Jacket required

Big business is no business of ours. But how mysterious and delightful are its workings. See, for example, the proposed merger between two of the corporate giants of American publishing – Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster – and the legal and literary problems it has exposed.

The name of the first of those two publishing companies hints at one of the ineluctable trends of the past few decades: the trend towards building larger corporations out of (relatively) smaller ones. (Both already rather gigantic, Penguin and Random House merged in 2013.) The synthesis of PRH with Simon and Schuster will, it is claimed, create a mighty hybrid with the resources to stand up to – what else? – the ongoing Amazonification of everything.

Yet the US Justice Department has concluded that the merger is not in the interests of authors (it will lower their advances) or readers (it will decrease the variety of books published); it is pursuing its case in court. “Consolidation is bad for competition”, as Stephen King testedified last week, in the Justice Department’s favour.

Not everyone believes that the right solution to the Amazon problem is to fight one monopoly with another – and no one can be wholly sure what judicial interventions will achieve. A decade ago, the Justice Department pursued another significant antitrust case against Apple and the “Big Five” publishers in the US – Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin (simply Penguin at the time) and Simon and Schuster – regarding the fixing of prices for ebooks. Again, this was taken to be a strategy for outfoxing the Amazonian behemoth. The publishers settled out of court, and Apple lost in it. As the New York Times has noted, however, the “legally kosher” deals that followed meant that the publishers still got what they wanted.

The outcome of the current case is awaited with interest, as they say. Students of publishing history will be poised to make the necessary adjustments to their genealogy of imprints – family trees that do not describe proliferating branches above ground, but descend into the soil to uncover a network of extraordinary roots. Chatto and Windus: founded 1855, absorbed by Random House 1987. Baker and Scribner: founded 1846, acquired under its modern name (Charles Scribner I survived his business partner Isaac D. Baker by twenty-one years) by Simon and Schuster in 1994. Simon and Schuster is itself a subsidiary of Paramount Global (for now). PRH is a subsidiary of the German company Bertelsmann. When Paramount Bertelsmann (or whatever comes next) rules the Earth, and Amazon has acquired the US Justice Department, we hope to be told if any of these corporate manoeuvres have been any good for readers and writers or not.

Never underestimate a book jacket – at least if you’re a seller or collector of books. A good example of a jacket’s value was offered some years ago by Seth Berner, an expert on William Faulkner. The author’s first book was a work in verse, The Marble Faun, published in 1924. Mr Berner reckoned a copy “with its pages falling out”, but without its pale jacket, could sell for $5,000. Add a “decrepit” jacket and you’re looking at $20,000. That was in 2009. A fine association copy of The Marble Faun, complete with a remarkably well preserved jacket, is currently for sale via Peter Harrington for £50,000. We wonder why the free-spending Faulknerite would look twice at an alternative – the first edition offered by Quintessential Rare Books in Laguna Hills, California, for $65,000 – when it is merely clothed in its “original green paper covered boards.”

In this respect, if in no other, what holds true for Faulkner holds true for his contemporary, PG Wodehouse. A sharp-eyed admirer of the latter informs us that there recently appeared on the market a copy of Wodehouse’s story collection The Man with Two Left Feet (1917); This is the volume in which Jeeves and Wooster make a first appearance between hard covers (in a story called “Extricating Young Gussie”). In Booker Bay, NSW, the bookseller Dick Neal offers this “exciting item” for $70,000, confident that its wrapper is “probably unique.” (This has to do with the price printed on the wrapper, which in turn has to do with “the war and money”.)

Back to Peter Harrington, in London: here you may acquire your first edition of The Man with Two Left Feet (“The scarcest book needed to complete a Jeeves and Wooster collection”) for only £6,000. No jacket, alas.

For most hunters after literary treasure, there is no need to go to such pecuniary extremes. Last week, beneath one of those awnings under which booksellers tend to place their lowest offerings, we retrieved a copy of Enchanted Cornwall. Published in 1989, this is a “pictorial memoir” put together by Piers Dudgeon, based on the recollections of Daphne du Maurier about a county she had by then known for several decades – from childhood, that is, to this, the year of her death.

“Cornwall became my text”, du Maurier writes in this £2 curio; it was here that she “discovered especially a sense of timelessness”. “Freedom to write, to walk, to wander” led her to write her first novel, The Loving Spirit; its publication, in 1931, only enhanced that freedom further. “I could come down to Fowey” – the port that had become a regular du Maurier family haunt – “when I liked, do what I liked and pay for myself.”

Perhaps something of that confident freedom is apparent from the portrait from Enchanted Cornwall reproduced above, which was taken soon after The Loving Spiritin 1932, by the Tatler photographer Compton Collier. It crops up here and there, often without credit to Collier herself, but we suspect it remains too little known as an admirable portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Du Maurier also got married in 1932. When Collier returned in 1945 to take her picture again – this one doesn’t feature in Enchanted CornwallTatler gave the resultant feature the subheading “Mrs FAM Browning and her children in Cornwall”. No jaunty cigarette that time round.

To our initial smattering of modern novels with titles drawn from Shakespeare (August 5), Grahame Lavis writes from east London to ask that we don’t forget the works of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías. We had been wondering if the old habit of alluding to Shakespeare in titles, pinching some piquant phrase or other, was coming or going; for Marías it is more of a steady addiction. He owes happy debts to Lady Macbeth for A Heart So WhiteRichard III for Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Methe ghost of Henry VI for When I Was Mortal (a story collection, admittedly) and Prince Hal for Your Face Tomorrow (but shouldn’t that be Thy Face Tomorrow?). There is also Dark Back of Timewhich in Esther Allen’s faithful translation of Marías’s Negra espalda del tiempo steps slightly aside from Prospero’s questioning of Miranda about what she can recall from the “dark backward and abysm of time”.

Other novelists have dipped into Shakespeare’s abysm for a title or two. But have any been back for more as often as the author of Thus Bad Begins? (A title on loan from the Prince of Denmark.)

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