Interview: Peter Owen

The publisher recalls 60 years of independently introducing readers to major authors.

By David Herman, October 11, 2011
A highly English German Jew: Owen today and (below) in RAF uniform

A highly English German Jew: Owen today and (below) in RAF uniform

After the war, a group of Jewish refugees took British publishing by storm. Andre Deutsch from Budapest, George Weidenfeld from Vienna and Paul Hamlyn from Berlin. And perhaps the most intriguing of all, Peter Owen from Nuremberg, now celebrating 60 years of publishing.

He was born Peter Offenstadt in 1927 and came to London to stay with his grandparents in North London (his mother was English). In 1933, his parents followed and sent him to a Church of England school. "I went to chapel every day," he recalls. "My parents didn't deny their Judaism but they weren't fervent. Do I feel Jewish?" He shrugs. "Not really. I was born in Germany and I don't feel German."

Owen reveals no trace of German accent; he lives in Holland Park; called his daughters Antonia and Georgina; and Jane Austen is his favourite novelist. Nuremberg and the old family leather factory seem a long way away.

After national service in the RAF, Owen was looking for work. Uncle Rudi ran Zwemmer's, the famous bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, pulled some strings and he got his foot in the door in publishing.

In 1951, he founded Peter Owen Publishers with £900 and a typewriter. He started as he meant to carry on, writers on the wild side, like Henry Miller, Ezra Pound and a then unknown Russian writer, Boris Pasternak.

Then he hired his first editor, Muriel Spark (well before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Another smile. "She was extremely pleasant and efficient," but then "she became a grande dame and dumped all her old friends."

Did Spark have good judgment as an editor? "She tried to persuade me to take Beckett." Did he? "No. It was my biggest mistake."

And his biggest success? Without hesitation, he names Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. No one in England knew of Hesse when Owen bought this strange novel in 1954 but it became a cult hit in the 1960s when eastern mysticism was all the rage.

Owen recalls the '60s as the best of his six publishing decades. "Everything blossomed; there was plenty of money around." It was also a good time for a publisher who liked risky authors: Anaïs Nin, e e cummings, Henry Miller, Paul Bowles, Mishima and Colette. Quite a few Jewish authors, too: Chagall's autobiography, Joseph Roth (then unknown), Bashevis Singer (also unknown), A B Yehoshua's first novel.

"I have to like them. If I don't like them, I won't do them." Owen sounds out of place in the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap world of today's publishing. "It's all changed. It's much more difficult to sell books… a rat race. They're less concerned with quality." By contrast, Peter Owen has always been concerned with quality and it has brought him success - for 60 years.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 10:52am, October 11 2011