Tom Maschler: Publish and be acclaimed

In his long career, Tom Maschler founded the Booker Prize and put into print icons from Hemingway and Heller to Lennon and Amis. His memoir will be a literary event, says John Walsh
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In the late 1970s and early 1980s, if your image of the typical publisher was of a dust-grimed, parchment-skinned, Pickwickian cove in a shabby suit and pebble glasses - something between a family doctor and a retired librarian - then meeting Tom Maschler was a surprise. Jonathan Cape was the most successful and high-profile publishing house in London, and their annual parties were legendary. Through the doorway of the company's Georgian mansion at 30 Bedford Square you could find Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, Bernard Levin, Claire Tomalin, Tina Brown and Clive James being lionised by lesser scribes, and there might be rare sightings of shy, quasi-mythical figures such as Bruce Chatwin and Anita Brookner. It was at one of these long, luxuriantly textured, seemingly endless bacchanalia that I first clapped eyes on the Cape chairman.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, if your image of the typical publisher was of a dust-grimed, parchment-skinned, Pickwickian cove in a shabby suit and pebble glasses - something between a family doctor and a retired librarian - then meeting Tom Maschler was a surprise. Jonathan Cape was the most successful and high-profile publishing house in London, and their annual parties were legendary. Through the doorway of the company's Georgian mansion at 30 Bedford Square you could find Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, Bernard Levin, Claire Tomalin, Tina Brown and Clive James being lionised by lesser scribes, and there might be rare sightings of shy, quasi-mythical figures such as Bruce Chatwin and Anita Brookner. It was at one of these long, luxuriantly textured, seemingly endless bacchanalia that I first clapped eyes on the Cape chairman.

He was the most intensely tanned Caucasian I'd ever seen. Between unruly, flyaway wings of hair, his shiny forehead was as darkly burnished as a conker. His intense, brown eyes regarded you with amusement, while his voice soared to girlish shrieks of remonstration. He seemed to be in a chronic state of aggrieved hilarity. He was as camp as a sequinned bivouac, despite his prodigious reputation as a ladies' man.

In those days, he could do no wrong. In the Sixties, he was the man who published Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; he put John Lennon's doodles into cold print, launched the careers of John Fowles and Gabriel García Márquez, looked after the wayward visionaries Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut and later, in the early 1980s, was the godfatherly mentor of Amis fils, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the most vividly talented galaxy of novelists corralled together in decades. He was equally adept at commissioning inspired non-fictions such as The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris's zoological inspection of human behaviour.

"I think I can say there was something special going for Cape, from about the late Sixties to the Eighties, that made it a very potent place," he says at his Chelsea flat. "If I read a book and loved it, I'd communicate my enthusiasm to all my colleagues at Cape, then to the sales team -- I would present every book I was passionate about personally at the sales conference - and bring in my publicity team who weren't just marketing people: they were book lovers. Sometimes I'd approach one or two bookshops, like Hatchards, where the manager might order 500 copies of a first novel because he enjoyed taking a gamble on me and my hunches. By the time the book got to the literary editors of newspapers, they should have heard the buzz about it from several directions."

Not that journalists were always easy to enlist as cheerleaders. Maschler reserves a special place in his imaginary hell for one man: "Terence Kilmartin, who was literary editor of The Observer for my first 25 years. If I rang Terry about something I was excited about, his attitude was, 'Jesus Christ, here he comes again'. He was very narrow-minded. He hadn't a bloody clue about discovering a book. If he had been given, say, Thomas Pynchon's novel V when Pynchon was unknown, he would certainly have dismissed it - as would Karl Miller [literary editor at The Listener] and Frank Kermode [the Cambridge professor of English literature]. All these stalwarts of the English literary establishment, their scholarship leads them astray."

What enraged Maschler was to be dismissed as a kind of gifted tradesman, and asked to stand outside the study, while the critical bigwigs decided whether his new discoveries should be granted a place in the temple of literary art. It made him despise condescension all through his career - quite rightly. The man who helped put Heller and Roth, Márquez and Fuentes, Roald Dahl and Russell Hoban on the literary map has nothing to fear from sneery academics.

You can detect wafts of defensiveness all through Publisher, his memoirs of a life at the top of the book trade. Its 284 pages seethe with stories of famous authors, convivial lunches and dinners, triumphant signings, disastrous encounters, fractured relationships, illness and money troubles, but the author gives nothing away about his interior life or his private arrangements (his 12-year marriage to his first wife, Fay, the restaurant critic, gets two microscopic mentions). Of his alarming and lonely childhood - his German-Jewish parents moved from Berlin to Vienna just before the Anschluss; he and his mother fled to England; he attended a Quaker boarding school near Reading and lodged with six different families in two years - we get the bare factual bones. His literary judgements about the famous books he brought into print are similarly reticent, rarely rising above the level of "a magnificent piece of storytelling". Why so cautious?

"I'm not a particularly scholarly person. My instincts in publishing are very much a gut reaction. The only thing I can claim is that I have a very broad range, broader than most." Broad enough to encompass the post-war US novel, the rise of South American magical realism, the English fiction renaissance of the early 1980s - where did his feel for it all come from? "I don't know. Certainly not from university. I was offered a place [at St Edmund Hall, Oxford], but chose not to go." Instead, Maschler threw himself at the university of life and emerged with honours. He got a job as a tour guide with the Global travel company, making a tidy profit, before joining Andre Deutsch's publishing house working for nothing, gradually creeping up to £6 a week as production manager. At McGibbon & Kee, he edited a collection of radical art manifestos. Entitled Declaration, it was a huge success, and came to the attention of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin. After two years at Penguin, he became literary director of Jonathan Cape. Aged 27, he was invariably described in the trade press as a "wunderkind".

He joined the big league when the old guard of British publishing were dying out and being replaced by the new generation of East European refugees brought over by the war - Victor Gollancz, George Weidenfeld, Deutsch. It was a time when publisher's offices were synonymous with Bakelite telephones, moth-eaten carpets Adler typewriters and Roneo-vickers filing cabinets. "I went to see Gollancz one day," says Maschler. "I was shocked by the state of the place. It was almost like a snobbery of poverty he was displaying, because the old boy was obviously making money."

Maschler's own combination of parsimony and largesse is remarked on by all who have dealt with him. It is, it seems, the secret of his success. "You can only go wrong in publishing by paying too much money for a book because it isn't as good, or as sellable, as you thought," he says. "We hardly ever paid too much. We were dead mean. Nobody ever came to us looking for a big advance. In the early 1980s, it was very rare for me to pay an advance of £10,000. The average was three or four thousand. You can afford to lose five thousand on a book if you wanted to experiment. Nobody can be infallible about quality and commercial potential at the same time."

Well. maybe one person. " The Collector, I knew that would sell, and Catch-22, and Portnoy," he says. "Of course, some of it is pure luck. Luck is a word I like very much." And running close behind luck is cheek, or chutzpah, which Maschler has in tons.

In Maschler's formidable CV, one initiative stands out and makes him beam with pride. It's not a book. It's the Booker Prize, which he founded in the late 1960s. "In a way it's the most important thing I've done," he says. These days, he does "little pieces of work" for Cape, but now spends half the year in France, mostly at the Luberon house he bought with his second wife, Regina. "What gets me out of England? The rain," he says. "I like sunshine. I like living in the light. I love good food. I love everything about France, including the ease with which you can leave it." He gestured around his top-floor Chelsea flat. "What am I going to do here for the whole year?" After a rootless childhood, followed by embedding himself in a "house" in a Bloomsbury square to which the literary world would come a-calling for 40 years, it seems the busy Mr Maschler is embracing rootlessness all over again.

Publisher is published by Picador on Friday, price £20

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