For over thirty years, the US and UK based publishing house Readers International has been helping to draw attention to the work of writers from countries where they face political pressures, censorship and exile. Over the decades, it has published writing from across the world. One of its founders was Dorothy Connell, who was in Prague recently for the Bookworld book fair. The days of the Cold War, when writers in this part of the world were having to smuggle manuscripts abroad to have any chance of being published, may be long past, but as Dorothy told David Vaughan, Readers International still retains strong links with the Czech Republic.
For Dorothy Connell supporting writers from countries where they live in fear of persecution has always been an integral part of her work as a publisher. In the 1980s Readers International did an important job bringing writing from behind the Iron Curtain to readers in the English-speaking world, including Czech writers who had fallen out of favour with the regime. In the years that have followed, Dorothy has kept up her links with Central Europe and Readers International continues to publish Czech writers in English translation. Dorothy started our conversation by taking us back to its beginnings.
“In 1984 we started publishing, and our first series early in 1985 included My Merry Mornings by Ivan Klíma translated by George Theiner. I worked several years for George Theiner at Index on Censorship and there was a very interesting Czech vibe at the magazine.”
George Theiner was originally from Czechoslovakia, but he had been forced to emigrate twice in his life, once in 1938 and then in 1968. He went on to work at Index on Censorship ultimately becoming the editor-in-chief.
“That’s correct. We were trying to think of how we could set up a viable market for this literature and what we thought of was a very old way of publishing in English before there was a large reading public – and this was by subscription. For example, Dr Johnson’s first dictionary of English was published by subscription. Some of the Jane Austen novels were published by subscription and Birds of America was published by subscription. What we thought of was a series of six books and the subscribers over that one year would get six hardback books. For the price of their subscription we could print the paperback books.”
Was this unusual in the 1980s in the UK?
“Yes it was, it was more like the 1780’s.”
But it caught on?
“Yes, it was successful, but I think after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the changes in Czechoslovakia and other central and east European countries – also the end of Apartheid – many people felt that international problems had been solved. So our subscribership trailed down and so we are now selling to libraries and to college courses mostly.”
To go back to the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Iron Curtain, you were publishing the work of writers who couldn’t be published here. That must have been quite a complex process.
“Yes, and nowadays I’m redoing the contracts. Often these writers had to work through intermediaries in Norway or Sweden or Switzerland and it was not easy to communicate with them. It was the same with Latin American writers.”
Were you able to travel here?
“No, not before the Velvet Revolution.”
So it must have been exciting to meet the writers at last.
“Absolutely and after that we had an additional idea, which was to publish some translations of great progressive texts, for example, The Rights of Man by Tom Paine, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. We published them in Hungarian and in Czech, in countries where they had often been out of print for fifty years.”
In a way, it was taking things full circle.
“In a way, yes. After that first flush of having outside people like Readers International setting up in what became the Czech Republic, there very soon came homegrown publishers doing their own thing.”
I would like to ask you about Ivan Klíma because he is very well known as a writer in the English-speaking world. That’s partly thanks to you, isn’t it?
“We did have an opportunity to get a lot of our books reviewed. Because they were unusual at the time when they were published, they were reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement and in the New York Times Book Review, so that gave them a very good start.”
So, after the fall of communism suddenly this part of the world was no longer exotic and you found yourself having to function in a competitive market.
“In a different way. Another thing we tried to do was to publish a series of books for small businesses – the Barclays series for small businesses. When it came to publishing what would be quite ordinary for a British business ‘How to Make a Business Plan’, there was a terrible controversy, because a plan meant only one thing in Czechoslovakia – which was a five-year-plan!”
So people were very skeptical…
“Yes absolutely, there was no Czech word for marketing nor was there any word in Hungarian for marketing. So it was a different world.”
That must have caused some challenges for people who were translating these works into Czech and Hungarian.
Now, nearly 27 years after the fall of communism, things have changed enormously and people have got pretty used to the free market…
“Definitely. I think that’s where a novel like Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia is so interesting because it presents those first years after 1989. One of the main characters is called Král, a very wealthy man with dubious connections. The book shows a little bit of the cowboy atmosphere of the early years and defines a certain generation.”
“That’s correct. Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia is a young man’s book. It is a very early book of his, where he is struggling to understand what is the writer’s role. This is not something that Ivan Klíma or Ludvík Vaculík faced. They had their own conception of the writer’s role.”
In communist Czechoslovakia, the writer’s role was extremely important, because it was an alternative to the reality that was being presented by the regime…
“Precisely, whereas when Viewegh comes along, there’s the question of how do I present this, who am I, as well as who is Beáta Král, the young girl that he’s talking about in the book.”
She has a tough time, doesn’t she, as the daughter of this nouveau riche kingmaker…
“Exactly, and she’s struggling with all the new things coming in, like Hare Krishna, being a born-again Christian, being tough, being a punk, everything.”
Michal Viewegh writes in a way that is very engaging and it’s very easy to read. A lot of literary critics in the Czech Republic are a bit snooty about him, but I think it is unfair because he writes really well. How did his writing go down in the English translation?
“I think it’s worked very well. In American literature we have The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s writing is very simple and not terribly complex, drawing on the history of his time but actually defining a particular generation of the 1920s, whom he calls the ‘careless people’. I think Viewegh is returning to that model, trying to do something, defining the generation that he sees around him.”
You have a lot of experience from other countries as well, so you are also able to see Czech writing from the outside. What do you think would really help to get people more aware of Czech writing?
“I think something that one of the translators has suggested would help – which is to present new Czech writers in groups. You could prepare a short brochure, for example, for the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a very big arena, also the London Book Fair. These are places where American and British publishers look to buy rights and translation rights. Presenting Czech writers in American universities could also be very helpful. Generally, it would also be good to provide monetary support for the translations, as that’s always an extra cost on the publishing of a book.”
You live in London. Do you think that Brexit could have an impact on the attitude of people in Britain towards Czech literature and European literature generally?
“I think it already has among the people who were shocked and disappointed with the vote, because right after the referendum there were specials in papers like The Observer, asking people, ‘What are the international books you’re reading?’ And they asked some major British writers what were they reading that wasn’t just British, to get an international perspective. And I know in the United States there was a book feature in the New York Times Book Review about books that take you to places where Donald Trump does not want you to go. So, in both of these cases, the shock and the sense of closing down of these societies has had its reaction and the reaction is openness towards international literature including Czech literature.”
So you think paradoxically that something like Brexit might actually stimulate interest?