MILDLY SURPRISED as I am to find myself writing this, I want to remark on the art of perfume-hunting and how intriguing and tricky it can be. I once wandered into a branch of Penhaligon’s, the perfume house in Edinburgh: in the center of its charming Victorian parlor room stood a huge round table with a ring of little pharmacy bottles in a variety of colors, each labeled differently, like something from Alice In Wonderland. An obliging shop assistant explained to me that the bottles had been arranged in a spectrum: the scents gradually progressed, for example, from less spicy to more woody, through the floral, citrus, herbaceous, and other olfactory genres. The genius of this layout was that there was no emphasis on type or, indeed, on “his/her”; it was simply a matter of what an individual preferred. The attendant knew the qualities and contents of each vial as well as if he had made them himself. The scents were, by and large, extraordinarily intricate and interesting to smell.
I have since that visit compared the Penhaligon’s presentation of fragrances to the pyramids of perfumes on sale not in elegant salons but virtually everywhere else, whether department stores or airport lounges. These products tend to be overwhelmingly pungent — the giant chemical firms behind the various brands seemingly have decided to try and out-punge one another. Who would not prefer Penhaligon’s century-old artisan ways, even if it is ultimately owned by a large corporation, or the smaller, independent companies out there producing even more refined and unusual scented potions?
Much as it might be a terrible faux pas to venture this proposition, this experience bears striking resemblance to the experience of trying to find a really interesting work of fiction. I am too often unimpressed when browsing the selections of novels that have been chosen by publishers to carry their fortunes. This might sound like the preamble of an avant-garde manifesto, but it isn’t: high-concept art is just as capable of being tired and boring as the millionth rehashing of a Patterson plotline: all I want is something that isn’t dull, by which I primarily mean something that is honestly trying to tell me something I haven’t heard before, in a considered and discerning way. I also want to do more, sometimes, than browse the backlist of Penguin Classics: I want to know what is new or what treasures have been rediscovered, what unexpected things the year brings. In pursuit of sensory delights, I will go hunting down the equivalent of small-batch artisan perfumers. In pursuit of cerebral pleasures, this sentiment takes me, again and again, to the offerings of independent publishers.
In the United Kingdom, where I am from, a surprising number of indie houses — three in particular — somehow manage to do business in spite of all the clouds supposedly darkening literature’s day. They are sometimes businesses run out of people’s front living rooms or in small offices far from the big cities. One trick many of them seem to share is scouring the European market to find books that have not yet been translated and/ or picked up by the bigger houses. One of the best at this game is the publisher Peirene Press, whose White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen I reviewed for LARB. Like all Peirene books, it is a compact volume. Written by a Finnish author, the novel tells of a harrowing northern winter in which a farmer’s wife, desperate for food, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. It had won four literary prizes in its home country, yet it took the efforts of a very small outfit in north London to bring it to Anglophone audiences. Not long before, Peirene had published The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, an acknowledged masterpiece in Norway, an accomplished narrative of a young teenage girl simultaneously falling for a boy and suffering weird oppression from her misandrist mother. Ørstavik manages to convey both the naïveté of the girl’s yearning and the tension of the psychological screw being relentlessly tightened.
Peirene’s more recent gem is Reader for Hire, a novel by the French writer Raymond Jean. The narrator is a young woman seeking to boost her income by offering services as a hired reader. Her advertisement in a local paper attracts the custom of a wheelchair-bound boy, an ancient expatriated Hungarian countess, a lonely businessman, a rich little girl, and an elderly magistrate. She reads literature to these people by writers as varied as Maupassant and Marx, Baudelaire and Perec, Carroll and Sade. The novel is an unusual act of reflection on the act of reading and, especially, its performative possibilities. Reading animates the worlds of the narrator’s oppressed audiences. At times, the female protagonist feels far too fake a guise for a male author, whose distinctly male sexual interests pervade the text very obviously, somewhat perverselyrtedly; her relationships with her clients never develop beyond a sort of sketch-show anecdotalism. Such quibbles did not prevent the book from becoming a bestseller in France, however, nor from being turned into a successful film.
Peirene Press doubtless has a small budget and significantly relies on the revenues of subscriptions and sales. Tiny or nonexistent marketing funds means that these sales depend purely on praise from readers, booksellers, critics, and social media mavens. This kind of publisher introduces into English a range of genuinely interesting stories deriving from genuinely varied sources; it just happens that they must do so without pomp and ceremony.
And Other Stories, a publisher doing similarly wonderful things, has developed a smart means of securing its income. Subscribers are asked to pay upfront for two, four, or six titles per year; this money is then invested into the printing of those very works. The subscribers are then credited in the back pages of each title for the support they have shown. This strategy not only ensures cash flow but also celebrates the community of readers that writers depend upon — and vice versa. It also allows the editors to choose their material selectively: And Other Stories publishes new work from across the globe, with a particular strength in Central and South American literature. Notable authors on its list include Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel of Equatorial Guinea (forced into hiding by government persecution), shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; award-winning Afrikaans writer SJ Naudé; fellow South African Ivan Vladislavić (Windham Campbell Prize-winner 2015); Russian pensmith Oleg Pavlov; and the Mexican author Yuri Herrera. Herrera is an exemplary case — long admired in Mexico, it has taken until now for a publisher to release an English translation of his work.
Nonetheless, AOS’s greatest success to date has been Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2012, a brilliantly eerie tale of a young, nymph-like woman arriving unexplained into the midst of an English family’s holiday in France. Levy’s was a particularly unusual case of a domestic (British) talent being overlooked by bigger publishers.
Anne Cuneo’s Tregian’s Ground, an AOS offering for June 2015, is about as Schengen Area a thing as you can get (for those of you unfamiliar with the EU, this is its “no internal borders” policy): a novel about a Cornish Englishman and his exploits across the continent, written by a Swiss author and the recipient of the prestigious French Prix des Libraires, translated from French into English. Its cosmopolitanism is delightfully ironic given the novel’s historical setting in the bitterly divided Europe of the Renaissance and Reformation. Francis Tregian, the protagonist, is a scion of an aristocratic family being persecuted for its Catholic beliefs by the Protestant English government of Queen Elizabeth I. Tregian tries as best he can to pursue the career of a musician in London — encountering characters such as William Byrd and Shakespeare on the way — but is eventually forced to go into hiding on the Continent, where his exploits (under a pseudonym) bring him into contact with the likes of Monteverdi and King Henry IV of France. This novel is based on a historical figure and, as is the typical benchmark for works in the genre, Cuneo’s empathetic and informed immersion into Tregian’s world gives the novel its claim to prestige. Cuneo handles the historical detail with a deft touch — it is sufficient but not excessive — and intersperses it well with vivacious dialogue and an authoritative, carefully researched knowledge of old London. It is a long novel, to be sure, and occasionally its wealth of historical nuggets obscures any organic continuity. Still, it is, all in all, a fantastically entertaining visit to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Finally, Pushkin Press — an outfit set up in North London in 1997 with the aim of translating and publishing semi-forgotten works from the virtually eradicated world of Central European Jewish culture — has been particularly successful with the works of Stefan Zweig. In his lifetime (1881–1942), Zweig was fêted as one of Vienna’s finest writers, in novel, short story, and memoir form. After his suicide, however, his legacy was obscured and almost forgotten by Western audiences —until Pushkin stepped in. The result was highly impressive sales, as readers delightedly rediscovered a truly great writer, one often compared to Proust. A similar service was rendered with translations of Antal Szerb, one of Hungary’s greatest writers prior to his murder in a concentration camp.
In June, Pushkin is publishing an important novel of postwar East Germany, The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Having appeared first in 1972, this novel is both a modernization of Goethe’s original The Sorrows of Young Werther and a version of The Catcher In The Rye — a DDR-twist on the theme of bourgeois depression and the violent yearning to escape it. Nonetheless, the narrator disavows himself of the Goethe novel (“Sheer bollocks,” he declares) and praises (but then seems to forget) “that Salinger one.” This is really a DDR-twist on the shared theme of bourgeois/suburban depression and the violent yearning to escape it. Edgar W. is a young lad who has moved to (east) Berlin in search of a little excitement and a meagre living. He finds work with a house-painting firm and — this is not a spoiler, since it is stated at the start — dies in an electrical accident. The novel is inventively and humorously narrated from Edgar’s post-mortem perspective, eavesdropping now and then on what the still-living have to say about him. The trick is to establish an undercurrent of tragedy and waste while discussing the very Holden-esque things that concerned him when alive: girls, culture, artificiality. The novel is an intimate portrayal of youth under communism; an extraordinary response to a masterpiece of the “enemy” cultural capital, New York; and a referencing of an old, dismantled Germany.
These small, “boutique” houses — and there are several more I could mention — can be credited with bringing fresh voices to the publishing world and reviving great masterpieces from shameful neglect. If occasionally rough-around-the-edges, these novels are an invigorating change from the slick and torqued works that make it through the processes of the larger houses. It should be said, however, that in fact these bigger companies do cultivate indie-style imprints of their own, responsible for some of the best literature published: much as Penguin Random House, for example, might be regarded as a $4 billion publishing leviathan, their Jonathan Cape/Hamish Hamilton/Knopf divisions produce the likes of Tom McCarthy and Paul Murray — both of whose newest works, Satin Island and The Mark and the Void respectively, are brilliant. That said, it can still be hard to find within these imprints the variety and capacity for surprise that one gains from a browsing of the others that I’ve mentioned.
On that note, I return to the perfume-hunting analogy — albeit with a wry shrug. The truth is that the best small firms get snapped up by the big ones, most of the time. Nevertheless, where companies are especially reliant on — and attuned to — their grassroots support, combining this with a taste for daring, then the material is always going to be worth checking out.