The call was unexpected, from someone I'd never heard of: "My name's Peter Carson. I gather you've been to Yelabuga."
I had indeed just returned from that pretty wooden town, snowbound in the Tartar steppe, where the great poet Maria Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. Among the charming town houses, shops, and offices stands a substantial brick building, built by Glafira Staheyeff a hundred years ago in memory of her husband Vasili, one of the richest merchants in pre-revolutionary Russia. Originally a boarding school for the daughters of poor priests, it is now a university.
"It was my great grandmother who built that building," said Carson. "Can you come to tea at Brooks's to tell me about it?" He turned out to be a man with a small grey beard, eyes twinkling with humour, hugely well-read and conversible, a typical English intellectual – or so you might think. He asked what I was doing these days. Writing a book, I said. "That's interesting. I'm a publisher." And so our friendship began: Peter Carson published that book, and another about the Russians in Afghanistan.
It was my first real introduction to the world of publishing: lively and congenial people, many of them actually interested in books despite the relentless pressures of technology and the bottom line. And Carson was one of its most distinguished and effective denizens. He could absorb half a dozen manuscripts in a weekend. An editor of immense tact, he would never try to write your book for you. Instead he would hint that you might want to look at this passage or perhaps even omit that chapter. He was always right.
Peter Carson was born in 1938. His father, Joseph Baldwin, was an Anglo-Irish Scot who won a Military Cross on the Somme, and later went into diplomacy and the law. The family was not well off – his father died when Peter was nine – and he made his way by means of a succession of scholarships and grants, as one could still do in those days, thanks to Clement Attlee's revolution of 1945. He was a Scholar at Eton: a Newcastle medallist for classics, Captain of School (Head Boy); and he loved it all. In 1956 he began two years national service in the navy: a brief time on a ship, then into naval intelligence in Scotland. He read classics at Cambridge then worked for a tourist agency on the continent. Badgered, no doubt, by importunate clients (the nice ones leave you alone) he got out and found his way into publishing.
He started in Longmans, packing books at first, but then taking over the history list. In 1970 Pearsons, the owners, bought Penguin Books and the two companies merged. Carson became Editor in Chief at Penguin, and among the authors he published or acquired were Robin Lee Fox (Alexander the Great), Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and Simon Schama (Citizens). But he could manage as well as edit, and he worked closely with Peter Mayer, Penguin's chairman and chief executive officer, to reshape the company in the 1980s.
Not long afterwards, in 1975, Carson married Eleo Gordon, another formidable editor for Penguin. Their daughter Charlotte was born in 1983.
In 1997 Carson left Penguin for Profile Books, a small independent publisher founded by Andrew Franklin, another former Penguin editor. He worked there as an editor until March 2012, when he retired for reasons of ill-health. Thereafter he went on working from home, grinding through manuscripts, correcting drafts, talking to friends and colleagues in a voice that became fainter as the illness progressed, but never losing his intellectual vitality or his civilised sense of humour. He was able to speak at his daughter's wedding at the beginning of December, and delivered the corrected proofs of his last manuscript the day before he died.
So far, so quintessentially English. But Carson was not English at all. The half of him that was not Scottish-Irish – with an admixture of French and German Swiss – was irredeemably Russian. At home he, his sister Tatiana, and his mother Tatiana Petrovna Staheyeff spoke English, French, and Russian, often in succession, sometimes in a linguistic soup of Teutonic, Romance and Slavonic. It was the Staheyeffs who had founded Yelabuga in the 17th century. They had got rich trading grain down the Volga river system, building a river fleet and expanding into industry until their business interests spanned the continent.
But like Tatiana Petrovna herself they were pious people. Their faith was matched by a passion for charity and charitable building: the boarding school built by Carson's great-grandmother was only one of the family's many good works. All this was taken from them after the revolution. The lucky ones – Carson's grandmother Vera and her seven children – fled through China. There Tatiana Petrovna met and married Carson's father, who by then was serving in the British Legation in Peking.
His love of Russian literature accompanied him throughout his life. There is a curious vignette of him in his Eton days, declaiming Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin – in Russian – dressed in knee breeches, silk stockings and a white tie. He later translated many of the Russian classics with great distinction. Fittingly, perhaps, that last manuscript was a version of Tolstoy's grim and unforgiving Death of Ivan Ilyich. But unlike Tolstoy, Peter Carson was never grim nor unforgiving.
Peter Carson, publisher and translator: born 3 October 1938; married 1975 Eleo Gordon (one daughter); died London 9 January 2013.