GEMS FROM OUR BACKLIST: TWO

Jennifer Bradshaw worked from her home in Scotland but attended Quartet editorial meetings and did additional research and specific projects. Her first contribution to the Russian list came with the publication in 1982 of The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak, which she had translated, with an introduction by Boris’s sister, Josephine Pasternak, who lived in Oxford.

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Jennifer went on to translate Leonid Borodin’s most captivating book, The Year of Miracle and Grief, which we published in 1984. As the blurb proclaimed: ‘It is a haunting tale of a magical realm where fact and fantasy dissolve into each other.’ It tells of the blossoming of a young boy’s first love in the beautiful setting of Lake Baikal in Siberia. The real world of landscape and nature is skilfully interwoven with an imaginary one of myth, legend and fairy tale, in which the boy is introduced to a mystery which threatens both himself and those he loves. I read the book many times, and each time I found it even more enchanting. Lyrical and sad, The Year of Miracle and Grief remains one of the most beguiling Russian novels I have read.

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In the autumn of 1982, Jennifer was asked by Christopher Maclehose of Collins to be second reader for a Russian manuscript they had under consideration, entitled Red Square. She put in an extremely favourable report for Collins, expressing the view that its merits made it far superior to Gorky Park, with which she had been asked to make comparisons. On the basis of her recommendations, which coincided with the opinion of Collins’s first reader, Maclehose made an offer for the English-language rights. This was rejected by the agent, and so the book came on to the open market.

Jennifer then told me about it and I decided Quartet should put in its own bid in view of the topicality of the subject. We made an offer and the agent was happy to accept it. Red Square had been written by two Russians, the scriptwriter Edward Topol and his co-author, Fridrikh Neznansky, who had worked for more than fifteen years in the office of the public prosecutor in Moscow. As was to be expected, both authors were now living in the West.

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The novel, completed only that October, anticipated Andropov’s succession to the Russian presidency following the death of Brezhnev. By a fortuitous chance Quartet’s offer for the rights was accepted only hours before Brezhnev died in reality; but the scheme of the book described a fictional attempt to topple Brezhnev a year earlier. Brezhnev’s daughter was revealed to be an intimate friend of Boris the Gypsy, whose arrest opened up an enormous black-market scandal that touched members of the Politburo. According to the novel, the plot was hatched by Yuri Andropov as leader of the KGB to discredit Brezhnev and secure his own succession. It was all very timely and made the book an instant hot property.

My dilemma was how we were to translate and publish it in just a few weeks, catching the tide of interest in unfolding events before their topicality faded. It was a monumental task. The edited translation of the book’s hundred and fifty thousand words would have to be delivered to the printers by 1 December to ensure publication early in January 1983. Jennifer recruited a team of three Russian translators besides herself and the mammoth undertaking began in earnest. Jennifer’s main role was to iron out any disparities in style and ensure the translation as a whole achieved uniformity. With a deadline for the printers that seemed impossible to achieve, Jennifer and her team made it within eighteen days by working round the clock with very little sleep, sustained by gallons of black coffee to keep the momentum going.

Finished copies were ready before Christmas on 23 December. The first print-run of ten thousand copies was immediately distributed to ensure the books would be in the bookshops by the start of January. In my view it was a performance no other publisher in London could have equalled, but even as we prepared to celebrate a job well done, the inevitable spoiler appeared in Private Eye with a scurrilous piece alleging that I had gazumped Collins in the bidding while knowing full well they already had an agreement sewn up to do the book.

Jennifer was named as the Russian expert who had acted as a publishing mole, duping Collins into making the manuscript available to her. The story they concocted was deliberately provocative, besides being damaging. Under threat of litigation, Private Eye duly published an appropriate retraction. Meanwhile Red Square received a great deal of publicity and became a bestseller. Serafina Clarke of Clarke Conway-Gordon, the agent for the book, was highly pleased with the result. In the years ahead she was to put other important Russian manuscripts in our direction to add to the Quartet list.

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