A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Anyone bothered about the fate of top-quality publishing in a bottom-line culture will learn a lot from The Business of Books (Verso, £16). This is a trenchant memoir by the legendary New York publisher André Schiffrin, who captained Pantheon Books as a flagship of excellence until the dumb bean-counters of Random House ousted him. One timely lesson I gleaned is that, whoever sits in the White House or Congress, no politician will ever mess with what Ralph Nader chillingly calls the "permanent corporate government" of America.

Anyone bothered about the fate of top-quality publishing in a bottom-line culture will learn a lot from The Business of Books (Verso, £16). This is a trenchant memoir by the legendary New York publisher André Schiffrin, who captained Pantheon Books as a flagship of excellence until the dumb bean-counters of Random House ousted him. One timely lesson I gleaned is that, whoever sits in the White House or Congress, no politician will ever mess with what Ralph Nader chillingly calls the "permanent corporate government" of America.

Yet Schiffrin shows that, a generation back, a small New York outfit such as his could still flourish on the back of serious fiction in translation. Founded by refugees (notably André's father Jacques, shamefully sacked by Gallimard in 1940 as an anti-Semitic gesture to appease the Nazi occupiers of France), Pantheon made some proper money out of great imported novels. After Boris Pasternak won the Nobel prize, the firm sold 1m copies of Dr Zhivago in hardback and 5m in paperback. Then they struck lucky once more with Lampedusa's The Leopard. At around this time, the Pantheon board agonised over the sexual frankness of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. While they chewed this over, they asked the only woman present to leave the room.

So some things have changed for the better. And some for the worse: it's harder now to imagine a translation making a Dr Zhivago-sized splash in the monoglot waters of the Anglophone world. Far from being insularity-as-usual, this isolationism is a new syndrome. A century ago, a novel such as Anna Karenina could play as big a role in Anglo-American culture as it did in Tolstoy's Russia. William Faulkner, it's said, was once asked to name the three best novels ever. He replied: " Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina". If you don't recall why, rush to buy a fine new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Allen Lane, £20).

From the first, typically crisp and urgent, sentence of this version ("All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"), you grasp just what Faulkner meant. Alas, there's no such doubt about the provenance of a memorable line from one of Tolstoy's letters: "All journalism is a brothel from which there is no exit." Cruel, Leo, cruel.

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