DOWN MEMORY LANE TEN

A New Year seems a good time to remember past achievements and I thought another listing of one of Quartet’s past publishing programmes might once again remind us of what a diverse and impressive collection of literature has been published over many years by Quartet.

The autumn of 1991 saw Quartet publish a number of books by European writers, most of them in translation. A few of them are listed here to draw the reader’s attention to what Quartet was aiming to achieve: to bring the imprint further international recognition to enhance an established reputation for avant-garde publishing and the pursuit of works of literary merit.

Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, was a distinctive contribution to the literature of AIDS, presenting in journal form the life of a young man who was living with the condition and soon to die from it. Based on the fate of the celebrated French philosopher Michel Foucault, it saw the process as taking place at three levels: as a social document, as an unflinching clinical examination of the illness and its treatment, and as a commemorative account of the unorthodox lifestyle of its protagonist. At the outset he intellectualized the disease: ‘it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die . . . ’

The End of the Novel by Michael Krüger, translated from the German by Ewald Osers, was a novella, both playful and profound, about a novelist close to finishing the novel that had taken him nine years to write – and before that, nine years to research. With only a few sentences left to write, he began to reflect, but the more he reflected on his magnum opus, the more he found himself cutting from the text. Entire chapters were jettisoned in progressive reduction till in the end he opted out of the whole business of literature, locked the door of his house, flung the key in a lake and set off on a journey ‘as if I were alone in the world’.

Body Snatcher by Juan Carlos Onetti, translated from the Spanish by Alfred Macadam, presented the work of a Uruguayan writer who was one of the precursors of Gabriel García Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. It concerned an attempt by a pimp and a widow to create the perfect brothel, an ambition doomed to failure through the petty self-righteousness of a society in which stupidity and lust overwhelmed integrity and love. The book was a tragi-comic fable of grotesque ideals and lost illusions. It had been written in ‘one of the richest, least self-satisfied versions of Spanish narrative prose’, wrote El Pais, ‘and is always centred on the same tight range of relentless themes: the solitude of contemporary man, the exploration of failure [and] ill-fated lives’.

A novel from Sweden, translated by Laurie Thompson, was Island of the Doomed by Stig Dagerman, an author who had been, according to Michael Meyer, ‘The best writer of his generation in Sweden [he only lived from 1923–54], and one of the best in Europe.’ It was a haunting, powerful allegory about the state of modern man and the dark regions of the soul, finding its metaphors in a tale of a shipwreck in the Pacific. Trapped on an island where the only bush bore a deadly fruit, the survivors relived the various guilts of their lives in nightmares till one by one they succumbed to death.

Thomas Bernhard’s Histrionics was a set of three play scripts translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott. Bernhard had been singled out as a key figure in German literature by George Steiner and compared to Kafka by John Updike. His dark, absurdist plays had a kinship with Beckett and Pinter but possessed a wild energy all their own. ‘His minimalist, repetitive prose,’ wrote John Banville in the Observer, ‘tumbles along like a shot soldier held upright by a mixture of adrenaline and terror.’

Mozart and Posterity by Gernot Gruber, translated by R. S. Furness, was a strikingly original study of the impact of Mozart’s music in the two centuries following his death. It was the story of his evolution from being a forgotten composer to becoming a youth beloved of the gods. Along the way he had been romanticized, hero-worshipped, trivialized and debunked as cultural figures like Goethe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Strauss and Herman Hesse strove to define the elusive nature of the composer’s genius and discover ‘the true Mozart’.

Trial of Strength: Furtwängler and the Third Reich by Fred K. Prieberg, translated by Christopher Dolan, was acclaimed by Peter Heyworth in The Times Literary Supplement as providing ‘the most illuminating account yet written of musical life under the Nazis’. With scrupulous research and meticulous attention to detail, the book addressed the vexatious matter of how far one of Germany’s most pre-eminent figures had been able to continue working under the Nazi regime without colluding with its fundamentally immoral and loathsome activities. In his ‘trial of strength’, he had succeeded in helping Jewish colleagues, often against impossible odds, and had held firm to his position as a custodian of the higher ideals of German art; but in the end he had lost out to the ascendancy of von Karajan under Göring’s promotion.

Finally there was David Tack’s Impressions of Spain, for which V. S. Pritchett wrote a foreword. The launch party for this has already been described. In his black-and-white photographs Tack got under the skin of the ‘real’ Spain ‘as opposed to its popular image of cheap plonk and red-faced Benidorm louts’, said the Independent, having lived ‘among the peasant farmers and clam fishers and, fascinated by the country’s religion, visited many closed orders’. As an insider, he had managed to depict the lives of ordinary people whose way of life had remained unchanged for centuries, ‘seeking the ageless spirit of a nation undergoing great change’, as the Daily Telegraph put it. The quality and depth of his work avoided all clichés in its explorations of varied and little-known cultural traditions. Impressions of Spain was another collection of remarkable, unusual photographs to be proud of.

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