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'One disaster after another': working with André Deutsch

RELATED STORIES

Meeting André Deutsch
Diana Athill Writer
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[Q] Your publishing life really did begin with André, didn't it?

My publishing life started before… it start… before André was a publisher. I mean, George brought him to the party that Marjorie and I gave to warm… a flat-warming party we gave. He had turned up with a small Hungarian, who was rather charming and comic. I remember he attracted attention because he sat on the floor and he sang, In the Foggy, Foggy Dew. And it seemed so funny that a Hungarian should sing [In] The Foggy, Foggy Dew, but he did. And he and I picked each other up and had a little flutter for a time. And he always said that he was going to… oh, he was just beginning to be in a publishing firm. He'd come out of the Isle of Mann with an introduction from somebody there to a bookseller. And the bookseller had given him an introduction to a publisher. And he'd got a job as a publisher's traveller rep. And from that, it rapidly moved into the office itself, because nearly all the men had gone to the war, and this chap, who was called John Roberts, very lazy anyway, was delighted to find this extremely intelligent, enthusiastic little Hungarian who was perfectly prepared to do everything. Read books, print books, design books. André just took to it like a duck to water. And he was there. He was in publishing as a result, which made him very glamorous to me. And he said, 'Well, you see, I'm going to start a publishing firm of my own after the war'. He hadn't got a bean, and he hadn't got any contacts. I mean, he'd come to England to read economics at the London School of Economics, which he never did. I mean, that's what he was supposed to be doing, but he'd come as a student, and then the war had caught him. And then he'd been interned, because he was a Hungarian. So he had no background in publishing or anything at all, but he said he was going to go into publishing. And I can well remember, I mean I've said this so often before, it's an old story, but we were walking through Soho and he said, 'If I start my publishing firm and you join me, how much would you have to earn'?

And I thought, 'Well, he'll never manage to do it anyway', so I can be sort of wild, and I said, 'Oh, £500'. And it seemed a terrible lot of money then, you see, to me. But I didn't earn it. I remember when we started, it was a long time before I reached £500 a year. It was £300 a year for a long time. But he was… you see, I hadn't realised about André at that stage, he was somebody who, if he had an idea, he acted. I mean from the idea to the acting on it, with him was almost one thing. And that is a great gift. If you have that gift, you get places. And that he had. And he raised money. I mean, the amount of money he raised was, in fact, £3000. And everybody said in those days: you can't possibly start a publishing firm for under… I think it was [£]15,000, was the sort of amount that they said. Well, we started it on three. And it was quite true. You couldn't really start it on three. I mean, we ran out of money constantly. Oh, it was agony. I mean, to me.

[Q] But what does that involve, then, trying to run a publishing company on so little money. And presumably not with much staff. I mean…

It was André, me, one secretary, poor Mr Kaufmann, who was the accountant, and a friend of ours who ran the children's side of it, but that was it, to begin with. The books were designed by someone who sort of came in on a freelance. But what it meant was, you see, we constantly had to get new people in, because to me, I had no idea about money at all. I'm still very, very bad about money. But to me, money was something you either had enough of, in which case you spent it on something nice, or you didn't have any, and then you did without.

But I didn't, sort of, think… that there's two different kinds of people about money: people who are like that, or people who think of money as something you manipulate and make and play with and increase and… it's quite a different approach. Well, André really had much more of that. To him, when we ran out of money and no one would… I hated it when the printers would come round and say, 'Look, you've simply got to pay the bill'. And André would always manage to be away, and I would have to be the one who answered. Because I didn't… it made me quite sick with misery and horror. It didn't worry André at all, because he always knew he was going to be able to get, somewhere, some… somehow going to get some money. And he did. Six times. And we were saying: what are we going to do? We've got no money. Finished, done with, awful. Six times, André found, within three days or four days, somebody who'd always longed to be investing some money in a publishing firm.

And as a result, you see, this was wonderful, but he was brilliant at doing that, but he was also very romantic about English people, and he had a strong belief that an English gentleman's word was as good as his bond. You know, a gentleman's agreement. He never had an agreement written down with any of these six people. Six times he got them in, their word was good enough. It was a gentleman's agreement each time. When, need I say, soon all of them got fed up with it, excepting two. One of them bought the lot out. No, two of them bought the rest out. And therefore, owned the firm, in fact. Which André had not foreseen at all. And we had this terrible time. We were that… by then, we'd really got to be quite clever and quite good at it. The whole thing was mad. I mean, I… the nerve of it, when I think of it. I was the editor, I was the person who chose the books. I'd never been a publisher. How could I have the nerve to read manuscripts and say, 'Yes, we'll publish this' and 'No, we won't publish that'? But I did. Absolutely crazy. And André knew quite a lot. He'd been for a year with John Roberts. He'd really… and he'd picked up an enormous amount about how a book is produced. He sort of swallowed it in through his pores. He was born to be a publisher. But he knew that English wasn't his first language. He was actually quite a shrewd editor. He could have been. He picked things… if he read a manuscript, if he made a comment on it, he was always right. But he was very diffident about making a comment, so I had to do that side of it.

[Q] What was his background in Hungary? Was he a Jew or not?

His father was a Jew. His mother, I think, is… I don't know whether his mother was a Jew or just became… when… she didn't look at all Jewish, but she did, for instance, when she died, she was given a Jewish funeral. So she may have been a Jew, as well. Or partly so. But his father was a dentist. They were, sort of, middle-class Hungarians. He'd had an uncle who knew a lot about England and was very fond of English literature, and that was why André, was given a choice at school, as a second language… if you were Hungarian when you went to school, you had to do Latin and then you could choose between French, English or German. And he chose German and English, and English was his favourite language. So he knew English quite well, because he loved his uncle, and his uncle influenced him in that way.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: London School of Economics, André Deutsch, John Roberts

Duration: 8 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008