The woman who’s proving intelligent books can sell

Publisher Melissa Ulfane is fed up with the trashy output of the main booksellers. Readers deserve better, she tells us.

By Gerald Jacobs, August 13, 2009
Melissa Ulfane wants English book-lovers to appreciate European culture

Melissa Ulfane wants English book-lovers to appreciate European culture

One of London’s leading literary agents recently suggested that, “intelligent, well-written fiction is in a state of crisis”. The big publishing conglomerates are not interested so much in the state of the culture as in what they perceive to be the state of the market. And what they perceive is that “pulp” sells and “literary fiction” — in which emotions and ideas are imaginatively conveyed in well-constructed sentences — does not.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. Some intrepid editors, even within the mainstream, still believe there is an appetite for real writing. In the independent sector, a number of publishers are successfully waving the banner for literature — none more vigorously than South-African born Melissa Ulfane, publisher and onlie begetter of Pushkin Press. Far from dumbing down the nation’s reading habits, Ulfane is opening them up to classic and contemporary European writers.

It all started a dozen or so years ago. “I felt so ignorant about European literature,” Ulfane admits. “At school in South Africa, the only foreign language available, apart from Afrikaans, was Latin — which I did find inspiring. I read English at Oxford, but we studied no comparative literature.”

Then she went on holiday, to Porto Cervo, in Sardinia — “a very unliterary place but it had a ‘book tent’ with piles of beautiful Italian editions translated from every conceivable language and containing a wealth of experience and imagination that was closed off to the English reader. After that, I spent time in Paris. This was not long after the opening of the Eurostar — the moment, I thought, for European culture to be appreciated by that English reader.”

Her family had by now moved to London from South Africa, where her mother’s forebears had arrived in the 1890s from Russia and her father’s a couple of decades later from Lithuania. After St Paul’s school and Oxford, and a brief spell in banking (“under parental pressure”), Ulfane dabbled in law and a couple of minor publishing jobs, and worked in independent films, where she grew frustrated at the lack of individual creative control. And so she took the brave step of setting up her own publishing imprint.

She was not aware of quite what a gamble this was. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I managed to meet some great publishers who took time to talk to me, and were very inspiring — but they never told me exactly what I was taking on. Though one independent publisher in New York told me: ‘It’s depressing, and no matter how many reviews you get, you never make money’ — but he is still going strong.”

Pushkin Press (named after the family cat; the eponymous Russian author does not appear in their list) issued its first catalogue in 1997. “Initially, the books were all personal recommendations by friends,” says Ulfane. “I would ask: ‘What is the book you would most like to give to a friend if it was in English?’ That’s how the early books all came, and many still do.”

One friend, for instance, recommended Journey by Moonlight, by a Hungarian-Jewish writer Antal Szerb, who died in a Nazi labour camp. Ulfane obtained the services of Len Rix, a former Manchester Grammar School teacher, who had taught himself Hungarian, and Rix’s translation has become one of Pushkin’s most successful titles, selling between 30,000 and 40,000 copies.

The great breakthrough came with Ulfane’s discovery that the work of Stefan Zweig was out of copyright and the English rights were available. Zweig, an Austrian Jew born in 1881, was a prolific and popular writer before the Second World War.

He fled from the Nazis and lived in both London and New York before he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. In Britain, his writing went out of fashion after the war but now, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Pushkin Press, which has revived several of his works, he has regained his literary eminence. Next year, Pushkin will maintain its steady flow of Zweig’s material, including his memoirs, translated by the award-winning Anthea Bell.

Along with Zweig and Szerb, “many of the writers I publish are Jewish”, says Ulfane, “and being confronted with the tragic deaths they suffered because of their religion has made me think about mine. I’m very aware of being Jewish now.”

Her list continues to grow. In addition to the classic translations — and works from Anglo-Saxon colossi like Dickens and Henry James — she is publishing living writers from across and beyond the Continent. Each offering is treated with care and passion and, for any book-lover, it is a delight to leaf through the beautifully produced Pushkin catalogue.

The company “now has to make its own way” says Ulfane. It has received Lottery funding and an Arts Council grant, which “has made a huge difference in terms of morale and finance. This year’s been great for us. When the books come fresh from the printer and you smell the paper, it’s thrilling. Even more thrilling when you see them in the bookshops. Still more thrilling seeing someone going to the till and paying for one!”

Last updated: 4:52pm, August 13 2009