Thursday, March 20, 2014

Martin Secker, Child of The Yellow Book - Roger Dobson

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some publishers are almost as interesting as authors (we should emphasize the word almost). Great individuals are a vanishing breed as the suits and accountants are gradually taking over what used to be a gentleman’s profession. Nineties enthusiasts have reason to be grateful to Martin Secker (1882-1978), whose Unicorn Press revived much engrossing material.

For example, ‘A “Period” List’ printed on the jacket of Roger Lhombreaud’s Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography (1963) includes such treasures as Aubrey Beardsley’s His Best Fifty Drawings, Dowson’s Poems (7s. 6d.), George Egerton’s Correspondence and Diaries, Lionel Johnson’s The Complete Poems, Richard Le Gallienne’s From a Paris Garret, Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics and The Hill of Dreams, Vincent O’Sullivan’s Opinions, Arthur Symons’ Aubrey Beardsley: A Memoir and eight titles by Wilde.

Mervyn Horder, the chairman of Duckworth & Co. from 1950-78, published a tribute to Martin Secker in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1979, writing: ‘Adolescent during the 1890s, he always retained a temperamental affinity for the Yellow Book period and spoke of himself as a child of that age. His spiritual home was the Domino Room of the Café Royal . . .’ A copy of Lord Horder’s article was found among the papers of the late Colin Summerford, a member of Machen’s circle. Colin was friendly with Secker (Machen got on less well!) and helped Horder with the Blackwood's piece: he is listed in the acknowledgements. Horder cites the authors Secker published between 1911 and 1934:

"fiction by Compton Mackenzie, D.H. Lawrence, Hugh Walpole, Frank Swinnerton, Norman Douglas, Oliver Onions, Gilbert Cannan, Francis Brett Young, Arthur Machen, Rafael Sabatini; criticism by Lascelles Abercrombie, Edward Thomas, Arthur Ransome, Arthur Symons; the collected poems of James Elroy Flecker, Alfred Douglas, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Martin Armstrong, T.W.H. Crosland, Ford Madox Ford, Maurice Baring; the early plays of Noël Coward. Works in translation included those by Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Arnold Zweig, Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Kafka, François Mauriac — most of them well in advance of their general fame."

Secker was born at 24 Holland Road, Kensington. His father’s forebears were German and his mother Irish. As a young man wishing to make a start in publishing — after an abortive beginning working for the Bank of England, where he claimed to be the only employee sacked for incompetence — he approached a number of successful publishers, William Heinemann, John Lane and Grant Richards, before being taken on as an apprentice by Eveleigh Nash. Over the next eighteen months he learned the trade, and by 1910 was ready to branch out on his own. He established his company — always with a tiny staff — at 5 John Street, the Adelphi. A few years later he took on Rafael Sabatini, the author of The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, as a partner, but Sabatini proved less than ideal and he was replaced by the reliable P.P. Howe, the biographer of Hazlitt. (While hunting for the residences of Ernest Dowson’s family, an address for Sabatini accidentally caught our eye in the 1922 Kelly’s directory: he lived at 81 Albert Bridge Road, not far from Albert Mansions, where Dowson’s father took his life, perhaps, in 1894.)

Financial difficulties arose in the 1930s. ‘Secker’s friendliest friends would never have called him a businessman,’ writes Horder. ‘Secker had his share of that amiable vanity which animates, at the same time as it fatally weakens, most one-man band publishers — the simple idea that because he in his wisdom has chosen to publish a book, the world will automatically rush to buy it.’

After his firm went into receivership in 1934, Secker was obliged to enter into partnership with Frederic Warburg and Roger Senhouse, and in 1935 the firm of Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd was created. ‘By then Secker, aged fifty-two, was far too set in his ways, far too much of a lone wolf to accommodate the publishing habits of those of a pair of younger partners, and by 1937 he was on his own again.’ He acquired the publishing rights and assets of Grant Richards (called ‘the impeccable Granty’ by Secker) and carried on Richards’ business as The Unicorn Press Ltd, operating from the Unicorn Bookshop in King Charles Street (now gone) and then at 4 and 5 Royal Opera Arcade, which had formerly been Leonard Smithers’s office. Secker changed his imprint to The Richards Press, in honour of ‘Granty’ after Richards’ death. In 1948 John Gawsworth made him a Redondan peer in his first Birthday Honours List: Secker had published Prince Zaleski in the New Adelphi Library in 1928. After Secker retired, the publisher John Baker took over the shop and continued with the Nineties reprints. Horder comments:

"Both witty himself and a catalyst of original wit in others, he acted as a kind of laughter-vortex in any company; long after blindness overtook him, he still got carried away by his favourite funny stories, the suicide of John Davidson, the premature knighthood of Sir George Hutchinson, what Gilbert said on Sullivan’s death, and so on — and would tell them with the tears pouring from his eyes. He remembered from a news item that Davidson, who regarded himself as a failure and was a prey to violent depressions, hired a rowboat and jumped overboard some miles off the Cornish coast; nothing was found in the rowboat but a formal letter from Davidson to the directors of the Great Western Railway complaining that the charms of the Cornish Riviera had been grossly overstated in their advertising."

In 1972 deterioration of the retinas of both eyes left Secker completely blind. He was glad to receive friends and neighbours, who would read to him and gossip. Secker died after a series of strokes, on his ninety-sixth birthday on 6 April 1978. His ashes were scattered by his wife Sylvia and son Adrian in the garden of Bridgefoot House, Iver, in Buckinghamshire, where Secker had lived for more than seventy years.

(This is one of a series of writings Roger Dobson compiled for The Lost Club Journal issue 4, which alas never appeared).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Simmons Papers: A Borgesian Jest? - Roger Dobson

If your preference in literature is to be pleased, puzzled, perplexed and presented with paradoxes, we recommend the novella The Simmons Papers (1995) by Philipp Blom, author of To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (2002). The Simmons Papers is, states Faber and Faber’s blue advertising wrapper-band, ‘The Only Novel about the Letter P’, and this hardly seems likely to be a matter of dispute. The book relates the tragi-comic story of P.E.H. Simmons (1901-89), appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University in 1935. Simmons holds this distinguished post for only three months before resigning because of anti-German feeling: his mother came from Leipzig. After his resignation Simmons remains in Oxford until his death, but never again holds a university post. He writes philosophical treatises that make him a revered figure in European and American universities, though he is such a crusty conservative figure that his status means little to him

The main body of The Simmons Papers is devoted to Simmons’ strange manuscript, an elusive work given several wildly different interpretations by various academics. In the manuscript Simmons describes his work on what he calls ‘the Definitive Dictionary’, which sounds very much like the Complete OED, in a building that resembles the Oxford University Press building in Walton Street. Dr Javis, the editor-in-chief of the Dictionary project, has allocated the letter P as Simmons’ domain, a letter Simmons is fascinated by and proud of. The letter, of course, is his own first initial. ‘P as a letter is a vast mystery,’ he muses. Attentive readers will note that each section of the manuscript begins with P: ‘Personally . . .’, ‘Probably . . . ’, ‘Practically . . . ’, etc. Simmons’ immediate predecessor in the P section had a great fondness for plants, and those that are cited begin with P: a pine, primroses, a palm, poppies.

As the editor (i.e. Philipp Blom) explains in one of the introductory biographical sections: ‘There has been fierce discussion as to whether this account of a piece of extraordinary scholarship is fictional, or is an autobiographical representation of Simmons’ work in the years 1976-9.’ One scholar, Huxley Mandelbrodt (his deconstructionalist statements, which are largely pretentious gibberish, are quoted in footnotes throughout the manuscript), claims it is ‘a subversive un-writing of the gender issues in European literature’. ‘Other positions, suggesting that the work is a coded account of masonic rituals, a translation from ancient Hetitian hymns, or the manuscript of the long-lost novel The Messiah by Bruno Schulz, which Simmons acquired on a trip to the Ukraine in August 1967, and intended to publish under his own name, have failed to find a wide echo within the community of literary scholars.’ It is left open by the editor whether the ‘manuscript published here is a work of art, the emanation of a surprisingly fruitful fantasy, a work of reminiscences, the document of a mental disarray and decay of a fine mind’.

It’s hinted that the work may indeed be fiction, for nowhere in the introductory matter, where Simmons’ life and university career are described, is it stated that he works as a lexicographer. ‘The remaining forty years of his life [after his resignation as Waynflete Professor] were spent in relative obscurity, unknown to any but a small and constant number of tutees and old friends.’ It is revealed that depression dogged the philosopher all his life. ‘At times the “black days”, as he referred to them in his diaries, became so overwhelming that Simmons had to be taken into institutional care for weeks on end. At such times he lived in complete isolation, but for medical visits he received and a caretaker who brought him the daily papers.’ In the manuscript Simmons describes how, in his office at the publishing house, the inter-office messenger, Malakh, brings him books, journals and his letters. Is Malakh the institution’s caretaker? Could it be that all Simmons’ life in the Dictionary office is an illusion? In one episode Simmons describes how in a fit of madness he attacks Malakh and has to be physically restrained. Lending credence to the idea that Simmons is confined to a madhouse is that his two predecessors in P section were likewise eccentric, if not insane. His immediate forebear writes a book entitled Insights into the Lucidity of the Occult and the Mysterium of the Divine Letter. The author, called only ‘the Doctor’ in the manuscript, explains in this book that it was his earthly mission to rebuild the temple of Solomon: ‘In an architectural drawing in his own hand, the temple appeared to have the shape of a gigantic P.’ Relieved of his duties by Dr Javis, the Doctor, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of the Boddhisatva, hangs himself.

Readers may find themselves delighted by Blom’s book, while they rack their brains to find the key to the text- if there is a key. It seems as though it might be an allegory, but an allegory of what precisely? Or is it merely a satire on intellectual pursuits, suggesting that too much knowledge can drive one mad? Or perhaps a giant legpull? Every element of the book can thus be subjected to analysis to determine whether it has deeper significance. For example, why has Simmons never met Dr Javis? ‘Javis is indeed so far removed from the sphere of ordinary office work and editing that I myself have not yet had the privilege of meeting him, or of being summoned to his office, although this is undoubtedly bound to happen at some point in the future.’ Dr Javis has a personal secretary, Mr Lloyd, but Simmons wonders if Lloyd is fictitious: ‘one of those myths which arise during such a complex undertaking as the editing of the Definitive Dictionary over a long time when communication is poor.’

The author has fun satirizing the long ‘Communications of the Great Academy’, which Javis sets up to regulate the editing of the Dictionary. These are issue in daily supplements and the ‘rulings encompass every possibility, provide for all contingencies. From the consumption of sandwiches during working hours to the format of the writing paper, the standardized way of using paper clips’, etc. Is this a satirical thrust at OUP communiqués sent to staff? Apparently Philipp Blom, who was born in Hamburg in 1970, studied in Vienna and Oxford and then worked in publishing for a time . . .

Simmons lunches at Braun’s Hof (he’s allowed out then?). Was this Brown’s Hotel which used to exist in St Giles (now an Oxfam Bookshop) or the nearby trendy Brown’s restaurant in the Woodstock Road? Your co-editor’s landlady inherited one of the stair carpets from Brown’s Hotel: a most depressingly worn item. Midway through the text Simmons falls in love, with a woman he can’t see properly since he is short-sighted. Looking from his window across the courtyard he sees a co-worker in a floral dress, ‘a lady of radiant beauty, the fairest among women and a lily among thorns’. She seems to be working in M section, which pleases the old scholar. ‘M is the nasal relative of P . . . They are connected through B, the sonor, or voiced stop.' Note the author’s name: Philipp Blom.

The book is full of in-jokes like this. Simmons solemnly cites a monograph by Pierre Menard. Menard had no earthly existence but sprang from the fertile mind of Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, The Simmons Papers can be viewed as an elaborate Borgesian jest. Simmons works on the third floor, Room B 304. The editor comments in a footnote: ‘This location has not been decoded by literary scholars. To his puzzlement, however, the editor of these pages has realized that it corresponds with his own room in his college.’ There are allusions to The Waste Land, Jacob’s ladder (‘ . . . “And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night”, in a classical but little-read text’), etc. All in all, a mind-boggling, very entertaining puzzle that people will enjoy racking their brains over. If anyone who reads it knows what it is about, please tell us.

(This is one of a series of previously unpublished pieces by the late Roger Dobson originally intended for The Lost Club Journal.)