Boyd Tonkin: The human pillars of a blockbuster

The week in books
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World Without End, Ken Follett's second medieval doorstop after Pillars of the Earth, topped the charts in Spain, as it did in the UK, US, Germany, Italy and France. The Spanish edition, all 1136 pages of it, came out from the Barcelona house of Plaza & Janes. Glance at its title-page, and you will see the translation attributed to "Anuvela". Who was this mysterious linguist, with a solitary name in the manner of some 1950s starlet? Last year, at a conference in Salzburg, I found out. "Anuvela" consists of seven women. They make up a Barcelona-based collective of translators who came together in 2001 to share work, help one another and improve their bargaining power in the face of publishers' demands to deliver flawless translations of epic bestsellers at low cost, and by tomorrow. I hope that Follett, a Labour stalwart for so long, appreciates the fact that his army of Spanish-language readers depended for their enjoyment of that novel on a classic exercise in feminist trade-unionism. If not, it's time for a little homage to Catalonia.

Next week, Follett launches another cycle of historical blockbusters with his novel Fall of Giants. Set between 1911 and 1920 in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and America, it dramatises class conflict and military catastrophe across a continent whose ruling elites founder in the storms of total war and social revolution. No doubt it will match his medieval sagas as a border-busting success: Pillars of the Earth has notched up sales of 18 million, with a Channel 4 mini-series adaptation due next month. In total, worldwide sales of Follett's fiction now exceed 116 million.

Perhaps no British author better illustrates the forces at work in international publishing that can give birth to, and then grow, a global brand. Fall of Giants will initially appear in a 240,000 English-language print-run, with a total first edition of 2.5 million in 16 countries. already trumpets the availability of La Chute des Géants; offers Sturz der Titanen, and so forth (not forgetting La Caida de los Gigantes in Spain). This planetary roll-out becomes part of Follett's brand identity as an author, and a self-fulfilling enhancement of his reputation. These big books make an ever-bigger splash. Across the world, they enlist the largely unnoticed skills of translators, retailers, publicists and other artisans, all labouring namelessly away on vast monuments - much as the cathedral-builders themselves did in Pillars of the Earth.

Given the relentless momentum of such a literary steamroller, it would be easy to retreat into purist disdain at the monolithic power of the Anglophone bestseller – and of the European combines that so eagerly support it. Remember that Follett's publisher, Pan Macmillan, forms part of the Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck of Stuttgart.

Certainly, Follett belongs in that tiny band of authors who can ride out recession to make their books' presence felt in a truly globalised marketplace. Few other cultural artefacts – Hollywood stars and movies, veteran rock bands, but not much else – ever manage that. Equally, the gigantic space that he - or any other mega-seller – occupies will tend to squeeze out less favoured rivals. These days in international publishing, winner takes all – although that sounds more of a Jeffrey Archer title.

Look instead at the theme and mood of Follett's sagas of the past, and a more sympathetic story emerges. Since the 19th century, the historical blockbuster has often told us as much about its own time as its ostensible period. In Pillars of the Earth and World without End, set in the 12th and 14th centuries respectively, masons, peasants and merchants strive for dignity and recognition within and against a pan-European system of feudal and ecclesiastical control. In Fall of Giants, coal miners as well as aristocrats, squaddies as well as generals, share the starring parts, from Wales to St Petersburg. All the tensions that arise from unequal wealth, status and opportunity in an interconnected world unfold. If such books deliver the simple pleasures of escape, maybe they hold up a distant mirror to their readers too.

At home with God – and Marx?

When your first novel is hailed as a masterpiece, and the next two attract just as much acclaim but only arrive after an interval a quarter-century long, readers will tend to mind the gap. At the Royal Society of Literature this week, Marilynne Robinson (right) gave some reasons for the 24-year hiatus between Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004) . She can only stand so much of the "auto-cannibalisation" fiction demands. And she took some time to study classics of thought – Adam Smith to Darwin to Freud – and discover what they really said. Which was the biggest revelation? Marx's Capital, answered America's most respected Christian novelist. "He was right about a lot."

The spying game, then and now

Most "revelations" in official histories of the British secret services will underwhelm anyone with a knowledge of the spooks' shadowy past. This week, Keith Jeffery confirmed in his new authorised account of MI6 until 1949 that Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Compton Mackenzie indeed did their bit for the secret state. That duly made headlines – even though the "news" will hardly startle any reader who keeps up with the biographies. Maugham fans will also remember the droll stories in Ashenden, or the British Agent – universally assumed from their publication in 1928 to have an autobiographical core in the writer's exploits as a gentleman spy late in the First World War. Surely it would be much more fun to speculate on living writers – especially those with a flair for travel and adventure – who might conceivably have had dealings with secret intelligence? At least one name does spring to mind, but to say more might run the risk of a swift and drastic retrib...