Wednesday, 17 May 2017
The Robinson diptych
About the two CBe titles this year, both by me under a previously established pen-name, here’s a little background.
An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. was several years in the making. I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in my teens, but it wasn’t until I bought a copy of an English translation of Memoirs of an Egotist in a second-hand bookshop (long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the 1980s, that a switch clicked fully on. There are poems featuring Stendhal in the collections I published between around 1990 and 2001. That translation of Memoirs of an Egotist, by the way, was published by D. J. Enright at Chatto. In Cairo in the late 1970s I bought a copy of Enright’s first poetry collection, published in Alexandria in 1948, for the original cover price, 5 piastres, and I wrote to him; and then I met him regularly on the Tube – he travelling in daily from Wimbledon to Chatto, me on the same line from Fulham Broadway to a job near Green Park. We talked, strap-hanging, awkwardly. I also met him on a train from Kings Cross to Leeds; I’d just bought his OUP Collected Poems, 1981, and as I was unpacking it to read I noticed Enright himself in the seat behind me, lighting his pipe. This is one of the few books I possess that’s signed by the author (a convention I don’t really understand). Enright wrote to me that the Stendhal book and another were the end of his ‘career as a whizz-kid publisher’: co-publishers went bankrupt, warehouses burnt down. He – Enright – quotes my son’s school homework in one of the riffs on quasi-literary matters that featured in his last three books, this one in Injury Time: What’s the name we give to the period between the ages of around 11 and 14 when the body rapidly develops and the mind too gets a little excited and confused? ‘Purgatory.’
I seem to have wandered. (But I miss Enright. He was a very fine writer, enormously well-read and often funny, without selling anything short.) Digression is a part of what An Overcoat is about. To get back to Stendhal, you’ll need the book. Review here.
Having stuck with Jack Robinson as a pen-name, and having re-watched one of the Patrick Keiller Robinson films, I thought I’d send Robinson into the family archives: Defoe, obviously, but then a whole mad sequence of offspring, interestingly dysfunctional. (Having a new project was of course also a way of putting Stendhal finally, perhaps, to bed.) I thought this little hobby might keep me occupied for a year at least, ticking along in the background – like one of those unfinishable PhDs that people embark on and I can see why – but given that I started on this soon after the Brexit vote in June of last year, and given that in June this year the UK is being asked make a decision (though only a part of the electorate will bother) about what kind of country it is, or wants to be, the book began to feel more foreground than background.
Bits of Robinson are cooked, bits are raw. If the book had an index, its entries would include (along with Céline, Coetzee, Defoe, Kafka, Keiller, Rimbaud, et al): author’s mother; books read by author at age 12; Colonel Fawcett; English public schools; First World War; housing crisis; male duos (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Vladimir and Estragon, a host of others); migrants; the Sixties; smoking; time-share apartments; trees; Trump; Uxbridge Road; Volkswagen camper vans.
You – or I – may well ask, what am I doing self-publishing these books. The basic answer is simply, because I can. (I have an imprint, I have a cache of available ISBNs.) And because of a degree of megalomania: for better or worse, I enjoy having complete control over design, cover, the setting, etc. Though of course if any other publisher I respected wanted the rights to publish the books and offered me a large sum of money to do that, I’d say yes. I did send An Overcoat to three other publishers; all declined. Robinson is a little different: it feels, to me, topical, of its moment. And in general, the publishing trade works very slowly; the gap between a publisher taking on a book and putting it out into the world is usually nine months or longer. (It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1992 I worked on a Faber book about the general election campaigns that was printed and in the shops 24 hours after the results were declared. But that was an exception; as a rule, the lighter, more flexible small presses are better at getting things done fast.)
Robinson will be launched on Thursday of next week, 25 May, at Vout-O-Reenees, 30 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB, from 6.30 pm. There will be other writers with something to say, directly or indirectly, about the coming election: Will Eaves, M. John Harrison, Lara Pawson. All are welcome. (Is that a sentence anyone has ever heard spoken by Theresa May?)