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.