I love coming to NY in December: I always find either snow or bright skies, and both are a nice diversion from London's pall of gloom.

The journey was great – I was sandwiched between two kids and my seat tray was broken (for this I got a £10 Virgin voucher – ts!), with no movies or entertainment provided other than old or silly films on a tiny Panasonic DVD reader, which I kindly declined (a new experiment, they said – well, don't do it again, man!). But I didn't much care, as I spent seven of the eight hours of my flight agonizing over two lines from Pope's Epistle to Arbuthnot – "Blessed with each talent and each art to please / and born to write, converse and live with ease." Oh well – I got over the hurdle in the end.

I love talking to New York taxi drivers. They are far more interesting and varied than their London equivalent. They are from Haiti, Portorico, Italy, Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean – even England! The one I got yesterday was from Poland. He's been here "not very long – only thirty years". He seems to have done very well: he's got his own limo and passed his car body garage to his older son, who bought a huge – "too huge" – house with a private lagoon and a motor boat a few miles from where he lives. He's got eight grandchildrens – and each of the grandchildrens are perfectly fluent both in English and Polish. He was a friend of Lech Wałęsa at the time of Solidarity, "before he got a liddle crazy in the head". I asked him my favourite question: "What do you think of Obama then?" And his replied made it obvious that the honeymoon between US citizens and the new Peace Nobel winner is over. "He not that smart," he said. "Why?" I asked, and he replied after a pause: "Because he do stupid things."


Thursday 3 December 2009

Credit Crunch

Just back from another informative and, "to some extent" (to use one of John Calder's verbal quirks), enlightening evening at the Calder Bookshop. David Nokes was supposed to talk about Dr Johnson tonight – his absence was sorely felt, but he was warmly remembered by everyone present, including John in his introductory speech.

Tonight's talk was about John Maynard Keynes. I knew very little about him – only passing references in footnotes and diaries from members of the Bloomsbury group. His economic ideas were amazingly ahead of his time. The portrait that emerged of him was that of an incredibly smart, intelligent, altruistic and – above all – decent man.

I left with the resolution to look up his books, especially "The Economic Consequences of the Peace". And I also want to get hold of Robert Skidelsky's recently published Keynes: The Return of the Master.

Apart from the wonderful talk, it was good to see John in full form, as well as a lot of friends who attended the event. Some of them asked: "Why have you stopped writing your blog? Have you been busy? Have you got a blog block?" To which I replied: "No, I've just been trying to finish Martin Amis's Money".


Wednesday 2 December 2009

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Having recently received the finished copy of my Italian translation of The Rape of the Lock, published by Adelphi, I have found renewed inspiration and set myself a very ambitious task: translating Shakespeare Sonnets into Italian. I have been writing sonnets for years, so I am quite familiar with the form, but Shakespeare's Sonnets (if they are really his) verge on the untranslatable and offer any daring translator the highest challenge. My aim is to translate in modern Italian, without inversions and archaism, so it's even more difficult, as the English language can pack a lot of short monosyllables into a iambic pentameter, whereas Italian can fill one endecasillable with two or three words.

So far I have translated the first ten sonnets of Shakespeare's collection (there's 154 of them). The most difficult so far are the first two, perhaps because they are so well known. I have been working on the first stanza of the first and second sonnet for days and days on end. I think I'll have to give up. This is what I have done with the first sonnet:

Chi è più bello vogliamo sia fecondo,
perché non muoia di bellezza il fiore,
ma se maturo poi lascerà il mondo
ne conservi il ricordo un successore.
Invece tu, legato ai tuoi occhi ardenti,
nutri il tuo fuoco con la tua sostanza,
nemico di te stesso, ti tormenti,
crei carestia là dove c’è abbondanza.
Tu, ornamento del mondo – tu, il solo
splendente araldo della primavera,
resti sepolto dentro il tuo bocciolo,
sprechi in te l’oro della tua miniera.
Abbi pietà, o sii ingordo fino in fondo,
dando alla tomba ciò che spetta al mondo.

The second part of the sonnet is really good and flows naturally. Line 2, however, still bothers me: "di bellezza il fiore" is closer to the original, and it'd be a shame to lose "beauty's rose". But it is a bit of an unnatural inversion, so it may be replaced by something like "così che non perisca mai il suo fiore".

Anyway, thinking about Shakespeare and that world of idealized love, is certainly a nice diversion from the publishing grind!


Tuesday 1 December 2009

Books don't burn

Too much doom and gloom in the trade press and from fellow independents these days. The world is going to end soon – the publishing world that is, at least the publishing world as we know it – and there's no going back. Returning from an early Christmas party with some publishing friends, I actually feel much better and more optimistic about the future. OK, independent bookshops and book chains are going bust, but new independent bookshops are opening, and some could be the Dixon's or Waterstone's of the future.

"We are living a once-in-a-civilization revolution", I heard pronounced at an interesting digital conference recently. It may well be so, but things have always changed and evolved. Wasn't the book printed using mobile types as great a revolution towards the end of the 15th century? Wasn't the introduction of the mass-market paperback another great revolution? And the lifting of censorship? What about desktop publishing and computer-to-plate technology? What about digital publishing, and now e-books? We just need to readjust, to absorb the change and move on. The pace of change may make it trickier than in the past, but adjust we must, and adjust we will.

So I can see, ahead of us, a resurgence of independent booksellers and literary publishers. The paper book will not die out. Literature will not die. Hardbacks may even come back into fashion one day. And even if books are no longer be printed on paper – which I struggle to believe – no one can destroy all the ones that have been printed so far.

Bulgakov famously said: "Manuscripts don't burn." I would add to this: "Books don't either."