Peter Owen: Half a century of cultural caviar

Peter Owen has published mavericks and monsters of world literature, from Anaïs Nin to Yoko Ono. John Walsh consults his catalogue of memories
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The Independent Culture

I never much liked Yoko Ono," said Peter Owen, shifting his considerable girth in the armchair of his elegant Holland Park drawing-room. "We used to go to the same parties in London when she was poor and humble and married to a man called Cox. But then she met John and became a big name. Beatrice, my production manager and I decided to pay them a visit one day, at the Apple shop in Soho - and there they were, the two of them sitting at a long desk. She was sitting with a hat on indoors, spooning caviar from a Fortnum's jar. Beatrice had a rich uncle so she knew about these things and she said to me, 'That's forty quid's worth of caviar'. She didn't offer us any of. She just sat there: expressionless, gorging, arrogant."

Peter Owen is not good at hatred. He is a benign and grand-paternal figure of 74, whose most damning verbal pronouncement is that somebody is, or was, "arrogant" or "unpleasant". But he clearly loathed his artistic Japanese near-namesake, whose vapid book of drawings and Zen wisdom, Grapefruit, he published in 1968, with a scribbled introduction by the Beatle. "She used to phone me up all the time, every day, asking about sales, telling me what to do. In the end I got fed up and said to her, 'Look ­ you're good at writing pop songs, and I'm good at publishing, so why don't you do your thing and I'll do mine?'. And I never heard from her again."

He smiles modestly. He is rather good at publishing. So many writers, famous, forgotten, tragic, lucky, doomed, have passed through his hands, he can be forgiven this burst of vainglory. Next week Owen celebrates the 50th birthday of his publishing house, a half-century of triumphant independence as an impresario of classy international writing. He has championed the global avant-garde, introduced British readers to voices from Japan to Mexico, held a torch for faded reputations (Colette, Apollonaire, Gide), and broken the record for the number of Nobel prizewinners (including Shusaku Endo, Octavio Paz and Cesare Pavese) on his list.

He is a genial figure at literary occasions, Dickensianly garbed, smiling and sleek but ready to sandbag conceited literary pups. His role has always been to make people read the best stuff and recognise it for what it is. My most abiding memory of him is of an ebullient luncher, brushing cigar ash onto his black shirt, as he urges you, over an agreeable pudding, to go away and read, this very instant, a novel by some woefully under-valued new discovery.

He is bewilderingly eclectic. He has published everyone from Muriel Spark in the Fifties (his first editor) to Fiona Pitt-Kethley in the Nineties, with Marcel Marceau, Salvador Dali and Shere Hite in between. He has hung out with Tennessee Williams (who brought a bottle of vodka to dinner), with Tariq Ali and the Duke of Bedford, and published them all.

He met the odd husband and wife team of Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangiers and published both. "A terribly nice man, a gentleman, quite unpretentious, one of my real friends in the book world. He always had these manuscripts of stories lying around. He didn't push himself, and his agents weren't much good. He'd say, 'You might wish to publish this', so I did." How had Bowles become such a cynosure for the Beat poets and assorted exotics of the Sixties? "He'd never admit he was gay. He covered his tracks very well, though I've heard stories that indicate he used to play around with Arab boys. I taped an interview with him once, in which I asked, 'Did you have affairs?' and he said, 'With women? No'. He wouldn't give anything away". Jane Bowles was "very modern, very sociable, she had been very pretty. They were desperately fond of each other. Theirs was one of the great love affairs of all time, except that it wasn't sexual." Jane had a stroke at 39, and Paul, he says, never got over it.

"One didn't know about Alzheimer's in those days, but it must have been. The last time I saw her, the Time-Life people were doing a story about them both, and David Herbert, the Queen Mother of Tangiers, gave a party for her. She'd had shock treatment, but she looked better than I'd ever seen her, dressed in a kaftan. I said to her, 'Jane, if you had the choice now of being an outstanding writer or being a vegetable, which would you choose?' and she said, without a moment's hesitation, 'A vegetable'."

Peter Owen's directness can be rather shocking. He published Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, the famous erotic partnership, and the mention of Nin's Chanel-scented shade brings out a touch of the Yokos. "We only found out after she died what a horrible person Nin was. She was such a manipulator. I think she was envious of Jane and Carson McCullers, who were both so talented. But she loved Marguerite Young ­ who wrote the longest novel ever written ­ because she was terribly plain and therefore no threat."

Owen once gave Anais Nin lunch at the Savoy with Peter Grosvenor of the Daily Express. "Peter, who was very prissy, turned out to be a good interviewer. He asked something like, 'Was Miller a considerate lover?' and sparked her off. She said, no, he wasn't any good in bed at all. And Peter couldn't use it, because it was too hot for the Express. But of course, in her books, she always claimed she was nuts about Miller."

Owen once semi-met the great man in New York at the offices of Barney Rosset of the Grove Press, who published Sexus and Tropic of Cancer when nobody else would. "I was standing in the office watching a grubby old tramp being screamed at by Barney's secretary. It was Henry Miller, gone to seed." Owen published the decaying satyr's Books of My Life and took his recommendations to heart. "A lot of the works he recommended wound up on our list". Like Herman Hesse, whose hippie-dream, Buddhist fantasy Siddhartha was snapped up by Owen for the wastrel sum of £25. "In the Sixties," he happily recalls, "we churned out copies of Siddhartha, a new hardback reprint every three months. The paperback houses were all after it. They'd take me out to lunch, get me drunk and try and buy the rights. I'd say, 'Why the hell should I sell the rights to you or anyone else?'. But eventually I did, on the understanding that they bought six other books of mine as well".

A combination of serendipity, hard-nosed business sense and restless enthusiasm for the odd, the true and the well-written has always characterised Owen's list. It's hardly surprising to find him dismissive of modern publishing, with its cautious backing of well-tried formulae. To Owen, the current literary scene is "a very barren, mediocre period".

He has no interest in reading the works of Nick Hornby and Sebastian Faulks. He despairs of the survival of the stuff he used to champion. "Agents and publishers aren't looking for new fiction now because they can't sell it. Good books aren't being looked at because there's so much rubbish around, literary editors don't know where to start. Fewer people will try to write real novels, rather than TV scripts and film screenplays. Unless the Arts Council puts some real public money into libraries, in 20 years' time, there won't be any literature."

The indefatigable Owen still puts in a full day's work as rights director, getting to his desk by 8.30am, a time when most publishers aren't fully awake. His daughter Antonia is now editorial director of the business and has her father's full confidence, "provided we don't buy too many first novels". It is wholly characteristic of this ramshackle, unsinkable, splendid man that, when we parted company after a two-hour stroll down Memory Lane, he should press into my hand his latest passion, Lady Jean by the New Zealand novelist Noel Virtue, with the suggestion that I go off and read it right away.

I did. It's brilliant. How does he do that?

Peter Owen, a biography

Peter Owen was born in Germany 1927. He grew up in Nuremburg, where his parents owned a leather factory. Sent to England at five, he went to school in north London and trained to be a journalist. A stint in the RAF gave him a Forces paper quota; he decided to set up own publishing house. In 1951 he started Peter Owen Ltd with £900 capital, in the garage of his house in west London. Its first book was A Dark Stranger by Julian Gracq. He bought a mansion in Holland Park Avenue as an office and lives there now. His list has included figures such as Pasternak, Dali, Hesse and Colette, but he is most proud to have published The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas. He has three children, and his daughter Antonia is now editorial director of the firm. A charming picture of its early days appears in Muriel Spark's A Far Cry From Kensington