Obituary: Rob van Gennep

Rob van Gennep, publisher: born Amsterdam 5 May 1937; married; died Amsterdam 13 April 1994.

ROB van GENNEP was for more than three decades one of the more colourful personalities in European publishing, an enthusiastic internationalist who believed that books can change people and events, who frequently came near to disaster, not uncommon amongst independent publishers, but who always turned the corner and in his last years found ways to be relatively prosperous.

Publishing in small countries, and especially in the Netherlands, is very different from the scene in London, Paris or New York. It is less competitive and more collegiate: publishers are friendly to each other because they share the same problems, having a minority language that inhibits exports and can be read by very few foreign publishers looking for new talent. Some help from state cultural institutions is essential and publishers have to work together to achieve this.

Rob van Gennep was tall, voluble, politically involved in good causes and radical politics, and interested in good intellectual literature, which his list reflected; it combined good Dutch writing with translations from other languages. His original company had its own bookshop and was one of the liveliest in Amsterdam. At various stages of his career he opened three bookshops, the original one being situated under the offices of Pollak and Gennep, the company he started in 1962, and it stocked interesting titles in both Dutch and other languages, having considerable appeal to the bohemian section of Amsterdam youth. He ran into problems with associates more staid than himself and only just avoided disaster in the late Sixties, but with new associates he regrouped and discovered the commercial potential of American quality remainders, which he sold well in his own country and elsewhere. These helped to subsidise the slower-selling section of his list, which included many important titles.

In the late Seventies he joined a group of European publishers that launched a prize intended to help a writer of quality, known in his own country but untranslated, to become known in others as well. This was the Prix des Septs, given in Paris every year after much debate over the candidates, and Jean-Louis Barrault offered his theatre for the event. Van Gennep won half the first prize with Bryten Brytenbach in 1977, the author being in a South African prison at the time for his opposition to apartheid, with the other half going to Erich Fried, the Austrian poet living in London; both were published a year later by the seven publishers in their own languages and both became much better known as a result. But the prize did not last more than two years, the problems of independent publishing making such projects difficult.

There was a time when it was difficult to go anwyhere in Amsterdam without meeting Rob. He was seen in the Kring, the meeting-place club for intellectuals of all generations almost nightly, in the cafes and restaurants and at meetings of colleagues or political rallies, and he was equally ubiquitous at the Frankfurt Book Fair and similar occasions. He learnt more than a year ago that he had inoperable cancer, but carried on cheerfully, supported by colleagues.