June 3, 2016
Remembering Peter Owen: 1927-2016
by Ian Dreiblatt
Peter Owen, for more than sixty years a defining presence among British and worldwide publishers, has died in London. He was eighty-nine.
Born in Nuremberg in 1927 to a German father and British mother, Owen soon emigrated to England, where he would spend the rest of a lonely childhood raiding the impressive library amassed by an uncle. He started his first publishing house, Peter Nevill, at twenty-one in 1948. A statement by Owen’s friend and colleague James Nye quotes him as later recalling,
In those days paper was strictly rationed, so I chatted up a girl in the Board of Trade. She felt sorry for me and allotted me a quota of six tons – enough to publish twelve books. With that, and £20 demob pay, I was launched into publishing.
It was a launch that would prove forceful enough to propel him into the highest firmament of world literature, particularly after, a few years later, he sold off his interest in Peter Nevill and struck out on his own, founding the eponymous publishing house with which he would for the rest of his long life be associated.
The list of authors Owen would go on to publish is nothing short of breathtaking: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Yukio Mishima, Anna Kavan, André Gide, Shūsaku Endō, Paul and Jane Bowles, Jean Cocteau, Octavio Paz, Colette, Miranda Miller, Jean Giono, Cesare Pavese, Edith Sitwill, and many more. Nye describes him as having been “a pioneer of quality world literature in translation, counter-cultural writing, and specialist non-fiction.”
Notable moments in Owen’s storied career included introducing a then-obscure Herman Hesse to the English-speaking world in the early fifties, making three trips to Spain to gather all the materials he needed to publish Salvador Dalí’s only novel, and ending a fight with Yoko Ono by snapping, “Look, you are good at writing pop songs and I’m good at publishing, so why don’t you do your thing and I’ll do mine?” (He would later vividly describe how on his first meeting with Ono, whose Grapefruit he published, he found her “sitting with a hat on indoors, spooning caviar from a Fortnum’s jar: expressionless, gorging, arrogant.”)
An obituary in the Telegraph describes how, in his early days, Owen
loved discussing sales figures and print runs and watched his costs carefully, paying tiny advances, wrangling subsidies for translations and pricing his books at a pound higher than the norm. He had no marketing department, no financial controllers and typed out his authors’ royalty statements himself with two fingers on an old portable typewriter. He opened his own mail, famously saving any unfranked stamps, and kept in print, in a ramshackle warehouse, books from his first list in the 1950s. His launch parties were paid for by unsuspecting cultural attachés, only too eager to celebrate the publication in Britain of one of their country’s greatest writers.
Owen’s acumen extended beyond the acquisition of compelling titles: he also hired, as his first editor, none other than Muriel Spark, who returned the favor three decades later by immortalizing the house in her roman à clef A Far Cry From Kensington. The novel portrays a sparky and very Murielesque young editor who memorably cannot restrain herself from repeatedly taunting a pretentious hack writer of her acquaintance with the accusation that he is a “pisseur de copie.”
(In her editorial tenure, Spark also offered Owen one impressive writer he would not go on to publish: “We had a choice between Beckett and the Japanese Osamu Dazai. Muriel said, can’t we do both? I said we can’t afford both, and chose Dazai.”)
Subsequent decades would smile on Owen’s project, as interest in translated literature grew, and his unusual strategies — in which diamond-tipped literary instincts and a shrugging insouciance in the face of risk were supplemented with a heavy reliance on library sales, unusually high prices, and old-fashioned hard-bargaining — bore increasing fruit. Still, he continued to remember the sixties as the brightest period in his career, a time when “everything blossomed; there was plenty of money around.”
In July 2015, at the age of eighty-eight, Owen stepped down as managing director of the house, passing the reins to his daughter Antonia Owen while remaining the company’s chairman. The move did not presage idleness: just last month, the house announced its upcoming merger with Istros Books, a British indie specializing in work from Southeast Europe.
We reached out to some members of the publishing community for comment. Author and frequent book reviewer Scott Esposito remembered:
One of my first ever newspaper assignments was to review a Peter Owen book: Quim Monzó’s The Enormity of the Tragedy, a remarkable, black comic novel translated from Catalan. It’s about a man who’s dying of an erection that will not subside. After that, you can bet I always remembered the name Peter Owen Publishers! It’s an example of the kind of risk-taking, genuinely original literature that independent publishers should be giving us.
Will Evans, exuberant Texan and director of Deep Vellum Publishing, wrote, “I didn’t know him personally, but Deep Vellum certainly follows in the giant footsteps he left behind, and I am eternally thankful to the work that he and other pioneers in the publishing and translation worlds did for people like me to pick up and run with.”
Barbara Epler, president of New Direction Publishing — which partnered with Owen for a time, and shares a number of authors including Joseph Roth, Blaise Cendrars, and Emma Tennant — remembered Owen warmly:
When I think of Peter, I think of his pockets, which were many and tweedy, a sort of filing system of small pieces of paper and various notes which moved around from pocket to pocket in the course of a conversation, and almost all the scraps, I always thought, held interesting book possibilities. And what has been in those pockets!
Eras and styles come and go: we’ll never see the likes of Peter Owen again in this business (a business he conducted with us in the old style, with a telephone call). A man who knew what is rare and what is great, he was rare and great himself.
Here at Melville House, we too have shared more than a few titles with Peter Owen — most recently, Alexei Nikitin’s Y.T. Dennis Johnson, our co-founder and co-publisher, remembered:
Peter Owen was the last of a breed of owner-operators: the kind for whom it wasn’t only about money. He championed the avant-garde, the risky, the lonely voice standing up against the prevailing wisdom or style. And, as a business owner, I’m deeply impressed by his ability to make that succeed. It’s really not easy, which is why so few people have lasted or even tried. So I have to marvel at both his exquisite taste and his publishing savvy. It’s a sad day because our culture is drifting frighteningly rightward, and desperately needs more people like him. But he’ll live on as an inspiration to the likes of publishers like me.
Owen, who died this past May 31, is survived by his three children, Antonia, Georgina, and Benedict, and by the world of literature he and his cranky brilliance helped spur into being.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.