2022 in review: what an odd post-pandemic year this has been, deranged in so many ways, over and beyond the realities of Brexit hitting home, and the depressing normalization of exploitation by the Government and giant corporates across the board, as we enter “a different kind of recession where there are still lots of jobs but the recession is around our wages,” according to James Reed, the Chairman and CEO of REED, Britain’s biggest and best-known recruitment brand.
The sadness over the death of my beloved brother lingers . . . old friends are abandoning this beleaguered island to start new lives in France, Italy, Portugal . . . a frozen shoulder as a result of breaking my arm in July limits activities . . . the ongoing gentrification of my much loved neighbourhood involving the destruction by RBK&C of a perfectly well-built, red-brick 1970s estate to be replaced by flimsy new-build flats of which only around 20% are social housing and 80% are being sold off privately for eye-watering sums, accompanied by marketing gush which makes political spinmeisters sound like paragons of honesty . . . morph into the Portobello Blues . . . but, but, but . . . as James Baldwin said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
Life is an illusion, reality doesn’t exist, it’s all about perception even though perception can become a person’s reality if unwary, or so the philosophers like to say. Best let the good times roll . . .
A Nobel Surprise
Once Upon a Time . . . as an editor specializing in French literature at Quartet Books, collaborating with the ingenious editorial director, Stephen Pickles, I had the immense pleasure of working closely with the late Tanya Leslie fine-tuning her translations of three of Annie Ernaux’s books which have become contemporary classics in France: Une Femme published in 1990 under the title A Woman’s Story; La Place published in 1991 under the title Positions; and Passion Simple published in 1993 under the title Passion Perfect.
I was struck by the stark simplicity and incisive strength of her writing about intensely personal, private experiences (unusual in the overwrought world of French fiction). Hours were spent on the telephone with Tanya Leslie discussing every last detail down to the final full stop.
Thirty years ago, to publish translations was considered foolhardy and uncommercial – even more so when the books were not by writers who were part of the publishing establishment in Paris, but came from a different milieu and/or culture.
However, Ernaux was well reviewed already back then, and I was contacted about her work by academics – notably at at Queen Mary and Westfield College. The translations were sold to the US publisher Dan Simon at Four Walls Eight Windows (now at Seven Stories Press). When Quartet Books hit the doldrums, various editors left, myself included, and decades later it folded, (during the pandemic). Whether all my marked-up manuscripts and notes in the filing cabinets crammed with author files – Ernaux’s included – ended up in a skip, or in storage is anyone’s guess.
Ernaux is now published by wunderkind Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo. Publishing translations today is anything but foolhardy and uncommercial, quite the contrary. That my enthusiasm is vindicated thirty years on, for the likes of Annie Ernaux, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Gisèle Pineau and many others whom I showcased and championed, is heartening. Although it is unfortunate to have been so far ahead of the curve since so much of life and perceived worldly success depends on timing.
A Landmark Publication
Once Upon a Time . . . as an agent, Empire Windrush: 50 Years of Writing About Black Britain edited by BookBlast client Onyekachi Wambu was sold to the visionary commissioning editor, Mike Petty, at Gollancz; duly published in 1998. It came out in the US in 2000 with Continuum under the provocative title Hurricane Hits England.
Back to the future: here at BookBlast much of 2022 has been taken up with clearing a swathe of permissions thereby fulfilling contractual obligations to deliver the new, second edition of Empire Windrush: Reflections on 75 Years & More of the Black British Experience (due out in 2023 with Weidenfeld & Nicolson), edited once more by prescient BookBlast client Onyekachi Wambu.
Born in Nigeria, Onyekachi arrived in the UK after the Biafran war. When he edited the first edition of Empire Windrush he was editor of The Voice newspaper and directing documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. Today, when editing the second volume, he has also been working as CEO of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) – a charity with a mission to expand the contributions that Africans in the diaspora make to Africa’s development – and campaigning for the repatriation of the Benin bronzes.
Empire Windrush: Reflections on 75 Years & More of the Black British Experience positions the Windrush experience as a symbol of something larger “reimagining a different British past, and new possibilities for the future” as Wambu puts it in his illuminating introduction. Windrush may be a landmark in the history of modern Britain, but it is essential to position it within the greater context of Empires past and present. The contributors who have enriched and transformed British culture include many of the same writers who featured in the original first edition.
A Surprise Success with Reviewers
Once upon a Time . . . as a translator, working with publishers on both sides of the Channel, French footballers, fashionistas and thinkers, my most recent translation was published this Summer.
Verso have done a remarkable PR job: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele by Olivier Guez has been extensively reviewed – in The Times, Daily Mail, Spectator, Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, Big Issue, Airmail News, Arts Desk, CrimeReads & etc. It was also listed as one of the Sunday Times’ 26 Best Fiction Books of 2022, as well as being one of Lit Hub’s 38 Favorite Books of 2022: “Most have made Mengele into a complete monster, but Guez does something much more interesting: he takes the monster and shows him as pathetic, disgusting, declining, and weak—exactly as Nazis and their ilk should be portrayed. When you depict someone as classically monstrous, you risk inspiring others to follow in their footsteps for the notoriety alone, but when you find the most squabbling, pathetic, petty parts of a villain to highlight, you can perhaps help to ensure that no one will seek to emulate them.”
Once Upon a Time . . . as literary executor for the Estate of Lesley Blanch working in collaboration with the superb Contemporary Classics team at the agency Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, the outcome has seen successful sales of foreign rights in PIERRE LOTI: Portrait of an Escapist to Le Passeur Editeur in Paris (with an introduction by Philip Mansel) and Settecolori in Milan, along with seminal title THE SABRES OF PARADISE Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus (with an introduction by Philip Marsden) also sold to Settecolori in Milan.
Will Collins’ article for the Los Angeles Review of Books about THE SABRES OF PARADISE Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus (1960) – “a half-forgotten masterpiece of narrative history recounting a mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus” – serving as one of Frank Herbert’s sources for his blockbuster DUNE makes for an eye-opening read.
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