You haven’t heard of the Albatross Press, although you have heard of its imitator, which also uses a seabird for its name and logo. For most of the 19th century, if you wanted to read fiction in English on mainland Europe, you read a book from the German publishing house Tauchnitz (“Not to be introduced into the British Empire and U.S.A.” was printed on their covers). But at the start of the 1930s, Albatross, a new publisher, emerged in Paris and Hamburg as what we would today call a disruptor, publishing in paperback and with an eye for design and colour, its books now considered key works of literary Modernism. Michele Troy’s Strange Bird is a story of art and business, but, given its ominous setting in Auden’s “low dishonest decade”, it is a story of war and politics too.
Troy’s detailed yet accessible account of the founders – cosmopolitan and slightly shifty English translator John Holroyd-Reece, ambitious German publisher Max Christian Wegner (who turns out to be as disruptive a soldier as he was businessman) and confident Kurt Enoch who escaped to New York – tells, for the first time, of their successes and failures, their schemes and fallings-out, set against the backdrop of the middle of the 20th century. We learn grainy but revealing details: in the last days of the war, having fled his unit as the Eastern Front collapsed, Wegner surrendered to a British officer and, speaking impeccable English, discovered mutual friends and was swiftly returned by military jeep, dishevelled but free, to Hamburg. Comprehensively, Troy shows how, even at the worst of times, European literature, business, politics and, above all, people are absolutely interwoven with each other.
Strange Bird is an excellent example of what in literary studies is called “the history of the book”: the study of how texts are made and published, sold, translated and circulated. This newish field has made great discoveries. Shakespeare’s plays seem too long to perform because, as Lucas Erne demonstrates, Shakespeare cultivated a reading market for his plays and so produced fuller versions, just as contemporary film-makers offer lucrative, longer DVDs with “restored” scenes and special features: this insight clearly changes how we see and read Shakespeare’s work. This field fills a crucial ground between textual “genetic” scholarship (my colleague Finn Fordham, for example, studies the brain-boggling process by which James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake came to be) and more conventional critical or theoretical work that considers – to speak broadly of my very broad discipline – what literature means. And here, Troy’s book fills in crucial parts of the pan-European history of Modernist literature.
But Troy takes this further. To dry herself, Alice, soaking wet in Wonderland, turns to Anglo-Saxon history, the driest thing she knows (she’d not read Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series). “The history of the book” is often quite as desiccated. Yet Strange Bird, part of the publisher’s New Directions in Narrative History series, with its focus on lives and eye for illuminating archival detail, clearly aims to develop a more personal, intimate kind of book history: and shows, of course, that you can p-p-pick up a lot about books from their covers.
Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich
By Michele K. Troy
Yale University Press, 440pp, £25.00
Published 4 April 2017