THE PARTY GIVEN BY HOPCYN PRESS TO CELEBRATE THE LAUNCH OF MICHAEL HOLZMAN’S NEW BOOK PAX 1934-1941
This was one gorgeous party – a guest list of a hundred authors, journalists. publishers, agents and friends gathered at Daunt Books in Holland Park Avenue last week to celebrate the launch of this brilliant historical fiction. Apart from drinking 3 litres of negronis, and also various wines, this is the speech they listened to, and which explained everything:
"Welcome, everybody, to this celebration to launch the publication of Michael Holzman’s new book, Pax. Michael is that startlingly handsome man over there, and I am Marguerite Evers, the director of Hopcyn Press.
These are turbulent times for publishing and literary institutions. In fact, a fair gauge in my opinion of the seismic disturbance caused by the arrival of ebooks, Amazon, digital printing, and stylistically the language of popular press in literature is roughly six on the Richter scale. And going up. And yet, like farming the irresistibly fertile slopes of active volcanoes, as people do, publishers and bookshops are busy at it. You’d think this was no place for a small firm like Hopcyn Press to wander quietly up and start digging. Most of the famous old publishing firms have sought safety in numbers by banding together into battalions of well armed companies, each company consisting of four to six platoons, and occupying new ground well fertilised by celebrities. But Hopcyn Press is completely independent. This publishing company may be named after a rabbit, but it has the heart and stomach of a lion. There are also new bands of publishers offering services a bit like mercenaries; being paid first before joining battle. Hopcyn Press does not do that either. We function in the classic tradition. It might seem that therefore the odds on our survival would be far too great; and so they would be were it not for writers like Michael Holzman and professionals like his literary agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson.
When Christopher first sent me the manuscript for what is now called PAX, I was momentarily incredulous. The first page I instantly recognised as the sort of writing which no small publisher can usually get their hands on. It is written in diary form – a device which both Christopher and I particularly like. I warmed immediately to this format and the seductive brilliance of the style of writing. For me the prime consideration when assessing any book is whether the writer can write; not such an obvious priority as you’d think. That wonderful talent, the product of combined intellectual and artistic fire-power, is what Jeeves would call the sine qua non of a book for me: the indispensable charm of clear beautiful prose. On my first reading of Pax I foraged anxiously ahead to see if the author maintained it. He did. He does.
The next hurdle in the assessment of any manuscript is content. There is a reading public for verbiage without content, but Hopcyn Press isn’t in their number. Had this manuscript got a story, a purpose? It has. It is essentially a modern historical novel which unfolds out of a deceptively safe academic chrysalis of pre-second world war scholarship which lulls you into thinking that it is absolutely real. The narrator is a young American who arrives to study Art History at Cambridge in 1934. That, of course, was a period of outstanding scholars in the field, such as Berenson, Fritz Saxle, Venturi, Gombrich. Then there are the younger men such as Blunt, Burgess, Hobsbawm appearing at Cambridge, whose attachment to Communism lights another flare under the narrative. Added to this, the narrator has a godfather in London who is a very wealthy American political socialite. In real life Chips Channon occupied a similar position, and so our narrator can describe an insider’s (imaginary) account of the political stresses between Chamberlain and Churchill and their opposite points of view which adds a whole facet to this complex and fascinating story. Michael’s previous writing has been non-fiction; he has published many academic papers, and also a number of biographies. I hope I won’t be treading on too many toes if I say that I don’t associate that milieu with the flexibility and instinctive melody of the best fiction writing. But Michael makes the jump with miraculous skill. In this book, the actual style of the writing carried me irresistibly over the pages, even if two or three together were all about Georgioni or the legs of a piece of seventeenth century furniture. I was absolutely glued to it like a moth landing on a pool of jam, and I am normally a very self indulgent reader. When eventually I met Michael at Didcot railway station, he had come over from America in order to discuss his book, and I had gone to collect him from his train without finding out in advance what he looked like. How is a writer with jet lag going to recognise a nondescript publishing woman in boots? Only by waiting until everyone else with better things to do has gone, and you hesitantly say to that man, “Are you . . " I mention this because subsequently, on the drive to our house, I had to simultaneously not drive into hedges or sheep and yet take in the, at first, rather awful news that Michael himself never did study at Cambridge, never did live in the fens and has spent very little time in England. I simply could not believe it. How, then, could he have made the imaginary experiences of his hero so utterly authentic. I studied at Cambridge myself. I was an undergraduate there and I had absolutely assumed that only a fellow hoplite could write about the place so accurately. His cool, compulsively alive and intensely real style had me fooled, and I think it will have every reader fooled intermittently throughout the book. As one reads, when fiction takes its licensed leaps away from the path of authentic history there is a shock factor every time. This is a book of remarkable wit, scholarship and originality. There is also some rather naughty sex, for which I apologise. But by the time I realised it, like some of the characters in the book, I could not say no. I hope you will all be unable to say no to the temptation of taking a copy home with you this evening."
When I remember this speech-moment I am compulsively reminded of the scene in the film Babe, in which the pig who thinks he is a sheep dog confronts the whole flock. Scary. They are crowded, fleece to fleece, right in front of him, and he has to persuade them to do as he says. They are very clever animals. sheep. In the film Babe was successful; and I didn’t do too badly at the party. Most of our guests went at once and bought the book! Do thou do likewise? Oh, yes!