Peirene and I wish you all a Merry Christmas, a peaceful festive season and einen guten Rutsch into 2016. May you receive and give to others lots of exciting new books. Thank you for your company this year. We will be back here second week in January.
Archive for 2015
‘These bottles aren’t all for you,’ I inform her. We are going to be nine people for our office Christmas party tonight: Sacha, Clara, Jen, Gianna, James, Eoin, Clare, Peirene and I. ‘And you can’t have a headache tomorrow, ‘ I throw the Nymph a worrying glance. Peirene and alcohol – even a single glass - is like a game of Russian roulette. Sometimes she’s fine. And sometimes not – struck down with a migraine for three days afterwards. ‘We still have a lot do before leaving the office for the Christmas break on Wednesday.’
‘I know. ’ She closes the fridge door and shuffles over to the kitchen table. ‘But admit it: you must have also wondered if there is actually any point in continuing at all after tonight. Haven’t you? Life will never be the same again.’ She sits down and buries her face in her hands.
Seeing the Nymph so upset, my heart warms towards her. I pull my chair close to hers and put my arm around her shoulders. For a while we both hang our heads.
Tonight we are going to say good-by to Clara and Jen.
Clara has worked for Peirene for two and a half years. She’s turned the Peirene annual newspaper from a catalogue into an exciting literary magazine, has increased our ebook sales by 500%, and has revamped our subscriber database so that we now know our readers individual literary needs.
Jen has worked for Peirene for three and half years. She has made the Roaming Store into what it is today – the perfect pop-up bookstore: knowledgeable, friendly, efficient. She trained 15 booksellers and ran over 300 stalls. She has also set up the PeireneBookClub, turning it into one of the most stimulating reading groups in town.
‘It’s the end of an era,’ Peirene sniffles, and a tear runs down her cheek. I, too, feel a frog in my throat. Then suddenly I have an idea. ‘You and I we deserve an early glass of Champagne.’ I fill two glasses. We drink it in solemn silence. Peirene tops us up.
And soon the bubbles show their desired affect. A sparkle appears in the Nymph’s eye.
‘There is, however, one way I can imagine that life without Clara and Jen could become tolerable again: if we make it our custom to drink a glass of pink champagne in the late afternoon in their honour every day from now on.’
Image by Shari’s Berries, creative commons.
‘I’ve worked out our diet plan for the next days,’ Peirene announces. We are sitting in a café in the old town of Riga. In a couple of hours we are flying back to London. ‘Soup without bread for lunch and a plain salad in the evening. That should get us back in a shape in time for Christmas.’ She lifts her jumper briefly. ‘Look, I can’t even close my jeans any longer.’
The waitress arrives with the coffee and the cakes, a hot chocolate flan with vanilla ice cream for Peirene and a delicious smelling marzipan cake for me.
‘Can we postpone this conversation until tomorrow,’ I suggest while I bite into the marzipan. I close my eyes to enjoy the moment.
‘How much has your waistline expanded in the last days?,’ I hear the Nymph ask.
I open my eyes in irritation. ‘Peirene, if you’re out to spoil our last hour here, then I can catch up with you at the airport.’ I pull her chocolate flan towards me. ‘This looks very tasty too.’ Peirene leans forward, holding onto the plate. ‘I couldn’t possible let you eat both.’ She sighs. ‘I will have to sacrifice my figure for your health.’
Truth to tell, my waistband too has tightened over the last days. Peirene and I were part of a group of seven UK publishers who were invited by Literature Across Frontiers, the Lithuanian Culture Institute and the Latvian Literature Centre to meet Baltic publishers and authors, first in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and then in the Latvian capital of Riga.
And what a tour it was. Three course lunches and dinners in beautiful restaurants every day. But not only the food was great.
These countries were under Soviet rule until 1990. The creative psyche therefore often still struggles with the freedoms only gained a generation ago. In literature we find abstract monologues loaded with symbolism – a response to a period when only the self could be trusted. Everyone else, even family members and friends, could be informers. Given this challenge, the creation of believable relationships between characters – one of the motors of plot – is frequently neglected. But the writers who solve these problems, provide unique glimpses into the workings of the human mind and are producing exciting literature.
Peirene and I have finished our coffee and cakes. We are leaning back in our seats, legs stretched out underneath the table.
‘I’m not keen on lettuce for an entire week, ‘ I muse. ‘How about going for a few more runs instead. That’s a much healthier way of losing a couple of pounds.’
‘You do that,’ Peirenes nods lethargically at me. ‘I’ve decided that I have now reached an age where a few pounds more don’t matter. Ancient Greek Nymphs shouldn’t look lean and haggard.’
I don’t think there is much of a risk for that at the moment. But I decide not to speak my thoughts out loud.
Image by Ivana Sokolovic, creative commons.
‘Ooh, we really are leading exciting lives.’ Peirene is clearly thrilled as the taxi is driving us to Liverpool Station to catch the Stansted Express. We have been invited by Literature Across Frontiers on a publisher’s tour of the Baltic States.
‘Why are you putting on your shades?,’ I enquire. Outside it’s grey and stormy.
‘In films, high-flying business people always wear sunglasses, ‘ the Nymph informs me, while she takes out her little mirror and reapplies her lipstick.
We arrive at the airport with time to spare. Peirene grabs her handbag and tells me with a vague wave of her hand that she has ‘things to do’. I don’t follow her because I, too, have ‘things to do.’ I decided earlier on that I needed to pamper myself. A manicure would be perfect. I head to the nail bar at the main terminal. I rarely treat myself to a manicure, feeling guilty about wasted time. But since I didn’t have much of a break from work this weekend, I feel happy to indulge.
I know I want red nails but as I sit in front of the beautician, for a long time I can’t make up my mind what shade. The dark one or rather the brighter, more classic red? Eventually I come to a conclusion. I choose the ruby red. Soon, my nails look beautiful. I give the beautician a big tip.
I turn around, ready to walk away. And guess who I suddenly spot sitting on the other side of the nail bar? Peirene!
I tap her on the shoulder. ‘So that’s where you rushed off to.’
She looks over her shoulder with a start. Then she smiles at me with slight embarressment.
‘Show me your nails,’ I say.
She lifts them up.
‘Is that the colour high-flying business women wear in films?’ I ask.
She nods. I wave my hands at her: ‘That’s makes two of us.’
The Nymph compares my hands with hers. She purrs happily: ‘With nails like these we will surely clinch an amazing Baltic book deal.’
Image by Håkan Dahlström, creative commons.
I wake with a start. It’s pitch dark. I hear noises. My alarm clock shows 2am. I close my eyes again. Only to open them the next moment. Someone is moving around the house. Now they are in the office. My heart begins to race. Eventually I pluck up courage and get out of bed.
I pass by the storage room and pick up a broom. With this weapon in my hand I approach the closed office door. Dim light is seeping through the gap at the bottom. Very quietly I push the handle down, holding my breath.
Peirene! She is sitting at my desk, with her back towards me, staring at the computer screen. She is so engrossed, she doesn’t hear anything. I sneak up behind her. Images of a man flicker across the screen.
I’m shocked. ‘What are doing?,’ I exclaim.
The Nymph jumps and closes the window immediately. ‘You frightened me!’ She turns, flashing her eyelashes at me innocently.
‘Who was that?’ I point to the now blank screen.
Peirene shrugs her shoulders. ‘What do you mean? … Nothing. I’m just doing some research.’
‘At 2 o’clock in the morning?’
She nods. ‘I couldn’t sleep… because… because.’ She suddenly clicks the internet window open again. She clearly can no longer wait to show me. ‘Look, isn’t he handsome,’ she coos.
I glance over her shoulder. ‘Roberto Calasso, the Italian publisher,’ I notice in surprise.
Peirene nods dreamily. ‘I’ve just finished reading his new book The Art of the Publisher. He and I are soul mates.’ She sighs. ‘He knows my heart.’ She picks up the book. ‘Listen to this: “All books published by a certain publisher… are fragments in a single work.” The art of publishing is “the capacity to give form to a plurality of publications as though they were the chapters making up one book.”’ Peirene strokes the man’s cheek on her screen. ‘Isn’t that precisely what we are doing? But neither you nor I were ever able to express it so succinctly.’
‘It’s a rare little book, ‘ I agree. ‘It made me feel proud and dignified of our profession like nothing else I’ve ever read. But…’I pause, wondering for a second how to persuade Peirene to get some sleep. ‘I’m sure Calasso wouldn’t approve of wasting one’s valuable sleep time in front of the internet.’
The Nymph shakes her head. ‘He and I are in communion tonight. I feel it. I will stay up a little bit longer.’
I decide to let her be and scurry back to my bed. At least one of us needs to be well-rested.
Image by Zabara Alexander, creative commons.
In Spring I visited Bangladesh for a literary conclave. A few weeks afterwards I received an email inviting me to the Dhaka Lit Fest this month. I accepted the invitation in June.
Since then a lot has happened in that troubled country.
Islamic extremists have killed bloggers and murdered a leading publisher. Foreigners have been stabbed in the streets. The country has been placed on high alert of terrorist attacks. The British Foreign Office is advising citizens not to travel.
In October, the festival organisers began sending out updated security measures for our visit and international authors started to withdraw.
‘Am I being foolish in going?’ I ask the Nymph.
‘What does your instinct tell you?’ she replied.
My instinct was telling me that I could trust the organizers and if they became too concerned about the safety of their foreign participants they would cancel.
I’m so pleased you say that,’ Peirene admitted. ‘Because if people like us – professionals of the word: publishers and writers and thinkers – stay away from opportunities of dialogue, then how can we encourage others to use words not weapons to communicate.’ For that I loved my Nymph even a bit more.
So, last Tuesday Peirene accompanied me to the airport, gave me a hug and waved good-by as I lifted off into the air.
I was nervous in Dhaka, I can’t deny it. My fight-or-flight sensors were wide awake and every now and again brief scenarios of bombings and shootings flickered through my mind.
But. But. But. I’m thrilled I went. And let me not overdramatize. Yes, we were escorted by armed police wherever we went and 19 participants cancelled at short notice. Others, however, came, including Channel 4’s Jon Snow, South Bank Artistic Director Jude Kelly and British writer Marcel Theroux. And many more from India, Palestine, Kenya, US and Cuba.
But the real heroes of the show were the Bengali writers K. Anis Ahmed, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz, the three directors of the festival. Of course they contemplated cancelling or postponing the event and their concern for our safety was evident. Yet, they also understand that perhaps now more than ever their country – and the world at large – needs places where people from different cultures exchange and explore new ways of imagining the future.
‘There is actually a fourth hero.’ Peirene is suddenly looking over my shoulder. ‘The audience. They defied public curfew and political strikes that were happening elsewhere in the city to attend the festival.’
What can I say? The Nymph is absolutely right.
Image by Hasan Iqbal, creative commons.
‘No one will agree with your short list.’ I’m packing up books and notes to head to the judges meeting for the Arts Foundation Literary Translation Prize 2016. Peirene has stopped working and is watching me.
‘Why not?’ I put on my coat and grab my handbag.
‘Because you used the wrong criteria,’ she announces with pursed lips. ‘You didn’t just judge them on the quality of their translation, did you?
‘That’s right.’ I pause. I don’t really have time for a discussion. But then I continue: ‘They all submitted solid translations. The winner will receive £10 000 so we should reward someone who is willing to go the extra mile. A translator’s job doesn’t finish with creating an English text. If foreign fiction is to become part of our culture the best translators realise that they must perform, blog and organize events. Because there is no better advocator than the translator.’
‘Impressive.’ Peirene crosses her arms and legs. The foot on top bounces up and down. ‘But what if a translator doesn’t like doing any of that stuff.’
I shrug my shoulders. ‘In my view, it’s part of the job. And every job has aspects we like, and others we don’t.’ I’m suddenly irritated with the Nymph. Our attitudes usually coincide with regards to book promotion. So why is she being so antagonistic? Moreover, as soon as I sit in the cab I feel nervous. What if she is right and I have misunderstood the brief for the prize. I calm down by telling myself that my decisions are based on sound reasoning and I will be able to argue my point of view.
At the judges meeting, we draw up the short list in no time. We all agree on three out of four candidates. And we are also in harmony about the two who deserve to win. Opinions differ on which of the two should be the winner. But we finally reach a satisfying decision. It was an invigorating meeting.
‘I’m pleased the meeting went well, ‘ Peirene comments laconically as I walk back into the office.
I settle at my desk. ‘Why were you so negative earlier on?’ I eventually ask.
I interrupt her: ‘Don’t say you weren’t. I know you too well.’
‘Ok, I was.’ She pulls a face. ‘Because I wanted to be a judge, too. It’s always you who gets asked. Never me. And then you walk out of office in your high heels and lips stick. And I’m stuck here and can never dress up.’
‘Oh, Peirene. ‘ A warm glow for my little envious Nymph rises inside me. ‘We are a team. I didn’t realise you wanted to come. Next time I’ll take you with me.’
Image by Daniel70mi, creative commons.
‘We can no longer live together.’ Peirene popped out an hour ago without telling me where she was heading. Now she lays a stack of loose papers onto the coffee table. ‘I didn’t want to tell you until I had finalized everything but…, ‘ she unbuttons her coat ‘…I’m moving out.’
I’m sitting in the big armchair reading through the applications for the Arts Foundation’s Literary Translation Prize. I’m one of the judges this year. The judging meeting is on Monday and I still have a lot to get through.
‘Let’s discuss in three days,’ I suggest. The Nymph wants to leave me every few months. I’ve learned not to panic.
‘This time it’s different.’ She pronounces each word loud and clearly, as if talking to a little child. ‘I will continue to work for you, but strictly Monday to Fridays and, from now on, with a clear job description.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘And to ensure that you stick to this new regime I will rent my own flat. I’ve just visited the estate agent. ’ She pushes the papers across the table towards me.
I sigh. It seems I have to pay my Nymph some attention after all.
‘Ok. Let’s talk now.’ I rest my forearms onto my knees. ‘Why do you want to move?’
She sits bolt upright. ‘I can’t believe you are even asking.’ Tears begin to fill her eyes. ‘No one is respecting my weekends. And no one understands my talents.’
I furrow my brow. I know we work a lot. But I also always thought we both enjoyed hard work.
‘I’m not a handyman.’ She burst into tears. ‘It’s all very well us running 30 stalls between now and Christmas and Jen ordering new, sturdier trollies for the book boxes. But then the trollies arrive. And the wheels still need to be fixed. And Jen isn’t in the office for the next few days. Then you tried and lost your patience. And now I have to screw on trolley wheels even though it’s the weekend. And that’s not what a nymph does.’
Guilt suddenly overcomes me. ‘If we both try it together,‘ I propose with a reconciliatory smile, ‘will you reconsider moving out?’
I can see that she likes my proposal. But for a moment she pretends to hesitate. Then she nods. ‘But only if you assemble the trolley, while I hand you the tools.’
I squeeze in nevertheless. ‘What on earth is happening here?’
I’m not impressed by the scene. When I left work on Friday, everything was tidy and in its place. Now, on Sunday evening, the table is pushed aside and the entire floor, the sofa, the chairs are all covered with Peirene’s clothes. I realize quickly that there are a number of outfits. In the left corner a summer dress is laid out, complete with sandals, cardigan, sunglasses, sunhat and sun cream. Over at the right we have a pair of jeans, her blue polo neck, winter coat, woollen scarf, hat, gloves. On the sofa she has displayed wellies, her red rain jacket, umbrella. And on one of the chairs is her brown blazer with a matching skirt and blouse, tights and black shiny boots.
I pick up the boots. These are very nice boots. ‘Are they new?,’ I ask, barely able to disguise a tinge of envy.
‘Yes,’ the Nymph replies distractedly, running her hands through her hair. ‘I’m in such distress. I have to be ready by tomorrow morning 7am. All my outfits are incomplete and the shops are now closed. This is a total disaster.’
I don’t really understand what Peirene is talking about. ‘What is a disaster?’ ‘Don’t you know, I’m going to distribute newspapers with Clara and Clare tomorrow and I have nothing – absolutely nothing – to wear.’
That’s news to me. The Nymph usually has one hundred and one excuses why she can’t help with distributing our newspaper at tube stations. I know that secretly she feels the job is too unglamorous for her.
‘Did you volunteer?’ I ask in surprise.
‘Of course I did. This is our best literary newspaper ever. Hot off the press. I have to be there when it hits the London streets. But I don’t know what the weather is going to be like. It’s far too warm for the season. But then again it might suddenly turn. So I have to get at least four complete outfits ready.’
I begin to laugh. I just can’t take her too seriously. ‘It doesn’t matter what you wear. Clara will be honoured by your presence. And so will the commuters. It’s rare that they receive a paper from the hands of an Ancient Greek Nymph. Just dress warmly.’ I pause, then I add: ‘And if you don’t wear the black boots, perhaps you would let me borrow them.’
Image by Steve Johnson, creative commons.
‘Hi,’ Peirene replies without looking up from her work.
‘I’m back,’ I say. I would love to have a catch-up chat.
‘I can see that,’ she mumbles, still not turning her head.
‘Are you angry?’ She usually punishes me with a bad mood if I have been out of the office for too long.
She shakes her head.
‘Good,’ I reply. ‘I had a productive week. But quite austere,’ I add. My retreats consist of renting a lonely cottage in Norfolk where I don’t see or speak to anyone, so hearing my own voice again is delight, and I continue: ‘Let me tell you my daily routine: I start work at 8 on the dot, write the first 1000 words by 11, then stop for a late breakfast. Then write the next 1000 words by 2, then have lunch, a bit of a rest, go for a run or walk, have a shower. By 6 I’m back writing the final 1000 words of the day. Eat something, read for an hour. Lights out. I hit my target of 15000 words,’ I finish proudly.
No responds or acknowledgement from the Nymph. I pull a face, sit down and start going through the pile of post that has accumulated. For a while the only sounds in the office are the tearing open of envelopes and the Nymph’s tapping on the keyboard. Suddenly I hear her whisper:
‘I’m pretending you haven’t come back yet.’
‘Why?’ I ask in a normal voice.
‘Ps, speak quietly,’ she reprimands me in a hushed voice.
‘Ok, why,’ I, too, whisper.
‘Because good things tend to happen when you are away.’
‘Such as?’ I’m all ears.
‘Well, this time we learned that BBC Radio 3 is going to do a programme with Hanne Ørstavik, Radio 4 ‘s A Good Read will feature The Dead Lake and Born Films have told us that their English screen adaption of Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona is progressing beautifully.’
‘Wow!’ I shout, jumping up and rushing over to Peirene to give her hug.
‘Oh, now you’ve broken the spell with your racket.’ She pretends to be upset but I can see that she is thrilled to be the bearer of good tidings.
We have a coffee. It’s nice to be back in Peirene’s company. She’s matured a lot over the last year and increasingly is able to run large parts of the publishing house herself. Nevertheless she loves to ensure that I don’t become underemployed. She points to a big box in the corner. ‘This has also arrived – the books for the Arts Foundation Award.’ I’m a judge on their 2016 Literary Translation prize. ‘That’ll keep you busy reading for a while,’ she adds with a little wicked smile.
Image by Graeme Law, creative commons.