`It is possible that I am the only person in England who remembers Alfred Chester and his books . . . the most remarkable person I met through publishing," writes Diana Athill in her memoir of a life spent among authors and typescripts. She's probably right about Chester, but the posthumous readership of this eccentric, bewigged American author will certainly swell as a result of her account of their friendship, his struggle with mental illness, and his writing: "too strange to attract a large readership".
Winning large readerships didn't unduly worry Athill and her editorial colleagues in the London publishing world of the 1940s and 1950s; commitment to quality was paramount, even if that quality was only appreciated by a handful of cognoscenti. The publishing industry was in the grip "of a particular caste", she acknowledges: "mostly London-dwelling, university educated, upper middle-class English people" and " . . of that caste I am a member".
After a post-Oxford wartime stint at the BBC, Athill spent all of her professional life as an editor with one publishing house, Andre Deutsch, which she helped to establish, first in its incarnation as Allan Wingate, in the late 1940s, then as Andre Deutsch in 1952. Now in her eighties, she wants to record for posterity some of her experiences - the shaky early years, operating from a single room on a shoestring, the blossoming, eclectic list, the excitement and satisfaction of publishing writers such as Gitta Sereny, Jean Rhys, Molly Keane, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and V.S. Naipaul, all of whom are remembered here, in a series of character sketches.
Although, as she mentions, she has been described as "one of the best editors in London", Athill maintains a self-deprecating tone throughout. All this book is, she writes, "is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it". The reader can't help wishing she had been a little more ambitious.
Although technically a director of the company which Deutsch managed to keep afloat for 45 years, Athill insists that she was an editor rather than a publisher. She concentrated on the books and the authors, which was where her interest and talent lay, while Andre Deutsch himself looked after the business side, of which she professes total ignorance.
For anyone with a serious interest in the business and financial aspects of publishing, her resolute detachment becomes one of this book's limitations. Athill loathed responsibility, she says, and attributes this to her comfortable upper-middle class Norfolk background. Thinking about money bored her, although she enjoyed spending it, she writes with typical candour.
The early part of her memoir is an affectionate, selective chronicle of the firm's history from its foundation; it evokes a vanished era of independent literary publishing, before the emergence of the conglomerates - a milieu memorably portrayed in Muriel Spark's novel, A Far Cry From Kensington. It is also a somewhat comic portrait of Andre Deutsch himself, who died earlier this year.
"Possibly the most difficult man in London", the Hungarian immigre emerges as a brilliant, engaging, irascible, demanding, tireless and intolerant figure, who ran the company as a "dictatorship" and was regarded with exasperated affection by his mainly female staff.
Reflecting on the fact that publishing in London in the post-war decades "was run by mainly badly paid women and a few much better paid men", Athill wonders, in retrospect, why she and her female colleagues were so resigned to the widespread inequality and discrimination. (Even in her latter years in the company, in the 1970s, she never earned more than £15,000.) Her professed reluctance to exert herself in any way that she didn't enjoy prevented her from protesting at the injustice of her treatment, but she also emphasises the fact that she and her female colleagues were doing work that they loved and felt themselves to be very lucky. Evidently, the possibility of enjoying their work and also being decently paid seemed so remote that the most sensible attitude was simply to get on with it.
Sensible attitudes pervade Athill's book; she is honest, direct, exact, and plain speaking, determined to demystify the work of an editor - to the point of dullness. Her judgments of others can be swiftly scathing and she has a clear-sightedness that punctures pomposity. Although she expresses regret about the last, sad days of the Andre Deutsch imprint, before it was sold off to Tom Rosenthal (formerly of Secker & Warburg), sentimentality is never allowed to sugar-coat her reminiscences.
The usual consolations of old age are not for her: refreshingly, she refuses to disparage the present, to lament the lost golden age of independent publishing or the changing reading habits of the public. "There are plenty of people about who are making a stand against too much quick and easy . . . there are still publishers - not many, but some - who are more single-mindedly determined to support serious writing than we ever were . . . Old people don't want to mop and mow but age has a blinkering effect and their narrow field of vision often contains things that are going from bad to worse; it is therefore consoling to be reminded that much exists outside that narrow field, just as it did when we were 40 or 30 or 20."
Despite some perceptive observations on human behaviour, particularly in the second half, which deals with her sometimes difficult, but always devoted relationships with her authors, Athill's memoir somehow falls flat. Her experiences at Andre Deutsch are not put into a sufficiently wide literary and social context. The no-nonsense tone, her narrow perspective on her profession and her quaint, occasionally stilted style reduce its interest and compare unfavourably with Jeremy Lewis's Kindred Spirits, for example.
Her earlier, more personally revealing memoir of youthful heartbreak and her first publishing years, Instead Of A Letter, (to be republished next year) had the advantage of being closer to the events it described. Stet leaves the reader admiring Athill's independence of mind and her candour, but feeling unsatisfied. But let it stay (stet) by all means; Alfred Chester's fan-club will be gratified.
Helen Meany is an Irish Times arts journalist