Publishing elegant, peculiar studies in fine attention and finer craft, how the small London press is producing some of the best writing around
In a short passage from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, the narrator meets a woman named Ingibjörg, who’s ‘travelling along the prime meridian’.
She was from Iceland, and she began her journey in the Shetland Islands. She complained that it was, of course, impossible to travel in a straight line, since she was totally dependent upon roads and ship routes and train tracks. But she was trying to stick to her guns, continuing south, manoeuvring along the line as best she could, in a zigzag.
Ingibjörg’s project sounds absorbing at the time – ‘As she spoke, I saw in my mind’s eye the image of a drop sliding down the surface of a globe’ – but now, looking back, it seems ‘unsettling’ and bold. ‘Meridians don’t exist, after all. Not really.’ It’s always a risk to make your own way.
Ingibjörg was on my mind when I talked to Jacques Testard, Tokarczuk’s UK publisher at the small literary press Fitzcarraldo Editions. The Polish writer Tokarczuk, along with her translator Jennifer Croft, had just won the Man Booker International Prize, and Testard was showing me the slim blue paperback of Flights, which he was rushing into print. Ingibjörg’s desire to live by furtive logic seemed both to capture the spirit of Fitzcarraldo books – avowedly ‘ambitious, imaginative and innovative’ – and also to figure a way of making obscure connections that reflects how all those books, whatever their subject, seem mysteriously intertwined. I think of the ones I know and like best, from the 35 titles to date: Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Kate Briggs’ This Little Art (both 2017), Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (2015). Not works in a series, but all elegant, peculiar, studies in fine attention and finer craft; and with stronger affinities on the surface, since the austere Fitzcarraldo design, by Ray O’Meara, denudes the books of decoration, and leaves them plainly, identically covered. Blue for fiction, white for essays. People go to the London Review Bookshop and ask for the ‘latest Fitzcarraldo’.
The aesthetic pictures an ethos that Testard has cultivated since founding the press in 2014. He likes to quote the Adelphi publisher Roberto Calasso – ‘All books published by a certain publisher could be seen as links in a single chain’ – and he described for me some subterranean ‘continuities’ between his authors. For instance, take Mathias Enard, author of Zone, Street of Thieves (2008; translated for Fitzcarraldo in 2014 by Charlotte Mandell) and Compass (2017, shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize; also translated by Mandell); he turns out to be the mentor of Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, whose Animalia will appear with Fitzcarraldo next year. (Testard hadn’t known this.) Or Esther Kinsky, author of River (2018); she wrote a catalogue essay for a photographer working in Canadian communes, one of whose subjects, in the book that Kinsky introduced, was a teenage Camilla Grudova. (Testard hadn’t known this either.) ‘Maybe it sounds silly when you describe the different connections,’ he says, ‘but the logic of it is mainly in my head’. This coherence mightn’t be logical, but it does seem like personality. Testard calls his list ‘a constellation bigger than the sum of its parts’, then refers the phrase sideways the way he did with Calasso’s ‘chain’, calling ‘constellation’ an ‘Olga-ism’. He means the lecturer in Tokarczuk’s Flights who, talking beautifully about travel to an airport crowd, says: ‘Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.’
Fitzcarraldo have two more Tokarczuk books under contract, among something like ‘15 or 20 others’. Testard puts faith in his authors, so that ‘even if their first book doesn’t work, I’ll do the next one … I won’t lose trust in them just because they didn’t sell’. Both authors with whom he began the list – Enard and Simon Critchley – are on their second or third books. The press runs an annual essay prize, which aims to discover a new essayist in English, and as of this summer there’s a novel prize to match; like its counterpart, it’s worth GBP£3,000 plus publication. Here, under Fitzcarraldo’s serious-mindedness, you see a flash of cold, commercial logic: Testard admits that the novel prize compensates, in part, for how experimental novels in English get snapped up by larger presses faster than many of the foreign-language works he finds and publishes in translation. ‘So, in order to find the interesting English novels, I think we have to create a platform for people to submit directly to us.’
Fitzcarraldo are continuing, quietly, as they’ve begun. There are no plans to change the categories of ‘fiction’ and ‘essays’, or the commitment to ‘innovation’ in form, or (flapless paperbacks aside) the streamlined O’Meara design. The balance between English and translated work – roughly half and half – will remain as well. Since Testard is bilingual, he can watch the French industry as closely as the Anglo-American one; he picked up Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize, through reading her in French. This is his slight ‘competitive advantage’, since he judges that ‘something like 40 or 50 percent of books published in France are in translation’, of which half are from English but half are from elsewhere. (The famous comparable figure for the US was always three percent, and in the UK it’s creeping closer to ten. Still, nowhere near the continent.)
The commitment to that elsewhere is all the more pressing today. Testard went looking for a Polish writer in the wake of the Brexit vote; he’d been disenfranchised himself, as a French national, but when he saw the news of physical attacks on Polish migrants, he immediately thought that ‘we needed more Polish voices, and an insight into Polish culture in Britain’. Meanwhile, he and Ben Eastham, who jointly founded the art and literary magazine The White Review in 2011, an elder sibling of sorts to Fitzcarraldo – discussed an anti-Brexit issue with the Review’s new editorial team. That issue never happened, and Testard doesn’t know how it would have looked. ‘After talking about it’, he explains, ‘we sort of came to the conclusion that the best thing we could do, as publishers of The White Review, and the best thing I could do, as publisher of Fitzcarraldo, was to keep doing what we do, and do it as well as we could.’
The slimline edition of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is on shelves now. Her next book is due in September; it’s titled Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Main image: Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft; winners of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, 2018. Courtesy: Janie Airey and Man Booker Prize.