WE HAVE HAD the wettest spring since 1940. The flowers in gardens from Chelsea to Camden Town look as if they have been mugged by the heavy weather. In these sodden conditions the most appealing spring list has been that of the wine society: "Ch,ateau Doisy-Daene 1976, barsac, delightfully full dessert wine with a splendid bouquet and traditional rich flavour. Drink with strawberries this summer." A bottle of that costs s6.95, exactly the price of a not-too-long new novel. (The blurb-writers seem interchangeable too.)
If the media are to be believed, everyone in London is on your side of the pond saluting New York. But several million of us got left behind. The major domestic promotion this spring has been the Book Marketing Council's "Best of Young British Novelists." A panel that included Michael Holroyd and Beryl Bainbridge selected the 20 that in their view best illustrated "the quality and promise of contemporary fiction." There have been jokes about how old is "young," and a good deal of understandable envy and argument. But the fact is--and this does not comfort the envious and argumentative at all--the promotion has worked.
Since March, more than 315,000 copies of titles by the 20 chosen young authors went into the bookshops. The sales of these authors has increased by 328 percent: some names were previously virtually unknown to the general public. The top 10 of the young sellers are, in order: Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, A.N. Wilson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Clive Sinclair, Christopher Priest, Martin Amis and (the only woman) Buchi Emecheta.
It is all literary peanuts compared with the success of John le Carr,e's The Little Drummer Girl, on top of the hardback fiction lists for more than a month. But clearly people are prepared to be told what to read. This is something that John Saumarez-Smith of Heywood Hill's famous bookshop in Curzon Street well knows; his very special clientMele--cosmopolitan, cultivated and discriminating--rely on him to advise and inform about worthwhile new books and value for money. They expect him to know everything and, mostly, he does.
He was pleased that the recession bit hardest on non- books; "real" books held their own, and on no very solid foundation there is now a feeling of buoyancy. In the small country town near where I have a cottage--a town where you can't buy The New Statesman or The Spectator because the newsagents never heard of them --a new bookshop has just opened; and it sells real books, not just slimming, gardening and crime, and there is always a customer or two in there. At the other end of the scale, Hatchard's in Piccadilly is expanding on its present site, and planning new branches.
There are a lot of publishing parties, too. At random: Virago, the small-is-beautiful all-woman success story of the decade, gave one to celebrate its hundredth Virago Modern Classic--Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare (1954). The resurrection of novels, memoirs and travel books from the recent past is a major trend, not only from Virago. Paperback reissues, with sensible introductions, are supplying a market previously satisfied only in second-hand bookshops, and then only for people who knew what they were looking for.
Carmen Callil, queen and chairwoman of Virago, took over not long ago as managing director of the noble firm of Chatto and Windus/The Hogarth Press, in William IV Street just off the Strand, moving Virago in with her, next door. Chatto is establishing a tradition of effective women: Callil, now a key figure in the London book world, has personality and energy at least equal to that of Norah Smallwood, the dowager queen of Chatto.
The original fiction written for Virago has generally been disastrous; Callil is making a new and ambitious start at Chatto. She gave a large launching party at which buttons were distributed saying "New Chatto Fiction: Everybody's Reading It." The most successful New Chatto Fiction title so far has not been a native product but the American Emily Prager's A Visit From the Footbinder. This is all a fresh image for Chatto, reflected in the glossy new purple paint that graces its formerly sober premises. But the most significant thing about New Chatto Fiction is the practice of issuing their own paperbacks simultaneously with the hardback, thus accelerating the traditional cycle and contributing to the growing if belated importance here of the trade paperback.
The Literary Review, which was born when the TLS was out of action, keeps a high profile. The party to celebrate its merger with Quarto was reported in The Tatler, the top people's comic. (The Tatler itself, revamped successfully by Tina Brown, now has a new editor currently putting together her first number--Libby Purves, a maverick appointment that surprised the dozens of smart hopefuls who put in for the job. Miss Purves is said to be under strain; she has a six-month-old baby to cope with as well as The Tatler and the tittle-tattle.) In its April number The Literary Review carried a major interview with Iris Murdoch--a rare achievement--on the subject of her long new novel The Philosopher's Pupil. This has had mixed reviews, ranging from the reverential to the puzzled to the absolutely appalled, but has nevertheless appeared in the best-seller lists.
The Sunday Times is recovering from its embarrassment over the fake Hitler diaries, and recovering too the money it paid Stern for the privilege of sharing in such foolishness. The Observer has been unable to refrain from snidely celebrating its great rival's non-coup. It has also been celebrating its own ten-thousandth issue with, inevitably, a big party. But the management gave offence by inviting sundry distinguished outsiders but failing to invite many of its own contributors, including --or rather excluding--book critics and arts page writers. Claire Tomalin, literary editor of The Sunday Times (and invited to The Observer party) was angry on their behalf: "What is a newspaper without its critics?" A good question.
Ian Hamilton's biography of Robert Lowell is only just out here; it has done a lot for Ian Hamilton if not so much, according to the British critics, for Lowell's reputation. Literary biography has had a very good innings in the past 15 years, but the vein is running thin. Few big modern names are left, and they are the ones that sell; though Lord David Cecil has written a gentle, elegiac biography of the early 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb. In preparation are Andrew Linklater's life of Compton Mackenzie, Selina Hastings's life of Nancy Mitford, Hilary Spurling's second volume about Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Michael Holroyd's magnum opus on Shaw. David Pryce-Jones's edition of Cyril Connolly's journal 1928-1937, with an extended introduction, is expected soon. The Pearsall Smith family history is being well aired; Frances Partridge's Julia contains vividly awful portraits of Logan and Alys by Julia Strachey, and Mary, whose second husband was Bernard Berenson, is the subject of a forthcoming compilation by Mary Lutyens.
It is said that at least 10 biographies of Mrs. Thatcher are on the stocks. Most new biographies that have sold enough to get the roof mended this spring have been non- literary and royal. There have been two of Princess Margaret--one, by Christopher Warwick, frankly hagiographical and seemingly written under instruction from the lady herself. She came to the party Lord Weidenfeld gave for the book, and enjoyed herself enough to stay until 2.45 am. Protocol rules that no one may leave before a royal visitor; but Weidenfeld's editorial staff, with children to get to school and other books to attend to in the morning, had special licence to creep away to their beds. The other Princess Margaret book, by gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, is rather more scandalous and, I regret to say, more fun. There has also been an unmemorable biography of the Queen herself by journalist Ann Morrow; another, more substantial, is due soon from the evergreen Lady Longford, matriarch of the Pakenham clan.
On a graver note: the memorial service for Dame Rebecca West took place at St. Martin's in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, on 21 April. It was a splendid occasion; she would have enjoyed it. Actor Michael Dennison read beautifully from her own work, from Robert Louis Stevenson, John Donne and, most strikingly, from a poem about the "Ship of Death" that had most of the literary types on the steps of the church afterwards asking each other "who wrote that?" (It was by D.H. Lawrence.) Bernard Levin, that trenchant columnist, moralist, and commentator on the passing scene, gave an address that satisfied both the minds and the hearts of a congregation that had known this great woman. London saluted Dame Rebecca.