Thursday, 30 April 2009

Human Relationships

In Spring It Is Dawn wasn't on the UK blog tour, but Tanabata gives DEAR EVERYBODY a very nice review, saying that 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" -- among other nice things.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Decline of British Civilization

I'd like to welcome back onto the blogosphere Chris Schuler, the Independent journalist and literary critic, who after a pause of a few months has resumed his wonderful blog, Notes on the Margin, a blog about books. I should point out: a blog about real books.

In one of his latest blog entries, talking about the London Book Fair, he says:

'...Perhaps the prize goes to the Russian author Dmitri Bykov who, in a discussion about the future of the Russian novel, praised that “great seven-volume work” that is "the best realistic novel about the decline of British civilisation – you know it, the one by JK Rowling.” I think he might actually have been serious.'

In the same talk, Bykov said that the best literature is produced during periods of great social and political decline, so I am not quite sure how to interpret his comment either – I just hope he was joking! He's known to have a taste for paradox.

I personally think that Rowling's books are nothing more than the froth of our times, a cultural product rather than a work of any intellectual value. Pope, in his Rape of the Lock famously had the lock-cutting Baron say:

As long as Atalantis shall be read…
So long my honour, name, and praise shall live!

When he wrote those lines almost three hundred years ago, Pope was sure that Atalantis, a bestselling scandalous novel of the time, would be totally forgotten by posterity.

I think that the same will happen to JK Rowling and a great many other celebrated writers of today, and that the Harry Potter series will be one day remembered as the Varney the Vampire of the Twentieth Century.


Monday, 27 April 2009

Two great Russian novelists - Terekhov and Bykov

Over the past few days I had the opportunity to meet and spend some social time with Alma authors Alexander Terekhov and Dmitri Bykov. They are, in different ways, extraordinary writers – ambitious, intellectually serious, stylistically daring. Terekhov's Rat Killer is easily my favourite Alma publication, and a work that I hope to see grow from strength to strength over the next few years after its critically acclaimed launch in UK in June 2008. Bykov is simply an intellectual Juggernaut – a quick, alert, searching, bulldozing mind that has already produced a body of works which many other authors fail to achieve in a lifetime. Terekhov's new novel, eleven years in the making, has just been published in Russia and received many enthusiastic reviews. It is over 900 pages long, so English readers will have to bear with us. The translation of Bykov's monumental ZhD (Living Souls, or possibly Jewhad) on the other hand is well under way, and we hope to be able to offer this 800-page maelstrom of a novel to the British public in the late spring of 2010.

The trouble with Russian writers is that they still appear to be writing under the shadow of their nineteenth-century masters and try to out-Tolstoy and out-Dostoevsky each other all the time. This makes them very hard to export outside Russia. But on the other hand these books could be the classics of the future, so it would be a crime if they were to be lost to an English readership.

In the photo above you can see Dmitri Bykov with Elisabetta and me at our stand during the recent London Book Fair.

And I would like to close today's post by congratulating Ignat Avsey – the translator of the Oneworld Classics edition of Dostoevsky's Humiliated and Insulted – for being shortlisted for the Rossica Prize, and Kyril Zinovieff – who has translated Anna Karenina for us – for receiving a special commendation during the shortlist ceremony.


Unreliable Narrators

There is a really nice interview of DEAR EVERYBODY up at Just William's Luck. William Rycroft asked smart questions about how the book took shape, unreliable narrators, and writing about mental illness -- and I did my best to answer them. Plus, the interview includes a six-word story and a couple of other publishing exclusives.

William also gave DEAR EVERYBODY a nice review, which ends with this: "... 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."

This is the last stop on my UK blog tour. Thank you, William (and Kay and Elizabeth and Fiona and Adrian and Marcia and Mike and Susan and Scott and Daniel).

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Hell Review on Japan Times

After the review of Paprika last weekend in The Times, here's a link to an excellent review of Tsutsui's Hell.



At the end of a hectic but stimulating London Book Fair it's time to catch up with work and life. I'll be posting a few retrospective blogs in the next few days, but in the meantime please click here to see a nice article on the Bookseller Daily which talks about me and one of my dearest publishing friends, Natasha Perova of Glas.


Writing Neuroses

There's a nice interview at Writing Neuroses about DEAR EVERYBODY. Kay Sexton asks some really smart questions about structure, the great American novel (and its antithesis), and ghastly characters.

This is stop #9 on my UK blog tour. Thank you, Kay.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Some Letters Concerning Michael Kimball and Dear Everybody

Elizabeth Baines has written a beautiful and thoughtful review of DEAR EVERYBODY called Some letters concerning Michael Kimball and Dear Everybody in which she calls the novel "striking, witty, and above all moving." And she says, "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." She also thanks Alma Books (thank you, Alma Books) and then calls out the publishing industry in general. Plus, she says that I have "kind eyes." Thank you, Elizabeth Baines.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Tall Win for Short Genre

And the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction goes to… A book of short stories!

Elizabeth Strout has won the 2009 Pulitzer for her volume of interconnected fiction, Olive Kitteridge. Only five times since 1948 has the fiction prize gone to a book of short fiction (by my count) – collected stories by Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, and most recently to Jhumpa Lahiri for Interpreter of Maladies.

On behalf of every writer I know – poets, novelists, memoirists – who all write short fiction in addition to whatever else, I would like to thank these three forward-thinking, fearless judges for bucking convention:

Susan Larson, book editor, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans (Chair)

R.H. W. Dillard, professor, Jackson Center for Creative Writing, Hollins University, Roanoke, VA

Nancy Pearl, author and librarian, Center for the Book, Seattle Public Library

Thank you, for your part in helping shift light toward a senselessly under-recognized genre.

Publishers and agents, take note!

– Sarah Stonich

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

London Book Fair - Russian Writers

So much is happening at the London Book Fair that I could fill hundreds of blog entries. Two of our Russian authors, Dmitri Bykov and Alexander Terekhov, are around, and I had a very good chat with them yesterday and today. I was very pleased to read the following article on the BBC Russian website:

And it gave me a particular thrill to see my name transliterated into the Russian alphabet. I hope you can spot it too.

"Пока авторы давали интервью, толпа у стенда «Россики» все прибывала. Порой в ней попадались любители русской литературы как иностранной. Издатель Алессандро Галленци, например, говорил о предмете со страстью: «Русская словесность сыграла огромную роль в моей жизни! Среди моих любимых писателей немало русских». Его небольшое лондонское издательство, Alma Books, выпускает хорошие переводные книги. Предпочтение Алессандро отдает проверенной временем классике; среди современных русских романов на его счету «Крысобой» Александра Терехова, тоже приехавшего на ярмарку."

I'll report about the London Book Fair in the days to come. Now to the next party.


How I Made Fiona Robyn Cry

On her blog, Planting Words, Fiona Robyn posts a photo of me and then writes: "This is Michael Kimball. ... He 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."

After that, there is an email conversation about DEAR EVERYBODY how novels begin, how to present difficult material, and what it's like to be an author.

This is stop #7 on my UK blog tour.

Monday, 20 April 2009

The Cake Lady's Postcard Life Story

As part of an ongoing collaborative art project -- Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) -- I wrote the Cake Lady's sweet life story. It's one of 195 that have been written so far and most of them can be found here.

Digital Fiction Show

Adrian Graham from Digital Fiction Show has posted a nice and thoughtful review of 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, the introduction from Robert Bender, who has never really liked his brother, the main character, Jonathon Bender.

Plus, there's the trailer for DEAR EVERYBODY.

This is stop #6 on my UK blog tour.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Unputdownable: Cream Tea with Lizzy Siddal

Lizzy Siddal gave DEAR EVERYBODY an amazing review at Lizzy's Literary Life in which she says: "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 nice interview in which we have cream tea and discuss the unspoken.

Top 5: Novels You May Not Have Heard Of

I wrote a Top 5 (novels that you may not have heard of) for 3:AM Magazine. Plus, there's a bonus Top 5 for people who have heard of the first Top 5.

This is stop #4 on my UK blog tour.

Friday, 17 April 2009

349 Pieces

I wrote a short article about the writing of DEAR EVERYBODY for The View from Here, where I talk about how "I try to let a novel tell me what it is going to be." It's called "349 Pieces" because that's how many pieces make up the novel.

This is stop #3 on my UK blog tour.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

“Laissons les jolies femmes aux hommes sans imagination”

Leave the pretty women to men without imagination”. In this sentence at the beginning of Albertine Disparue, Marcel Proust gives a key to understanding his book. Indeed this sixth and penultimate title of In Search of Lost Time is obviously not a “pretty” book but a dark and tough one. It is a strange patchwork of memories which handles themes as profound as oblivion, homosexuality and love. Imagination and involvement are absolutely necessary to understand it.
However, to read this book you don’t need only imagination but also luck. Even in France where In Search of Lost Time is considered a masterpiece, this volume is quite difficult to find, rarely taught at school and often forgotten in the research on Proust’s work.

Albertine Disparue, like the whole cycle of In Search of Lost Time, is all about recollection. On the first page the narrator discovers that Albertine, his lover, has gone. He consequently tries to find her and carry out an investigation on her past life. He finds out that although he thought he knew her intimately, she had a completely hidden life. He starts being haunted by his own imagination and develops many hypothetical theories between reality and fantasy: he pictures Albertine as a lesbian, a potential wife and even a mythological goddess. After a period of madness, the narrator experiments with all the steps of dying love from obsession to increasing indifference and finally succeeds in forgetting her.
However, Albertine has changed the narrator’s life because she has revealed to him the dark side of Guermantes, a place he has always admired and tried to reach. He finally becomes aware of what is really taking place there: hypocrisy, anti-Semitism, the decay of the aristocracy, ruthless ambition… The whole world of the narrator is called into question and ambivalence, deceit and vicissitudes creep into the novel.

All these revelations jeopardize the reassuring end of Finding Time Again. How can the narrator still find in writing a way to give sense to his life and to overcome his fear of the passing of time after this turnaround? Besides, we may have to reconsider this last title completely. Indeed death stopped Proust in his correction of Albertine Disparue. He consequently did not have the time to correct Finding Time Again and might have changed it completely in keeping with the new tone of Albertine Disparue. What would have been the end of the most famous cycle of all time if the author had lived longer?... Let’s just be men and women with imagination.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Dear Michael Kimball

I did an interview with the wonderful Susan Tomaselli -- she asked really smart questions -- for the wonderful Dogmatika. And then Susan Tomaselli did something amazing with the questions and answers. In the spirit of DEAR EVERYBODY, she spliced that interview with photos and reviews and postcards and trailers and her own notes. Plus, she mentions a connection to Oulipo, the first person to make that true obversation. Plus, the piece mentions that HTMLGIANT named me the International King of Postcards. Thank you, Susan Tomaselli.


Few of the world’s great cities have given rise to national myths as powerful as the myth of Petersburg. Founded in the early eighteenth century by Peter the Great as the new imperial capital, with the express purpose of redirecting Russian history and creating a new identity for the nation, it became from the early nineteenth century the dominant symbol of Russian historical experience. In one aspect it proclaims the triumph of human endeavour over elemental forces, but more consistently it is perceived as a city built against nature, lost in the mists and marshes where no human habitation previously existed or ought to exist, a spectral city whose inhabitants lose touch with their own roots and become unreal themselves. In the nineteenth century this tradition is most forcefully expressed in the work of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, and echoes of them can be detected on every page of Bely’s novel. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the central hero of Petersburg is none of the shadowy human figures that populate its pages, but the equestrian statue of Peter, who descends from his pedestal as he did in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman to compel the obedience of his reluctant vassals. Many a conversation between the characters recalls the dialogues of Dostoevsky with their psychological tension and threat. And the depiction of the city streets, the scampering pedestrians defined by the hats they wear or the shape of their noses, could only come from Gogol’s Petersburg Tales.

Petersburg shows us the city at a time of crisis. Russia is reeling from defeat in the war with Japan, and the revolution of 1905 is beginning to seethe. Subversive nondescripts crowd the city streets, through which the main upholder of order and stability, Senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, must make his way to his government office in his black cube of a carriage. The novel’s material is almost all derived from real circumstances and events which can be traced in the historical record of the time, but that does not make it a historical novel in any customary sense. Time does not move in straight lines here, it turns back to devour its own tail, and it is only in myth that anything can truly be explained. When he published his first novel, The Silver Dove (also translated by John Elsworth, Angel Books, London, 2000), in 1909, Bely stated in a preface that it was to be the first novel of a trilogy entitled East or West. If that first novel was a study of the Eastern aspect of Russian culture, the darkness and religious ferment of the countryside, then it was natural for its sequel to focus upon the most Western of Russian cities. But what we find is that this utterly rational, Western city is no less chaotic than its rural counterpart.

In the course of composition the links with Bely’s first novel became more and more tenuous, although there are glimpses of it in the character of Styopka and the tales he tells. Bely was never fully satisfied with Petersburg, and published a much shortened redaction of it in Berlin in 1922; however, it was shortened almost exclusively by a process of excision, leaving a text which, though critics have appreciated its increased pace, is not in the last resort entirely coherent. He also dramatised it for production in the Moscow Arts Theatre. The dramatic text went through innumerable modifications before it saw the stage, and then it survived only one performance in 1925. My translation is of the longer original version, written between 1911 and 1913 and first published in the Moscow journal Sirin in 1913–14.

Petersburg is the work for which Bely is best known, though he was the author of seven novels in all, much poetry, extensive works of philosophy and literary theory, and a vast output of memoirs. Born into a Moscow academic family in 1880 (his real name was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev), his career spanned an equal period on either side of the 1917 revolutions. Most of his life was spent in or very near to Moscow, though he lived in Switzerland for two years in 1914–16, and in Berlin for two years in the early 1920s. One of the acknowledged leaders of the Russian Symbolist movement in the first decade of the century, in demand as a contributor to all the cultural debates of that time, he fell out of favour after the revolution and lived his last years in relative seclusion and considerable penury. He died in January 1934.

There is a strong autobiographical substratum to Petersburg. There are considerable similarities between Nikolai Apollonovich’s relations with his parents and the known biographical facts of the Bugaev family – not that Bely’s mother really fled the family home, nor that Bely ever sought to kill his father. His triangular relationship with the Likhutins bears a clear resemblance to Bely’s relations with his friend and fellow poet Alexandr Blok and his wife, Liubov Dmitrievna, with whom Bely at one time nearly eloped. But the interest of these personal elements lies in the way they are threaded into the broader canvas and become typical images of the psychological and philosophical malaise that Bely diagnoses in the culture of his time. The conflicting aspects of the city itself, its rational geometry and its haunting nebulousness, are reflected both in the political conflict between reactionary status quo and revolutionary turmoil, and in the unresolved tensions between logic and emotion in the characters themselves. Neither aspect can hope to win; it is only in a faintly mooted apocalypse that redemption may be found.

Petersburg is the culmination of the pre-revolutionary tradition of the city’s depiction, absorbing and re-interpreting a century of literary history. Very soon after Bely wrote this novel, the city was renamed Petrograd out of wartime chauvinism, to become Leningrad a decade later, by which time the capital had been moved back to Moscow. Nevertheless, the Petersburg tradition did not disappear, even if for much of the twentieth century it took refuge in the more private realm of poetry. In post-Soviet Russia the city’s historical name has been restored and its cultural reverberations have come to resound afresh.

— John Elsworth

(John Elsworth’s translation of Petersburg by Andrei Bely is available from Pushkin Press for £14.99)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A Hero of Our Time

Since I started at Oneworld Classics, I have had the pleasure of working on a number of fantastic titles that I would never have read otherwise, and probably wouldn’t even have heard of. This isn't just because I am a literary philistine, although that may be true – it is largely due to the policy we have of publishing translated classics, rightly famous in their countries of origin, that remain relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. There are many examples – Sadegh Hedayat’s Three Drops of Blood, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus and Georg Büchner’s Lenz, to name but a few. My favourite, however, is probably Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

Set in the Caucusus during the 1830s, the novel tells the story of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a young Russian officer, and his exploits in the wild and dangerous frontier between European Russia and the East. Mikhail Lermontov was himself an officer who served in the region, and it features heavily throughout his writings – he would eventually come to be known as the Poet of the Caucasus. His love for the country is evident in his beautiful descriptions of the majestic scenery which forms the backdrop to the tale.

The chief joy of this novel, however, lies in the central character, the “hero” of the title. Pechorin is in fact an antihero – a rake and a cad, he schemes, lies, murders and seduces his way through the book. But far from being a two-dimensional cartoon villain, Pechorin is fascinatingly complex. We are given access to his innermost thoughts – three of the novel’s four parts consist of extracts from his diary – and I frequently found myself in sympathy with him.

Anyone who, like myself, was raised on a diet of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books will see similarities between that series’s eponymous protagonist and Pechorin. However, Lermontov’s creation is at once more chillingly sociopathic than his British counterpart, and more winningly human. Pechorin confesses that he is entirely unmoved by the sufferings of others, and manipulates them merely for his own amusement; at the same time, he experiences agonies of existential despair and laments the death of the moral part of his being.

The most famous and powerful scene in the novel involves a duel between Pechorin and a fellow officer – eerily, Lermontov himself was killed in just such a duel, shortly after his novel was published. The similarities between Lermontov and his antihero might lead one to suspect that the former shared the latter’s cynicism and despair. But certainly the aim of the book is not to denigrate old-fashioned notions of honour and good-conduct. As Lermontov himself is at pains to point out in a foreword, the novel is fundamentally a lament for a godless and amoral age. In one passage, as Pechorin is walking through a town at night, he looks up at the sky:

“…the stars shone placidly in the dark-blue firmament, and I was amused at the thought that there once were sages who believed the heavenly bodies have a share in our wretched squabbles over a bit of territory or some other imaginary rights. Yet these lamps, which they thought had been lit only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, still burn with undiminished brilliance, while their passions and hopes have long since died out together with them, like a campfire left burning on the fringe of a forest by a careless wayfarer. But what strength of will they drew from the certainty that all the heavens with their numberless inhabitants looked down on them with constant though mute sympathy! Whereas we, their wretched descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without joys or fear other than the nameless dread that constricts the heart at the thought of the inevitable end, we are no longer capable of great sacrifices either for the good of mankind or even for our personal happiness, since we know that happiness is impossible, and we pass indifferently from one doubt to another just as our forebears floundered from one delusion to another, without the hopes they had and without even that vague but potent sense of joy the soul derives from any struggle with man or destiny…”

So... it’s a fairly gloomy outlook then. However, A Hero of Our Time isn’t all stargazing angst. It’s beautifully written and intellectually intriguing, but it’s also a wonderful story in the fine 19th-century tradition – I loved it, and I hope others will too.

Monday, 13 April 2009

A Hug or a Slap?

There's a nice interview at Me and My Big Mouth about DEAR EVERYBODY where Scott Packs asks me, among other things, whether I would hug or slap Jonathon Bender if he took corporeal form.

Scott also gave DEAR EVERYBODY a really great review last week where he says that DEAR EVERYBODY is "a wonderful, clever, imaginative and moving book. It really is quite something ... a fucking marvelous book." This is all part of my UK blog tour.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Only Thing Holding Me Together: A Review of DEAR EVERYBODY

There is a really nice review of DEAR EVERYBODY and it's up at Just William's Luck. William Rycroft wraps up the review with this: "... 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."

William and I also did an interview about DEAR EVERYBODY and that will be up at Just William's Luck on April 26th as part of my UK blog tour.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


France's James Joyce, said John Calder to me the other day on the phone. Mmm, I am not sure I like or agree with this label. Queneau is certainly one of the most interesting and extraordinary twentieth-century writers. What makes him so unique is the wide range of his experimental work.

His Exercises in Style – which we have just reissued in a new edition – has become one of the few established classics of post-war literature. "'A pointless anecdote told in 99 different ways, or a work of genius – in fact both," as Philip Pullman puts it. Funny, mad, esoteric yet accessible, it's a tour de force of linguistic invention and a tongue-in-cheek critique of experimentalism itself. In Italy it was translated by Umberto Eco – here by Barbara Wright, who worked closely with Queneau on the translation and was encouraged to add a few pieces written by herself in the same spirit as the original.

We are now also republishing The Flight of Icarus, another of Queneau's major works, where a nineteenth-century writer discovers to his dismay that Icarus, the hero of the novel he is working on, has disappeared. He thinks some other author may have stolen it, only to find out that Icarus has taken on a life of his own and gets around among the seedy underlife of Paris.

We are planning to publish most of the works included in the Pléiade edition, and hopefully find more and more readers in the English-speaking world.

Queneau was a poet, a novelist, a scholar, a mathematician and also a brilliant editor. He was employed from 1938 by Gallimard as a reader of English books, and famously turned down a translation of Beckett's Murphy. As a publisher, I wouldn't hold that against him – here's this publisher's opinion of Beckett's Murphy.


Friday, 10 April 2009

Me and My Big Mouth

There is a really great review of DEAR EVERYBODY and it's up at Me and My Big Mouth. Scott Pack says: "A wonderful, clever, imaginative and moving book. It really is quite something ... a fucking marvelous book."

Scott and I also did an interview about DEAR EVERYBODY and that will be up at Me and My Big Mouth on April 13th as part of my UK blog tour.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... (Dante)

A publisher’s progress (2002-2009).

It’s good to look back sometimes, and try to make sense of the senseless activity that seems to drive you forward every waking day. I was looking up Calder’s ISBN book today – not a pretty sight. Things got a bit messy over the years, but it is clear that Calder was a publisher with a strong beginning, an apex, a golden period and a rapid decline. John Calder appears to have published around eight or nine hundred titles in total, by my reckoning. A “serial” publisher, one might think. But if you consider that his career spanned over sixty years, that only gives you an average of around fifteen books a year. But then he published very little in the late Eighties, in the Nineties and the Noughties – so his already modest average goes down the drain. Then again, if you consider that more than half of what he has published is still in print and manages to inspire readers and writers worldwide, John Calder’s legacy goes well beyond the sheer number of published titles. Quality, not quantity.

What strikes me about John in his long and exceptional career is that he seems to have been constantly urged on by a devilish desire to publish what he liked, no matter what – irrespective of his financial or social or personal circumstances. You will see John publish, at times, horrible hardback play “scripts” which could have been typed on a faulty Underwood Five. You will see one of his Opera Guides sponsored by Barclays Bank and with a Martini logo on it. You may laugh at them now – but they are still read and appreciated and talked about by people with an ounce of brain. In short, John is – quintessentially – a very successful publisher, because his books, in one form or another, are still very much alive, and read, and promoted.

Now if I look back at what I have done in the past seven years – basically since I began my career as a publisher in the UK – what conclusions can I reach?

If I exclude hack jobs and books I wouldn’t want to be credited with after I’m dead, there is significant evidence that I have published in excess of 275 titles. If we consider all various editions and reprints, and the books I have been instrumental in publishing (Pushkin Press, Bitter Lemon Press etc), this figure goes up to around 500 titles. If you divide this by seven, it gives you around seventy titles a year – which is pretty mental.

Of the individual 275 titles I have published in the last seven years, 146 were published under the Hesperus imprint (2002-2006), 38 under the Alma imprint (2006-2009), 6 under the Herla imprint (2004-2009) and 85 under the Oneworld Classics imprint (2007-2009).

Year by year, I find myself publishing 29 titles in 2002, 40 in 2003, 35 in 2004, 32 in 2005, 22 in 2006, 30 in 2007, 64 in 2008 and 22 in the first quarter of 2009.

Language-wise, I have published 134 English-language texts and 141 translations. Of these, 108 were originally English, 26 American, 45 French, 31 Italian, 26 Russian, 22 German, 7 Spanish, 5 Japanese, 2 Latin, 2 Persian and 1 Hungarian.

As regards the genre, 20 were non-fiction titles, 2 were plays, 24 were poetry books, 55 were short-story collections, 7 were travelogues and the rest (167) novels or novellas.

If we look at the statistics by author, you will see that – er – the author I have published most is Jane Austen (8), followed by Lawrence (7) and Dickens (6). It’s a disgrace, I know – but after these popular authors there’s more open field: Dostoevsky (5), Charlotte Brontë (5), Chekhov (4), Robbe-Grillet (4), Bulgakov (4), Dante (3), Conrad (3), Collins (3), Boccaccio (3), Aretino (3), Fitzgerald (3), Hoffmann (3), Swift (3), Tolstoy (3), Virginia Woolf (3), Wilde (3), Twain (3), Zola (3), Tsutsui (3). My reputation is safe – just – I think.

My plums: Lorenzino de’ Medici’s Apology for a Murder – great reviews and incredibly good sales for a book that has been out of print even in Italy for over fifty years. Dante's Rime – simply the best book I will ever publish.

My turkey: a book called Sheepland, a kind of post-archaic Swiftian satire by an Arabic professor – which was forced down my throat by one of our Hesperus investors.

Have I been slack? Have I been a busy fool? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I hope readers will keep enjoying what I have done so far and what I am planning to publish in the next few years.

So long,


Wednesday, 8 April 2009


I have loved my UK publishers ever since 4th Estate took on my first novel, The Way the Family Got Away, after 119 other publishers had rejected it. Now Alma Books has just put out the UK paperback of Dear Everybody (US paperback coming in September) and I’m excited to be doing a two-week tour of the vibrant UK blogosphere starting next week.

April 13th *Me & My Big Mouth*
April 15th *Dogmatika*
April 17th *The View From Here*
April 18th *3am Magazine*
April 19th *Lizzy’s Literary Life*
April 20th *Digital Fiction Show*
April 21st *Planting Words*
April 23rd *Elizabeth Baines*
April 25th *Writing Neuroses*
April 26th *Just William's Luck*

If any other UK bloggers or reviewers would like a review copy, please leave a comment here and I’ll ask the good Daniel Seton of Alma Books to post one to you.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Very First Parts of DEAR EVERYBODY that Made It into Print

The very first parts of DEAR EVERYBODY that made it into print were Excerpts from the Suicide Letters of Jonathon Bender. That was the piece that was shortlisted by Stephen King and Dave Eggers. Those letters are early versions of the 200+ letters that make up the novel--along with diary entries, psychological evaluations, yearbook quotes, weather reports, an obituary, a last will and testament, and lots of other documents.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Ionesco's Rhinoceros most popular play of the year in Iran

MNA report that, with 25,674 tickets sold for 43 performances, Ionesco's Rhinoceros is the most popular play of the year in Iran. You can read the whole article here, where you'll also find details about the second most popular play and least popular play in Iran. Enlightening.

We are planning to issue a new edition of Ionesco's Complete Plays next year, in two big fat volumes, and as I mentioned in one of my recent blogs, Ionesco is the next author on my reading list. Coincidentally, Tom McCarthy told me the other day that Ionesco's only novel, The Hermit, was a great influence on his Remainder. So I'll try to have a look at that one too.


Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Best Italian Restaurant in London - and a joke

If Berlusconi is the pits for Italians in Britain, then Enoteca Turi on Putney High Street must be the road to salvation for any Italian nostalgic or English Epicurean.

It is easily – at least for me and Elisabetta – the best Italian restaurant in London. I have been going there for years, and I have got to know Mr Turi a bit. He is from Apulia, like Elisabetta (and his cuisine is philologically accurate about the greatest food from that region), and I was happy today to discover he's also an anti-Berlusconian.

Today he told me a joke that has been going round on the internet about Berlusconi, Obama and Bin Laden. It's more or less like this:

Barack Obama, bin Laden and Berlusconi are summoned by God.

God says: "I am not happy at all about what's happening on Earth – and you are not helping at all. If you don't get your act together, you and your people will be condemned to shovel dung for eternity!"

On their return on Earth, the three leaders call up a press conference.

Obama says: "People of America. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that God does exist." Here Americans cheer. "The bad news is that, if we don't get our act together, we'll be shovelling dung for eternity!" Americans try their best and work hard to improve things.

Then bin Laden says: "I have two pieces of bad news for you, my people: the first one is that Allah does not exist." Here everybody moans and boos. "The second one is that, if we don't get our act together, we'll be shovelling dung for eternity!" His followers start to work hard to improve things.

Finally Berlusconi says: "Italians! I have some wonderful news for you! First of all, my dad is sending His best wishes to you. . . And secondly, it looks like there will be a lot of work for everybody soon!"

Good night!


Friday, 3 April 2009

The Queen doesn't find Berlusconi funny

Well, who does?

The Queen, apparently, showed signs of mild, cool, English irritation when Mr Bee(g) shouted at the top of his voice: "Mr Obbbama-a". She turned round, rolled her eyes and – oh! – was caught on camera.

Have they ever polled how popular B. is with Italian expatriates? He is no more popular than teflon B was in England three years ago and Gordon B is now. Il Berlusca lost an election a few years ago because he was reckoning on pizza and mandolino votes from Italian emigrants in UK, US and Australia. How badly did he read that.

If I am here, it's partly thanks to Berlusconi. I am a Berlusconi exile.

And I am toasting to his painful death tonight.



The Art of Sinking in Literature

This is a title asking to be written.

After yet another inspiring Thursday evening at the Calder Bookshop – tonight’s fare was a reading from Graham Greene’s most famous novels, introduced by a tired-looking but anecdotal John Calder – I had dinner with Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder.

We had a long chat about the pitiful state of contemporary British literature. He argues that most people interested in ideas are emigrating to the visual arts or conceptual art, and that the celebrated writers of the day are the most mediocre and boring scribblers we’ve had for decades. We tried to think of one or two literary titles that made it into the top-ten or even top-fifty charts in the last twenty or thirty years. He couldn’t think of any book – neither could I.

I then told him I am currently editing this extraordinary book by Alexander Pope – another of my favourite authors – called Peri Bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry. Pope, with his friends Arbuthnot, Gay, Parnell and Swift, created a literary group, nicknamed the Scriblerus Club, with the intent of ridiculing “all the false tastes in learning”. The Club left behind a number of co-operative works, mostly satires, the most important of which – which I published at Hesperus a few years ago – is The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, a hilarious account of the life and works of a pretentious scholar.

I am not even half way through the editing of Peri Bathous, but I have already found a number of passages that are as true and applicable today as they were almost three hundred years ago, when Pope wrote them. I will give you three examples below, hoping that this will whet your appetite and you will want to read the whole thing when we publish the book next month.

“We come now to prove that there is an art of sinking in poetry. Is there not an architecture of vaults and cellars as well as of lofty domes and pyramids? Is there not as much skill and labour in making of dykes as in raising of mounts? Is there not an art of diving as well as of flying? And will any sober practitioner affirm that a diving engine is not of singular use in making him long-winded, assisting his sight and furnishing him with other ingenious means of keeping underwater?”

“It is affirmed by Quintilian that the same genius which made Germanicus so great a general would with equal application have made him an excellent heroic poet. In like manner, reasoning from the affinity there appears between arts and sciences, I doubt not but an active catcher of butterflies, a careful and fanciful pattern-drawer, an industrious collector of shells, a laborious and tuneful bagpiper or a diligent breeder of tame rabbits might severally excel in their respective parts of the bathos.”

“The physician, by the study and inspection of urine and ordure, approves himself in the science; and in like sort should our author accustom and exercise his imagination upon the dregs of nature. This will render his thoughts truly and fundamentally low, and carry him many fathoms beyond mediocrity.”


Thursday, 2 April 2009

A Dark Stranger

A dark stranger… Un beau ténébreux… the very title of Julien Gracq’s second novel symbolizes the complexity and startling obliqueness of a book that, on its publication in 1945, was described by Edmond Jaloux, writing in Psyché, as “a black diamond” whose dark brilliance set it apart from the literature of its time.

Gracq got the idea for the book while a prisoner of war in a camp near Hoyerswerda in what was then German Silesia. It was inspired by an obscure poem of Vigny’s, “Les amants de Montmorency”, in which two lovers make a suicide pact. In Carnets du grand chemin he describes how he wrote it in bed in the prison hut, not just for lack of a table; they were so ill-fed they only got up for a few hours a day so as to save energy. It was his job to divide up the daily ration of black bread. Never had the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread” – seemed so relevant.

A Dark Stranger is the product of this period of captivity, its ascetic routines. Arresting, prescient, it rises from the forest plains of Silesia only to be transposed onto the thundering tides of Brittany. Much influenced by Ernst Jünger and German Romantic literature, Gracq sets the story in another place where poetic traditions are strong. It resembles both the wild Breton coastline and the Silesian plain: sombre, unceasing, moving in cool sensual waves, sometimes calm, always unsettling.

Hence the inter-war setting assumes particular significance. The 1920s were a time of insouciance, conspicuous wealth; the jazz age epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But in A Dark Stranger – as for Fitzgerald in other ways – the period has something of a lament. Its wealthy, neurotic characters seem to be in mourning: but is this for the past horrors of 1914-18 – which perhaps significantly are never mentioned – or for those to come in 1939-45, so real and immediate to the author?

The era is nonetheless determined by the tone: the then-fashionable Anglophilia is also evident in the protagonist, the repellent and equivocally chivalrous Allan Murchison: his glamorous Anglo-French parentage, his quotes from Wilde, his monocle, Eton bow ties and English suits. Englishness plays a particular role in the novel that that operates on several levels. Allan’s parentage gives him cachet, explains his icy, derisive elegance, perhaps even his supposed superiority over his hot-blooded Latin acolytes. Yet the situation is not without irony. Although the other characters fall short of the ideal he sets, it is their failings that ultimately put them on a higher level than him; something they, even he, perhaps realize but are unwilling to admit.
Gracq also seems to have had Anglo-Saxon leanings – not least his reserve. Yet his brand of Anglophilia is atypical. He admired English coolness while recognizing that its emotional detachment is often accompanied by a lack of intellectual acuity. Widely read in English literature, he first visited the country in 1929. His observations, not published until 1992, draw interesting comparisons. He disliked the cynicism, the destructive criticism prevalent in France after 1918, admiring the British for still having “Victorian values” – something that would stand them in good stead in 1940. He felt this was what accounted for the very different national responses to the outbreak of war. But after a visit in the 1990s he felt the English had become “more like the French …”

In Allan, Gracq creates with incisive irony a modern figure, one familiar to us. Allan is godless, supremely logical, preoccupied with the impression he makes. Materially successful, for him people are as interesting as the treasures he collects—no more, no less. While protecting his privacy, beneath the mask – the “permanent look of Werther” as Irène describes it – his aim is to provoke reaction. In Gregory’s words he “burns life at both ends” according to his own existential code of perfection. Then, like the meteor Christel sees from the train, he makes a spectacular exit, destroys the self he has created, believing in it to the last.

Gracq’s message might be: “don’t live your life like this”. Allan’s gifts are squandered in a quest for an ideal that has no more substance than his reflection in the mirror. Ultimately he is a study in failure.

At times Allan seems to be playing a vast game of chess, not only with the other characters but with the literary and surrealist themes which, through him, exert their influence on the narrative: Poe, Rimbaud, keywords, magnetic fields, vanishing points, planetary orbits. At others – although the shift in roles is barely perceptible – he acts as a form of external siphon that feeds a series of communicating vessels, an image used by Gérard in his diary. This, the interrelation of our waking and dreaming lives, how they cross-fertilize, is arguably the book’s predominant surrealist element, one that draws on Breton’s work Les vases communicants. The part played by dreams is substantial yet understated; it is often hard to distinguish dream from reality. And although none of the characters dream about Allan specifically, it is apparent that he inspires, even dictates, the content of their dreams. He inhabits both worlds, blurring the already porous boundary between them.

To French and English readers alike, Gracq’s work can seem impenetrable. Yet in a world where communication is becoming homogeneous, the clarity of his language is a reminder of the purifying power of the word; that it can reveal without blinding. In an interview with Gracq in 1986, Jean Carrière commented that his work sometimes gives the impression of being translated from another language. Gracq replied that, on the contrary, his (unfulfillable) wish was that it should remain so close to its French roots as to be “untranslatable”.

Gracq’s avoidance of the literary scene – he refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951 – seems more justified than ever today, when the self-promotion encouraged by publishers and authors alike has such a corrosive effect on the integrity of literature. The work of many contemporary writers is obscured by their public profile. Gracq, by contrast, effaces himself. It is his work that shines, not him. When he died in 2007 at the age of ninety-seven, one of the few to be published in the Pléiade in his lifetime, the press described his passing as “discreet”. It is perhaps the most fitting tribute for an author.

Michel Tournier, the well-known French novelist, once spoke about influences on his own work. Prominent among them was Julien Gracq. When asked to elaborate he had only this to say: “Gracq… read all of him”.

Christopher Moncrieff
Harz Mountains
September, 2008

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Gogol Celebrations: Part 2

Gogol is one of my favourite authors. I have published his Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Fell Out with Ivan Nikiforovich (under the title The Squabble) and other stories at Hesperus, and my greatest ambition is to publish a new translation of Dead Souls and his Petersburg Stories.

I think he is one of the greatest and most influential geniuses in the world of letters. He should be as widely read as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Bulgakov. Still, his works are very little known in this country. Perhaps it’s because he’s a humorous writer, and humour must be of a particular kind to appeal to English and American readers.

But another reason why Gogol is so dear to me – apart from the fact that he was stark raving mad – is that he has a strong connection with Rome. He commented on and praised the poetry of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, and even talked about my hometown Genzano in one of his letters:
I want to tell you about a feast that took place over the past few days in Genzano, a small village not far from Rome. It is called the Infiorata. Just imagine: all the streets are strewn and adorned with flowers – but don't think that the flowers are simply scattered around. Not at all! You wouldn’t even guess they are flowers: imagine some sort of carpets depicting a variety of things, and these all made of petals: baskets, vases, patterns and even a portrait of the Pope – simply extraordinary. The streets, the windows, the door frames were crowded with people…
And he goes on to describe the Infiorata procession.

Our Oneworld Classics edition of Dead Souls should be coming out in the Spring of 2010. For the time being, dear Nikolai, a happy two-hundredth anniversary, with many returns!


Gogol Celebrations: Part 1

Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), who was one of greatest and strangest writers to come out of Russia or Ukraine, and deserves considerably more fame than he has in Britain. Gogol was born in the town of Poltava in present-day Ukraine, and many of his earlier stories were based on gobbets of Ukrainian folklore supplied by his mother along with financial support. Naturally, there has been a lot of wrangling between Ukraine and Russia over his true nationality since he wrote in Russian and lived for a considerable while in St Petersburg.

I was first put off reading Gogol at the age of 17 by a nasty Penguin cover for Dead Souls depicting a bunch of peasants grubbing around in filth (at least that’s how my memory has repainted something by Repin), and didn’t actually start reading his work until several years later. That picture was wholly inappropriate to Gogol, whose genius lies in his humour, his ability to get hopelessly and wonderfully distracted by details, and his utterly bizarre vision of the world.

Take The Nose, for instance, one of the celebrated Petersburg stories: Major Kovalyov wakes up one morning to find that, instead of a nose, he has simply “an extremely uncouth, smooth, and uniform patch” slap-bang in the middle of his newly egglike face. Later, on Nevsky Prospekt, he recognises the nose leaping into a carriage, “clad in a gold-braided, high-collared uniform, buckskin breeches, and cockaded hat”. Аfter pursuing it into a building he then has an awkward social encounter with the nose, unsure of how to conduct himself because the nose is wearing a uniform of a higher rank and regards the Major with evident disdain…

One day during a visit to St Petersburg, I decided to locate a memorial to Major Kovalyov's nose which had been installed in 2002 on the wall of Prospekt Rimskovo-Korsakova, peering over a set of traffic lights. I was galled to find that the organ in question – which weighed in at a good six poods and was positioned several metres above the ground – was simply absent. I checked and rechecked the address – it was correct. I approached a somnolent security guard working in a nearby bank and explained everything to him; his look was as blank as the wall. I didn’t know what to do, I’d walked a long way to get to that nose, I hesitated. And then, abruptly and unpleasantly, before turning back to the little TV flickering in the plastic booth: no, he had no recollection of any nose, there’s no nose here.

The fact was, the nose simply vanished one morning. Perhaps it was taken by thieves, perhaps it sauntered off to a cushy job in GazProm where it was something of a hit with the ladies and liked to read trashy magazines.

Guardian to switch from printed edition to Twitter!

The winner for the best April Fool's gag is certainly the Guardian:

Assuming this is not a serious piece of news. . . You never know.