Sunday 30 May 2010

A Typo Can Make You Cry for Joy

That's what happened to me yesterday. My daughter and I were reading Roald Dahl's Matilda, in the pitifully edited Puffin edition (see my blog on the BFG here), and when we came to page 37, line 6, Eleonora stopped as she read, "There is is – Fred said – It's name is Chopper", looked at me and said with her big child eyes wide open: "Daddy, shouldn't it be 'its', without an apostrophe?"

She'd just spotted her first typo. At six years and a half. A genius proofreader – a Mozart of the copy-editing world . . . Never was there a prouder editor-father . . .

I speak in jest, of course.


Friday 28 May 2010

Mumm's the Word

Lovely evening first at the Institute Français, where the Culturethèque project (try it here for free) was launched and a profusion of Mumm champagne served (I had five glasses), and then chez M. L'Ambassadeur for a petit four-course dîner, sprinkled with some of the best wines I've had in years (point No.1: yes, I am not tea-totalling any more; point No. 2: an illustrious publisher – not me – complained that SPANISH wines had been served at the French Institute party during the London Book Fair: I can guarantee these were the very finest wines and champagnes of France – Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2004, Château Léoville Las Cases 2001 and Champagne Ruinart Blanc de Blanc [sic]).

The dinner, by and large, went down very well – the consommé de homard was quite good; so was the poitrine de canette – but a few French noses, as well as a couple of Italian ones, were turned up at the potted tiramisu aux noisettes et pont-l'évêque: the chef could have done better there, sorry. Tiramisu is something else.

However, the coreography was better than La Scala's – so many bouquets of fresh flowers, so many white-gloved waiters serving all sorts of delicacies and topping up your glasses . . . it was an Epicurean's paradise. All in all, it was a great day for French cuisine.

And I am not drunk – amazing. I am simply wasted.


Wednesday 26 May 2010

Fickers and F**kers

There was a brief moment of hilarity today when one of our editors picked up a copy of Tolstoy's Gospels in Brief, which according to the book's back cover was one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's favourite books. So much was he in thrall of this book – according to another of our editors – that when he served in the trenches during the Great War he always kept with him two books: one was the manuscript of what was going to be his masterpiece, the Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, the other was Tolstoy's take on the Gospels.

What's so funny about this? What is funny is that to corroborate Wittgenstein's endorsement, the publisher has quoted from a letter the philosopher wrote to his friend Ludwig von Ficker…

I don't know if you have any German, but I'll let you imagine what Ficker means. . . I think I have given you enough clues. . .


Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Moonstone Legacy

Today is an exciting day for Pushkin press, seeing as it does the launch of its first young-adult title – also the first title to be written for Pushkin, rather than translated from a foreign-language original.

The book is called The Moonstone Legacy – inspired by Wilkie Collins’ classic Victorian mystery, The Moonstone it’s a literary sort of young-adult title, but still has a plot as gripping as that of the original, taking the reader on a journey from the Yorkshire Moors to the jungles of Gujarat and back.

Over the next couple of weeks the book and its authors, Diana de Gunzburg and Tony Wild, will be going on a blog tour to promote the book. Diana and Tony are busy preparing for the launch, but Tony sent us this message from his native Yorkshire, home of the novel’s heroine, Lizzie Abercrombie:

“With the Yorkshire launch coming up tomorrow, Diana and I retreated over the weekend to the North York Moors for a heavy dose of Lizzy-land. Thirteen miles of bone-wearying trek around Farndale later, we ended up in Kepwick, the location of our fictional Shalimar. It was on particularly fine form, roasting under the blazing May sun, the early heather shoots on the surrounding moors a startling green, snipes soaring in the blue, blue sky. As the Moghul Emperor Babur said upon his first visit to Kashmir,"If there is a Heaven here on earth, this is it, this is it … !”

Below are the dates of the forthcoming stops on the tour:

Lizzy's Literary Life 27th May

Marjoleinbookblog 31st May

Pretty Little YA Books 1st June

Writing from the Tub 3rd June

J'adore 5th June

The Truth About Lies 7th June

Once upon a Bookcase 8th June

Narratively Speaking 10th June

So Many Books, So Little Time 11th June

Magic Bean Review 14th June

Nayu's Reading Corner 15th June

Bookbabblers 16th June

Book Reviews by Sarah 17th June

Ondaatje Prize

A lovely evening (which spilled into the new day) yesterday at the Travellers' Club for the ceremony dinner organized by the Royal Society of Literature. It was the poshest of occasions in the poshest of places, with many ladies sporting their new frocks, and it was good to meet many friends there, and make a few more. I think I may have been the only one without a black tie. When asked by a fellow guest why I wasn't wearing one, I simply answered: "I'm Italian."

The dinner itself was, according to many, senza infamia e senza lode – quite a few people left their wild mushroom risotto on their plates – but the company was good and although our book (Kachi Ozumba's The Shadow of a Smile) didn't win, we were delighted when our friend Ian Thomson received the prestigious accolade for his book on Jamaica, The Dead Yard (published by Faber).

He also received ten thou from Sir Christopher Ondaatje, and during the improvised acceptance speech he confessed he's going to buy a new car with it – but knowing Ian it's more likely to buy him a new trip to some other hotspot of our planet – or to his beloved Italy.

Anyway, well done Ian!


Sunday 23 May 2010

Florence, Rome, Venice

By a strange turn of events, I may get to see again (ash clouds permitting) these three most celebrated cities of Italy. Next week, we'll begin a tour of Tuscany, starting from Lucca and driving down to Rome via Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Città della Pieve. Then, a week or so later, I'll fly to Venice and from there drive to Monselice, a small medieval town near Padua, to collect an unexpected special award from the prestigious Biblioteca di Monselice prize for my translation of The Rape of the Lock.

More Italy, this year, than in the last five years put together!

I have just seen this lovely review of Bestseller by Allan Massie in the Scotsman, and I'd like to share it with you. When you write a book, you always hope that you'll find at least one reader who can understand everything you intended to do. I seem to have found just that ideal reader in Allan.


Wednesday 19 May 2010

A Tale of Two Screams

A very unusual day yesterday.

In the morning, I had a root-canal operation and spent two and a half hours with a dentist's head hovering above me and all sorts of drills, iron clamps, needles and syringes messing around in my mouth, to the grating sound of several internal shrieks.

By contrast, in the evening, two and a half hours of the most melodious high notes: it was the premiere of a new UK production of Tosca at the Coliseum (coinciding with the launch of our Overture Opera Guides series), and Elisabetta and I were kindly invited there by English National Opera. My only regret is that the opera was not sung in Italian, as Tosca is one of those works that don't translate easily into another language: most of the music is in the words themselves, and it gets lost in translation.

It's amazing to think that Tosca was premiered 110 years ago, when my great-grandfather was only sixteen years old (Joyce's Ulysses and TS Eliot's Waste Land were published only two decades later). So much has changed in terms of taste, language, fashion and social mores since then that I had the impression, at times, to be looking at something written in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

Yet I was glad to see, as I elbowed my way towards the front of the bar during the intermissions, that there are still many people who can appreciate this art form – not all of them silver-haired, which is even more encouraging.


Monday 17 May 2010

A New Pizzeria in Town

Our friends Andrea and Lisa took us to a new pizza place in Chiswick, called Franco Manca. It's new over here, but apparently it's been open for eighteen years in Brixton, and they are now thinking to open another five or six shops nationwide. I really hope they do, because they are evangelizing the real Neapolitan pizza. It's sourdough pizza, and the dough is left to rise for twenty hours before being used. The tomato is fresh, the mozzarella is top-quality, and the result is the best pizza I've had in years, not just in the UK. It did remind me of the pizza I used to have in Naples in the early Nineties. If you haven't been there, do try it – it's on 144 Chiswick High Road.

And (I whisper here) it's very very reasonably priced.


Sunday 16 May 2010

Masterclass in Roman Cuisine

My trip to Rome turned into a masterclass in Roman cuisine. I have asked my mother and aunt to prepare some Roman dishes I had not tried for years, and the result was divine: Roman cuisine is simple and delicious. Here's a brief selection of what went down my throat by way of my palate:

First course
Risotto ai carciofi (mum): 8/10
Spaghetti ai funghi porcini (aunt): 9/10. This could have been a 10/10 if the porcini had been picked the previous night
Minestra di fagioli (mum): 9/10

Second or main course
Bistecca alla brace (mum): 9/10
Scaloppine ai funghi porcini (aunt): 10/10
Baccalà in padella (mum): (10/10)

Side dishes
"Bieda" (Swiss chard) ripassata in padella (mum): 10/10
"Cicoria" di campo (wild chicory) ripassata in padella (mum): 10/10
Zucchine gratinate (aunt): 9/10

So it was a fiercely fought tie. Even more than eating, I enjoyed learning the small secrets which can transform an ordinary recipe into something special.

Should our publishing business fail, we could always turn to cooking.


Thursday 13 May 2010

Roma Caput Mundi

I had not been to Rome for years, so I massively overestimated how long it would take to get there from Albano Laziale. I had a ten o'clock rendezvous with two American friends, so I got on the car at around 8:15, parked the car at the station, got on the 8:25 train to Rome, and in fourteen minutes I was at Roma Termini. Because it was so early I decided to walk, but I got to Piazza Barberini in less than fifteen minutes. Ridiculous.

Rome is lovely at this time of the year: it's warm but not too warm, sunny but not sun-strikingly sunny. I was prepared to be disappointed after so many years of absence, but in fact I loved every bit of it, from the stunning buildings and monuments to the food. It's true that quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini, et quod non fecerunt Barberini fecit Populus Romanus: the city centre is annoyingly dingy with smog, noisy and overcrowded. But it's also true that there are more beauties than any other European capital I have ever visited put together, and that its atmosphere and charm are unique.

Although I used to be a seasoned Rome explorer, I discovered some previously unknown sites yesterday, such as Sant'Ivo in Sapienza, with the famous Borromini cupola (I only knew the other one, near Quattro Fontane). The beauty of Rome is that you can walk from one place to the other with ease, as it's all so compact. Incidentally, I realized that whereas Roman people walk at normal pace, I constantly found myself marching along: thirteen years of life in London leave a deep mark.

Rome has not changed much: walking from Termini through Piazza dei Cinquecento and Piazza Esedra to Piazza Barberini, I saw the usual second-hand-book stalls - most of which have diversified into classic adult movies such as Il buco del piacere (The Pleasure Hole) - the usual shops, the usual museums and hotels, the usual people hanging around bars as if it were Sunday morning.

The highlights of the day were the discovery of a nice Osteria near the Piramide Cestia and my return to visit Keats's and Shelley's tombs at the nearby Protestant Cemetery. There were also funny moments, such as when a nutcase almost assaulted my friend for not letting him get off the bus, and when there was a popular uprising against a bus driver who drove too fast and too jumpily on the cobblestones around Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum.

In short, a great day, which confirms my opinion that even if I would not like to live in Rome, I'd love to be here more and more often as a visitor and day-tripper.

Tomorrow off to Tivoli.


Tuesday 11 May 2010


Today we should receive finished copies of our first Overture Opera Guide. It's a shame they didn't arrive yesterday before I left for Italy. It's been a pleasure to work with Gary Kahn and Philip Reed on the first two titles of the series, and I am currently immersed in Mozart's Idomeneo, an opera whose existence I did not even suspect a few months ago.

Reading the informative articles at the front of the book and working on the Thematic Guide, I realized how ignorant I am in terms of music. Julian Rushton's musical analysis of Mozart's opera was just about as intelligible as a page of Arabic script. But it's delightful to be immersed in a completely different world, time and genre, and I look forward to going with Elisabetta to the premiere of Tosca at the Coliseum on Tuesday.

In our Idomeneo volume, there's a brilliant selection from the letters exchanged between Mozart and his father Leopold. I have always heard that Leopold was quite dispotic and "used" his son's talents for his own advantage and advancement. But reading these letters a complete different relationship seems to emerge, at least at the time of Idomeneo's composition. Leopold offers sound and practical compositional advice to the twenty-four-year-old exuberant genius, who responds with great brio and wit to his father's prompting.

There's many bits I loved, such as when Mozart says: "Tell me, don't you think the speech of the subterranean voice is too long? Consider it carefully . . . If the Ghost's speech in Hamlet weren't so long, it would be even more effective." Priceless.

But the passage I loved most is when Leopold says to his son: "I advise you when working on the score to consider not only the musical but also the unmusical public. You know that for every 10 real connoisseurs there are 100 ignoramuses. So don't forget what's called the popular style, which tickles long ears." Mozart was quick to pick on that and replied in this next letter: "As for what is called popular taste, don't worry, for my opera contains music for all kinds of people, not just for those with long ears."

It's particularly moving to read this exchange, as Idomeneo was only performed twice during the author's lifetime - although Mozart was always very attached to it - and it has been reappraised by critics as one of his masterpieces only in recent years. A sign that the Salzburg genius was not really writing for those "with long ears" . . .


Sunday 9 May 2010

Unholy Awakening

I love looking at the NEW TITLES section in the Bookseller for inspiration, and this one really grabbed my attention:

"Michael Gregorio, Unholy Awakening, to be published on 5th August by Faber

Fourth novel in the Hanno Stiffeniis series from the husband-and-wife writing team. In 19th-century Prussia corpses are turning up everywhere with their throats ripped out, and the blood drained from the body. People are whispering about vampires and Magistrate Stiffeniis must investigate."

Stephen Page told me they had banned vampires from their list – this one must have slipped through.

What is that noise, you ask? Nothing, just TS Eliot turning in his grave.


Friday 7 May 2010

Turi, Riva, Alma, Roma

Why are all good Italian things a four-letter word?

For a long time Turi on Putney High Street has been my Italian restaurant of choice. But many friends have often mentioned Riva in Barnes. It's only two or three miles from our office, but I had never been there until today. I had lunch there with Melissa Ulfane of Pushkin Press, who always initiates me to the most delightful places in London. Apart from its great, cosy atmosphere, the food was staggeringly good and simple. At least enough to impress a hardcore amateur cook like me. I'll be returning there many times.

But that will have to wait until I'm back from Italy. I miss my family and I miss Rome, Tivoli, Albano. I can't wait to get there – Icelandic volcano permitting. There's nothing like the pappardelle al sugo di lepre from the Cacciatori restaurant in Genzano – or Ariccia's porchetta – or the porcini bash you can have anywhere in Lariano – or the wine you can drink in any tavernetta in Frascati.

Oh well, my mouth's watering again. . .


Thursday 6 May 2010

Why Read the Classics

I have been dipping into Calvino’s Perché leggere i classici, which is little more than a clever marketing operation, as it consists of over thirty unrelated articles on European classics and introductions to various literary works, especially in translation.

The title piece of the collection is easily the most interesting, and it lists fourteen attempts at defining a “classic”. Since this is one of the questions I am most frequently asked as a publisher of classics, I found this article particularly engaging.

However, I agree with only a few of Calvino’s definitions. Who would subscribe, for example, to his claim that “the first reading of a classic is in fact a rereading”? It’s also a bit disappointing that he never gets round to answer the question in the title. The nearest he gets to this is towards the end of the article, when he says that “reading the classics is better than not reading the classics”. I have a feeling that such a generalization is bound to raise a few eyebrows today, especially in this country. It did raise mine – and I think of myself as a bit of classicist...


Sunday 2 May 2010

Reader's Anger

Over the last couple of weeks I've been reading Roal Dahl's The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my daughter Eleonora, and I found it infuriating how poor the typesetting and the editing was (not to mention the quality of the paper).

I mean, these are books that have been sold in their hundreds of thousands, if not in their millions, and reprinted umpteen times according to their copyright pages. Yet they are full of the ugliest orphans, widows and gappy lines, the narration is mangled by lazy repetitions, and there's even a few bad typos… Surely they receive letters, as we do, pointing out mistakes? Why didn't they bother to correct them in all these years? Grrrr… We deserve better...