Encountering Encounters

My recent blog about how Quartet has always been prepared to publish the unusual, unthinkable and little-known writers, reminds me of the creation of our reprint series, Quartet Encounters.

At the 1984 Frankfurt Book Fair, Jennifer Bradshaw, our Russian literature editor, had suggested the introduction of a new literary Quartet series.

The objective was going to be to publish twentieth-century European authors in translation, with forewords from distinguished British or foreign academics to explain the merits of each book.

The concept for the series was Jennifer Bradshaw’s, but work on the books was in the hands of Janet Law (now Parker), Daphne Wright, Paul Keegan and Nigella Lawson, with guidance from Kyril Fitzlyon, a freelance translator.

The first six titles were launched in April 1985, comprising the following:

Aharon Appelfeld, The Retreat, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, with an introduction by Irma Kurtz: a story about a group of Jews from Central Europe who go to a hilltop retreat to learn how to talk, look and act like Gentiles on the brink of the Nazi holocaust.

Grazia Deledda (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926), After the Divorce, translated from the Italian by Susan Ashe, with an introduction by Sheila MacLeod: a young wife in a primitive Sardinian community is left alone to look after her baby son and ageing mother when her husband is sent to prison for murder, her only hope being a new law allowing convicts’ wives to divorce and remarry.

Carlo Emilio Gadda, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, translated by William Feaver, with an introduction by Italo Calvino: two crimes are committed in the same apartment house, a robbery and a stabbing – events behind which lie the creeping corruption of Mussolini’s early fascist state.

Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, translated from the German by Goronwy Rees, with an introduction by Hugh Haughton: a record of conversations revealing insights into the mind of the great writer, written down when their author was an admiring adolescent.

Henry de Montherlant, The Bachelors, translated and introduced by Terence Kilmartin: two bachelors, uncle and nephew, impoverished aristocrats who have turned their backs on the modern world and live in squalor, desperately try to find a strategy to preserve their home against encroaching financial realities.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability, translated from the Polish by Louis Iribarne, with an introduction by Czesław Miłosz: a striking piece of experimental and futuristic prose fiction that sets the fate of a social group against the background of a Communist Chinese invasion which brings about the fall of Western civilisation.

The now defunct City Limits welcomed the new series at once. It had, they said, the ‘best translators, expert introductions . . . elegant design’, and the books were good value, with cover prices ranging between 3.95 and 7.95.

The ‘Encounter’ series was away to a good start – or so we thought until Melvin J. Lasky, the current editor of Encounter, the prestigious review of politics, culture and literature that had been running since 1953, took umbrage at our use of the word ‘Encounter’ to describe our new venture.

The argument flared into a legal battle when Lasky went to the high court, claiming the series title chosen by Quartet would cause confusion and winning a limited injunction to restrain Quartet from publishing any further volumes under that name, though the books already issued would be allowed to remain in circulation.

It was a setback no one had foreseen. The injunction stunned me, especially since Lasky implied we had only settled on the word ‘Encounter’ to gain respectability and increase sales by riding on the back of his journal’s reputation. To me the claim seemed complete nonsense. Encounter had only a limited and select circulation and our sales were unlikely to be boosted by an imagined connection. We were simply using the word in its literary sense.

The publicity arising from the case, on the other hand, did help with the launch of the series, though the downside was the temporary freezing order, which took the wind out of our sails.

Our solicitors launched an immediate appeal and the case was heard before Sir John Donaldson, the Master of the Rolls. To our further bemusement, Sir John promptly ruled that the title ‘Encounter’ for our series might indeed be confused too easily with the monthly academic journal, Encounter. An ‘s’ should therefore be added, he said, making our series title ‘Encounters’, if Quartet wished to retain the name.

This legal compromise left us with ten thousand copies of books in the warehouse, all of which were required to have a sticky label affixed to correct the title before they could be marketed. It might be claimed as the most expensive ‘s’ in publishing history, quite apart from the legal costs we had to bear as a result of losing the appeal.

I continued to feel it had been a bloodyminded decision, though we may have been trespassing more seriously than we realised since, as history later revealed, the finances for Encounter depended on CIA contributions in return for which the journal maintained an anti-Soviet philosophic stance. It was hard for most people to see that the whole dispute was about anything more than a minor semantic point, not worthy of a legal confrontation between ‘two literary godfathers’ as one press report expressed it.

Eventually, well over one hundred and fifty titles were issued in the series, some did well but most, though occasionally garnering excellent reviews, fell by the wayside and with some sadness, the series was discontinued at the end of the last century.

We never received the support of booksellers. I love the irony of Daunt Books now reprinting one or two of our old Encounter books, as are other publishers masquerading as if the titles were forgotten gems.

It is galling, however, to see supposed serious newspapers such as the Guardian or the Observer suddenly proclaiming a recently reprinted Encounter from a current trendy publisher as a masterpiece when our edition of the same book was ignored. But perhaps these are different times…

What is good news is that there are still around thirty titles which we have found in our warehouse. I’ll highlight just three at random:

To the Land of the Reeds by Aharon Appelfeld is the tale of a beautiful Jewish actress living in Vienna in the summer of 1939 who, with her son, sets off to her home in Eastern Europe. As their journey progresses the environment turns increasingly hostile. A hauntingly beautiful tale by a writer the late, great American critic, Irving Howe, acclaimed as: ‘One of the best novelists alive.’

The Heron by Giorgio Bassani. Jonathan Keates, in his Introduction, calls this elegiac tale of a hunter, ‘A kind of Philip Larkin avant la lettre.’ Understated, yet profound in its insights, Bassani’s elegant writing will linger in any reader’s afterthoughts.

And finally, from Sweden’s great Socialist writer, and a remarkable novelist, Per Olov Enquist’s The March of the Musicians: a novel describing the events of 1907 and 1910, and incidents in the growth of a labour movement in bleak, unpromising soil.

There are a few copies of a further twenty-one titles in our Encounters series. Contact info@quartetbooks.co.uk for more information.

It would be a shame if such elegant and distinguished books are forgotten all over again. It’s over to you now…

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2 responses to “Encountering Encounters

  1. Reem Adeeb

    Contacts are everything in the world of business , that is how it goes and I am pursuing the fact that we have a dear friend of mine in common to come to you with the hope that I might tickle your literary fancy with my completed manuscript. Would it be too bold to ask for a possibility to send you a taster? I have all at hand: synopsis, bio, chapter content list etc….
    Kind regards.

  2. UKIP forever

    Quartet Encounters was a superb series. It introduced me to the work of two European writers who have remained favourites for most of my life, Henri de Montherlant and Emile Cioran.

    You mention de Montherlant’s The Bachelors. This novel is a small masterpiece, easily his best book. Funny, profound, poignant. I went on to read most of his others, but only Chaos and Night came close to the Bachelors.

    You also published Cioran’s A Short History of Decay in this series (or at least, I think you did). Another superb introduction to a European writer / philosopher I’d never heard of before. His work consoled me for many years. I have all his books. What better tribute could there be to such an imaginative publishing idea?

    Thank you.