Italian Posts

Edoardo Albinati’s “The Catholic School”

My review of Edoardo Albinati’s award-winning novel The Catholic School was published in The Hindu Literary Review on Sunday, 3 Nov 2019. It was publishing in the online edition on Saturday, 2 Nov 2019. Here is the link. Given the sudden space crunch, the published version of the review had to be shortened considerably. So I am c&p the longer version below.

Edoardo Albinati The Catholic School (Transl. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar) Picador, London, 2019. Pb. Pp. 1263 £16.99

The Catholic School by Italian novelist Edoardo Albinati is about the abduction and murder of two girls by three well-heeled boys — Andrea Ghira, Gianni Guido and Angelo Izzo —who belonged to the all-male Istituto San Leone Magno (SLM)The group had met at the Il Fungo, the Mushroom, a long time meeting spot for fascists. Over the next 36 hours, the two girls were tortured and raped. Rosaria was killed but Donatella managed to save herself by faking her death. The murderers dumped the bodies of the girls in a car boot. It was found after Donatella began banging on the roof of the boot. The notorious sex crime occurred on the weekend of 29 September 1975. The SLM is a private catholic school established in Rome (1887) by the Marist Brothers. It is also Edoardo Albinati’s alma mater. Albinati was a contemporary of the three school students accused of murder whom the popular press of the time described as “young and pitiless nabobs”.

Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is about this appalling crime while also attempting to understand the minds of these brutal killers. At nearly 1300-pages, this semi-autobiographical novel, mentions the Circeo massacre briefly. Otherwise the book mostly consists of long digressions —philosophical, literary, anthropological analyses. His musings are mostly on how masculinity has been defined over the decades, for which he relies on extensive literary and popular culture references. He investigates the peculiar position that men employ in Italian society: from being mammoni (mammas’ boys) to virile, bursting-with-testosterone men in public spaces who have to prove themselves as “men”. Expecting The Catholic School to bea firsthand account of the slow transformation of the school students into notorious “killers” is not what one gets except for glimpses into Angelo’s criminal mind. The novel is more of a meandering introspection on understanding the potent mix of masculinity, fascism, violence and sex, that converted these boys into monsters particularly when all SLM students were given a firm religious grounding in their formative years by the Catholic Brothers. Albinati believes that religious instruction in many ways taught suppression of emotions resulting in the boys being akin to ticking masculine time bombs.

Albinati acknowledges that while the novel employs the first person singular narrative to tell the story these may well “differ from the author cited on the cover” as he “freely [interbreeds] memory and imagination”. In the mid-nineties, Albinati became a teacher in the maximum security wing of the Rebibbia Prison, Rome, where Mafiosi and Camorristi were among the inmates. In fact, Albinati says that he made “use of police reports, deposition manuscripts, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts” as is evident in his descriptions of Angelo. These multiple experiences of knowing his infamous contemporaries at school to being in his adult life in close proximity to criminals who required to be under maximum security creates an astonishing monotone in the novel. It comes across as the author is doing his best to understand the sex crime committed but not really quite comprehending it, instead by offering many philosophical expositions on it, he hopes to find a rationale for these despicable acts. Albinati fails to be a convincing narrator. The reader feels no remorse for the criminals. All that exists is undiluted rage for there seems to be no change in society towards its attitude to women. It is curious that the author while seeming to be empathetic to rape victims by referring to the predatory attitude towards women and of offering the etymology of the Italian word as “stupro” (indicating something that causes stupor, astonishment, something that one wasn’t expecting), meticulously documents his own sexual encounters and then in the acknowledgements bizarrely credits his daughter for transcribing parts of his manuscript that he had written by hand! If that isn’t a way of perpetuating gender violence then what else is it?!

The Catholic School is also a testament to Albinati’s ambition at creating that “large and engrossing novel” that he has so far been unsuccessful at discovering. Albinati is well read and with confident ease experiments with the literary form. There are unexpected sections in the novel that are like lists, a poem, only dialogue or long monologues. At times he addresses the readers directly encouraging them to skip a few pages if they are bored by what they have read. He also flips back and forth in time recollecting his childhood and comparing it with modern times, particularly his children’s lives. Yet the story remains drearily flat, with even the descriptions of male violence dulling one’s senses, as Albinati remains mildly detached. Never does he offer any solution for the male brutality documented but uncomfortably seems to be accepting of the way society is. According to him, “Being born a boy is an incurable disease”. Written forty years after the crime, this novel won the topmost literary prize in Italy — the Strega Prize 2016.

The translation from Italian to English by translator Antony Shugaar is commendable. It reads smoothly. Shugaar does not believe that there are untranslatable words. As he says, “my goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken.” ( VQR, “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, 19 Feb 2014) Shugaar achieves this beautifully with The Catholic School for whatever the shortcomings one may find with the novel’s portrayal of its male world, there is no doubt that Shugaar has been faithful to his mantra of building bridges from untranslatable worlds to where we live.  

3 November 2019

Book Post 44: 25 Aug – 14 Sept 2019

Book Post 44 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

16 Sept 2019

An interview with Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting

Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige  Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.


  1. How and why did you get into publishing?

The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.

2. Why did you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be multi-lingual as you are?

I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.

There are many differences between scouting and agenting but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job – their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights agents in house or in agencies. 

3. How and when was London Literary Scouting established? What are the genres you specialise in?

As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages, on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages. London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously. Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow and in the future.

London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio

We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis in the other languages.

4. What are the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be gleaned from every experience!)

I think our successes are all in the breadth of our client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am proud.

5. How important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals to a literary scout?

Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when. Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.

6. You are an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?

Carefully. I think network and intelligence and understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more important.

7. As a signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely? Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of women writers?

This is a hard question to answer properly. I think the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.

8. The porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers, increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV & videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or commissioning a book?

I think that most publishers acquire and publish the books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian evangelical publishing houses.

9. A mantra that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into other book markets?

I think that the explosion of digital platforms and perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.

10. In your experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the trends to look out for in the coming years?

I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.

11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?

How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.

17 June 2019

Book Post 37: 20 – 25 May 2019

Book Post 37 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

27 May 2019

Geronimo Stilton: The publishing phenomenon it is in India ( and worldwide)

My article on Geronimo Stilton has been published in Scroll on 11 June 2017. It is entitled “Even children who don’t read are addicted to this series of books about a mouse. Why?” I also interviewed Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA. who publish and translate the books as well as Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India who distribute the series locally. 

The Geronimo Stilton series is an incredible phenomenon in children’s publishing in India. In the five years since this series – starring the eponymous mouse who is a bestselling writer and the editor of The Rodent News – was launched here by Scholastic India, one million copies have been sold already. The immense popularity of the books – which have been translated from Italian into English – has actually transcended the realm of regular book fairs and book stores, with the pull coming from even stationary and toy stores.

“Geronimo Stilton as a series is rich with everything that children love in their books. They are replete with humour, they have nail-biting adventures featuring action set pieces in an age-appropriate and non-violent way. There was (and still is) nothing like this in the Indian children’s books category,” said Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India. The marketing campaign has been unique, he added.

“We waited for a while for the series to develop some word-of-mouth publicity,” Jain said. “Once the buzz grew, we went ahead with an on-air campaign on radio. There have been sustained visibility exercises through displays, character visits and special collaterals across schools that we reach out with to book fairs and book clubs. We carried out The Great Geronimo Tour of India in 2016 where there were character visits and activities at Tier II cities across India. The tour was also amplified on radio and social media.”

Children, many of them not big readers in general, have been lapping up these books and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. According to some retailers, schools are actually beginning to issue directives to book exhibitors not to sell Geronimo Stilton books as children are hooked and refuse to read anything else!

In this talk delivered in 2012, Elizabetta Dami, creator of Geronimo Stilton, said that the idea to create these stories came from her storytelling sessions with patients in a children’s hospital ward. She was clear that while the stories had to grip the child’s imagination, they also had to work at multiple levels like inculcating values and giving the young readers hope. Her own publishing house began to create these stories, after which she joined hands with seasoned publisher Pietro Marietti.

In September 2006, Marietti established Atlantyca Entertainment to forge new business opportunities for the company’s library of entertainment book properties. Since then, as chairman of the firm, Marietti has published over 100 titles in the Geronimo Stilton series. It has generated business worth more than $1 billion.

This growth is also attributed to strategic licence sales, such as bi-monthly comic book magazines, toys, stationery products, as well as a Broadway show called Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space presented by Orlando Repertory Theatre (January 2017). Amazon Prime has also committed to two seasons (52 episodes) of an Italian-American-French animated series.

Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA., talked about the series, its origins, and what it takes to keep up the momentum of its phenomenal popularity over generations. Excerpts from the interview:

How did Geronimo Stilton come about? There is no guarantee that an anthropomorphised mouse will be a hit with kids.
The Geronimo Stilton editorial series was initially published in eight titles by the Italian publishing house Dami Editore. Then Elisabetta Dami joined the publishing company Edizioni Piemme as a shareholder and, jointly with the owner Pietro Marietti, they developed the Geronimo Stilton project both on the editorial and the marketing side.

Why did you choose to create the text for children in this manner – multicoloured and diverse fonts?
The “graphisms” in the actual format aim to add an emotional meaning in a funny and witty way to the literal meaning of the word. This helps children to catch the meaning in a blink with the valuable result, among other, to encourage even reluctant readers to read.

Are these texts based on some technical knowledge about creating reading material for younger children? Somewhat similar to Ladybird’s Read It Yourself, Harper Collins’s I Can Read and Dr Seuss books? I ask since these books are poised beautifully in that space between picture books and chapter books but with some characteristics of game books such as those created by Livingstone (1970s). The Geronimo Stilton series definitely helps a child read easily.
This result was achieved little by little at the very beginning of the development of the editorial series in Edizioni Piemme, thanks to the editorial team, the leadership of Mrs Dami and Mr Marietti, and the enthusiastic feedback of young readers.

The rapidity with which these titles are released every month matches the pace of a magazine subscription, but it is actually a book. How does your publishing firm manage it?
The editorial team is a very well-trained engine and they rely upon a big community of illustrators and graphics that have been collaborating for years.

Are some of the titles created specifically for some countries and not for the rest of the world, such as Bollywood Burglary?
The titles are created for a worldwide market. Some themes are suggested by foreign publishers but the books are developed in order to be licensed and distributed all over the world.

What is the turnaround time of a story from conception to publishing?
About five months.

The themes of the stories selected are very modern and at times, topical. How does this come about? Apart from an editorial team does the firm also rely on the feedback from young readers? Are there any special moments or letters that have been memorable?
All over the world, children’s publishers have to be open to changes because their consumers are children – the more flexible, demanding, unpredictable community of the publishing market. The editorial team is even more careful because of the strong ethical commitment of this particular intellectual property. Moreover, a website for children and the related community gives immediate feedback with their comments to books and the marketing initiative.

In contemporary fiction for children, three characters come immediately to mind who have had such huge success – Gruffalo, Peppa Pig and Geronimo Stilton. Do you have any thoughts or insights on why this may have happened? Why now? Of these three only Geronimo is in translation.
We have to make a distinction between properties based on an animated series or movie and those which are based on an editorial series. The first ones derive their popularity from the large-scale awareness that broadcasters can grant. The latter have a different, slower and more resilient evolution. A book-based character and the related brand, once they have reached a level of popularity, can last for years, and can influence generations. In Italy, the first readers of Geronimo Stilton, girls and boys who were eight years old in 2000 when the series was first published, are now grown up. They are parents now and their children are Geronimo Stilton readers.

11 June 2017 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Pocket Penguins

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POCKET PENGUINS

Introducing 20 Pocket Penguins

THE   FUTURE   OF   PENGUIN   CLASSICS

26 May 2016

A-format paperbacks

 

Pocket Penguins are the bold next step from the world’s most recognizable publishing brand.  They are the future of Penguin Classics.

On 26 May 2016 we launch with a carefully curated list of twenty titles, highlighting a mix of the famous and unjustly overlooked that celebrate the pure pleasure of reading. Colour coded to reflect their original language, Pocket Penguins contain complete texts in a compact format designed to pick up, pocket, and go.

“These books are intimate, grand, funny, widescreen, painful, visionary – and we have been put on earth to make you want to read them!”

Simon Winder, Publishing Director

 

A REVOLUTION IN READING

In the space of one year, over 2.2 million Little Black Classics have been sold worldwide, demonstrating a huge new appetite for reading the Classics.

A RETURN TO COLOUR AFTER DECADES OF BLACK

 Since 1946, Penguin has been publishing classics in winning formulas and pushing the boundaries of cover design. Our use of oil paintings on black covers paved the way for a look that dominates classics publishing today. Now the timeless tri-band simplicity and bold colours of Pocket Penguins will show the power of leaving authors’ names and titles to speak for themselves.

On the 70th anniversary of the first Penguin Classics, Penguin’s Art Director, Jim Stoddart, has produced a new design that is both approachable and contemporary.

“The new range blossoms from black into the technicolour of Penguin’s heyday. While this is a comforting nod to past Penguin, this is very much a series of books for the modern age.”

Jim Stoddart, Art Director

THE FIRST TWENTY

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA                                         RUSSIAN

Mikhail Bulgakov

This ribald, carnivalesque satire – featuring the Devil, true love and a gun-toting cat – was written in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and became an underground sensation.

 

MRS DALLOWAY                                                                  ENGLISH

Virginia Woolf

The lives of a woman preparing for a party and a young man suffering from shell-shock converge on one June day in 1920’s London, in Woolf’s great novel of time, memory, war and the city.

 

THE SECRET AGENT                                                              ENGLISH

Joseph Conrad

Set in an Edwardian London underworld of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, or ourselves.

 

THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK                                                 CZECH

Jaroslav Hasek

Drunkard, malingerer, oaf and possible genius – the story of Czech soldier Svejk and his misadventures in the First World War is one of the most hilarious and subversive satires on war ever.

 

THE LOST ESTATE                                                                  FRENCH

Alain-Fournier

A novel of desperate yearning and vanished adolescence, the story of Meaulnes and his restless search for a lost, enchanted world has the atmosphere of a dream and the purity of a fairytale.

 

THE CALL OF CTHULHU                                                       ENGLISH

P. Lovecraft

Mad, macabre tales of demonic spirits, hideous rites, ancient curses and alien entities lurking beneath the surface of rural New England, from the man who created the modern horror story.

 

THE BETROTHED                                                                   ITALIAN

Alessandro Manzoni

Two lovers must face tyrants, war, riots, plague and famine in this teeming panorama of seventeenth-century Italian life.

 

METAMORPHOSIS                                                               GERMAN

Franz Kafka

An ordinary man wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach in Kafka’s masterpiece of unease and black humour.

 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE                               GERMAN

Rainer Maria Rilke

This dreamlike meditation on being young and alone in Paris is a feverish work of nerves, angst and sublime beauty from one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

 

THE HOUSE OF ULLOA                                                        SPANISH

Emilia Pardo Bazan

Set in a crumbling Spanish mansion, this gloriously comic and gothic novel follows the fortunes of an innocent young priest as he enters a world of moral decadence, sexual intrigue and corruption.

FATHERS AND SONS                                                            RUSSIAN

Ivan Turgenev

This humane, moving masterpiece of families, love, duels, heartache, failure and the clash between generations caused a scandal in nineteenth-century Russia with its portrayal of youthful nihilism.

 

OUT OF AFRICA                                                                    ENGLISH

Karen Blixen

In one of the most passionate memoirs ever written, Karen Blixen recalls running a farm in Africa at the start of the twentieth century, and the love affair that changed her life.

 

WALDEN                                                                                                ENGLISH

Henry David Thoreau

One man’s account of his solitary and self-sufficient home in the New England woods, this is the original book about abandoning our ‘lives of quiet desperation’ and getting back to nature.

 

A PARISIAN AFFAIR                                                             FRENCH

Guy de Maupassant

Sparkling, darkly humorous tales of high society, playboys, courtesans, peasants, sex and savagery in nineteenth-century France, from the father of the short story.

 

THE BEAST WITHIN                                                              FRENCH

Emile Zola

Zola’s tense, gripping psychological thriller of adultery, corruption and murder on the French railways is a graphic and violent exploration of the darkest recesses of the criminal mind.

 

THE COSSACKS and HADJI MURAT                                    RUSSIAN

Leo Tolstoy

Two masterly Russian tales of freedom, fighting and great warriors in the majestic mountains of the Caucasus, inspired by Tolstoy’s years as a soldier living amid the Cossack people.

 

THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO                                                                ENGLISH

Alfred Russel Wallace

The great Victorian scientist’s heroic adventures across South-East Asia, from Singapore to the wilds of New Guinea, encountering head-hunters, jungles, birds of paradise and new discoveries that would change the world.

 

THE RAINBOW                                                                      ENGLISH

D.H. Lawrence

Following three generations of a family in rural Nottinghamshire as they struggle, fight, labour on the land and discover who they are, Lawrence’s rhapsodic, poetic and mystical work rewrote the English novel.

 

MY CHILDHOOD                                                                   RUSSIAN

Maxim Gorky

In one of the most moving, raw accounts of childhood ever written, Maxim Gorky describes, with appalling clarity and startling freshness, growing up amid poverty and brutality in Tsarist Russia.

 

O PIONEERS!                                                                         ENGLISH

Willa Cather

A rapturous work of savage beauty, Willa Cather’s 1913 tale of a pioneer woman who tames the wild, hostile lands of the Nebraskan prairie is also the story of what it means to be American.

For more information: Caroline Newbury, cnewbury@randomhouse.co.in

20 Feb 2016   

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

***

Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.