Stephen Pickles was a talented young man of some distinction who had worked for a number of years at a classical record shop in Great Marlborough Street, round the corner from Namara House. I used to buy my classical CDs in the shop and in due course a kind of friendship grew up between us that resulted in his joining Quartet to oversee the editorial department. The first personal contribution that he made to Quartet was his book Queens, a brilliant study of some of those who inhabit the London gay scene. Glamorous and sordid by turns, it described, among many characters, ‘The Northern Queen’, ‘The Opera Queen’, ‘The Screaming Queen’, ‘The YMCA Queen’ and ‘The Rent Boy’. The elements of drama, documentary, diary and monologue were brought together to create what was the first mainstream book to chart the labyrinths of gay metropolitan life. It combined sympathy with acid comment and was both an anatomy of a subculture and a virtuosic celebration. Queens received critical acclaim while also achieving commercial success.
Pickles was a formidable character, gifted with prodigious talent and singularity of mind. His mood swings could sometimes seem bewildering and contradictory and he was uncompromising in his judgements. In that respect he resembled Auberon Waugh: if he got a bee in his bonnet about someone, his dislike would manifest itself in no uncertain terms. My own relationship with Pickles was consistently cordial and warm, and I do not recall any discord between us during the time he remained with Quartet. Anthony Blond, in his autobiography Jew Made in England (Timewell Press and Elliott & Thompson, 2004), described him as someone who had influenced my musical tastes, coaxing me from Tchaikovsky to Bartók. He then went on to paint a little word picture of Pickles:
Delicate in stature and address, with big swimming eyes, he passed so much of his life propping up the bar in the Coach and Horses in Romilly Street that I warned him he might get clamped. Pickles was tricky and touchy, a militant homosexual with an air of having been scarred in some terrible romantic battle. He loved Naim and glowed . . . when complimented by him. Naim, on the other hand, when accused by a not totally sober Pickles of homophobia, one evening at the Frankfurt Book Fair, just smiled.
The office Pickles occupied at Goodge Street became like a Chinese opium den of the nineteenth century, but filled with books and personal treasures rather than narcotic fumes. It always remained locked, for it was his very private domain where no chance intruder might trespass. The contribution that Pickles made to the eclecticism of Quartet’s list in giving it a more emphatic literary orientation was tremendous. During his years as editorial director he lifted the imprint’s literary output to place it on a level with the likes of the Penguin Modern Classics.
The Encounters series grew to the point where it contained over a hundred titles, representing on the British publishing scene an unprecedented selection of European novels of outstanding merit. It was a brave attempt to bring European twentieth-century literature to a wider audience at a time when the political link with Europe was becoming an actuality. Commercial success eluded us, it is true, but perhaps that was because we were ahead of the field. The critical acclaim was resounding and established Quartet’s image as an imprint that left no avenue unexplored in its search for innovative ideas.
The Daily Telegraph wrote how, ‘Since 1985, Quartet publishers have been doing their bit to promote a free market in European writing with the “Encounters” imprint, which offers translations of work by distinguished, and sometimes neglected, modern European authors.’ ‘The best of world writing in translation, Quartet Encounters has an editorial policy of real vision and imagination. Long may it flourish,’ wrote Gabriel Josipovici. John Banville in the Observer said, ‘Quartet are to be warmly commended for their courage and enterprise in making available to English-speaking readers so many modern European authors’; and Michael Tanner wrote, ‘Quartet Encounters strikes me as one of the most enterprising and worthwhile ventures in contemporary publishing.’ ‘Not only extraordinary variety,’ said John Bayley, ‘but remarkable quality too. A comparativists’ paradise.’ The Spectator was even more fulsome in its praise: ‘The series as a whole is a landmark in responsible, original and stimulating publishing.’
Pickles also acted as mentor to the host of gifted young men and women who flocked to Quartet to exercise their talents in an environment free of conventional humbug. There was no doubt he could be brutally frank on occasions when his tolerance wore thin, but his influence was far-reaching and enduring.
The Quartet Encounters list continued to grow prodigiously. It kept to its literary focus in the main, though widened its scope to bring in other items of international cultural interest. Lou Andreas-Salomé’s The Freud Journal (translated by Stanley W. Leavy and introduced by Mary-Kay Wilmers) was a personal view of Freud’s studies and relations with colleagues against the background of a literary coterie that included the poet Rilke; Rilke himself was represented by Rodin and Other Prose Pieces, he having at one time been secretary to the great sculptor (translated by G. Craig Huston and introduced by William Tucker), Early Prose, which included memories as well short fiction pieces, and his Selected Letters 1902–1926 (translated by R. F. C. Hull and introduced by John Bayley). Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire (translated by Alan M. C. Ross and introduced by Northrop Frye) was an idiosyncratic exploration of ideas concerning fire in human evolution and their symbolic and subconscious connotations.
Bruno Walter’s Gustav Mahler (translated by Lotte Walter Lindt and introduced by Michael Tanner) was an indispensable source book for any study of the composer, coming from the foremost interpreter of his music, who had been deeply and personally involved in realizing much of it in performance. With over a score of other titles to choose from, the following list can only be highly selective, but will show the consistency of quality achieved by Pickles. Hermann Broch, the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer in Vienna, was an industrialist, mathematician and philosopher who came to literature reluctantly as the only way of expressing his thoughts and feelings. The Guiltless (translated by Ralph Manheim with an afterword by the author) was a book he called ‘a novel in eleven stories’; it portrayed a group of eleven lives in the pre-Hitler period. The Sleepwalkers, one of his major achievements (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and introduced by Michael Tanner), was a trilogy that traced from the 1880s the social erosion and dissolution that culminated in the Nazi era. Another Viennese novelist of stature was Heimito von Doderer, who was an active Nazi up to 1938. His vast trilogy, The Demons (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and introduced by Michael Hamburger), explored every strand of life possible in Vienna, both comic and tragic, where the ‘demons’ concerned arose from people’s minds in the tumultuous years between the two world wars. Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland but grew up in Austria and wrote in German, becoming, George Steiner considered, ‘one of the masters of contemporary European fiction’ in the post-war years. Concrete (translated by Martin McLintock and introduced by Martin Chalmers) was a story in his ‘black idyll’ style about a writer who goes away to start a project but finds himself obsessively following an altogether different line of inquiry set off by a tragic memory. On the Mountain (translated by Russell Stockman with an afterword by Sophie Wilkins) showed him working in parallel with themes to be found in Kafka and Beckett in a novel written as one sentence. E. M. Cioran had been born in Romania in 1911, but had won a scholarship in Paris and subsequently made the decision to live in France and write in French, though he said he had no nationality – ‘the best possible status for an intellectual’. He was regarded as a foremost contemporary European thinker, the heir of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, who wrote incomparable, elegantly styled essays on the state of man in the modern world. Five of his collections found a place on the list (four of them being translated by Richard Howard): Anathemas and Admirations (introduced by Tom McGonigle), in which incisive estimates of literary figures were interspersed with caustic aphorisms; A Short History of Decay (introduced by Michael Tanner), whose theme was the ‘philosophical viruses’ of the twentieth century; The Temptation to Exist (introduced by Susan Sontag), a ‘dance of ideas and debates’ on ‘impossible states of being’; and The Trouble with Being Born (introduced by Benjamin Ivry), which started out with the proposition that the disaster of life begins with the fact of birth, ‘that laughable accident’. The fifth title (translated and introduced by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston) was On the Heights of Despair, a youthful work, written in Romania, which showed him to be already a ‘theoretician of despair’.
Representing Swedish literature was, first, Stig Dagerman, whom Michael Meyer thought to be ‘the best writer of his generation in Sweden and one of the best in Europe’. A Burnt Child (translated by Alan Blair and introduced by Laurie Thompson) was set in Stockholm in a family where the mother has died, the drama being played out between the husband and son and, respectively, the father’s ageing mistress and the son’s timid fiancée. German Autumn (translated and introduced by Robin Fulton) gave a documentary portrait of the Germans in defeat immediately after the fall of the Third Reich which courageously saw them as suffering individuals. The Games of Night (translated by Naomi Walford and introduced by Michael Meyer) was a collection of stories showing his versatility. The Snake (translated by Laurie Thompson) was a tour de force where the threads of disparate stories, arising from a conscript army camp, are brought together in a denouement. Then came Sweden’s Nobel Prize-winning Pär Lagerkvist who had two titles in the list: The Dwarf (translated by Alexandra Dick and introduced by Quentin Crewe), a dark historical tale of a Machiavellian dwarf at the court of a Renaissance prince; and Guest of Reality (translated and introduced by Robin Fulton), a set of three stories linking the growing of a boy into a young man. A major novel of social concern from Sweden was Per Olov Enquist’s The March of the Musicians (translated by Joan Tate), which told about the political uprising of the workers in a remote northern part of the country against their exploitation by sawmill owners and browbeating by hellfire preachers on Sundays; the author’s profound empathy with his characters gave this small episode in Sweden’s labour history a universal resonance.
Gabriele D’Annunzio was a leading writer of the so-called Decadent school. The Flame (translated and introduced by Susan Bassnett) was his scandalous novel about a passionate affair between a young writer and a great actress, in which they battle for supremacy in love and art; it was scandalous because based on his own relationship with Eleanora Duse. Nocturne and Five Tales of Love and Death (translated and introduced by Raymond Rosenthal) was a selection of his prose fiction demonstrating what a formidable pioneer D’Annunzio had been as a writer. Equally pioneering was his compatriot and contemporary Luigi Pirandello, known mainly for his experimental plays, though his short stories were also among the greatest in literature. Those selected for Short Stories (translated and introduced by Frederick May) showed his concern with the masks people use socially and their interplay with the reality behind them. Elio Vittorini was a writer from Sicily who aimed for ‘neo-realism’ in his work and produced an undisputed masterpiece in Conversations in Sicily (translated by Wilfrid David and introduced by Stephen Spender): first published in 1939, the censorship it was constrained by gave it an underlying power in the story of a young man’s journey back to Sicily to console his mother after his father had deserted her. From the next generation, Pier Paolo Pasolini was seen primarily as a film-maker of originality in Britain, though in his native Italy he was regarded rather more as a poet, critic and novelist. Helping to rectify our view were A Dream of Something (translated and introduced by Stuart Hood), a story about three friends from northern Italy whose search for money takes them abroad, though they return home to political violence and an end to their carefree roistering; Theorem (translated and introduced by Stuart Hood), which was written in tandem with the making of a film of the same title, in which Terence Stamp played the young man gaining a sexual, emotional and intellectual hold over a rich bourgeois family; and Roman Nights and Other Stories (translated by John Shepley and introduced by Jonathan Keates), a selection of five stories from Pasolini’s miscellaneous writings that reflected the cultural changes taking place in post-war Italian society.
Yevgeny Zamyatin chose exile from Soviet Russia in 1931, foreseeing the clash between writers and the state that lay ahead. A Soviet Heretic (translated by Mirra Ginsburg and introduced by Alex M. Shane) was a collection of his writings on fellow writers and the condition of literature in the Soviet Union, as well as his letter to Stalin, seeking voluntary exile, and his letter of resignation from the Soviet Writers’ Union. The status of Osip Mandelstam as the pre-eminent Russian poet of the twentieth century gave him no protection from murderous NKVD brutality. The Noise of Time and Other Prose Pieces (collected, translated and introduced by Clarence Brown) was a selection from the range of his writing, including a work of invective and outrage against the state’s official campaign against him. Yury Tynyanov’s Lieutenant Kijé & Young Vitushishnikov (translated and introduced by Mirra Ginsburg) were two glittering novellas by a Russian master satirist about abuses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which allowed him to be obliquely critical of those of the Soviet regime. Abram Tertz, the nom de plume for Andrei Synyavsky in his samisdat publications (that won him hard labour and exile), wrote Little Jinx (translated by Larry P. Joseph and Rachel May and introduced by Edward J. Brown) as a black farce containing the line: ‘Were we not guilty, neither Hitler nor Stalin could have surfaced among us.’ The Fatal Eggs & Other Soviet Satire (translated, edited and introduced by Mirra Ginsburg) was a famous subversive anthology by seventeen boldly comic writers, including Mikhail Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov and Zamyatin. There were also the stories of Aharon Appelfeld, with their subtle and profound recreations of life in Europe’s Jewish communities as they moved into the gathering shadows of the Holocaust; and Giorgio Bassani’s artistic account of the impact on a Jewish family in Italy as Mussolini’s fascism geared up the anti-Semitic component in its laws under pressure from Nazi Germany. Another important aspect of the Quartet Encounters list was the way it demonstrated the importance of literature in delineating the dimensions of human experience and suffering within the history of the twentieth century’s traumatic events. While this summary of the list has not by any means been comprehensive, it is enough to show there was a spirit of adventure at work in Goodge Street for which it would have been hard to find an equivalent elsewhere in British publishing at the time.