Hill start for essayists
Many are the clanger-dropping rejections that have been handed out over the centuries to writers, from Jane Austen to JK Rowling. And not just writers. When the Beatles failed an audition at Decca, they received the legendary consolation: “Sorry guys, but groups with guitars are on the way out.”
Erno Rubik, inventor of that intimidating cube, was shown the door several times before somebody saw the light. Which brings us back to books, for the percipient man who said yes to the cube was Rubik’s fellow Hungarian, UK-based Bergen-Belsen survivor Tom Kremer, who later moved on from producing brain-teasing games to publishing brain-seducing words.
Together with Intelligence Squared co-founder John Gordon, Kremer was the moving force behind Notting Hill Editions, now a leading player among a clutch of imaginative independents competing with the colossal corporations and aggressive amazonians.
Amid the huge waves that have crashed on publishing’s shores in recent times — threatening to sweep away traditional books, booksellers and even bookshelves in a flood of trade mergers, e-books and Kindles — new and smaller outfits have emerged in response. Others have sharpened up their acts. And today there is a spread of publishers who, while not shy of embracing new technology, have issued translations of classics by previously overlooked foreign writers, created striking book jackets, revived out-of-print, high-quality literature and generally promoted the book as precious object.
Notting Hill Editions’ speciality is the essay. It has published a range of titles by outstanding authors in an elegant, cloth-bound, compact format. Book lengths vary from the equivalent of a short story to that of a novella. On its website, NHE proclaims that its aim is to reinvigorate the “vivid contribution of the short text to European cultural life”.
Not only does it handsomely achieve this, but it is catching. JC columnist Melanie Phillips has recently launched her own electronic publishing operation, emBooks, offering “long journalism/short book” writing geared to unflinching commentary on contemporary issues and individuals. Early titles include Phillips’s own memoir, Guardian Angel, and Douglas Murray’s Islamophilia, brought out, in the publisher’s words, “A week after the Woolwich terror attack”.
While emBooks represents the essay revival’s cutting edge, Notting Hill Editions is perhaps its beating heart. At its essay library, you can dip into writing by authors of the calibre of Isaiah Berlin, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Primo Levi and Stephen Jay Gould. Not to mention William Hazlitt, in whose name NHE has launched an annual prize of £15,000 for the best new essay of between 2,000 and 8,000 words.
In the short existence of Notting Hill Editions, it has published several examples of fine writing by Jewish authors on Jewish subjects. For instance, one of the books on last year’s JQ-Wingate Prize short-list, The Road to Apocalypse — Stanley and Munro Price’s revelatory story about the 19th-century Christian millionaire and unlikely Zionist Lewis Way — contained rather fewer words than the others. Dennis Marks’s Wandering Jew is an atmospheric evocation of the life of the great Austro-German Jewish novelist and fantasist Joseph Roth, author of the magnificent The Radetzky March. Further reflections on marginal — in this case gay — identity are provided by Wayne Koestenbaum. The list also includes Jonathan Littell’s essay on the painter Francis Bacon, Osip Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia and Georges Perec, who actually writes about lists.
NHE has just released two new books and both are by Jewish writers. Man-Booker short-listed author Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want To Know is a beautiful account of how a young girl brought up in apartheid-era South Africa overcame her inhibitions about self-expression to become a novelist. It’ll take an afternoon to read but will stay with you for years. By contrast, Joshua Cohen’s Attention! A (Short) History is probably one of the imprint’s longest books. Rarely can there have been such a densely compressed yet discursive and humorous display of insight and observation. If Rubik’s Cube simmered your grey matter, look out, for this will frazzle it.