Interview by Karen Langley
Modern digital publishing methods have made it much easier for publishers to produce budget-price copies of classics, and there was an early glut of this kind of cheap paperback. However, some of them were frankly a bit nasty, being small and thin and with pretty rubbish covers. Fortuntately, there are a number of independent publishers in the UK who seem dedicated to ensuring that the printed book survives as a beautiful object in a modern world full of gadgets and gizmos. Alma Books have been publishing for 10 years now; and as well as new books, both fiction and non-fiction, they also have a classics imprint, and have launched a very successful range of reasonably-priced books under the title of Evergreens.
The imprint cover a wide range of authors, from Austen to Woolf, taking in Dostoevsky, Goethe, Hardy, Gogol, Cervantes and many, many more. The Evergreens have bright, distinctive covers and many also carry the biographical and photographic extras that the regular Alma Classics contain. I caught up with one of Alma’s publishers, Alessandro Gallenzi (himself a novelist), and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the imprint.
AG: The belief that we can present international classics in a novel, more engaging way, and that we can add value to the texts through smart editing, high-quality translations, a beautiful package and, perhaps more importantly, the kind of passion and attention to detail – from typesetting to paper, cover design and finish – that seems to be lacking in other editions.
SNB: What governs the choice of books? Were you deliberately aiming for an eclectic set of works, perhaps not the more obvious titles?
AG: The choice of books is governed by our personal taste within the limits and parameters of what we think is the acknowledged canon of Western literature. Our staff is made up of two British-Italians, one French, one German and one Portuguese, so we bring our outsiders’ perspective and European flair into the mix, without forgetting of course our love of English and American literature.
SNB: Many of the Evergreens are translated works – what decides the version you pick to publish?
AG: All the translations are newly commissioned. We trust our translators’ judgement and they trust ours, so it’s a kind of team work. At times they come to us with ideas for new translations of works that haven’t been translated for a long time, at other times we decide that – even if there is a recent competing edition – we must have our own translation, since we believe that we can make it as good if not better than any other available edition.
SNB: The inclusion of extra material is a bonus with all Alma Classics and I was pleased to see this carried through to some of the Evergreens. What was the inspiration behind this extra element of the Alma books?
AG: I was inspired by some other European classics series – in particular one published by Garzanti in Italy, although our approach is slightly different and, one might say, lighter. I believe that the extra material is one of the most distinctive features of our Evergreens: it is particularly useful for students or anyone wanting to know a bit more – in a concise, unobtrusive and unacademic way – about the authors and their works once they’ve finished reading one of their books.
SNB: The covers designs of the Evergreens are striking and individual – how important is it that the range has a distinctive look which marks them out from the mainstream?
AG: We’re competing with brands that have been around for several decades, so it was hard to get our list established. However, we are now visible and recognizable, and clearly there are many readers all over the world who are looking out for our editions. A distinctive, fresher look definitely helps us to stand out.
SNB: Do you believe that the book as a beautiful object will always continue?
AG: Of course I do. Reading on screen, for me, is one of the most unpleasant and excruciating experiences a reader can have – although I am sure there will be people who prefer it to reading on paper. A printed book is infinitely more handy. Just think about the tactile joy of leafing through paper, or the visual pleasure of a well-typeset book, or the inebriating smell of a dusty old book… So I don’t think hand-held electronic devices will supersede the printed book that easily. Also, an ebook is sold as a “service” on a licence basis, whereas you can own, dedicate, gift, pass on a book to a friend or someone in your family. In short, there are too many advantages to reading a printed book to believe that books as we know them are in danger of extinction. Not to mention that authors want their works to be distinctive and visible, not lost or flattened into virtual existence in some odd corner of a memory chip.
SNB: Any hints about what titles we can look forward to for future Evergreens?
AG: I’d love to bring out new translations of some of the great classics of Italian poetry – I am thinking about Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata – and perhaps one or two dialogues by Giordano Bruno. But we need time and a passionate translator…
Alma kindly provided a pair of titles for review, in the form of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both are beautifully presented in distinctive covers, and the Goethe has an introduction by the translator.
Petersburg Tales presents four of Gogol’s best-known short stories: Nevsky Prospect, The Nose, The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman in fresh new translations by Dora O’Brien. Superficially, these are nonsense tales, full of larger-than-life characters, strange goings-on, noses that detach themselves from their owners, ghosts and illusions. When I first read them a long, long time ago, I saw them as humorous and quirky; this reading, however, opened my eyes to Gogol’s great artistry and sympathy for human beings. All of these stories speak for the lowly people in Russia’s great grinding Civil Service machine; the struggling clerks who can’t afford a coat, can’t afford to fall in love with someone above their station, and to whom status is all. This is the thread running through these marvellous stories, and they’re still relevant today in a word where the divide between rich and poor is getting ever larger.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is presented in an updated version of a translation from 1957, previously published by John Calder (whose range is now under the Alma umbrella). The book is one of Goethe’s early works, a highly emotive strurm und drang drama told in the form of letters from Werther to his friend, telling the tale of his intense love for Lotte, and her marriage to another. It’s florid and intense and extremely impassioned but nevertheless utterly absorbing – it’s not surprising it was so popular in its time, spawning a huge following and a whole cult of Werther followers even going so far as to dress like him (and worse…). A lovely book and a lovely way to lose yourself in Romanticism for a few hours!
It’s reassuring for readers and lovers of quality books to know that there are publishers still dedicated to producing paper volumes we want to take home with us and keep on our shelves permanently. There’s a danger of literature seeming to become ephemeral in the digital age and books like the Evergreens remind us that these works have substance. They’re an ideal way to explore a wonderful range of classics – a whole set would look lovely on your bookshelf, and they’re a million times nicer to read than a piece of plastic…
A full list of the Alma Classic Evergreens can be found here. Many thanks to Alessandro Gallenzi for agreeing to be interviewed, and to Clementine at Alma for arranging the review copies.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and could quite happily fill all the bookshelves in her house with classics.
BUY Alma Evergreen titles from The Book Depository via our affiliate link.