Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber

Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

In 2019 I attended a lecture given by Toby Faber and found him to be as stylish and witty as his illustrious friends and relations, and I asked him if he would come to the Felixstowe Book Festival to repeat this talk. We all know what happened in 2020 and it was only this summer that he finally made it and it was worth the wait. He was interviewed by Nicola Upson, another Faber author and it was a lovely occasion.

I knew after listening to this talk that this book would be well worth reading.  And it was. One of the first things that delights me when I read a book is the use of English. Yes I know I am reading in English so what is my point? Well there is English and English and my point is that there are times when reading a book, usually modern literature, when I wonder if the author ever went to school, so clunky and dire is the narrative. I find I wince at a word which has no place in a sentence but has been shoehorned in to make an effect which it does, but the opposite to that intended. Excessive use of adjectives and pronouns and my bête noire, exclamation marks. Drives me mad.

And then the joy of coming across a book which is so beautifully written that it flows, the nerves relax and one can sit back with a sigh of contentment. Well, last week I finished reading Faber & Faber: the Untold Story by Toby Faber, whose grandfather founded this publishing house. I started reading and knew that this was a book which would have me purring with pleasure. And it did.

Toby has drawn on the Faber archives to tell the history of the firm and they form the bulk of the narrative, with his additions and comments in between to clarify. I love reading diaries and letters as, whether or not the person writing intends to, the personality of the author seeps through. There is no escape. I have read diaries when I have intensely disliked the writer even though they have tried to portray themselves in a certain way. Others I have read and found I simply loved the diarist for the reason given above. 

Reading this book gave me so much joy. For a start the author’s godfather and a huge supporter and influence to the firm was T.S. Eliot. Well, you cannot get much better than that as a starting point and this is where the joy begins. The writing. The exchange of letters between Geoffrey Faber and T. S. Eliot. Elegant, witty, each line effortlessly produced. While you might expect this from Eliot I hasten to add that all the correspondence featured in this tome is of the highest quality. My copy is packed with lurid post it notes where I have flagged up a felicitous phrase, a sentence that had me burbling with delight.   Difficult to pick out those that had me grinning with pleasure but here are a few:

T. S. Eliot to Geoffrey March in 1936, regarding a book of children’s verse about which he had doubts. The fact that this was Old Possums Book of Practical Cats (1939), a massive success on which the musical Cats was based makes this doubly interesting:

I am more and more doubtful of my ability to write a successful book of this kind and I had rather find out early that I can’t do it than a waste a lot of time for nothing. And this sort of thing is flatter if it is flat than serious verse can be. Nobody wants to make a fool of himself when he might be better employed……………….there are several ways in which this could be a failure. The various poems might not be good enough. The matters here as such might not be amusing; a book simply of collected animal poems might be better…………….there may be many more ways of going wrong than of going right.

Even TSE had worries about his writing it seems.

And a difference of opinion with Geoffrey over the publishing of Nightwood by  Djuna Barnes (which did make their catalogue in 1936):

……..I have read it again over the holidays and am more strongly in favour of the book than ever. What is important to me is that I believe that this may be our last chance to do something remarkable in the way of imaginative literature. As for our literary reputation, remember that people like Joyce and myself may help to keep the temperature level, but we can’t send it any higher. There is something an author does once (if at all) in his generation that he can’t ever do again. We can go on writing stuff that nobody else would right, if you like, but ‘The Waste Land’ and  Ulysses remain the historic points. From a publishing point of view, there is a tremendous difference between getting a good author first and rounding him in after his reputation is made and if Joyce and I, for example, had up to now been published by some other firm, we should no longer be worth getting…….

Geoffrey Faber’s response:

What distresses me is that I should have so hopelessly failed to see what you both see (Frank Morley another director of the firm thought it good) in Nightwood. After reading your two letters I cannot doubt that you are right, and that I am wrong – which is a discomforting, though perhaps salutary state of mind for a publisher, let alone an educated man to be in.

Was ever two opposing points of view so elegantly expressed?

If I went on with further examples I would end up quoting the entire book so may I urge you to go out and purchase this and give yourself up to its glory. And yes I do mean glory. Not a word I use lightly but, I have to emphasis once again, just how wonderful it is to read English so beautifully phrased and expressed. There is another letter featured written to a director, who they feel should leave, and who is being asked if he feels it would be a good thing for him to do. It is clear that if he does not resign he may be asked to do so, but the letter suggesting the correct course of action is a masterpiece of tact and kindness.

I do not think it is a coincidence that one of my favourite authors, P.D. James, whose utterly perfect writing I have written about elsewhere, has always been published by Faber & Faber.

I have tried to give a flavour of The Untold Story which only uses part of the archive – it would be such a treat if there were more treasures to be unearthed for us to see.

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Toby Faber, Faber & Faber: The Untold Story (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571339051, 448pp., paperback.

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