Business ends

There is no cause for alarm – or so we like to kid ourselves – but don’t be surprised to find that books have become more expensive before the year is out. This is one clear warning from this month’s London Book Fair – that barmy bazaar of shop talk and deals that pops up annually at Olympia in Kensington. Business had been conducted online last year, over three weeks rather than three days. This time round, a visitor might have glanced down from an Olympian balcony overlooking the various stalls of publishers big and small, as well as the many other essential representatives of the literary supply chain, and concluded that all seemed restored to the old disorder and bustle – more or less.

There was certainly plenty of noise. We caught a fit of poetry in a corner of one hall and, elsewhere, an outbreak of drumming, courtesy of the Sharjah Book Authority (from the United Arab Emirates). A literary agent jokingly complained about the lack of good gossip. The proud proprietor of a self-publishing service cocked a snook at his more piratical rivals. The Ukrainian Book Institute had, we gather, received its space at the LBF free of charge; following the pummelling of Kharkiv, where the country’s main printing works are located, plans are being made to print Ukrainian books elsewhere in Europe. Via, indeed, you can make a donation to help put books into the hands of Ukrainian children.

As reported in the Bookseller, meanwhile, the outlook is “quite bleak, really” for the economics of the books business, as prices continue to rise for paper, energy – even “glues, ink, binding”, as one insider noted. Higher book prices are “inevitable”. Perhaps they say this every year – but this year, we suspect, they really mean it.

It was good to learn from the LBF that the small Arachne Press, which publishes new work in verse and prose, has weathered the storms of the past two years and is now celebrating its tenth anniversary by publishing ten books – a decent number in one year for a small press. Milestones matter, at least to the traveler with miles to go before she may sleep. See also, for a different kind of milestone, the publishing arm of the British Library, which last month released the 100th title in its Crime Classics series: Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer.

Martin Edwards, the editor of this series, fairly describes it as a “publishing phenomenon” – it has, after all, made bestsellers of books by neglected stalwarts of the genre, such as Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. After that title, the most commercially successful crime classics tend to have a festive focus, we are told – The Santa Claus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay or an anthology called Silent Nights, edited by Edwards himself. “It seems the Christmas Crime Classic is still unrivalled!”

“What makes a crime classic?”, we asked. Beyond the “tiny elite of writers headed by Agatha Christie”, came the answer, are those authors, “such as Anthony Berkeley, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, and Mary Kelly”, who “marry ingenious plots with shrewd characterisation”; and then there are writers such as ECR Lorac and Gil North, who “portray rural British life in fascinating depth”. A crime classic gives the reader an “insight into a vanished world, while reminding us of the universality of human nature and motives for murder”. “Great entertainment” is also to be expected.

In its somewhat gauche fashion, Death of a Bookseller (British Library, £9.99) well illustrates these general principles. Originally published in 1956 – and now “long out of print” but keenly sought by aficionados – it begins with a police sergeant, Jack Wigan, befriending an tipsy fellow in the street. The drunkard is a bookseller called Michael Fisk, who says he is celebrating making “the find of my life”: a copy of Keats’s Endymion, published in 1818 and oddly inscribed by the poet to himself. After Wigan has gleaned from his friend a lot more insider information about the workings of the rare book trade, he drops by his home one evening “to show him a first of Lord Dunsany’s”, only to find the bookseller dead and Keats missing. “And the cause of death is probably the knife-thrust in the chest.”

Farmer, who was a policeman himself for a spell, efficacy goes about dropping clue after clue, chapter by chapter, about the bookseller’s murder, although we must admit that we read on largely for the sake of his insights into the vanished world of mid- century bibliomania rather than for the sake of seeing justice done. In Niger’s, “a big shop in West Road”, desperate book-runners go digging through “a great unsorted pile of books”, looking for bargains. Prices range from mere pounds to a million, and – that note again – prices for rare books are said to be “rising all the time”. The canny seller can bluff people into paying whatever price is said to be “reasonable” for a book, despite the views of the “ignorant public”. According to Edwards, Farmer wrote from personal experience, being a collector of GA Henty (as Wigan is in turn). Farmer’s other books include The Gentle Art of Book Collecting (1950) and the first bibliography of Winston Churchill (1958).

Thanks to Farmer, we now feel equipped to deal in rare books in the 1950s way, if not to solve a 1950s murder case. And Death of a Bookseller may find a place on our shelves of “biblio-fiction” – assuredly a less popular genre than crime classics, but one to which we hope to return before too long.

The obituaries for the American poet and translator Richard Howard, who died on March 31, led us to the map reproduced above. It acccompanies Howard’s translation of Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet, first published in 1959. The TLS‘s reviewer, Rayner Heppenstall, made some typically astute remarks on this translation, and Robbe-Grillet in general, admiring Howard’s “careful” work yet wondering if there was one respect in which Howard had been “too careful”: this map of the house where the novel’s action is set, with its accompanying “legend”. “There is nothing of the kind in the French text”, Heppenstall observes; “It is very much the point of M. Robbe-Grillet’s way of writing that no such thing should be necessary.”

Howard courteously replied. The map had been suggested “enthusiastically” by Robbe-Grillet himself, after an erroneous version had already appeared in the Italian edition of Jealousy. Is the diagram now a fixture in French editions of the novel, as it has long been elsewhere?

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