Mercifully, this book is more than self-serving corporate history, and that is largely down to Toby Faber’s light touch. Drawing from the Faber archives, he presents the history of his grandfather’s firm through a series of excerpts from letters, using only sparing notes and short introductions to each section to provide some context. The result is a kind of epistolary history that has the considerable advantage of letting us hear from the authors in their own voices, whether it is Samuel Beckett trying to get “ballocksed” and “arse” past the censor, or James Joyce grumbling about the way “Feebler and Fumbler” were publicising excerpts from Finnegans Wake.
[W]henever I’m opening the books mail at The Scotsman and I see a jiffy bag with the Faber logo on it, I get a small but undeniable Pavlovian buzz. It’s not that I’m incapable of giving a Faber book a bad review – I can think of at least a couple – it’s more that there’s a certain, uniquely serious aura attached to the Faber brand... In Faber & Faber: The Untold Story, Toby Faber, grandson of the company’s founder, Geoffrey, has managed to piece together the history of this peculiarly British institution in such a way as to lift the lid on some of the more surprising and, occasionally, unedifying goings-on behind the scenes, while at the same time stopping short of doing anything to diminish its mistique... This book will fascinate anyone with an interest in 20th century literature, but as well as being a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights it is also a surprisingly readable history of a remarkable company, one that came close to the brink on a number of occasions, but which has never – or perhaps almost never – seemed to lose sight of the aspiration, voiced by editorial director Frank Morley in 1936, to publish books that “at least have the chance to be literature.”
This book is subtitled “The Untold Story” as against “The Full Story”. A full history would need to be written by someone more impartial than a former managing editor whose family owns 50 per cent of the shares: the remainder owned by a trust established by T S Eliot’s widow. This shareholding allows it to retain its independence, although as this book makes clear, dire economic circumstances often meant that it came close to being swallowed up. For someone writing both a family history and a publishing one, Tony Faber deals fairly with the personalities, conflicts, failures and courageous decisions that shaped the firm. His format is fascinating. The book primarily consists of extracts from letters and memos composed on the run, snap literary judgements jotted down while its staff juggled the fraught financial intricacies of keeping the firm solvent... Filled with brilliant cameos, this is for anyone who wonders what publishers actually do all day.
Gunn turned up for lunch at the Travellers Club wearing leathers and cowboy boots, necessitating an anxiously apologetic letter to the management from his editor, Charles Monteith. There’s a photo of Monteith, affable, bespectacled, formally pinstriped and holding a glass of sherry, the very picture of old-school publishing, which, with its lunches and advances and cranky old book-lined offices, is so cheerfully celebrated in this charming and quirky history.
The creation story of Faber itself is a striking drama, bordering on farce. It began with three men, all Fellows of All Souls, Oxford. One, Maurice Gwyer, inherited a share in the Scientific Press, publisher of The Nursing Mirror. He asked Geoffrey Faber, a failed brewer and unsuccessful playwright, to manage the business, diversify the range of books into fiction and start a literary magazine. A third All Souls contact, Charles Whibley, introduced Faber to Eliot, then editing the Criterion, and they clicked.
Alive to the fact that most publishing commemoratives are dull to the point of stupefaction, Toby Faber has taken the oral history route, constructing a narrative out of correspondence and diary entries, with his own interpolations primed to supply context. Attractive though this is, the book is an odd undertaking. The last 40 years rip by in a scant 40 pages, and great as the fanfare that subsequently attended authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Paul Auster, there is a limit to the enjoyment that can be got out of letters from editorial sponsors of their early work that routinely begin with bromides about enjoying the first five chapters and hoping to make more detailed comments on their return from the Frankfurt Book Fair. Still, what follows is, for an official history, agreeably even-handed.