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.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Music Sales

From today's Teletext:

"Music sales in the UK have fallen for the sixth consecutive year, according to the British record industry's trade association.

The British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) said combined digital and physical album sales fell 7% last year, from £128.9M to £119.9.

The 2009 saw an overall drop of 3.5%, despite a rise in download sales.

Digital analyst Mark Mulligan said the figures were not surprising, adding "alternative products are needed".

Like what? Music holograms? The quality of music reproduction has gone down since vinyls, and so have sales. And so, probably, the overall quality and diversity of music being offered to the public.

The publishing industry is the next in line to feel the squeeze from big conglomerates putting all their weight behind all these eBook reading gadgets – which are nothing but a thinly veiled of being able to check and influence what people read and when.

You must have read that the average price of the top 100 books on Kindle is around £2.60. And you must have also read that 20 Waterstone's stores are going to close down this year, with an additional number of independent bookshops, no doubt.

Hearken publishers, lest ye die.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Congratulations to Christopher Maclehose

For being awarded a CBE for his services to the publishing industry – and, I may add, to literature.

For once, there's not just news of another footballer or Coronation Street actress being honoured.

Now there's someone else who should have been knighted some time ago, but I think he's persona non grata with most of the establishment, and would probably have spurned such a thing anyway. I am talking about that other wayward genius of publishing, John Calder, full of genio and sregolatezza – especially the latter – well I know it. . .

Christopher, hearty congratulations again!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Top-selling 100 Books of All-time… well, at least since 1998… in UK… excluding the Bible and a few others

I was tempted not to gloss on the article appeared in yesterday's Guardian Datablog:

but then, having had a look at the list and read the comments below, I changed my mind.

I think the list is actually quite interesting, for all its limitations. It certainly provides a snapshot of the post-Net Book Agreement landscape of British Publishing: the top ten titles are by only three authors; books have been massively discounted, especially hardbacks; there's an abundance of non-fiction (especially cookery books) and genre titles; the 100 titles have been published by a dozen or so publishers; only four or five publishers (Canongate, Profile, Quercus and Bloomsbury – possibly GWR) are not part of some huge media conglomerate.

So, is this also a picture of our future? Is UK publishing hell-bound? It looks more and more likely, especially with the increasing importance of eBooks and the weakening of traditional high-street book outlets – which will mean fewer and fewer big-budget books selling more, with debut authors and mid-list writers suffering the most.

We've seen this happen in the music industry already, and what did we get? Declining sales, less and less diversity, fewer opportunities for people with talent. What else did we get? Simon Cowell, Alexandra Burke, Susan Boyle and Olly Murs.

Can we stop this for books, please?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

First Cut of 2011


I'll be forty-one in less than two weeks, I have worked in publishing and with books for over ten years, but it looks like I still haven't learnt how to handle paper. The result is the tiny but EXTREMELY painful cut detailed in the photo. First cut of 2011, but last in a very long line of self-harm accidents involving paper.

I admit that advocates of eBooks gain a point here, as Kindle and iPads are less sharper objects, although it's obvious they are for sharper people.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

New Year Resolutions

Another year has gone, and what a year it was . . . now it's time for the usual new-year resolutions. As far as I'm concerned, these will be my priorities:

1) To live like a twenty-one-year old

2) Not to buy any iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle or similar devices

3) keep all my hair on my head

4) finish my second novel

5) have more holidays than I had in 2010

Well, that's enough already. I'd be happy if I manage to fulfill two or three of these.

* * *

The editing of Dante's Purgatory has kept me delightfully busy during the Christmas break. It's a book I had read many times before, but having to read it twice again, once in Italian and once in JG Nichols's excellent new translation, was a real privilege.

It is difficult, after working on such a towering masterpiece, not to smirk at some of the stuff that gets published today. Yesterday I went to our local Waterstone's and spent some time browsing the new-fiction shelves. The quality of most of the books, with very few exceptions, was little more than risible by comparison.

I am not saying that Dante's Purgatory is a perfect work, but its ambition and scope, and the almost hypnotic, unrelenting beauty of its terza rima makes it fly well above most other writers in prose or verse.

At this new reading, the last few cantos of Purgatory struck me as a bit compressed and even rushed by comparison with the rest of the Comedy. The allegorical scenes at the end (Christ as a gryphon for example) are not only miles away from modern taste but lack any dramatic drive, and are a bit mechanical. The character of Matelda remains vague, and when she is finally named at the very last canto it sounds almost as an afterthought. Beatrice comes across as arch and wooden – you can't understand how Dante could have fallen in love with her.

But, above all, it feels like Dante had run out of space in the last couple of cantos, and the strict thirty-three-canto structure of Purgatorio didn't allow him to have free rein to let the imagination fly. His own awkward admission at the end of Canto XXXIII may suggest that he was simply too impatient at this point and wanted to move on to Paradiso as soon as possible:

If, reader, I had but the space to write,
Then I would sing, as far as I was able,
The sweet draught that would never satiate;
But now, since every single page is full
Of those ordained for this my second book,
Art's laws demand nothing additional.

* * *

This blog should have been graced with a picture of Elisabetta dancing the Macarena, from last night's New Year's Eve party – but unfortunately I was not able to clear permission with her.