Booksplainer. The review will be on NB magazine in a few weeks.
Memories Naim Attallah
Naim Attallah was born in Haifa, then part of the British mandate of Palestine, in 1931, the son of a Barclays bank clerk. After the second world war he came to Britain aged eighteen. Quartet Books was founded in 1972 and was fully taken over by Attallah in 1976. In the years since he has been a backer of The Oldie and The Literary Review and also the owner of the Women’s Press. He has interviewed celebrities, politicians, the wealthy and powerful for many publications over the years and written several books of memoir as well as a book of interviews entitled Women in 1988. Attallah was often seen by the established publishing world as an outsider, as a ‘cowboy’ (the word he uses himself), but I don’t get the impression that really bothered him much. Attallah has been mocked from time to time for his bon vivant lifestyle, the Guardian once described him as a; “legendary adorer of beautiful women”, and there has been some controversy over the ghost writing of his books but again I don’t think that matters much to Attallah. Now ninety and only too aware of his aching bones there’s still a vitality in the man that is admirable. Naim Attallah is a man who always went about things his own way, it’s what made his interviews interesting, he always came at his subject from his own angle and got the people and their stories in a way others wouldn’t have. His world is a world of wealth, of princes and princesses but also politicians, newspaper folk and the great and the good of publishing.
On a personal note, finding Lillian Hellman’s autobiography in a Bristol bookshop was a formative moment in my teenage reading. A three volume memoir; An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Times published by Quartet in 1983-4, (see page 276 for reference). This reading experience is something I shall always be grateful to Quartet, and therefore Naim Attallah, for. Other authors you may know from the Quartet list, (some reprints), include: George Mackay Brown, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, Giorgio Bassini, Ismael Kadare, Boris Vian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Shusaku Endo, Ian Gilmore, Robert Kee, Jack Kerouac, Annie Ernaux, Per Olav Enquist, Tahar Ben Jalloun, and Thomas Bernhard.
This book is a sort of ‘best of’. Over the years the publisher Naim Attallah has produced fifteen books of memoir, he’s also written a blog for the past ten years, this book is a selection from that output it also includes pieces by people who worked with Attallah over the years. Attallah describes as a ‘potpourri of vignettes’ to amuse and interest readers. Often that’s true, simple short pieces that capture a moment or a thought. Others offer a deeper insight into the man and the publishing world. Why I Publish What I Publish delves into the motivation of a publisher from his desire to bring Middle Eastern literature to bigger audience to the other kind of books he likes personally and wanted to back. My favourite story here is An International Incident in which Attallah describes an encounter with the Observer editor Donald Trelford in 1993. Trelford was looking for insight into Edith Cresson, a woman who had been Mitterrand’s PM for a brief period, with a view to interviewing her. Attallah had interview Cresson in French a few years earlier, he sent the notes to Trelford who immediately saw its explosive potential. The Observer published the piece with an opening reference to continental people having sex while the English have hot water bottles. In the interview among other things Cresson states that:
“One-in-four Englishmen are gay”
A furore followed for publication.
There are heart felt pieces; A Tribute to the Hashemite Princess Who Had No Equal on the death of Dina Abdul-Hamid at the age of 91 in August, 2019. Attallah describes her as an ‘exceptional person with remarkable gifts’. A woman briefly marriage to King Hussein of Jordan and then to Salah To’amari, a spokesman for the PLO, who was captured during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Attallah recalls Dina’s role in negotiating the release of her husband and thousands of prisoners in exchange for six Israeli soldiers. There are pieces on Leni Riefenstahl, Anthony Blond (a man who supported him when he came into publishing), meeting Margot Fonteyn, and Marin Alsop.
The collection is eclectic and idiosyncratic and something of the man is revealed in the writing.
9780704374799 Quartet Books, paperback, 16/4/20