Friday 16 December 2011

London's Best Bookshop

Our congratulations go out to The Calder Bookshop & Theatre who have won this year's award for London's Best Bookshop by London Magazine, especially considering that among the other nominations were Daunts Books in Marylebone, Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill and the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury.

The Calder Bookshop was founded by publishing legend John Calder and specialises in literary fiction, poetry and drama. In 2010 it become The Calder Bookshop & Theatre hosting a variety of discussions, literary readings, film showings, music events and theatre performances. Visit their website to find out about latest events and pop in to flick through some extraordinary titles.

The Calder Bookshop & Theatre
51 The Cut, London, SE1 8LF
Telephone: 020 7620 2900

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Where are all the Christmas parties?

Over the past few years December has always looked like a minefield – the calendar was chock-full of Christmas dinners and parties. This year we looked at our diaries and the only invitation was from the Elvis Presley Society of Great Britain, which unfortunately we had to turn down as it clashes with Advent Service at our kids' school. Either we have suddenly become personae non gratae or the publishing world has run out of money.

Luckily enough, Italians are not daunted by the crisis and are in as festive a mood as ever (remember the good old days of the Credit Crunch? Sigh. We are now officially in recession until further notice). So it will be a good year for turkeys – and for us there will be a lot of Prosecco, lasagna and panettone.

Cin cin!

Friday 25 November 2011

The Slowest Order

I had lunch with an author at our favourite local restaurant today and, just as we were about to order our food and drinks, a Spanish family of four sat next to us. I found it difficult to talk to my author, as the Spaniards kept reading, translating and commenting the menu. The negotiations carried on until our food was served, then they started joking. We got our coffee and I asked for the bill. When I was walking out of the restaurant, they signalled the waitress that they were ready to order.

Friday 18 November 2011

The Fastest Reader in the World

Coming back on the train from Hull today, where I attended the launch of our Lightship Anthology yesterday, I sat next to the fastest reader I have ever met in my life. We left Doncaster at around 11:00am. I noticed that the woman was reading a book by Michael Connelly – I don't know which one because the publisher doesn't use running headers. I saw she was on Chapter 5 when I sat next to her. Ten minutes later I happen to glance over my shoulder and saw she was at the beginning of Chapter 11. "That can't be right," I thought. So I tried to time her reading and realized that she could read 2 pages in 25 seconds, and 4 pages in 50 seconds. Obviously she was quicker when there was dialogue – and they were fairly normal pages of around 250 words each. When we reached Kings Cross she was on page 300 or something, only around 150 pages to go – about half an hour. I am green with envy, having managed to get through only about 50 manuscript pages in the same time.

* * *

A Greek, an Italian and a Portuguese go to the pub and get something to drink. Who pays?

The German.

Thursday 13 October 2011

The trials and pleasures of a Oneworld Classics’ intern

In between stuffing hundreds of envelopes with our catalogues to send out to our avid readers, I’ve somehow managed to significantly educate myself about two of the most exciting operas around: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The bright yellow Le nozze di Figaro guide is one of the thickest in the series and there is certainly no shortage of material, including alternative ariettas written for the librettist’s mistress, a whistle-stop tour in how to analyze recitative, and a performance history where the author definitely does not lack choice! The guide traces the history from Mozart’s original inspiration by the acerbic Beaumarchais play commenting on French society right through to the twenty-first century productions that seem to favour jocks, celebrity culture and fast cars.

Learning about the tragic antihero Eugene Onegin has been just as rewarding, not least because of my first, rather underwhelming, exposure to the opera. My parents took me to a rather drab local production when I was far too young for it, but, reading about the plot, the characters, and the live wire of emotions that underscores the music and the drama of it all, I still can’t understand how, even aged 11, I managed to be bored by it! Even in the more academic history of the work, I was surprised by the huge variety of interpretations that have been produced, despite most managing to stay loyal to the rural folk setting that is so key to the characters’ inevitable fates.

Discovering the in-depth histories behind these operas combined with a pre-existing love for their music has certainly whet my appetite for ENO’s season. Fiona Shaw, who directs The Marriage of Figaro, demonstrates physically all the madness of the plot in this ‘Folle Journée’ using a revolving stage – watch her discuss it on the Andrew Marr Show here. I’m especially excited to see Eugene Onegin as it features tenor Toby Spence, a personal idol of mine.

Imogen Sebba


Thursday 8 September 2011

Event: The Tomb of Ugo Foscolo

We’re delighted to hear that the Tomb of Ugo Foscolo has now been restored to its former glory. To celebrate the completion of its restoration there will be a ceremony at the graveyard of St Nicholas’s Church in Chiswick, London W4 2PJ (please see the enclosed map for directions), hosted by His Excellency the Italian Ambassador on Saturday 10th September at 11 o’clock.

The monument was created by Carlo Marochetti, a sculptor from Turin, on commission by Hudson Gurney who, knowing how dear the illusion of a sepulchre was to the Venetian poet – a symbol of civilization and eternal care – made sure that Foscolo’s earthly remains were not just interred in a common mound of earth.

Marochetti created a granite structure harking back to a Roman altar, with the coat of arms of Foscolo’s family tied by a ribbon with the ensign’s Latin motto “accingar zona fortitudinis”.

After lying in a state of disrepair for decades, the tomb has been restored thanks to the dedicated work of a charity set up for the purpose of recovering this important monument – not just to Ugo Foscolo but to Italian poetry and to all the politically persecuted exiles in the world.

I hope you will be able to come along and, if you interested in finding out more about Ugo Foscolo and some of his major poetical works, why not pick up a copy of our edition of his Sepolcri (Selpuchres), with a selection of his poems.

Monday 5 September 2011

I Write Like

During a lovely dinner with one of our authors I was made aware of the existence of I Write Like (incidentally, I love its egotistical web suffix ".me") a website that purports to tell you which writer you are most akin to in terms of style. Our author tried a few paragraphs from her novel and her writing was flatteringly compared to a number of major authors, including Leo Tolstoy – because that's the trick, she told me: you are only ever compared to some of the greatest authors in the world of literature, so there's no chance your ego can get beaten.

Sure as hell that night, before going to bed I put my prose through the acid test of the I Write Like website. I didn't dare try any bits from BESTSELLER, but picked three paragraphs from the first two pages of my new novel.

The results were as follow:

First paragraph: Arthur Clarke. Here my heart sunk – do they mean "Arthur C. Clarke", the science-fiction writer? But I don't think I've ever read anything by him – I've only watched a few times the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, which I don't think it counts as an influence. Or do they mean some other unknown Arthur Clarke, the author of out-of-print erotica? Not a good start.

Second paragraph: Vladimir Nabokov. Oh my God – not a name I wanted to see cropping up! You may remember I said once that I wasn't all that impressed by his prose – at least the prose of his short stories . . .

Third paragraph (brace yourself): Dan Brown! I will add no comments to this – I just hope to be able to make a hundredth of the money he did with his pot-boiler.

Conclusions: either my new novel is going to be a Lolita meets The Da Vinci Code with a sprinkling of 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of novel, or I Write Like is total bullshit.

I tend to favour the second possibility.


PS: What would happen if one were to try with a piece of real Tolstoy?

Friday 2 September 2011

Exotic Lands

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for reviews, with two each for Kapka Kassabova’s Villa Pacifica and Stephen Parkin’s new translation of Edmondo de Amicis’s Constantinople.

The Scotsman praised Kassabova’s handling of the dreamlike, fantastical elements of her new novel, set in an idiosyncratic animal sanctuary on the coast of South America, and went on to describe it as “intelligent, psychologically compelling… a truly mesmerising read.” Kevin Rushby, writing for the Guardian, compared Kassabova to Joseph Conrad, particularly in her “accuracy and economy”, adding: “Kassabova unleashes a smart turn of literary speed with a deliciously unexpected ending.”

Time Out recommended Constantinople for its “lavish detail and curiosities of Istanbul”, noting that de Amicis’s two-volume travelogue is “as quintessentially Victorian as Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and Sir Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography.” Over at the TLS, Roderick Conway Morris called Stephen Parkin’s translation in for particular praise, describing it as “assured and lively, catching well the spirit of the original”. On the original itself, he was no less complimentary: “Edmondo de Amicis’s book conjures up the eternal harem of Western imaginings, of alluring Oriental deshabille and sensual decadence behind closed doors.”

He also points out that there's a view of Cairo on the cover, not of Istanbul – well, the image was clearly labelled on Getty Images and it was an intentional licence by our designer – totally lost on our exacting critic of course. . .

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Simon Boccanegra

Opera fans, check out the latest issue of the BBC Music magazine for a rather flattering review of our new Overture Opera Guide to Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Michael Tanner has lots of lovely things to say, not least that: “All told, this is an indispensable volume.” He’s particularly complimentary about the literal facing-page translation, which will please our editor, who spent hours lovingly tweaking every word to make the lines match up – not a task anyone in the office envied. His highest praise, though, goes to the “exceptionally searching, well-written and cultivated piece” by Desmond Shawe-Taylor on Verdi and his singers, one of a number of essays included in this new edition.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

No More Discounts!

Don't worry – our successful promotion continues.

What I'm referring to is a law that has just been approved in Italy, which makes it illegal (except for art books, second-hand and antiquarian books and remaindered stock) to discount books, both in bookshops and online, more than 15%. The only exception is in-store special promotions, where the discount can go up to 25%. Now imagine if this were to happen in the UK . . . There would be more violent riots than the ones we had earlier in the month.

Another interesting piece of statistics from the Repubblica article where I found out about this: according to a recent research only 46.8% of Italians over the age of 6 have read at least one book (not for work or for study) over a period of six months. Grim. Try to be a publisher in the Bel Paese!

At the end of the article there's a slightly misleading report, showing that Italian bestsellers are sold at an average of 16.1 euros, the second highest average after Ireland, and well above United States (11.1), Germany (13.6), England (14) and France (14.4). I say it's misleading because Italy is a totally different market, with very few hardback non-fiction bestsellers (such as cookery books or celebrity memoirs). It would have been much more interesting to compare paperbacks with paperbacks. You'd have then seen a double digit figure for Italy and something like 3.5 for UK.

Whichever way you look at it, whether you are an Italian or an English publisher, the only thing you can do is to find comfort in the final words of Gogol's How the Two Ivans Quarrelled: "It is dreary in this world, gentlemen!"


Friday 26 August 2011

A follow-up on Heppenstall

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones with a fondness for Heppenstall: here’s a fantastic piece from today’s 3. A.M. magazine on the man, his career, and his place within 1930s literary Fitzrovia. Worth reading just for the tale of Heppenstall being given a sound beating by flatmate George Orwell for coming home drunk and disorderly.


Thursday 25 August 2011

Blaze of Noon

“For what are the emotions? They are things like anger, fear and curiosity. They are sudden changes in a man’s temper, breaking in upon his existence and distorting his features. […] Love is not an emotion.” So says Rayner Heppenstall in The Blaze of Noon, and the novel is filled with these nuggets of philosophy which both stand alone and illuminate the psyche of their narrator.

At once a love story and a treatise on the power dynamic between men and women, Heppenstall’s tale of a blind masseur staying in a Cornish country house posits a doctrine of emotional detachment which its narrator struggles to live up to. After going blind at the age of twenty-three, Louis Dunkel has exerted himself to make his disability as inconspicuous as possible, making masculinity, rather than infirmity, the driving force of his character. Embarking on a relationship with the beautiful but troubled Sophie Madron, Dunkel is at pains to establish himself as an authoritative male presence, educating and repairing Sophie whilst remaining emotionally neutral himself. “The brute fact,” says Dunkel, “is that man’s pleasure in love is a derivative of the pleasure he gives to woman.” This philosophy – and Dunkel’s emotional distance – is compromised by the arrival of Sophie’s blind and deaf cousin, Amity Nance.

I was ashamed not to have heard of Heppenstall until very recently, but in fact he has been widely neglected. Until now his much-admired early novels had fallen out of print, thanks largely to critical distaste at his later work. In its depiction of the minute-to-minute experience of blindness, The Blaze of Noon represents an intriguing engagement with literary form, and has often been hailed as forerunner of the nouveau roman.


Monday 22 August 2011

August Discounts

Yes, this is not a mirage nor a Photoshop job: it’s Céline’s Death on Credit with a 3x2 sticker in a Waterstone’s window display (Richmond). I swear this was not obtained through bribing or coercion – it’s totally the store’s initiative, and must be a sign of the good times ahead.

Incidentally, to celebrate the summer we are offering, for a very limited time, a 40% discount on all online orders of our Alma and Oneworld Classics titles (in addition, there is free postage over a certain amount spent). So please take advantage, as dozens of customers have already done, of this fantastic opportunity and hoard up for the cold and rainy seasons ahead.

Friday 19 August 2011

A Week in Review

We were delighted with the review of Peter Benson’s Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke in the Guardian, ‘A haunting tale of love, clairvoyance and cannabis’, although Alma Books got a slight rapping for choosing a comically themed cover and title. Read the full review here. A big thank you goes to fellow blogger Jim Murdoch for dedicating a lengthy review to Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke on his blog The Truth about Lies.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa has been wonderfully reviewed by the blogs In Spring it is the Dawn and What Sarah Reads. It has also won the Bancarella prize in Italy for food- and cookery-related books. The Premio Bancarella della Cucina was inaugurated in 2006 and the original Premio Bancarella is one of the most prestigious in Italy. It was established in 1953 and awarded the same year to Ernest Hemingway; other winners include Umberto Eco and John Grisham.

We sent Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness to the printers on Tuesday, and it’s already got a review! ‘With short, simple sentences and a brisk pace, the effect of this novel is reminiscent of a film, except that a film would place greater emphasis on dramatic incident and the horror of the situation. As readers, we are left to reflect on such matters for ourselves.’ This is from the East-West Review. Blooms of Darkness is arguably Appelfeld's most personal novel, and tells the story of an eleven-year-old Jewish boy taken in by a prostitute and hidden in the local brothel from the Nazis during the liquidation of the ghettos.

Also in the East-West Review, an entire page on Roger Clarke’s translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

And talking of classics, I leave you all with the following letter from our recently published Letters to Friends, Family and Editors by Franz Kafka:

[Liboch; Autumn 1902]
To Oskar Pollak,

It’s a strange time I’ve been spending here, as you must have noticed, and I needed a strange time like this, a time in which I lie for hours on a vineyard wall and stare into the rain clouds which don’t want to leave here, or into the wide fields, which grow even wider when you have a rainbow in your eyes, or where I sit in the garden and tell the children (especially a blonde little six-year-old, whom all the women call adorable) fairy tales or build sand castles or play hide-and-seek or whittle tables that - as God is my witness - never turn out well. A strange time, isn’t it?

Or where I go through the fields which now lie brown and mournful with abandoned plows but which all the same glisten silvery when in spite of everything the late-afternoon sun comes out and cast my long shadow (yes, my long shadow, maybe by means of it I’ll still reach the kingdom of heaven) on the furrows. Have you noticed how late-summer shadows dance on dark, turned-up earth, how they dance physically? Have you noticed how the earth rises towards the grazing cow, how trustfully it rises? Have you noticed how rich, heavy soil crumbles under too delicate fingers, how solemnly it crumbles?

Yours, Franz

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Books books books

Just back from a great trip through France and Germany (Reims, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms, Trier and Cologne in four and a half days… our approximate itinerary is marked up in black) and was expecting a mountain of bumf on my desk. Surprisingly, and to my great relief, the only mountain on my desk was a tall pile of newly printed books – among them Dante's Vita Nuova, Conan Doyle's Tragedy of Korosko and Kafka's Letters, which I look forward to dipping into.

It's great to get out of Britain every now and again, not only because it's become a riotous place of late, but because you realize that in France and Germany, when people sit at restaurant tables or are on a tram or a metro, they don't muck around all the time with their iPhones and other hand-held gadgets.

Yesterday I went to my local gym and there was a guy on a cross trainer reading on a Kindle. Try to picture that. How much more idiotic can you get? I mean, I'm not trying to criticize Amazon or eBooks here: he'd have been an idiot even if he had been reading a book or a newspaper.

Catching up with the latest trade news, it's refreshing to hear what James Daunt had to say on The Future of the Book (BBC Radio 4, 15th August). I agree with him one hundred per cent. But when will Waterstone's start to buy beautifully produced books again?

Slightly more puzzling is Victoria Barnsley's half-go at Amazon in an interview for the same programme (16th August). "They're 'frenemies'," she said. Now, when HarperCollins shows such reverence, one really starts to wonder. And be scared...

Monday 8 August 2011

What the Dikkens?

Can you spot the typo? Good, then you can volunteer to help proofread Household Words (later called All Year Round), the weekly edited by Charles Dickens. In its long history it covered over 30,000 pages of crammed text, which apparently translates into approximately three billion words.

Though fairly accurate, I am probably one of the slowest proofreaders in the world. A 30,000-word text will probably take me the good part of 10-12 hours – i.e. an entire day. Therefore if I were to be assigned the task of proofreading all the HW/AYR issues, I'd be stuck in my job for the next 274 years or thereabouts – and maybe a bit longer, as I would probably need to take a holiday from time to time to rest my eyes.

It's an ambitious project, and a laudable one, but is it worth all the effort? What is the point of having the whole thing at your fingertips if people will only read bits of it anyway? Can't they do it on paper? Is it to make it searchable? Googlable? Twitterable?

Perhaps the promoters of this initiative are secretly hoping to sell millions of Household apps in 2012, the year of Dickens's 150th anniversary?

O brave new world!

PS: Who is going to do second proofs?

Wednesday 3 August 2011

William Wordsworth

"I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, vanity and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet, if not a philosopher." This is what John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas on 21st February 1818. Wordsworth would have been 48 at the time, and at the height of his fame, having published his long philosophical poem The Excursion (1797–1814) in 1814.

I had not gone back to Wordsworth's poems for many years, and as I reread them – from his early attempts to the great poem of his maturity, The Prelude, published only posthumously in 1850 – my own impression is that he is a poet more preoccupied with himself than with the world. There is no doubt he is a good poet – although he often goes on for too long and outstays his poetical welcome – but was he a great poet? His poetry doesn't tell you much about the world or the society he lived in – it's all a bit detached and rarefied. He is, quintessentially, very much the image of the self-centred modern writer.

Do I like him? I like his diction, but his poetry leaves me cold and makes me yawn occasionally. I could not find a truly memorable line in my 400-page Selected Poems.

I know that he is the favourite of some of my authors and translators, so I'll stop here before I make anyone cross. However, going back to Keats, I remember that a friend of mine once told me he agreed with TS Eliot that John Keats, had he lived into old age, would have turned into a boring reactionary such as William Wordsworth (I hope I am quoting correctly as it's from memory). Well, my own take is that William Wordsworth, even if had lived 500 or 700 years, would never have become as great a poet as Keats was in his short life.

Monday 1 August 2011

What can you NOT find on the Internet?

My dear little sister alerted me to a You Tube video of my acceptance speech for the Premio Speciale Città di Monselice last year, for my translation of Pope's Rape of the Lock. Even if it's all in Italian (you can skip the first five minutes) I am delighted I can now share it with Elisabetta and many of my friends and family who could not come, due to the short notice.

Here's the link – so you can hear how Signor Gallenzi speaks Italian. I am the one on the right in the photo (hem).

Sunday 31 July 2011

Italian Culture Going down the Drain

I just came across this on the web – a new commercial for an Italian toilet paper.

In it, Dante writes his Divine Comedy on a roll of toilet paper. Very sophisticated.

They took a few liberties (poetic licence?) too. Dante writes the last words of the Divine Comedy in his house in Florence in 1308... Every Italian knows since primary school that he finished his Comedy in exile (after being banned from Florence since 1302) just before his death in 1321.

His young wife looks suspiciously more like a Beatrice Portinari than a Gemma Donati. She says in the ad: "This Comedy of yours is very nice, Dante – divine [ha ha] – but don't you think it's too long?" To which Dante replies: "It's fits just one roll..."

A better joke, at least in English, could have been: "I'm on a roll."

Monday 25 July 2011


The other day I was asked to sign a copy of my BESTSELLER, but I messed it up: I'm retarded these days when it comes to writing long-hand. So I crossed out my mistake, then picked up a new copy (I have many) and inscribed it to my admirer. I didn't know what to do with the old copy. I thought I could give it out for charity. Then I thought I could keep it in case an Indian or Swedish blogger asked for a reading copy. In the end, I tore the title page out and a few seconds later, unhappy, frustrated, consigned that copy to the bin.

Hours later the cleaner came in, when I was still in the office (not a rare occurrence). I was on the phone and I saw she hesitated before offloading the bin's contents into the rubbish bag. She took out this gold-foiled book and started to look at it. Fired by a new generosity, I mouthed: "Go on, you can have it, you can take it." The cleaner looked at me and put it in one of the large pockets of her apron, then when I hang up she said: "I'm looking for management books. Management."

I told the story in the office and the comment was: "This is packed with metaphor".

* * *

Yesterday I was sent a submission by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth-century, introduced by one of the best greatest great writers of the twentieth century. So I printed twenty pages, as I usually do when I get this kind of proposal, and took it home to read. I uncorked a bottle of red to be in a good mood and started to leaf through. The first twenty pages after the prelims were blank and they just said: "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction", "Introduction". I guess I'll have to print a few more pages before being able to make an offer.

* * *

A wonderful half-day at work, where I had the privilege of editing Swift's Battle of the Books. What a wonderful little book it is – so funny, so relevant. If you have not read it, please grab a copy once we publish it in October (available September).

* * *

As a cherry on the cake, tonight I had a lovely dinner with John Calder. I had not seen him for a while, and he's still going strong. Today – he told me – he is exactly eighty-four years and a half, which may go some way to explaining (together with his upset stomach) why he limited himself to a Fernet Branca, half a bottle of Chianti and a cognac as an accompaniment to our dinner.

Great anecdotes about Nora Wydenbruck, her husband and their piano-playing au pair, Sonia Orwell, Robbe Grillet, Ionesco and a few other unnamable greats. A truly memorable night.


Thursday 21 July 2011

Half-a-million Book

We just sent to the printers the longest book we have ever published under the Oneworld Classics imprint, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. At over 500,000 words, it dwarfs Anna Karenina (merely 320,000 or thereabouts) and Don Quixote (around 350,000 I think). Our editor cried this morning when I pressed the Send button.

But it's not the longest book I've published. William T. Vollmann's Imperial, published by Alma last year, clocks up around 750,000 words, spread out – or rather crammed into – over 1,400 pages.

Other books that went to press today are Antonia Pozzi's Poems, in Peter Robinson's wonderful new translation (with dual text), and two lesser-known gems by Raymond Queneau – We Always Treat Women Too Well and The Sunday of Life.

Me, I've spent the last couple of days wallowing in the many pleasures offered by Anthony Mortimer's new translation of Dante's Vita Nuova (again with dual text), to be published next month by Oneworld Classics.

In other news, Hodder has signed a title by Pippa Middleton's pilates coach Margot Campbell.


Monday 18 July 2011

We Always Treat Women Too Well

This morning has largely been spent pretending to correct the proofs of Raymond Queneau’s We Always Treat Women Too Well, while secretly luxuriating in Queneau’s beautifully turned phrases and glorious vulgarity. IRA raids, scenes of a sexual nature, and highbrow literary allusion are perhaps not the most obvious of bedfellows, but Queneau provides just that combination in his smutty envisioning of the 1916 Easter Rising, set in a model of Dublin lifted directly from the pages of Ulysses. The slim novel is peppered with Joycean echoes, most obviously in the name of Queneau’s heroine, Gertie Girdle, who indulges in more debauchery than Joyce’s Gerty MacDowell could ever dream of. Originally introduced as a demure post-office clerk, Queneau’s Gerty becomes embroiled with a gang of dissident republicans who take over the post office, unwittingly taking Gertie hostage while she’s in the Ladies. Her arrival on the scene heralds the disintegration of the group, as one by one they become suffused with guilt-ridden lust for “the English girl”.

The basic plot is loosely modelled on James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which features a similar hostage situation. Unlike Chase’s passive, exploited heroine, however, Gertie is the instigator of all manner of depravity as she gleefully thwarts the rebels’ best attempts to behave “correctly” towards her in order to bring honour to their cause. The men’s pitiable inability to resist her seductions undercuts the scenes of violent murder played out in the opening pages, puncturing their pretensions to power. Thus, Queneau subverts that model of gratuitously violent genre fiction he initially appears to be employing.

Indeed, Queneau’s trademark humour is very much in evidence throughout We Always Treat Women Too Well; he clearly relishes Gertie’s transformation from prim postal clerk to self-possessed seductress, and her closest parallel is perhaps Ruth in Pinter’s The Homecoming. The most comic parts of the novel are those in which Gertie utterly disarms her captors, confusing and exciting them in equal measure – though among the 124 pages there isn’t one that isn’t thoroughly enjoyable.


Tuesday 12 July 2011

Happy 500 Birthday!

Erasmus's Praise of Folly has just turned five hundred. Although written between 1509 and 1510, Erasmus's masterpiece was published in Paris, by some of his friends, by August 1511. The author apparently did not supervise the printing, which contained many mistakes and omissions. An authorized text appeared only the following year.

Witty, trenchant at times, Praise of Folly is undeniably one of the most important works in the Western canon, giving rise to countless imitations and influencing the culture, theology and literature for centuries to come.

How has it aged? When I read it for the first time in my teens I found it very modern, for some reason. Now it seems to me closer to the Middle Ages than to the times we live in. Its constant resorting to quotation and classical allusion may be tiresome to some readers today. However, most of the truths it reveals are as relevant in our times as they were when the book was first published five centuries ago. (For example this bit about "the ones who are fired with an insatiable zeal for building, constantly converting round structures into square and square structures into round. There's no end or limit to it until they are reduced to utter destitution and have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. Never mind what the future holds: in the meantime they've had huge fun for years." I know quite a few people like these round about where I live...)

As Stefan Zweig once said of this book: "From the terrible hate storm of his age, Erasmus has salvaged this intellectual gem, his faith in humanity, and on this small burning wick Spinoza, Lessing and Voltaire – and all Europeans past and present – could light their torch".

Long may this small wick remain burning.

Monday 11 July 2011

Ah, the weekend!

It's gone already, and another week of phone-hacking revelations and Murdoch-bashing is about to begin (don't get me wrong, I enjoy all this). The world won't be much poorer without NoW, but it doesn't seem right to leave 200 staff out of job just like that. In France or Italy you could not do it.

Eleonora made me proud again when she came back home and said that my novel was on display on the counter of Richmond library. "Daddy, daddy, there's a book with your name on it!"

I have spent the entire weekend working on my new novel, which I hope to finish by the end of July. The only break was a BBQ with some Italian friends. One of them, our host, is a wine buff and treated up to ten or more wines during the long evening. I still have to recover.

I'm reading a lovely book, Rilke's Venice by Birgit Haustedt, published by our friends at Haus. It's a delightful book, and I recommend it as a gift to Venice lovers or as a Baedeker for people travelling to La Serenissima.

Friday 8 July 2011

Coming back from antiblog-block

I have been rehearsing in my mind how to break my long spell of silence, and trying at the same time to get inspiration from one of the great masters of epistolary justification, John Keats.

Most of his letters start with an excuse for not having written sooner. One of his better beginnings is: "I will not pretend to string a list of excuses together for not having written before – but I must confess the indolence of my disposition which makes a letter more formidable to me than a pilgrimage. I am a fool in delay for the idea of neglect is an everlasting knapsack which even now I have scarce power to hoist off."

But the best one must be: "When once a man delays a letter beyond the proper time, he delays it longer for one or two reasons: first, because he must begin in a very common-place style – that is to say, with an excuse; and secondly things and circumstances become so jumbled in his mind that he knows not what, or what not, he has said in his last—"

That's exactly what happened to me. It's not through laziness or busyness that I have abstained from this page, but rather because after a while the thought of my delay has started to weigh down on me.

There were so many things I would have liked to write or comment about – some foolish, some deeply philosophical – but now they've gone and they're buried for ever in my mind. So you'll have to content yourselves with what I am going to write in the next few days – and many apologies in advance if I am not able to do that.


Thursday 19 May 2011

Lindsay Clarke's The Water Theatre

The Water Theatre was sent to me by Lindsay Clarke’s agent in February 2010. The book was originally called Sun at Midnight, and it was presented as “a powerful story of loyalty and loss, of betrayal and reconciliation”. It was described as partly being set in Italy, and I must admit this put me off a bit. Being Italian, it’s very rare for me to find an English novel with an Italian setting which feels authentic enough to make me believe completely in the story. Nonetheless I was particularly attracted by this author, compared by the agent to John Fowles, one of my favourite writers. It also mentioned his previous successful novel The Chymical Wedding, winner of the 1989 Whitbread Award, which in actual fact didn’t ring any bells with me, as I have come to this country only fourteen years ago. I started reading The Water Theatre the same day it was sent to me and I couldn’t stop. The story and the writing urged me to read it to the very end. I really loved the power of Lindsay writing. It made me feel I was reading E.M. Foster, another of my favourite British writers.

I felt that Lindsay deserved to be brought to the attention of British readers again, and I am glad we also republished The Chymical Wedding and are about to relaunch Sunday Whiteman and Alice’s Masque, two other acclaimed novels of his. I am convinced that Lindsay is an important author who will be read in years to come.

Elisabetta Minervini
Publisher - Alma Books

Monday 16 May 2011

Wealth of Reviews

We're happy to see that our books are getting positive reviews from every quarter, be it national newspapers, academic magazines and/or fellow bloggers. Here are just a handful:

The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke
"Bold, tenacious characters and vivid, distinct landscapes give The Water Theatre a strong hold on the imagination as Clarke skilfully draws out the betrayals searing his characters’ lives."
The Financial Times, read full review
Read Review from the blog The Truth about Lies

All Men are Liars by Alberto Manguel,
"This playful, ingenious but finally tragic novel invites us... into a labyrinth of rival narratives with an all-too-real monster at its heart." - The Independent, read full review
Read Review from Desperate Reader Blog

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard
"A gently transgressive, transatlantic quest that conjures up both the languid heat of LA and the confusions of a young woman on the cusp." - The Lady
Portrait of a City: Los Angeles, Anna Stothard writes about her time in LA and how it inspired her novel, article in BA Highlife

The Art of Struggle by Michel Houellebecq
"Houellebecq’s poetry is absorbing and demonstrates a rare tenderness coupled with an unflinching eye that excavates the body, searching for the core of being, exposing the bare roots of feelings." - MPT

The Girl Who Leapt through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Read reviews from Nayu's Reading Corner, The Bookbag, Keeper of the Snails, Bookwitch, The Truth about Books and Writing from the Tub

One final note, tonight is the Bookseller Industry awards, Alma Books is nominated for Independent Publisher of the Year, fingers crossed.

Monday 9 May 2011


After a lovely break in Champagne and Bourgogne – oh Reims, oh Dijon!– back to the grind. The burglars hit our building again, this time running away empty-handed after attempting breaking into another office. As a result, the building's manager has employed full-time guards, installed a new CCTV system, scattered a few mousetraps around and asked if we want to take part in a vigilante scheme Rambo-style. We all agreed. I am writing from the office now, with a dagger between my teeth. We can all sleep placidly from now on.

I have been working on my new novel – I'm just about halfway through, and very happy about it. I'll probably destroy it in a week or two. I have also received the Czech edition (hardback) of Bestseller – and what a glorious production it is. Lovely cover too. Unfortunately I can't read Czech, but I have noticed a funny typo on p.38: Cannongate. That doesn't diminish the beauty of the book. And I can see that Talbot's mumblings are not lost in translation: "Grrnf… trrrnf… frrrnf." And I love all those accents.

We had some great books in – for example the Lampedusa paperback, a real beauty – and some excellent books off to the printers – from Peter Benson's Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke to Pushkin's Queen of Spades and other Stories.

We've been shortlisted for the Independent Publisher of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards (after being shortlisted for the IPG prize). And guess where the event is going to be held? You just need to read the prophetic chapter 7 in Bestseller again . . .

Went to the circus the other day with Elisabetta and kids, and we recognized Rob Brydon behind us – perhaps getting some inspiration? I hope not. I don't think he found the Dutch clown particularly funny.

We had a few literary luncheons over the past couple of weeks – a memorable seven- (or was it eight-) wine bash in Wandsworth with one of our author and friends, a treat from another author which included artichokes, fragoline, rabbit, borlotti and Sangiovese – and my ears are still buzzing with gossip.

But the talk of the day was of course the royal wedding and Osama's assassination (that's right – that is the word being used by the intelligentsia, which I neither discount nor condone), and it was interesting to hear – as outsiders – the point of view of "real" (not "royal" – in Italian it's the same word) England.

Busy-busy weeks and lots of interesting things coming up. I'll try to blog and tweet a bit more often than I have done recently. Stay tuned.

Now back to keeping watch.

Thursday 21 April 2011

A Very Clean Desk

Back to anti-blogging after the London Book Fair, a party spree, a bit of writing and the usual deadening busy-ness of modern life.

I was looking forward to today: the last day in the office after completing the thankless job of doing the royalty statements for over a hundred of our classics titles, the prospect of working on the Simon Boccanegra libretto and winding down before the short Easter break.

The desk was extremely clean yesterday when I left the office – still extremely clean when we dropped off the few remaining copies from the excellent launch of Pink Hotel at the Phoenix Artists Club just before 10:00pm – and even cleaner this morning, when I found out we had been paid a visit (at around 11:30!) by a couple of burglars. They smashed one of the doors of our office, took my computer and another one, and in the process they managed to lose their earpiece and mobile phone . . .

One of our authors suggested I should disrupt their lives by sending nasty text messages to their address book: "I have slept with your sister" – "Your mum's ugly" – so that they get beaten up or have an even tougher life in prison. But I don't think we need to worry too much about them – the police will see to that.

They didn't take any of our books. Illiterate thugs – with so many beautiful books around they went for a couple of worthless computers. . .

Now, anyone wanting to read into this that computers and eBooks will triumph over physical books . . .

Sunday 3 April 2011

Review of Bestseller

Lovely review of Bestseller in today's Independent on Sunday:

"A fine comic caper and a biting satire on the publishing industry. The style is far from literary, but it is cleverly plotted and lands several juicy thumps on its target."

Friday 1 April 2011

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets has been, for a long time, one of my favourite modern poems. I used to know most of it by heart, and I even translated a few dozen lines into Italian when I was a student.

Now, after a few years, I have read it again, and I am shocked to find that the work is suddenly mute to me. It's lost its fascination – what was original is now contrived, what was deep is now affected. There are still some great lines, but its style and structure don't resonate with me any more. It is unbelievable how taste changes over time.

And the same applies to popular and critical taste: what is acclaimed by one age or one individual is despised by another.

I'm more and more convinced that he's a fool who writes to obtain literary fame.

Monday 21 March 2011

Death of a Salesman

I greatly enjoyed reading this play over the last few days. It's funny, poignant and well observed.

One thing that greatly impaired my appreciation of Miller's masterpiece is the dreadful Penguin Modern Classics edition I inherited from Elisabetta's school days. The paper is the colour of a hepatitis patient's face and the type is pretty crammed. I think I might have preferred a Kindle edition to this.

Our edition is priced at £1,75 UK and I think its publication date is 1986. The copyright page says: First published 1949. Published in Great Britain by the Cresset Press 1949. Published by Penguin Books 1961. Reprinted 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969 (twice), 1970 (twice), 1971, 1972, 1973 (twice), 1975 (twice), 1976 (twice), 1977 (twice), 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 (twice), 1984, 1985 (twice), 1986 (three times).

But although they've had at least twenty-five years and thirty-five editions to get things right, this edition is littered with a few bizarre typos – bizarre because we are talking about one of the most important texts to come from America since the Second World War.

Linda is made to stutter – but only on page 10 – "be-behind the other..."; a full stop is missing on p.18, ironically at the end of the sentence "I don't know how to do it"; on page 72, "Biffs' in town" and "Yeah, Biffs' in" – and so on and so forth.

Going back to the play, it made me want to go to the theatre and see it. I hope it's going to be on in London soon.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

The Two Ivans

Lovely review of our How the Two Ivans Quarrelled and Other Russian Comic Fiction in the Guardian (Nick Lezar's Paperback of the Week):


Tuesday 15 March 2011

101 Books

Actually, 101 + 1 as of yesterday.

It's the number of books we have sent to the printers since the beginning of the year. Yes, it's not a typo – we've been quite busy this quarter.

I'm currently working on the first ever biography of AJ Cronin – and what a wonderful and revealing book it is! It focuses on Cronin's authorial ego and his relationship – stormy at times – with his British and American publishers. There are real gems in his letters and the few other documents he left behind (not much survives – strangely, as Cronin used to sell in the millions all over the world and set Hollywood on fire in the '30s).

But my real hero is Victor Gollancz, his UK publisher, who comes across as a smart, roguish, no-nonsense operator able to deal with Cronin's tantrums and requests in the most subtle and charming way. One bit had me laughing out loud:

Gollancz had no time for agents – Alan Davies writes – to him they were “parasitical nuisances put on earth to foment ingratitude among Gollancz authors”. He preferred to deal directly with authors, behind their agents’ backs if he could get away with it.


Another interesting bit is Cronin's scepticism about cheap paperback books, which were made available on a mass scale only after his early successes. Cronin kept liking a well-produced book, not agreeing to mass-market paperbacks until after the 1960s (over 30 years after his first book), principally because there was little money in them for him. Looking at the royalty rates he was getting (between 20 and 30% on hardback sales), you can understand why . . .

I doubt he'd have subscribed to eBooks.

Thursday 3 March 2011

The Bunga Bunga Continues. . .

"In June Alma Books is due to publish Il Duce and His Women by Roberto Olla, complete with a glowering photograph of Mussolini on the dustjacket looking uncannily like a malign version of the current Italian premier... So whatever Silvio Berlusconi’s legal status come June at least the bunga bunga continues." – The Telegraph

Full article here.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Strange Manuscripts Found in Copper Cylinders

I was intrigued by news of the discovery, in the wake of the New Zealand earthquake, of two "time capsules" among the rubble of the Christchurch cathedral – one a bottle containing a scroll, the other a mysterious metal cylinder, presumably also containing some document.

That obviously reminded me of a book we published, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, a rediscovered early example of the science-fiction genre by the Canadian writer James de Mille, a cracking story à la Verne.

The discovery in New Zealand suggests that copper (or metal) cylinders were indeed used as an alternative way of sending "messages in a bottle" to distant times and places, just like in the novel. Fascinating.

I can't wait to know what the cylinder contains.

Monday 21 February 2011

What Remains of the Day

So we turn up at the Garrick a couple of weeks ago for a dinner with a friend and we realize we are punctual – i.e. fashionably early. The most English of all English gentlemen welcomes us in Italian and serves us a drink "on the house", then starts telling us about his life – he is a well-known journalist, we discover. He was very communicative – that is to say, fairly drunk. The following day we sent him a thank you note and a book for his warm welcome to the club, and he thanked us and asked us where he had met us. . .

The food at the Garrick was excellent – so was the company. But that was to be surpassed a few days later, when we had our Alma get-together at the Calder Bookshop. About a dozen of our authors came to the party – some of them travelling hundreds of miles – and we had such a good time until Rosie Alison, of all people, told me there was a typo on p.11 of The Very Thought of You. Now, if she had just announced that someone had burgled our flat, I would have just smiled. But that night I didn't sleep at the thought of having made the world 100,000 typos richer – and the first thing I did the following morning was to make the change on our InDesign file. I have never been so keen on a reprint in my entire publishing life. . .

And today we had the wonderful launch of our Opera Guide series at Notes, the café next door to the Coliseum. The crème de la crème of the operatic world was there, and I was a hero for a night, after being such a publishing villain to the series editor in the last couple of weeks. Anyway, all's well that ends well – and well it did end, as we swung round to the Two Brydges club, where the food is excellent, and where you can still, decently, in the heart of London, place your order in Italian.

Got a whole bunch of books during the last week – I must bring you up to date with some of them one of these days.


Tuesday 8 February 2011

Name and Shame 2

In the past few days Eleonora pointed at mere discrepancies between text and illustrations of some of the books she was reading, so I didn't think it was enough to command a blog about it.

But today she ran to me with MARVELLOUS MAGICAL STORIES, compiled by Elizabeth Holland and first published by Kingfisher in 2007 (printed in China), ISBN 9780753414972. She pointed at the following sentence of the back-cover blurb: "These ten stories will enchant and entertain newly independent readers." Then she opened the book at the contents page:

Chantelle, the Princess Who Couldn't Sing
The Magical Apple Tree
The Three Wishes
The Cletterkin
The Wonder Broom
The Hedley Kow
Baby Wizard
The Queen of the Bees
The King of the Blue Lagoon
Tom Thumb
The Enchanted Princess

"So what's wrong with that?" I said.

"There are eleven stories in the book, not ten," she replied triumphantly.

"Well," I said, "editors are only supposed to 'set commas and points exactly right'. They don't have to be able to count to eleven to do their job."

All I can add, for the benefit of Kingfisher's editors or blurb writers, is: beware of observant newly independent readers.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Name and Shame

Great night at the Pushkin House in Bloomsbury Square yesterday, to celebrate our Pushkin in English project – the publication of Pushkin's complete works in paperback by Oneworld Classics – as well as the recent publication of Pushkin's Boris Godunov and The Little Tragedies.

The tube journey to and from Holborn station was marked by a very weird occurrence. On the way to Holborn I stood in a corner of a particular carriage, and on the way back, late at night, I realized I was standing in exactly the same spot of exactly the same carriage, as I noticed the same peeled emergency sticker, the same scratches on the door glass etc. It felt like a scene from Tsutsui's Hell – and there were some strange passengers too: an old woman rolling fags, a boy staring at me threateningly, a man laughing and talking to himself, etc. Spooky.

* * *

Eleonora, our eldest (age 7), keeps coming to me to show me typos in her reading books. This has prompted me to start a name-and-shame campaign. As I mentioned before, we all make mistakes, and I am sure the books we publish have also mistakes – but if someone points out a mistake we are keen to correct it immediately, so that it won't appear at the next printing. In this case we are talking about a 32-page educational book for kids, less than a thousand words long, that has been in print for fifteen years and gone through at least 9 editions judging from the copyright page. So there have been plenty of opportunities (and time) to put this right.

Here we go: Treetops, Stage 10, More Stories A, published by Oxford University Press - 9780199179640.
Purple Buttons by Angela Bull.

Page 30, three lines from the bottom: "It's rim was carved like a shell."

I hope someone is listening at OUP.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Shakespeare's plays to be performed in 38 languages

Yes, but which translations are they going to use? I have heard that German translations of Shakespeare's plays are excellent (some say they are better than the original). But the Italian translations are generally abysmal – either overly literal or full of the most baroque flourishes and inversions, so that when they are performed they are hardly intelligible. Elisabetta and I used to read aloud Italian translations of Shakespeare's comedies, and we did laugh a lot, but not for the jokes or the wit of the original.

The very best poetry can only be fully appreciated in the original.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

One hundred and seventy-eight years ago

I have been reading and rereading with increasing pleasure and admiration the poems of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli recently – both the originals and the English translations by Mike Stocks, which I think are unparalleled. I agree with Alberto Moravia when he said: "If we think of Belli as the contemporary of the first Romantic generation and the first naturalists, we can assess what an extraordinary phenomenon his poetry is." Here's a poem he wrote on 18th January 1833, exactly one hundred and seventy-eight years ago:

La vita dell’omo

Nove mesi a la puzza: poi in fassciola

tra sbasciucchi, lattime e llagrimoni:

poi p’er laccio, in ner crino, e in vesticciola,

cor tórcolo e l’imbraghe pe ccarzoni.

Poi comincia er tormento de la scola,

l’abbeccé, le frustate, li ggeloni,

la rosalìa, la cacca a la ssediola,

e un po’ de scarlattina e vvormijjoni.

Poi viè ll’arte, er diggiuno, la fatica,

la piggione, le carcere, er governo,

lo spedale, li debbiti, la fica,

er zol d’istate, la neve d’inverno…

E pper urtimo, Iddio sce bbenedica,

viè la Morte, e ffinissce co l’inferno.

The Life of Man

Nine months in a bog, then swaddling clothes

and sloppy kisses, rashes, big round tears,

a baby harness, baby walker, bows,

short trousers and a cap for several years,

and then begin the agonies of school,

the ABC, the pox, the six of the best,

the poo-poo in the pants, the ridicule,

the chilblains, measles, fevers on the chest;

then work arrives, the daily slog, the rent,

the fasts, the stretch inside, the government,

the hospitals, the debts to pay, the fucks…

The chaser to it all, on God’s say-so,

(after summer’s sun and winter’s snow)

is death, and after death comes hell – life sucks.

I've said it once – I've said it twice and I'll say it a full third time: Belli is one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, and the beauties and originality of his poetry are unique both in Italy and in the context of European literature.

And apart from anything else, anyone who gets an endorsement from Nikolai Gogol (when he still had his wits about him) has to be the best of the best.

Monday 17 January 2011

Huzzah Piers Blofeld!

Very good blog article in the Bookseller, entitled: Wikicide.

Some interesting reflections on the madness of cheapening knowledge, culture and lore under the false pretence of "free to all". We've seen already the consequences of book devaluation – nobody wants to pay for books and newspapers any more, if they can help it, in the same way as people don't want to pay for music if they can download it for free. It doesn't matter if copyright is infringed or the quality is not the same: you don't look a gifted horse in the mouth.

Wikipedia is now the fifth most visited site in the world, apparently. That's pretty valuable in advertising terms, and I wouldn't be surprised, either, if they were to start charging people to access the information one day in the not too distant future . . .

Thursday 13 January 2011

British Bookshops Are in Trouble

As if the latest from W's was not depressing enough, there's more bad news from another chain, British Bookshops, which entered administration today. Let's hope something can be salvaged out of it – they had just opened a beautiful shop on Richmond's high street. . .

Lovely to see a second mention of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas on the TLS. I am curious to see their announced Dictionary of Received Phrases, a spin-off of Flaubert's dictionary of clichéd language. It is true that "mordant wit" or "coruscating wit" or "unvarnished truth" et sim. have been used one hundred billion times, but I think that clichés are nice sometimes – and you can find them anywhere, from newspapers to classics of literature. Take for example the following random passage from Walter Scott's Waverley (1814 – italics are mine):

He gave Edward to understand that the greater part of his followers now on the field were bound on a distant expedition, and that when he had deposited him in the house of a gentleman, who he was sure would pay him every attention, he himself should be under the necessity of accompanying them the greater part of the way, but would lose no time in rejoining his friend.

Clichés are like a cigarette after a long run, or like a McDonald Big Tasty with Bacon in Toulouse at three o'clock in the afternoon, when all restaurants are closed. They are reassuring, they are comfy – and you don't need a brain to understand them. In short, they are needed for quick, ant-like conversation, which is becoming more and more the standard of human communication.

It makes me laugh when authors declare war on clichés and become clichéd in their attempts to avoid clichés . . . I could give many examples but I'll stop here since, as Leonardo said, "I do not meddle with royal decrees, because they are the perfection of truth".

Anyway, moderately good news from Italy today. Cheers.


Wednesday 12 January 2011

Waterstone's Woes

I have been following with – forgive the cliché – some trepidation the latest on Waterstone's restructuring. I have read comments on the Bookseller website suggesting there may be some grand announcement tomorrow. I'll keep my fingers crossed – a healthy Waterstone's is essential for a healthy bookshop environment in the UK. Without W's it'll be over for many publishers, and that would create some unbalance in the industry. Let's hope they can overcome their problems.

Two more books have gone to the printers, and they're among my all-time favourites, so I am particularly proud. The first one is The Great Gatsby, and the second one is The Tale of how the Two Ivans Quarrelled (with other Russian comic fiction, including stories by Krylov, Saltikov-Shchedrin and Tolstoy).

I have proofread the Gogol story between yesterday evening and this morning, and although it must be the twelfth time I have read it (and the second translation of it I publish), I can't help laughing out loud at several passages, such as:

"I must admit that I don’t understand why things are so arranged that women can take us by the nose as deftly as they do the handle of a teapot. Either their hands are just made that way, or our noses aren’t better suited for anything else. And despite the fact that Ivan Nikiforovich’s nose was quite a bit like a plum, she took him by that nose and led him around like a dog."


"…he asked, almost with annoyance – something he displayed very rarely, even when burning paper was put on his head…"


“Ivan Ivanovich is of a rather timid character. Ivan Nikiforovich, on the contrary, wears big, baggy pants…”

Barmy, unpredictable, hilarious – sheer genius.

OK, some bits may be over the top and grotesque, but I think this is one of the best short stories ever written (so thought Pushkin, Belinsky and Nabokov, by the way), and definitely it's one of the best comic short stories ever written. If you haven't read it, do try Guy Daniels' lovely translation – which is going to be available in the next ten days or so.

Monday 10 January 2011

First Books of 2011

Today we sent our first two books to the printer. They are Dmitry Bykov's Living Souls and Swift's Directions to Servants (my second edition of it, after the Hesperus one).

I remember signing off to the printers the hardback edition of Living Souls almost one year to the day, and funnily enough I blogged about it and another book by Swift (The Benefits of Farting Explained) back in February 2010.

So how have those two books fared over the past twelve months? Living Souls has fulfilled our expectations in hardback, and we hope it can now achieve its full potential with the mass-market edition. Elaine Feinstein, in The Times, called it "A Catch-22 for modern Russia" and described it as 
"often funny, occasionally moving and possibly dangerous". The Independent said: 

"Blending a novel of ideas with a fairy tale and satire with lyricism, Bykov in Living Souls gives a picture of Russia in the near future and – as so many others before him – tries to understand the eternal contradictions of his country", while according to the TLS it is 

"A dreamscape, a panoramic survey of the obsessions and illusions that protect Russian society’s sleep".

The Benefit of Farting also gleaned – surprisingly, considering that it first appeared over 250 years ago – a few good reviews, including one in the TLS and one The Times. I am ashamed to admit that, perhaps because of its title, this little book has outsold Bykov's novel almost 2 to 1 – although it is possible that things are going to even up with the paperback of Living Souls.

If you haven't read either of these short works by Swift, I warmly recommend them to you. I think that Swift was possibly a better pamphlet writer than novelist, and his wit may come out more clearly in these unguarded, unpolished jeux d'esprit than in his major works.

Friday 7 January 2011

Random Acts of Editing

When the DHL driver called in to deliver a parcel today, he must have been intrigued by the two hunched figures sitting by my table. I was one of them, and I was reading from an nineteenth-century edition of Wagner's poetry in Gothic script. The other one was our bearded editor Christian. I read numbers and he typed them up at the beginning of lines, querying from time to time bits of German. The spy-like exchange went something like:

AG: "Three, two, three, four, two, four, five, two, six, one, three, three, three—"
Christian: "Sie helfen?"
AG: "Yeah, three, three, four, five, two, two, six, six, five, three, four—"
Christian: "Wohl willst du?"
AG: "Yeah, why are we doing this?"
Christian: "I don't know. It's Wagner. The weirdest job we've ever done."

We spent a couple of hours like this, going through the libretto of Parsifal and making sure that every line was indented accurately, according to the ten levels of indentation devised by Wagner to reflect—

AG: "Bullshit. This is all random."

At that point, the DHL driver, shaking his head, asked me to sign something, before rushing back to the door for dear life.

Now I now why all Wagnerians are a bit mad. Gary – do you hear me?

Have a good weekend.


Thursday 6 January 2011

PC World

I laughed my head off when I read about that Twain "scholar" who's had the brilliant idea of replacing some un-PC words in Huckleberry Finn with more acceptable words, on the grounds that the book was not been taught in schools any more because of that.

That's 24-carat bullshit! If there's a place in hell for such stupidity, well, that man and his publishers should be rotting there, head down into the ground.

If you are a writer, a critic or a publisher and cannot cope with words and their meaning in the context of society and history, then my advice is simply: don't go there.

I am not a particularly courageous or adventurous publisher, but when I had to publish Aretino I didn't dream of bowdlerizing it, nor did I hold back from publishing D'Annunzio or Mayakovsky on ideological grounds. Publishing those authors does not necessarily mean sharing their ideas or worldview – and those writers lived in a different country, society and time, so it is stupid and short-sighted to apply our modern judgemental yardstick.

I remember there was a bit of an outcry when we published Virginia Woolf's rediscovered diary pieces in Carlyle's House and Other Sketches. Some of her descriptions were quite unsavoury. In 'Jews' she wrote: "One wonders how Mrs Loeb became a rich woman. It seems an accident; she may be behind a counter… Her food, of course, swam in oil and was nasty." There are even worse bits in other of her sketches and in some of her other works – but that doesn't mean she – or her publisher – was anti-Jewish.

I agree that publishing should be sensitive and avoid any offence, but in the right context, when language is used in an expressionistic way, I believe that satire is acceptable. Otherwise it is all wishy-washy, and writers become censors of themselves.