Last year we heard from an eminent scientist about the complaint by a friend of his — a physicist who won the great Swedish prize in the late 1960s — that his lofty New York agent had reported that his latest book proposal had met a wall of rejection by publishers. ‘He was told that if he was – you know, that British physicist in a wheelchair, er …’. ‘Stephen Hawking?’ post-Gutenberg suggested. ‘Yes, him. My friend was told that it would be different if he could attract the kind of public attention Hawking does. There would be no trouble placing his manuscript and getting him a very large advance.’
The eminent scientist telling us the story had been suffering the identical fate at the hands of publishers on two continents.
With this as an excellent specimen of the sort of conversation between writers and their representatives that is dead common today, we considered what an agent – today’s equivalent in publishing of St. Peter at the pearly gates – would say to an unknown scribe trying to place a manuscript about her sojourn on a collective farm in Estonia in the early 1990s. ‘Estonia – you must be joking, who has ever heard of it? And it’s so ridiculously small I am not sure I could even place it on a map! Have you spent five seconds considering what point there could be in asking anyone to read about such an obscure and insignificant country? You say that it’s based on your out-of-date experience of doing fieldwork for your doctorate in anthropology, twenty years ago? And you have already published the thesis you wrote on the subject? Come, come, you are an intelligent woman! There must be some other subject you can think of! You know you have no track record as a writer? Why not invest some energy in building a platform? Then you can try us again, okay? And now, sorry, but I really must take this next call –.’
But, miracle of miracles, we have described an actual book being reviewed respectfully in recent weeks, called Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia. It is indeed based on someone’s memories of fact-gathering for her old Phd. thesis. The only reason why it is not mouldering on an attic shelf under four inches of dust is the author’s identity. She is Sigrid Rausing, an anthropologist and philanthropist – routinely referred to as one of Britain’s richest women in media profiles explaining that she is an heir to a great Swedish industrial fortune — who also became a publisher to watch when she bought Granta, a pillar of the British literary establishment, the name of both a magazine and book publisher, in 2005.
She did not have to publish her book herself. Truly, the strangest fact of all in this story is that she really can write – her atmospheric prose frequently recalling the travel writer Colin Thubron’s otherworldly, melancholy, In Siberia — and, with the luck of having her own power base in the business, evidently had no trouble getting her manuscript read and given a green light.
Post-Gutenberg has for some time been avoiding all the usual superlatives in praising new books – bankrupt currency, for the reasons Jennifer Weiner offered in a summing-up in ‘All Blurbed Out’ in last Sunday’s New York Times that said in part: ‘”Stunning” is mundane, “gorgeous” is commonplace, “brilliance” and “genius” are positively de rigueur.’
We offer the best and only reliable guides to literary achievement — excerpts from the author’s own text. We are pleased to do this because Rausing is not only generous with her family’s money, but the far more precious gifts of her attention and engagement. In a recent profile in The Telegraph, she announced her commitment to personally going through unsolicited submissions – usually called the slush pile – dispatched to Granta. Over to her book, now:
That evening I found Marika and Alar and Heli drinking cocktails: 96 percent ethanol from Marika’s veterinary practice poured into a Russian vodka bottle, mixed with ‘exotic juice’. They used to drink ethanol eggnogs because Marika got paid in eggs from the farmers; thirty to forty eggs to cure a sick cow. When the salmonella started appearing in the eggs they stopped it, and started mixing the alcohol with juice. I drank that strange and ravaging mixture with them, and at midnight we went to a bar by the harbour, open all night now for drinking and dancing. Somebody, I think it was Ets, brought a bottle of champagne, and we drank that, too. Some strangers turned up – a pale man with green eyes and sandy moustache, and a young couple with a Doberman. They were from President Meri’s staff – he had a dacha on the peninsula, from the Soviet era. I had come across it by chance – a seemingly abandoned narrow dirt road broadened, then turned into an asphalt road, ending by a high gate and a fence. People were dancing wild Estonian waltzes and polkas; under the influence of ethanol and Georgian champagne, the strangers seemed like friends. Dusk merged with dawn, and I walked home alone.
Who was I, at this point, for them? A kind of mascot, perhaps. In the plenty of Estonian summer I was offered strawberries, gooseberries, rides in Ladas. Once I was offered fish, two tiny brown fish. I was always offered drinks, too many drinks. A slight anxiety set in about leaving. At the same time the heat, the relentless heatwave made me feel as if nothing would ever change. The glaring light was eating me up, and I longed for grey clouds and cool winds. Something felt stuck in my throat. I slept and slept. My Swedish duvet, so warm in the winter, smelled of sweat now. There was no wind – the village echoed without the perennial wind. The dogs howled. I woke up at night from the howling, or from Karl crying next door. The moths fluttered in the kitchen as I stumbled out for a glass of water. I dreamt, anxiously, about leaving my laptop behind.