I want to start by asking you about the term ‘European literature’, and the idea of having European classics. Given how varied the cultures and languages within Europe are, why is it helpful to think of it as a literary bloc?
Well, I feel European. Half my publishing life I worked in Paris, first at the great French publishers Gallimard, then at the Hachette group. I learned French and German at school. I go to Russia a lot; I even once started a Russian paperback publishing house—Russian books were always hardbound and in the nineties too often looked like tank maintenance manuals.
I genuinely believe that there is a European culture and sensibility—both artistic and literary. And one that I’ve always been very much in love with.
You’ve chosen five books that represent a large sweep of time and geography. Might you talk a little bit about how you came to this selection?
Well, it was extremely difficult not to include Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, or the The Good Soldier Švejk—I had hitchhiked to Prague three days before the Soviet invasion of 1968, when I was a student, and have been involved in the former Czechoslovakia ever since—or Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or something by Turgenev… Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks was another candidate. It was extremely difficult whittling it down to the five I ended up with.
Let’s start in the 16th century. You’ve selected The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. What makes it so important to read, even now?
First of all, Benvenuto’s Cellini’s autobiography is the only autobiography by a major Italian Renaissance artist. We don’t have Leonardo’s, or Michelangelo’s, or anybody else’s memoirs. But we do have Cellini’s, and they are absolutely astonishing.
They were first discovered in the 18th century. Even the story of the manuscript is fairly incredible. It belonged to a family for several hundred years, I suppose friends of Cellini’s. Then it disappeared until somebody bought it in a bookshop in about 1770. When it was first published in France, and later in England, it was thought that he must be exaggerating, it simply can’t be true. He murders the murderer of his brother. He murders somebody else, a bit later on. He leads the defence of the Castel Sant’ Angelo; he’s on the battlements with the Pope. Then he escapes from the Castel Sant’ Angelo… He describes drinking with Michelangelo—he always refers to Michelangelo as ‘the divine Michelangelo’. His is an incredible rollercoaster career in Florence and Rome at the very height of the Renaissance.
There’s a wonderful description of him making his great statue, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which stands in the Loggia in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The fire that is heating the bronze keeps going out, and he ends up burning all the furniture in his studio to keep the fire going.
It’s so real. Yet he was writing nearly 500 years ago. It’s a completely thrilling book, and anybody who loves Italy and Italian art has to read it. I more often than not take it with me when I’m in Florence or Rome, to read passages of it.
It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. And surprisingly little known. And, might I add, quite one of Everyman’s slowest sellers!
Oh no! Surely undeservedly so, being both illuminating in terms of Renaissance history, but also rather fun and notorious.
If a few hundred readers discover this book because of this interview then we will have done something very, very worthwhile. We’ll have enriched their lives.
A fantastic recommendation, thank you. The next book from your pick of the European classics is Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black, sometimes translated as The Red and the Black. Set in France after the fall of Napoleon, it was first published in 1830. Why do you recommend it?
It’s a great picaresque, anti-hero tale. Stendhal himself is such a fascinating figure. To start with, he’s one of France’s very greatest writers, a simply marvellous writer. But he was a very complicated man. He had something like 100 pen names, at different stages. He crossed the Alps with Napoleon as a young soldier, went on the 1812 March to Moscow, and managed not to die on either occasion.
I remember asking my grandfather what it was like to be in the trenches in the First World War, where life expectancy for a young soldier was about two to three weeks. My grandfather replied it was completely ghastly… but he wouldn’t have missed it for anything. In a funny way, I think that’s Stendhal’s view of Napoleon, he’s pretty ambiguous about it all, but at the same time, completely fascinated. It’s a great description of a society in flux.
The Napoleonic Wars are the backdrop to your third book choice, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
In my view, this is the greatest novel ever written. It’s just so rich. I’ve read it, I think, four or five times, and I tend to read it alternatively in English and French. I quite often read the Pleiade edition, but I’m reading the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky edition—which is fascinating—the first three or four pages are in French. In the Louise and Aylmer Maude edition, which I publish at Everyman, it’s all of course in English, but Richard and Larissa have kept Tolstoy’s French, which is quite interesting.
As a book it’s just wonderful. And Tolstoy is such a huge figure. Five or six years ago I took a group of writers, supported by the British Council and Russian Ministry of Culture, to visit Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy’s houses in Russia. We were at Yasnaya Polyana for Tolstoy’s birthday.
“I genuinely believe that there is a European culture and sensibility—both artistic and literary”
In Tolstoy’s lifetime there was always a concert of a peasant orchestra on his birthday and the birthday concert tradition continues. We were staying at one of those awful Soviet-type hotels, five miles away, and when everyone went back to change, I thought: hang on, I may never be in this garden again. So I stayed in the garden after it shut and snooped.
I like snooping. I peered into barns at old sleighs and carts that the great man must have used. They were all still there.
I have been reading and rereading Russian writers, since I came back across Russia from India and Afghanistan when I was very young.
How do you choose which translations you will use for the Everyman editions?
We have an advisory editorial board. We try simply to review what is the greatest, the best translation around. Quite often it will be a translation from the 20th century—so Archibald Colquhoun or William Weaver from Italian, or Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin from French.
Yes. I suppose there’s an element of taste, too. I recently spoke to Alex Christofi about Dostoevsky, and he indicated that there was a sort of bunfight within the academy over which translation was best: the more linguistically accurate, or the more aesthetically accurate. I suppose there’s always a trade-off.
Yes. Constance Garnett, whose translations of Chekhov’s stories we publish, writes so beautifully, but her accuracy is much less than modern translators like Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky whose translation of Chekhov’s complete short novels we publish.
Translators are absolutely the unsung heroes of literature. They’re the most wonderful, important people. It’s great that the cultural world, and the publishing industry, is giving them much greater credit nowadays.
As a polyglot yourself, it must be very interesting to compare and contrast the various translations with the original text.
I’m reading an absolutely brilliant new translation of Doctor Zhivago at the moment, by an English member of the Pasternak family, though sadly I am quite unable to read Russian. It’s breathtaking.
Let’s move on to your next recommendation of a classic work of European literature. You’ve selected Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, a family saga published in 1932 but set in—or, at least, opening in—1859. It’s been recommended a number of times on our site; Janine di Giovanni described it as “the quintessential book about the end of the Habsburg empire.” Why should people read The Radetzky March now?
It’s an extraordinary account of a world collapsing. It conveys the lost world of Mitteleuropa and the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. And he does it brilliantly. The Trotta family are quite mediocre, only relatively interesting minor officials—and in the case of the son, a very minor soldier—that is, intrinsically not particularly exciting characters, who nevertheless convey a very interesting world. It’s an extraordinarily powerful book. Roth is a very interesting writer, a brilliant writer, who lived a very tragic life. We shall publish another Roth novel, Rebellion, next year.
We spoke earlier about ‘European literature’ as a body; I wonder, is one of the commonalities that sense of empires rising and falling?
Not so much that, as civil war and invasion. Certainly that, yes. One of the things that struck me as a Scot living in Paris in my twenties was how lucky we have been in Britain, being so insular. We haven’t really had an invasion since 1066, or a civil war since the 1640s, whereas every other European country has had regular invasions and wars marked by extraordinary violence. All the books I’ve chosen do rather reflect that; even Cellini’s Italy is invaded by Charles V and Francois Ier.
Let’s move on to your fifth European classic book recommendation. This choice has the benefit of comprising three novels in one: Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Earlier you described this as an awareness-raising exercise for this particular book.
Well, as I’ve chosen perhaps the most famous novel in the world—everyone’s heard of War and Peace, although perhaps not everyone has read it—I feel one has to choose one book that readers will probably never have heard of, and certainly not read.
Miklós Bánffy is a completely forgotten figure—an interesting, tragic figure, hugely cultured—and this book is brilliant. It was translated about 20 years ago, and swam into the consciousness of a few people. A couple of friends of mine read it and said it was simply wonderful. Sure enough, I bought it and fell in love with it.
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
It has the sweep of War and Peace, within the very romantic forgotten world of Transylvania, which itself is a place we should all go to. I have been quite a lot. It’s like going to a pre-industrial Europe: there’s no barbed wire, no tractors. You wake up to horses clip clopping out. Crops are cut with scythes. This great trilogy is set just before the First World War.
The First World War was of course a complete disaster for Hungary, losing a quarter of its territory, including Transylvania. At the end of the war, having already written this book, Banffy found himself, briefly, foreign minister for Hungary. He thought that the Treaty of Versailles was unnecessarily unfair on Hungary; they were just part of an empire that was involved, but weren’t one of the prime belligerents. And because he knew people like Lloyd George and Churchill, having met them before the war, he set off to London to try to argue his case. The Hungarian currency collapsed before he could arrive, and he—the foreign minister of a newly independent Hungary—had to earn his living for two or three months as a pavement artist in Holland, which he did quite successfully.
Eventually he got enough money to continue his journey to London, where he completely failed in his quest. Then came the Second World War. He had been a prominent anti-Nazi all the way through the 1930s, and the retreating Nazi army burned his library—one of the greatest private libraries in Mittaleuropa—just out of spite.
He died a couple of years later in the concierge’s room, all he could afford to live in, in the family house in communist Budapest. It’s an incredible story. He’s a very sympathetic figure.
I’ve seen his trilogy described as something like a Hungarian Trollope, “with sleigh rides in place of fox hunts and the Budapest parliament instead of the House of Commons.” Does that sound right to you?
Yes, it does. Actually, Trollope is a better analogy than Tolstoy, although you could say there are elements of both.
Thank you. To close, I’d like to mention the occasion that has brought us together: it’s the 30th anniversary of your relaunch of the Everyman’s Library. Could you tell us a little of what has been achieved during that time?
Well, I’m proud that it has worked. When I was very young I worked at Gallimard, as I said, and always admired the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I couldn’t understand why the English language didn’t have a Pléiade—definitive editions of the classics, printed beautifully on bible paper, with very scholarly notes. If you’re a French student reading Mallarmé or Proust, you have to read the Pléiade edition. I had travelled and lived with paperbacks, but they do fall to pieces. So I thought, the English language ought to have something like the Pléiade.
Then I remembered Everyman. I stalked and eventually bought it. It took me quite a long time to manage to buy it. And I revived it in the autumn of 1991, very much influenced by aspects of the Pléiade. About 15 years later, I was completely thrilled to discover that Jacques Schiffrin, the creator of the Pléiade in the early 1930s, had modelled himself on the 1906 Everyman.
Ahah. Full circle.
Publishers don’t reinvent the wheel. Like everyone, we’re inspired by what others have done before us.
I had a simple idea: I wanted to publish books that would still be attractive to pick up and read a hundred years later. We print on acid-free wood paper that will not go yellow. The books are sewn with cloth bindings. Above all, I want to—inspired by what Gallimard do—have very brilliant, scholarly introductions with comparative literary, cultural chronologies. We’ve got an extraordinary body of scholarship in our nearly-400 introductions.
When I started it in 1991, probably quite a few people thought: this is a nice, quixotic idea, but it probably won’t work . So it’s quite satisfying that not only has it worked, but I think we have sold something like 23 million books .
Incredible. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I should, I think, mention the Millennium Library. In 1998, I heard on the Today programme that the newly constituted Millennium Commission was giving £40 million to bicycle paths. I bike to work and was delighted to hear this, but wondered what else they were supporting.
I rang and asked if they were giving anything to schools, libraries or to celebrate the English language. The answer was no. So I created a small charity, the Millennium Library, which would donate 300 Everyman books to every state secondary school in the UK—4700 schools—and to 1700 schools and libraries in 77 countries in the developing world, 1.8m books. I had to raise £4.5m to match the funding I got from the Millennium Commission. This was a huge project for a small independent publisher, as I then was, before we were bought by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. It was the only one of its kind.
We printed and delivered the books in batches of 50 titles every six months over 3 years. We got amazing letters from pupils and teachers, often from very remote places. There was apparently huge excitement as each batch arrived and pupils unpacked, felt the books and put them on their library shelves.
I remember a head teacher writing that a 14-year-old in Golspie in Sutherland had already read most of Tolstoy. My intention was that if three or four pupils in every year had their minds opened by reading something outside the syllabus, the project was a success. In the event, it seems many more were and I now meet people in their twenties & thirties who tell me how enriching these books were for them. In Egypt, where the British Council had asked me to talk about the project, I was told that reading some of these titles might well provoke a revolution!
Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor
June 11, 2021
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org