Thursday, January 17, 2008

Enter the Dragon

I recently wrote on this page about how much I’d enjoyed reading Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so it was with much anticipation that I headed off to the London launch party for that novel, held this last Tuesday evening, January 15. The late Larsson’s book is the first volume in his “Millennium Trilogy,” and also the premiere publication from the new Quercus imprint MacLehose Press, headed by legendary British publisher Christopher MacLehose (shown at right, with shorter Quercus CEO Mark Smith).

The Foreign Press Association facility in London’s West End was the venue for this affair; and despite the fact that Granta magazine was holding a party on the same night, word on the street was that the MacLehose fête was this week’s hot London literary ticket. So, packing a trench coat and an industrial-strength umbrella--due to the stormy weather hereabouts--I headed off to The Two Chairman, in St. James Park, where I was to meet up with Shots editor Mike Stotter and Mystery Woman Ayo Onatade. After some conversation about the next Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards (we’re all judges) and a few beers, we proceeded to the book opening. Along the way, we gathered into our little group CrimeFest organizer Adrian Muller and Tangled Web contributor Bob Cornwell, the latter of whom knows a few things about novels in translation (the area where MacLehose Press intends to specialize).

Doffing our outer garments and grabbing glasses of chilled wine, we plowed into the celebrating throng. The attendance was most impressive, indicative both of Christopher MacLehose’s reputation and the word of mouth that’s been gathering about Larsson’s novel. A pretty diverse crowd it was, too, including Dr. David Owen, a renowned British politician; Karen Meek of Euro Crime and critic Maxine Clarke; and critic and bookstore owner Maxim Jakubowksi, who was recovering from a case of influenza that he believes he caught while in Dublin celebrating the new year with authors John Connolly and Declan Hughes. As usual, on the subject of Larsson’s novel Jakubowksi and I hold opposing but good-hearted opinions. His complaint about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo relates to the translation, rather than the book itself.

Mingling further, I discovered that many other heavyweight writers and critics had come out for this event, including Jane Jakeman, Laura Wilson, Marcel Berlins, Barry Forshaw, and Natasha Cooper. Also present was Jane Wood (shown in the photo below, with Mike Stotter). She is formerly the publishing director at Orion Books, but is now enjoying a new life at Quercus. And I had a short chat with my old contact Ravi Mirchandani, who I knew when he was publishing director at Random House and Thomas Harris’ publisher in the UK; like Wood, Mirchandani is now happily working in the independent sector (he’s with Atlantic Books). I spent some time, too, with Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça, the publicity team from Quercus, and I thanked them for inviting me to this launch and putting Dragon Tattoo into my hands in the first place. Being publicists, they couldn’t help dropping word about another, forthcoming MacLehose title, Death in Breslaw, by Polish writer Marek Krajewski, which they thought would appeal to my noir sensibilities as well. I like Lucy and Nicci, as they’re always so enthusiastic about books, and I have enjoyed their company right back to the days when they worked for Headline.

After sampling some of the party’s excellent finger nibbles (one must refuel occasionally in order to keep up all this chatting, you understand), Stotter and I bumped into Pete Ayrton, the publisher at Serpent’s Tail, an independent press we have both come to admire. Ayrton recently brought back into print two favorite writers of mine, Jean-Patrick Manchette and Derek Raymond. He also introduced George Pelecanos and David Peace into print in Britain, and maintains an eclectic list of books many mainstream publishers miss.

I enjoyed a few minutes, too, in the company of Mark Smith, Quercus’ CEO and managing director, who expressed great excitement at having Christopher MacLehose’s imprint in the Quercus stable. He said he’s pleased to see Larsson’s work getting such an enthusiastic reception over here, and told me that he’s just read the second volume of the Millennium Trilogy--which he insisted is even better than the first. (I’ve heard that identical comment made elsewhere.)

Smith soon had to excuse himself, however, in order to introduce Christopher MacLehose to the assembled gathering. MacLehose rose to deliver a very passionate speech about the current, challenging state of publishing, especially the difficulty of bringing international works into English, and how commercial support from cultural bodies is essential. He then explained the significance of the sailing boat logo used by his publishing imprint. Apparently, that small sailboat suggests an analogy between the solitary yachtsman and the lonely writer scribbling away in isolation. He informed us that the job of the publisher is to bring books to the public that they didn’t want; books that they didn’t anticipate; and books that would nonetheless make an impression and challenge their way of thinking. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such work, he observed. MacLehose applauded Quercus as a very dynamic house, and said that he hopes to bring out 10 or so challenging books within the next 12 months. He concluded by noting the importance of booksellers, and said he wishes that the larger chains would regain some of the enthusiasm for books they had in the past, as that enthusiasm can be infectious, leading readers to try authors and works with which they aren’t familiar.

Following that address, Mark Smith introduced me to MacLehose. I used the opportunity to thank MacLehose for bringing the works of Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason, and others to Britain while he was still publisher at Harvill Press. And I asked him about the issue of Dragon Tattoo’s translation--specifically, whether it’s true that “Reg Keeland,” the original translator of Larsson’s novel, is the pseudonym of another translator. MacLehose’s face took on a concerned appearance, his brow furrowing. He looked surprised, started to tell me something ... but then insisted he couldn’t say anything on the matter without a lawyer present. Then he deftly changed the subject, saying that he’d enjoyed a recent review I did of Dragon Tattoo, and had found it well written and remarkably perceptive. It is only fortunate that, as a man of color, I don’t show a blush response easily.

Bidding good-bye, MacLehose and Smith went off to be greeted by their other well-wishers. Which was only too bad, because I’d really have liked to talk with MacLehose further about the matter of crime-fiction translations, as he’s become quite the authority. He wrote a long and fascinating article on the subject for the British Council, following the Crime Writers’ Association controversy of a few years back about giving Dagger Awards to works translated into English. The piece included something of MacLehose’s experience with translation procedures:
The processes by which foreign writers come in to English is one of very many filters, but the crucial fact is that in translation from all the languages of the world there will only be a minuscule percentage (3% at the last reckoning and a scandalously inadequate percentage it is) of the 125,000+ titles published in Britain every year. If there is a grain of consolation in this humiliating indictment (it compares with, for example, circa 25% of French publications being in translation) it is that what is finally bought by a British or an American house has been through many readings, perhaps has been even more closely read than before its first publication. Harvill’s readers have almost always been scholars of the language, by all means, but more importantly of the literature. And of the genre? The least important, because you are not trying to reproduce the routine crime novel.

You are sometimes tempted to suggest to an author that a degree more attention to forensic study and results would be appealing to a British readership well versed in these matters. Karin Fossum told me once that she had written a thousand or more pages of forensic ‘stuff’ but had thrown them away because ultimately they were not what interested her about the case. She has proved the wisdom of writing her own books in her own way over and over. It is what gives her a huge following throughout Europe.

Harry Willetts, [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn’s favoured translator, was Harvill’s best reader, fluent in 14 languages. He read crime novels for us in many languages because they amused him. Probably he would have at once picked Peter Høeg, but he had no time to learn Danish, he said. The very few books that survive the filtering by English-language editors are, almost by definition, the best of the best. And not the least of the committee of readers a publisher has is the group of European publishers with whom he most often works and with whom he shares his reports, his experience. And beside those publishers are a most valuable group of national bodies, the Swedish Institute, the Goethe Institute, the French Institute, Norwegian Literature Abroad, The Dutch Foundation for the translation of their literature, and their equivalents in almost every country. There is no limit to the attention that these bodies give to the needs of translating publishers, along with subventions to help with the cost of the translations.
MacLehose went on in his piece to make the point that, in addition to its being entertaining, translated mystery fiction has the power to bring together divergent peoples over the matter of their shared concerns about crime:
What gives the publisher pleasure is that a reader in New Brunswick or Kerala, or anywhere in the English-speaking world sees unfolding an intricate pattern of another way of life altogether, accepts as read the crime [--] the familiar starting point, nothing foreign about crime [--] but learns another place, another set of manners, another society. When one day the BBC makes a television series of Henning Mankell’s novels they will make them in Ystad, in Skåne southern Sweden, and Wallander’s very pretty adopted seaport will become as known to us as Morse’s Oxford is to the wide world, perhaps more so since the real Oxford hardly exists in the television series of Colin Dexter’s creation. Karin Fossum’s city is a city in her mind alone, and Fred Vargas’ Paris, she says, is no, not at all a character in her novels. Not many cities in 20th century literature are as vivid as Chandler’s L.A. or John D. MacDonald’s Fort Lauderdale. Carl Hiaasen, the American crime writer on the 2005 CWA shortlist, said of MacDonald (the last of whose Travis McGee novels I published at Collins in the early 1980s) that he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-centre, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty. When MacDonald died, Hiaasen wrote, millions of fans world-wide wondered what would become of Travis McGee. Not me, I wondered what would become of Florida.
(Read all of MacLehose’s article here.)

With the speeches over, and everyone having already shared enthusiasm for Stieg Larsson’s first novel, Mike Stotter and I thanked Lucy and Nicci for their hospitality, then headed off for a late steak dinner at the nearby Texas Embassy. Stotter refrained from singing on this occasion, we talked at some length about our respective fiction-writing, and we couldn’t help but wonder whether it’s true--or just well-placed promotional talk--that Larsson’s next two Millennium novels will really be better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I look forward to finding out.


Anonymous said...

I can assure you they are

Ali Karim said...

For a slideshow of the event :-