Review: Loose Connections

Publishers’ good old days


No Jewish book lover of a certain age and Mittel European extraction should miss out on Esther Menell's memoir, Loose Connections. True to its title, this meanders - in a most cultivated and colourful way - through Menell's 80 years and her career in what was arguably the golden age of publishing.

Time has a tendency to buff up family romance, and Menell's Estonian dynasty (gazing to camera in old monochrome snaps) seems endearingly exotic, what with a "hare-brained scheme" to extract oil from South African shale, and £50 tips handed out at the Ritz.

Menell's grandfather, a child orphan, grew up apprenticed to a wigmaker. Rather racily for their times, her parents fell in love when married to other partners (a predicament that recurred when Esther's husband announced, as she was shortly to give birth, that he had fallen in love with her friend).

Most chillingly, had her parents not left in 1939, this book would never have appeared, for only a dozen Estonian Jews survived the Nazi occupation.

There is much that is curious and more that's nostalgic about Menell's early story. Leaving Tallin at five, she was anglicised at Battle Abbey boarding school, where the Jewish girls had to clean baths instead of going to church.

They took ballroom dance classes from Victor Silvester's "bony orange-haired" sister. After being expensively crammed for Latin "unseens", she was accepted at St Hilda's, Oxford, making the dreaming spires her own after three attempts.

Her book's delight is in the recollected detail - her duff blind-date with an Indian Jew at the inimitable Cosmo cafe (the Swiss Cottage émigrés' home from home); the little Olivetti typewriter her mother saved to buy; the waitressing job in the Kensington Sombrero where "the dusting of elderly strudels with icing sugar" was one of her favourite chores.

But the best of Loose Connections encompasses Menell's many years as a backroom editor with the illustrious Andre Deutsch in Great Russell Street. Debunking his image as a gentlemanly Hungarian charmer, Menell found Deutsch a bit of a monster, a delegator of dirty work and a man of "legendary meanness" who resisted her 10-shilling rise and went round the building turning off lights and shutting windows.

Underpaid Menell clearly was, but her close encounters with great authors and opportunities to spy something special in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts brought their own reward.

Few can testify to supper at the home of V S Naipaul - where her Waitrose wine gift was deemed "unfit to drink". The great, but seemingly bibulous, Jean Rhys might not have been so fussy: drink and frailty had long delayed delivery of her Wide Sargasso Sea so Menell was despatched to Devon to sift and type up its unnumbered pages.

Profanity was the problem with Norman Mailer. When Menell prepared his An American Dream for print. This novel already had Deutsch's imprimatur but he'd bought it on the strength of bowdlerised magazine extracts. Menell had no idea she was overstepping the expletive mark by marking "stet" a mass of obscenities her boss had not read.

Despite the power play and the penury, there was real pleasure in discovering the likes of Madeleine St John, Edmund White and Philip Roth before the world at large did - and all in the days when publishing was more like "a cottage industry, fuelled by a love of books" than the "vast money-making machine it has become."

Menell says that she began to write out of "a wish to revisit the past before life shuts down for good". In so doing, she has preserved the aura of publishing as it was when Amazon wasn't even a gleam in the eye of grand establishments like Bumpus and The Times Bookshop, Wigmore Street.

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