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Blazing the Trail: An interview with Peter Owen

By Steven Fowler.

A pioneer in British Publishing, Peter Owen began his house in 1951. At work in the industry for nearly sixty years, he has maintained his exacting literary standards in the face of censorship and increasingly reductive publishing trends, eschewing the search for the next financially rewarding fad or trend at the behest of good writing. His list has included some of the greatest names in 20th century fiction and nine Nobel Prize winners. He has proliferated and supported the work of numerous authors in English who were deemed unpublishable or unpalatable in the heyday of their writing talent, including Herman Hesse, Anaïs Nin, Paul Bowles, Henry Miller, Jane Bowles, Yukio Mishima, Tarjei Vesaas, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giono, Blaise Cendrars … Nearing his 83rd year, he speaks to Steven Fowler for 3:AM.

(Peter Owen with his wife the novelist Wendy Owen in front of Kenway Road, Earl’s Court, now the company office)

Steven Fowler: Looking back after nearly sixty years and breaking so many authors that have gone on to define the avant-garde, highbrow literary landscape, such as Bowles, Cocteau, Mishima, Nin, Kavan and so forth, how do you rate the contribution of your publishing house to the British literary scene in general?

Peter Owen: I think this company has made a contribution to current values and culture, but of course a lot of the writers we did, such as Jean Cocteau, had been around for some time and just not properly recognised. Cocteau was known more for his films, for example. There were many authors we published who weren’t recognised even then. Perhaps they weren’t good enough. Having said that, Hesse was barely known when we took Siddhartha.

SF: He had no reputation outside of Germany?

PO: Very limited. I knew he had won the Nobel Prize, but I was introduced to Siddhartha by James Laughlin who ran New Directions. He was a fan of my uncle Rudolph Freidmann, whom he regarded as an important writer. James put me on to the novel. Hesse’s reputation really snowballed in the late fifties and sixties. He became an industry in the sixties; we were churning his stuff out like sausages – all in hardback. We reprinted his books constantly. There weren’t any American editions; we were shipping them off to the USA. Siddhartha went into numerous reprints, and all the paperback publishers were fighting for it. I had many lunches over that book, and most of the time I said, ‘Why the hell should I give it to you? You don’t buy most of my books. Why should I give you Siddhartha?’ The paperback sale was between Penguin and Pan, and we sold it to Pan. They had two excellent editors there; Caroline Crespignie was one, and she knew our list and she knew Siddhartha. I turned them all down at first. They asked me want I wanted, and I told them. They didn’t faint. The royalties went up to very high. I said you have to buy five or six other books from my list as well. We linked to Penguin about a year ago with another very large advance for the book.

SF: Siddhartha must have maintained a sizeable income for your house over the years.

PO: The trouble is, of course, what a lot of authors and publishers don’t realise is that when you take big advances, although it’s nice at the time, you have to be careful because if you don’t stagger the payments you’re paying most of it in tax in one year. We did stagger the advance for Siddhartha but not enough. Writers should realise this, because if a book sells they’re going to be paid royalties anyway. If it doesn’t sell, that’s their bad luck to some extent. It can be the market, too, and lack of reviews. This is another declining element of book culture; most aren’t reviewed at all, unless a book is by a very well-known person or on a sensational subject. This is making it much more difficult to publish fiction. The fairly talented, the run-of-the-mill, don’t stand a chance.

SF: Do you think publishing is dominated by a cult of personality?

PO: Yes, if you take an author of a very low standard, let’s say someone writing what’s known as ‘women’s fiction’, they will sell even though their novels are bad because they’ve become industries in themselves. And the majority of these types of books lack humour. It’s true also of some more highbrow modern books that contain – shall we call it? – controversial sexual humour – that is, semi-porn or explicit material. I always felt you can get away with it if you there is irony or humour, but if it lacks these elements then I think it’s just boring pornography. Apollinaire, whose novel Les Onze Mille Verges we published, is funny, and his book is a take-off, whereas with a lot of contemporary authors of that ilk it’s done deadpan and the effect is pure porn.

SF: You seem to think that the current generation of writers is unable to produce the quality aside the explicit content?

PO: Absolutely. But then you see you can’t sell porn in literature any more anyway. Les Onze Mille Verges has never done terribly well, even though it has the porn content. That doesn’t sell any more, because of videos and the internet, I suppose. People prefer visual material to literature in this regard.

SF: Apollinaire would surely be considered a high literary writer now, even if he was writing porn.

PO: Yes, yes. Modern writers won’t be, as he has been. And I find some modern writers horribly explicit.

SF: How did you come across Apollinaire?

PO: Beatrice Musgrave, who ran production and editorial for me for a long time, picked it up from a review of a French edition. We looked at it, we knew it had something and we had a brilliant translator in Nina Rootes. At that time things were still fairly difficult, not long after the Lady Chatterley trial débâcle. We had Henry Miller; we were going to publish him, and I was advised that we’d be sued if we went ahead. A lot of publishers were frightened after Lady Chatterley. I didn’t like that novel anyway, although Lawrence was a major writer and it was a relatively harmless book. Probably I would’ve done it. I wouldn’t have done Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. But I don’t recall it having much humour. I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it had enough literary content to compensate for the subject matter. Perhaps I might think differently now. We did end up turning down the second Apollinaire. While it was less aggressively pornographic, I didn’t think it was good or funny enough. That was the one about incest, a young man screwing his mother and his aunt. I thought it was bad.

SF: How did you come to publish the Marquis de Sade?

PO: One knew about him of course and probably at first we did it for the wrong reasons, but we knew it would sell and there was no de Sade available in English.

SF: No translations at all when you published de Sade?

PO: I don’t think so. Margaret Crosland, she spoke to me about de Sade. I said we couldn’t possibly get away with it. The scene was extremely difficult at that time; this was even earlier than when we did Apollinaire, in the late fifties. She said I’d have to edit it, so we watered it down. The translation gave a feeling of him without the real content. It was pretty mild stuff by current standards, but at that time it was explicit enough. We changed it in later editions, but the de Sades we’ve published are relatively tame. The only one that sells now is Gothic Tales. Crimes of Love is selling a bit but not a lot. The Mysterious Magistrate hardly sells at all. The de Sade reader is out of print, and I can’t see much point in reissuing it now, although we might eventually.

SF: What was your first major publication? Did it come by way of recommendation?

PO: Again, I was helped by James Laughlin. New Directions was one of the most distinguished avant-garde publishers of that time – of any time – and James had all the money in the world. His family owned Laughlin steel. For him publishing was a tax loss; he was playing around. He was advised to go into publishing by Ezra Pound, and our first books were Spirit of Romance and A Guide to Kulchur by Ezra Pound, which New Directions had and which we printed for James in England. It helped me a lot, for I had hardly any money to start with. A book called New Russian Stories, which had a Pasternak story in it before most people had heard of him, did well for us as well.

SF:Was Ezra Pound in a mental facility in America at the time?

PO: Yes, he was in the nuthouse. I used to get letters from him; they were pretty disjointed. He was friendly and quite coherent.

SF: It is said he was put into the mental hospital to avoid trying him as a fascist.

PO: I think partly. I don’t think he was completely sane. I think madness was present, and I think he wasn’t that involved with fascism. I don’t know if he did it for money or a political aberration. I don’t think anyone with all their senses would have stayed in Italy and done broadcasts for Mussolini. After the war there was revulsion against anyone who had in any way supported those political systems.

SF: It certainly happened in Norway with Knut Hamsun. He was revered before that.

PO: Yes. I wouldn’t publish Hamsun. Farrar, Straus, headed by Roger Straus who was Jewish, did do Hunger by Hamsun, but I was offered a biography which I turned down because I found it distasteful

SF: Because of his right-wing politics?

PO: Yes, and I thought because of what he did during the war he would never be that popular again. Especially in comparison with someone like Hesse. If he had been a writer of his standing without the fascist involvement we probably would have done it.

SF: I have read many defences of Hamsun though. It is arguable that the quality of his work has been utterly obscured. I read an introduction to Hunger by Isaac Bashevis Singer . . .

PO: We did two Singer books. We were his first publishers in the UK. He later won the Nobel Prize. We published wonderful translations of Gimpel the Fool and Satan in Goray.

SF: Was James Laughlin and New Directions instrumental in your beginnings? How did they support you?

PO: We weren’t supported; we were partnered. It did help to start the list. Another early writer we took from James’s recommendation was Julien Gracq’s A Dark Stranger. He later got the Prix Goncourt. He was an important writer – very good.

SF: How early on did you take Henry Miller?

PO: We did one Miller, The Books in My Life. That came again through James Laughlin. We ended up buying most of the authors in that book, although not consciously. Miller was a very good critic. He knew his stuff. We published nearly all of them in the end: Tagore, Hesse, Cendrars . . .

SF: How early did you get Cendrars?

PO: The first one was To the End of the World. I think its one of funniest books we’ve done, a roman noir. It may not be one of his best, but it is certainly one of the funniest. He was a writer with real talent and humour.

SF: And a great modernist as well, a great poet.

PO: Yes. This book was terrific, but it never did very well. Cendrars never sold very well. Now he’s catching on slowly.

SF: He’s an author who might not have any presence were it not for the fact that you’ve kept him in print for the past forty years.

PO: He is having a resurgence now. Along with Jean Giono. The Man Who Planted Trees by Giono has sold terribly well. He has an exuberance that Cendrars shares. To the Slaughterhouse does very well in our Peter Owen Modern Classics list. In France both authors are still very highly regarded.

SF: Cendrars is deeply underappreciated here, even with occasional resurgences of interest in the Surrealists, on whom he had a profound effect.

PO: It’s a bit better than it was, but yes. He had real talent. Gold is doing better as well. His obscurity in this country is partly down to philistinism. But, on the other hand, some English writers are equally ignored in Europe. The chances of selling our Mervyn Peake biography in Germany are nil.

SF: How did you come across Cocteau and his writings?

PO: Margaret Crosland was very important. She advised us a lot. The first we did was Maalesh, which was a new book coming out in France at that time, a Middle Eastern diary, and then we went on to more important books. It was Margaret who pioneered Cocteau. She had written a biography of him, and she led us to Dalí, too. She knew his novel – Hidden Faces.

SF: Did you travel to meet Dalí before publishing him?

PO: Yes, on several occasions I met him. He was pretty unpleasant; not directly unpleasant – he wasn’t nasty. He was a major artist, but I felt he lacked integrity. I was there once and during the course of the evening we were given some horrible sweet sparkling wine which was palmed off as champagne. I met his wife Gala once as well when we first made contact, although they didn’t answer letters and I had to go to his suite in a hotel on the rue de Rivoli. He was into money, so if something made him money he was interested. He said to me, ‘Dalí loves money. Have you brought me some?’

SF: He referred to himself in the third person?

PO: He was arrogant. We paid a lot of money for that book, one of the biggest advances we had ever paid, and it was part of the deal that the novel would include new illustrations. They weren’t up to his usual standard. We put them in the first edition, but we had to take them out.

(From left: Wendy and Peter Owen with Anaïs Nin, Georgina Owen and actor Luise Rainer)

SF: When did you first publish Anaïs Nin?

PO: The end of the fifties.

SF: Very early then.

PO: She was unsaleable then. We really couldn’t sell her. I knew her reputation, and I was baited with the journals. She was still a fantastic-looking woman. Everyone, all the men at least, thought she was fantastic, but many woman disliked her immensely I’ve found out since. She didn’t make any attempt to engage with them. She had said that Lawrence Durrell, who was a fan, was going to write an introduction. She convinced him to come to Paris, and his introduction certainly helped to begin with.

SF: How was she first received?

PO: She didn’t do too well. It gradually snowballed when the journals came out, but they were heavily expurgated apart from Incest which wasn’t cut. But one didn’t know what was true, because it turned out she really was a dreadful liar.

SF: The diaries were fiction?

PO: One doesn’t know. I’m sure a lot of it is true. Incest is partly about the incest with her father. She was having sex with him, Henry Miller, her cousin, Antonin Artaud and her husband – up to a point. The brother said it wasn’t true, but I think it was true, although the facts may have been slightly distorted.

SF: You met her on many occasions? You corresponded often with her?

PO: Yes I knew Nin pretty well, but I was wrong in my assessment. Rereading the stuff now, I feel a bit differently. For example, we do Anna Kavan who also tended to lie, but I think Kavan is far more important. She had much more imaginative power. She didn’t necessarily write better – for Nin could write: her prose was very good; but it was all about herself. The diaries were a rehash of her life, and the novels were a rehash of her diaries.

SF: Anna Kavan was a heroin addict.

PO: Yes, she was an addict. But she was functional. I knew her pretty well. Nin and her shared traits, but I think, in retrospect, looking at their work, that Kavan is the more important writer; considerably more important.

SF: You mentioned Lawrence Durrell. How did you come across Pope Joan in the Royidis version?

PO: When I first began in publishing I started a firm called Peter Nevill [sic] with Neville Armstrong, and we published Pope Joan. Durrell was much well less known then.

SF: He was writing for Olympia Press around that time, I think.

PO: Yes he was part of the Henry Miller scene. I think Miller included him in Books in My Life. We did a book of his on modern poetry. Years later I met him at Bernard Stone’s bookshop in Kensington at a reading, and he knew our list; he knew Nin and the Kavan and so forth, I think he mentioned Pope Joan. My firm ended up buying it back. It has sold steadily over the years.

SF: I think it’s an extraordinary book. It’s very important that it remains in print.

PO: We did a hardback, and then we did it in our Modern Classics format. It is based on a real woman Pope. This is why I think there’s some test when they have a new pope. They check that they’ve got balls!

[Part Two]

Steven Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 24th, 2009.