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My biggest mistake

RELATED STORIES

The fuss over Norman Mailer'sThe Naked and the Dead
Diana Athill Writer
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We published some very rum books to begin with, because you do. I mean, you pick up anything you can. But our first successful book which launched us into a lot - it had launched us into doing a lot of American publishing – it was Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, which we would never have got if he hadn't been turned down by everybody else, because they were all too frightened of the language. It was a war book about soldiers and the Far East. And even… well, I think America, America was probably almost more prudish than England. You could not print the word 'fuck'. And of course, he wanted to... I mean, his dialogue, because you know soldiers, every third word practically. And there'd been a lot of argument what they should do. Would they put a dash? And honestly, if you had put a dash in that book, it would have looked like network. It would have been hopeless. So then… this was really so absurd. It was agreed that they would substitute the word 'fug'. I mean, what could be sillier, in a way, than that? Because it was perfectly obvious to everybody what the word was. Why was it harmless because it was F-U-G and un-writeable because it was F-U-C-K? I mean, the whole thing was so daft.

Anyhow, English firms all turned it down, all the big ones that he had sent to. We were very small, so it must have been the agent was in a state of despair when it was offered to us. And it was Norman's best book by far. I mean, I haven't read it for years. I don't know what I would think of it, now, but it was… it seemed to me at the time a remarkably good book, and did give you an extraordinarily clear picture of what fighting was like in… in those awful circumstance. I can, to this day, remember certain descriptions, manhandling guns through mud and things, which are very vivid and clear. And so we took it on. And we sent out the review copies, three weeks in advance, like one does. And the literary editor on the Sunday Times left a copy on his desk.

And the editor of the Sunday Times came into his office and happened to pick it up and look at it. He was an old man. I can't remember his name, but he was an elderly editor. And he opened it, and there was 'fug', 'fug', 'fug', 'fug', all the way down on the page. And the next thing we knew, on the Sunday… on the front page of the Sunday Times, written by the editor himself, was this scandalous and awful book was being published, which, 'No decent man could leave where his women or children might see it'. Those very words, he used.

And it was on about 8 o'clock in the morning, on Sunday, half-past eight, André turned up, bang, bang, bang, on the door. And I was in bed and I got out of bed. And there was he. And he was almost in bed. He'd pulled on things over his pyjamas. 'Look! Look! Look at this!' I looked and horror, 'What are we going to do'? We were so naïve we thought, this is the end – this is going to be so awful. Because, of course, you see, we had quite a big printing of this book and we… if he had not… if we'd had to junk it, we would have been completely bust. I mean, our investment in it had been taken out. And I remember we said, 'Well, we better take a copy round to Desmond McCarthy', who André vaguely knew, and beg and beseech him to quickly read it and to say that it was obscene, that he would be a respectable person.

I remember we leapt into André's Baby Austin and drove… I can't remember where… Desmond McCarthy lived quite far away, and we got there and we left a copy with our letter, beseeching him to help. And on Monday morning, we went into the office and we could hardly get in through the door, because the orders were that deep inside. I had to push the door open. And of course, it was absolutely fabulous, but we still didn't know whether we were going to be able to publish it, because there was also an enormous detective who was going round talking to everyone, all of us, in a sort of smooth way, trying to get to the bottom of how we could be doing this awful obscenity. And then we had an injunction. We couldn't do anything. We weren't allowed to publish it until it had been raised in the House of Commons and decided whether or not we could publish that book. And there was three weeks, I think, of awful suspense and anxiety. Were we going to be ruined, or were we going to be immensely successful? As we could tell, because the orders went on coming in. And then finally, I think André got someone who… I can't remember who… an MP of his acquaintance to ask a question in the House, because nothing was happening, nothing was happening, is this book going to be banned or is it not?             

And Sir Hartley Shawcross, it was, made a statement and said he didn't think it was a particularly good book, but it wasn't going to be banned. And we were away. You see, it wasn't only that that book was published, but it meant that agents, from then on, thought: they're a bright young house. You know, they're dashing, they're adventurous, they go where other people daren't go, and also it gave us a lot of connections in America. I mean, André loved going over. He went over every year to New York, and he made friends with a lot of… we had more American friends, really, than we had English. And from then on, we got a lot of American writers.

[Q] Did you get to know Norman Mailer at all?

Yes, he used to come over from time to time.

[Q] What can you tell me about Normal Mailer?

It always irritated me about him that I thought, later on – I didn't like his other books, much – and I thought he talked an awful lot of hogwash. And I used to get very irritated with him, what he said and did. But on the other hand, every time you met him, he was so charming, you couldn't help liking him very much, if you didn't happen to be one of his wives who he was stabbing. But… I mean, he was very genial and pleasant to meet. But he was… he was an awful old phoney, a lot of the time, I think.

[Q] An awful…?

Phoney, really. He used to talk such rubbish. He came over once, and he wasn't going to give interviews, but we'd got to hire a theatre for him. And he would have this one occasion when he would get out on the stage and would talk, and all the people who were interested, all of the reviewers and everyone, could come. They all came, docile and listened to him holding forth. And really, he was talking such codswallop, but nobody said so.

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: The Naked and the Dead, Sunday Times, House of Commons, Norman Mailer, Daphne Merkin, André Deutsch, Desmond McCarthy

Duration: 8 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008