Seamus Heaney Posts

“Faber & Faber: The Untold Story: by Toby Faber

The big firms say that they intend to retain the imprints of the small publishers they absorb. But I doubt if that ever works for long. You might retain the imprint, but you must inevitably lose the elusive character of the individual firm, compounded by its proprietor’s personality and taste.

Geoffrey Faber in The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 12 August 1939

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber is a fabulous account of a publishing firm that is synonymous with setting the gold standard in literary publishing, including poetry. Toby Faber details this history by mostly presenting edited excerpts of correspondence from the official archives of the firm and presumably some from his family such as the diaries of Geoffrey Faber and his personal correspondence. Toby Faber’s commentary in the opening pages of every chapter and occasionally between the reproduced correspondence helps contextualise the moment in history. Faber is responsible for launching/ closely associated with the careers of many prominent writers and poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, Vikram Seth, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Golding, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Barbara Kingsolver, Sebastian Barry, Gunter Grass, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, DBC Pierre, Sally Rooney, and Anna Burns. Establishing the bedrock of this magnificent list of A-list authors can be attributed to Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot and the poet Walter de la Mare’s son, Richard, who were a part of Faber’s founding editorial team. They gave shape to the editorial policy of Faber & Faber and thus gave the publishing firm its distinctive identity of publishing excellent modern literature. Some of the other editors-at-large who joined the firm were musicians Pete Townshend of the WHO and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.

In 2019 Faber is celebrating its ninetieth year. It was established on 1 April 1929 by Geoffrey Faber. Interestingly as this wonderful historical account describes, Faber & Faber arose like a phoenix from the ashes of Faber & Gwyer. A firm that had in turn been built by the distinguished lawyer, Maurice Gwyer* and Geoffrey Faber on the foundation laid by the Scientific Press, estd. 1880s. The Scientific Press had been established by Gwyer’s father-in-law, Sir Henry Burdett. This publishing business had been inherited by Sir Henry’s daughters, one of whom, Alsina, married Maurice Gwyer. Curiously or perhaps with some astute business sense, Geoffrey Faber persuaded the Maurice Gwyer to launch a magazine for nannies called The Nursing Mirror. Unfortunately as sometimes happens in businesses, the two partners fell out over what are keen strategies or sheer foolhardiness. Despite the steep learning curve Geoffrey Faber decided to reinvent himself and launch a new firm, Faber & Faber.

This ability to reinvent itself and respond to the changing times is embedded in the DNA of Faber & Faber. It is evident in the manner in which the firm took to publishing paperbacks although in principle for a long time remained a firm known for its hardback publications. It also at critical junctures of its history restructured itself and launched new firms such as Faber Music, Faber Academy, Faber Digital and Faber Factory. It also has a fine children’s literature list too. In the early years it also managed to “discover” new authors by encouraging T. S. Eliot to continue the publication of the literary journal Criterion. Later there was a fortuitous discovery in the slush pile of the manuscript originally called Strangers from Within submitted by William Golding, to be published as Lord of the Flies.

Faber & Faber is a superb history on how this publishing firm came to attain its legendary status. Extraordinarily it has retained its independence through its nine decades of existence. Toby Faber attributes this ability of the firm to hang on to its indepedence as being “lucky”. He says:

That repeated ‘luck’ points to something else: a publishing philosophy that, without ignoring commercial imperatives, has always focused on excellence and the long term, whether that applies to relationships with authors that last for decades, or to books that enter the literary canon. A philosophy like that can lead to books that continue selling; Faber’s backlist has given it the income as the core of its financial stability.

Philosophy alone, however, is not enough. It needs to be allied in good editorial taste.

Of course there have been extremely tense moments about Faber & Faber’s survival. In some particularly gloomy years the royalties earned from the musical adaption of T.S. Eliot’s poem Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber kept the firm afloat. There have been conversations about mergers but ultimately the directors have steered Faber & Faber firmly to an even stronger footing. One of the notable moments in its history was when the widow of T. S. Eliot decided to support the firm. So while the Faber family holds a fifty percent stake in the company, Valerie Eliot joined the firm as a “sympathetic shareholder”.

Faber & Faber is known for its enviable stable of authors. Apart from those already mentioned, since 1990, Faber authors have won more Nobel prizes, the Man Booker, the Costa awards etc. While the book is a glowing account of a fiercely independent firm there are also moments of regrets such as losing out on publishing James Joyce and George Orwell. At times this history reads like an old boys publishing club that did occasionally publish women — Anna Burns was their first woman writer to win the Man Booker Prize in 2018. As Toby Faber points out that this win “itself [was] an indication of the firm having travelled a very necessary distance from the chauvinistic 1980s. The same could be said of Barbara Kingsolver’s victory in the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2010”. Be that at it may, Faber’s list is fantastic and makes every author proud to be a part of it. A testament to this is an excerpt of the correspondence between Indian author Vikram Seth and the then Managing Director Matthew Evans.

Author Vikram Seth to Matthew Evans, 28 May 1985

After we had lunch yesterday, it struck me that you would be a good person to send my novel in verse to. If you like The Golden Gate, you might want to do a British edition — and even if that doesn’t happen, reading it might somewhat increase your affection for a city that is — I promise — far from dreary and provincial.

I’ve told Anne Freedgood at Random House — who tells me that TCG is out at a few British houses — thatI’d like to send it to you, and she says that’s fine. ( She showed it briefly to Robert McCrum, but when he offered to consider it only for the poetry list, she refused. The book is fiction, and to put it on a poetry list would be to kill it.) [. . . ]

The book is due out in February 1986, and I can think of nothing more pleasurable than to appear simultaneously on the fiction lists of the British and American houses I most respect.

To read some more excerpts from the book, here is a link to the Guardian. To commemorate 90 years a fabulous collection of 90 short stories have been released.

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is a wonderful, wonderful history of an iconic publishing firm.

14 June 2019

*Sir Maurice Linford Gwyer, GCIE, KCB, KCSI, KC (25 April 1878 – 12 October 1952) was a British lawyer, judge, and academic administrator. He served as Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University from 1938 to 1950, and Chief Justice of India from 1937 to 1943). He is credited with having founded the prestigious college Miranda House in 1948 in Delhi, India. Gwyer Hall, the oldest men residence for the university students is named after him. ( Source: Wikipedia )

Note: All pictures used in the gallery are off Twitter. I do not own the copyright.

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry
Edited by Sudeep Sen
HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2012. Pb. Pp.540. Rs. 599.

Panchali’s Pledge Subramania Bharti
Translated by Usha Rajagopalan
Everyman Classics, Hachette India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 274 Rs. 350

Dom Moraes: Selected Poems
Edited with an introduction by Ranjit Hoskote. Penguin Books India, 2012, Pb. Pp.282. Rs 499.

The River Speaks: The Vaiyai Poems from the Paripatal
Translated by V. N. Muthukumar and Elizabeth Rani Segran
Penguin Classics, Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 176. Rs. 250

These my Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry
Edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo
Penguin Books, India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 450 Rs. 499

In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir
Rainlight, Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2012. Hb. Pp. 206. Rs 499

2012 was a delicious year for poetry from and being published in India. There were plenty of books to choose from — anthologies, collections, translations and some even for children. The anthology edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo (p.xxi) “comprises almost thirty languages and dialects, all translated into the English except of course those poems written in English. It includes poems, folk songs, and oral narratives that have now been transcribed. We have sought for a collection which tries to represent the breadth and diversity of Indian poetry – we wanted poems that surprised and delighted, poems that illuminated, and inspired further reading—a book for readers, not scholars and academics. We chose poems that worked in translation, those which crossed the boundary of language, which faithfulness to the original combined with adaptation to produced work that existed on its own merit.” It gives a good bird’s-eye view of what was written over the centuries, the various traditions that spawned poems and the transformation to the form over time. While reading it, you get a sense of the variety of poetry, the forms, the reasons why poetry is written and what can actually travel in translation. It is extremely difficult for me to even give a snippet of what is in the anthology since every poem is perfect. It forces you to engage with the content, takes you to a different world and time, and yet encourages you to move on to read the next poem. In no way is it dull to read such a volume.

In fact the editors achieve very well what Gulzar says in the absolutely delicious book In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir that poetry is about “direct communication” and “What a poem says on the surface is not all that it means. You have to unpick the lines and see the shadows of words. That what makes it poetry, otherwise it would be prose. You usually have to be less ambiguous in prose, which is often an elaboration of thoughts: whereas in poetry, thoughts are usually compressed. A poem has an element of mystery. You have to unravel that mystery. Of course it depends on every poet—how much they reveal, and how much they choose not to.” He adds, “when you understand a poem’s meaning, you can never forget it. You find yourself reciting it at some occasion and it is appreciated. The idea of writing poetry appealed to me because reciting poetry is so pleasurable and the appreciation I got made me happy.”

I wish though that Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo had a longer note about the translation process. Or at least got a few of the translators to speak and then carry a transcript of it as an afterword on their experience at translating poetry. Obviously it takes a while for a satisfactory conclusion to be achieved. An insight into this is given by Sudeep Sen in his Aria introduction on translating poetry “Sculpting language, altering tongues, intoning arias” (p.4), “In almost all instances — whether it be Hebrew, Danish, Korean, Macedonian, Polish, Persian, Spanish or Portuguese — I have worked closely with poets of the source languages themselves. They would do literal translations of the original poems in very raw prose. Once I got down the contents in an accurate version, I would then enter the process more proactively and often singularly to sculpt and revise the jagged prose texts to give them a poetic shape in English. After every revision and draft, I would ask the poet to read aloud the poems in their original tongue, so that I got down the rhythm, rhyme, and the cadence correctly — getting them as close to the original as is possible. Once both the poet in the original language and I as a translator were happy with the versions we came up with — which happened through several working sessions over extended periods of time — we would let go of the poems in their new avatar, in a new language.” Maybe knowing this he chose to consciously create a useful anthology of English poetry by Indians (based in the country and from the diaspora). It was fifteen years in the making, but it is time well spent. Unfortunately that is not the case with Usha Rajagoplan’s translations of Subramania Bharti’s Panchali’s Pledge. I cannot read the poems in the source language but I realize that the translations are missing something from the original.

Of the recent set of publications on poetry my favourites are the translations of Lal Ded’s poetry by Ranjit Hoskote (I, Lalla) and his selection of Dom Moraes poems. Even if you have never read poetry or been hesitant about taking a dip in it, start with Ranjit Hoskote’s introductions. His selection, translations and arrangement of the poems introduces you to the poets, their techiniques, form and evolution very well.

And if you have children. Then some of the anthologies that I absolutely enjoy reading out aloud to my daughter are The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes; The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse selected and illustrated by Quentin Blake; The Puffin Book of Modern Children’s Verse edited by Brian Patten, illustrated by Michael Foreman (revised and updated); The Macmillan Treasury of Poetry for Children with a foreword by Charles Causley and A first poetry book selected by Pie Corbett and Gaby Morgan (published by Macmillan). As Charles Causley who used to be a school teacher till one day he discovered the joys of reading poetry to his students says, “A poet, of course, is not obliged to make a poem, whatever its form, entirely accessible at a first reading. A poem, by its nature, may hold certain qualities in reserve. It may not burn itself out, so to speak, in one brilliant flash of light. A poem is a living organism, capable of continuous development and the most subtle of changes. It may contain both a revelation and a mystery. We need to be aware not only of what is said, but of what the poet most carefully has left unsaid.” Pie Corbett says it aptly “Let the poems become shafts of sunlight to brighten up the day.”