This book, to borrow a phrase from John le Carre, wears many hats upon its head. First, it’s a word picture of publishing as it used to be, or at least was sometime, somewhere, and I think almost inadvertently a parallel portrait of working women post-war. The first half is a personal narrative of Athill’s life as an editor, and the second remembrances of individual writers she edited, the most compelling (and appalling) chapter of which is on Jean Rhys*.
The story began with my father telling me: ‘You will have to earn your living.’
she writes, and then goes on to fill in her background, one of privileged, upper class English country life filled with horses and books. She fell passionately in love in her teens with a young British officer who then dumped her, which experience she says scarred her emotionally for life. Sorry if I sound a little skeptical here, but really, she was 17 years old when her doomed romance commenced. Get over it, kid.
Which she mostly did. She attended Oxford, worked for the BBC in London during World War II, after which she fell into bed with Andre Deutsch. They had a brief affair and she went on to work for him at his start-up publishing house, and later became a director at the eponymous Andre Deutsch publishing house, where she hated the business side and loved the editing side. She must have loved it, because her salary never got above 20,000 pounds a year (or about $35,000 USD, when the company was sold in 1993). There’s some specious reasoning going on
I have been asked by younger women how I brought myself to accept this situation so calmly…one can of course, always walk away. That I could easily have done, and never thought of doing; so I doubt that it was only the mixed vanity and lack of confidence of the brainwashed female which held me there in acceptance of something which I knew to be unjust and which other women, whom I admired, were beginning actively to confront…Obviously it is true that indifference to status and pay is not found in all women, but I have seen it in a good many who, like me, enjoyed their work.
I bet they were all her age, too. Athill is rather buttering both sides of her bread here, and the fact that she feels compelled to comment speaks for itself, but what the hell. During those 50-odd slave labor years she edited the novels of among many others the aforesaid Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipal, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, and helped publish many American authors, like Philip Roth, John Gardener, and Jack Kerouac. It wasn’t always a privilege and all too often sounds like something out of Co-Dependent No More. There is some fascinating detail on the individual editing process
I shall now describe what was certainly the most absorbing of all the tasks that came my way: working with Gitta Sereny on Into That Darkness, which we published in 1974…
In 1967 she was commissioned by the Daily Telegraph to write a series of pieces about West Germany, including the Nazi crime trials then taking place. She was present at the trial of Franz Stangl who had been Kommandant of Treblinka, one of the four extermination (as opposed to concentration) camps in German-occupied Poland, and who was sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people in that camp…She was allowed to visit Stangl in prison and talked with him for many hours over six weeks…we asked Gitta to come to the office and discuss the possibility of a book…
No reading I have ever done has shaken me as much…Having seen the film of Belsen made when the Allies got there I thought I knew the nature of what had been done; but of course I didn’t. Groping my way into the history of this ordinary, efficient, ambitious, uxorious Austrian policeman…was intensely interesting, but frightening because I knew where it was going. And then it got there.
…one editorial decision I was able to make then and there: we much use no adjectives–or very few. Words such as ‘horrifying,’ ‘atrocious,’ ‘tragic,’ terrifying’ — they shrivelled [sic] like scraps of paper thrown into a blazing fire.
It’s not often you think of the first reader of the book you hold in your hands. Also, please note, Ms. Athill can write. She suffers agonies over an edit to one of V.S. Naipal’s novels, decides to tell him he has to change it, he leaves Andre Deutsch in a huff and then returns a month later because his new publisher calls him a “West Indian novelist” in their catalog. If I’m reading Athill right, she regrets insisting on the edit. WTF? She was doing her job, Naipul was most definitely not doing his. I have heard stories of the ego and vanity of my own contemporaries in their relationships with their publishers, but it always comes as a shock to me, and it shocks me here, too.
She’s a bit of a tease
We have now reached the second of my two shocking failures as an editor (I don’t intend ever to confess the other one).
and a bit of a snob
…[Angela] Thirkell is embarrassing — I always knew that, but would have published her, given the chance, because she was so obviously a seller. And [Virgina] Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing because the claims made for her were so high…that self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing, all those adjectives — oh dear!
but she remains a stout advocate of good writing and of getting it published, and she’s optimistic that both will continue. Of course, this means her definition of good writing, not ours. She name drops a bunch of novels during this book so be warned, you’ll be spending some time on bookfinder.com on your way through it.
*Reading Stet and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea together would make for a great a book club discussion.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.