I first read Svetlana Alexievich when Actes Sud published La fin de l’homme rouge in France in the autumn of 2013. At the time I was working as a commissioning editor at Notting Hill Editions, a small press specialising in English-language essays, and editing the White Review with Ben Eastham. I read the book as a layperson simply because I had heard good things, and the subject – the sudden disappearance of Homo sovieticus recounted through the stories of individuals who had lived through the end of the Soviet empire – immediately appealed to me. Like many readers I was absolutely floored by the book, which is extraordinarily moving and humane and an astonishing document of how history affects individuals. I had studied history to Masters level and had been taught to be suspicious of oral history, but here it was redeployed as literature. This seemed to be something entirely new.
In December 2013, the owner of Notting Hill Editions decided he wanted to take the publishing house in a different direction, and I was sacked along with the rest of the team in place at the time. I’d seen it coming but I had no idea what I’d do next. There weren’t any publishers I could really see myself working for – not that there were many editorial jobs going anyway. After a few months of hesitation, boredom, fear, and resignation, the opportunity to launch a new press came up and I decided to give it a go. That was in February 2014. We published the first Fitzcarraldo Editions book that August, and five more followed in the first year – three fiction, three essays.
The idea was, and remains, to publish ambitious and innovative contemporary writing, ‘literary’ books that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes relevant to the world we live in, both in the English language, and in translation. The first book we published – Mathias Énard’s Zone, a 521-page stream of consciousness novel written in one sentence about war in the twentieth century, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell and initially published in the US by Open Letter – was a mission statement of sorts, a signal that we were a press that was willing to take risks on books that other British publishers wouldn’t touch.
As I was working towards the launch of the first books, I made a list of potential books to acquire and translate, and Svetlana Alexievich’s Время секонд хэнд, (the book I had read in French as La fin de l’homme rouge), was at the top of that list. I contacted Svetlana’s agent, the formidable Galina Dursthoff, and was surprised to find out that the English rights were free. I made an offer for the book shortly before my first Frankfurt Book Fair, where we had arranged to see each other. Galina dismissed my offer unceremoniously – a resounding ‘nyet’. Why would she sell a major book by her most important writer to a new publishing house that had only published two books and proven absolutely nothing? I submitted an improved offer without much hope, and waited. It turned out to be the only offer from an English-language publishing house, and we agreed a deal for the book a few weeks later.
At that point the book already felt like a coup – Alexievich was considered a major writer everywhere but in Britain and the US, where she remained relatively unknown, and the book had already sold very well in France and Germany, and been a bestseller in Russia. And yet it was a fairly big risk to take: at close to 200,000 words the book would cost almost £12,000 to translate, the production costs would be high, and I had no idea whether we would be able to find an audience for the book, though I was convinced it was a masterpiece.
In January 2015 I met Bela Shayevich in New York during a blizzard. Our meeting was cut short because she had to catch a bus back to Philadelphia before total white-out. She agreed to translate the book, though it would take her a year. We decided we wouldn’t apply for Russian state funding to support the translation so as not to owe anything to Putin’s Russia. I applied for funding from the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation instead. The first application was rejected, but they told me I could try again, and fortunately the second application yielded a grant that supported the translation costs for the book. Meanwhile, Bela was translating the book, and all being well we planned to publish Second-hand Time in the autumn of 2016.
Then Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The night before the announcement I’d had a sense that something was going on. She’d shot up the list of the bookies’ odds for the prize, and an American publisher had formulated an offer to acquire the US rights, with the offer expiring a minute before the announcement from the Swedish Academy. I discussed this with Galina, then turned it down. Even if Svetlana didn’t win the Nobel Prize that year, we might be able to get a better deal for her elsewhere. At midday on 8 October 2015 Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, revealed Svetlana was that year’s laureate. At 12.01 my phone started ringing – word had gotten out that Fitzcarraldo Editions was her English-language publisher. The next week I attended my second Frankfurt Book Fair and fielded an eight-way auction from American publishers for Second-hand Time. (We sold the rights to Sam Nicholson at Random House.) In December I flew to Stockholm to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in white tie and saw Svetlana Alexievich deliver a rousing speech calling for democracy in her home country, Belarus. The closest I got to meeting her that night was when she was paraded through the banqueting hall with her fellow Nobel Prize laureates and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
Bela, meanwhile, was working tirelessly to deliver her translation three months earlier than planned, as we were under tremendous pressure to get the book out – it was Svetlana’s first book in fifteen years and we had to get it out as soon as possible to capitalize on the Nobel Prize. There was also an added responsibility on us all to produce the best book we could: we knew now that it would be widely read and reviewed. In January Sam Nicholson and I dropped everything to work on edits with Bela. Neither of us had any Russian, but I was able to use the French translation as a crutch on occasion. It was hard work, made all the more intense by the harrowing stories we were reading and rereading each day. Bela had lived with them for an entire year.
I didn’t get to meet Svetlana Alexievich until May 2016, when she came to visit the UK for nine days around the publication of Second-hand Time. In London she had lunch with Mikhail Khodorkovsky and talked with Marina Warner in the Royal Festival Hall. She visited Dublin for the International Literature Festival and received a standing ovation at Trinity College, Dublin. We went to Hay together, where she stayed in a hotel whose owner misguidedly told her how much she admired Vladimir Putin. Svetlana loved Wales – it reminded her of Belarus. We visited Oxford, where she gave a lecture on the Russian-Soviet soul, and Cambridge, where James Meek interviewed her in front of a packed Cambridge Union. We could only communicate in the presence of interpreters who joined us at various stages of the trip – Vadim, Elena, Masha and Margarita. The first time we were alone together I tried using Google Translate to communicate with her, but after technology had failed us we just smiled at each other in silence, waiting for the interpreter to come back. Over dinner in Hay she asked me about the quality of the translation of Second-hand Time. Bela is an excellent young translator and has done a brilliant job, I reassured her, plus she spent a year working on the book. ‘Well I spent fifteen years with it,’ was Svetlana’s response.
It is clear when reading Svetlana Alexievich that she has a deep empathy for the characters whose stories she tells. This empathy and curiosity was on display everywhere we travelled, and her generosity of spirit was evident even when she was clearly exhausted: she listened to people’s stories, signed their books, and then listened to more stories. Whenever we told her we could cut a book signing short so she could rest, she would say that she couldn’t let all these people who had queued for so long down. She must grin and bear it.
When we said our goodbyes a few days later, I asked Svetlana to sign a copy of Second-hand Time for me. ‘Dear Jacques,’ she wrote in Cyrillic, ‘Thank you for our book. Svetlana Alexievich.’
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