Friday 15 November 2019

Who's afraid of Douglas Woolf?

The Dalkey Archive Press may sound like it is run from an office in the salubrious south county Dublin suburb but it has little to do with that corner of the world.

The literary press takes its name from one of Flann O'Brien's novels and specialises in international translations. It has just opened an office in Trinity College Dublin.

Like all good things, it grew out of publisher John O'Brien's love for undervalued and undiscovered international writers. Frustrated by 'establishment' literary criticism journals like the New York Review of Books, O'Brien decided to start his own magazine in 1980 that would review and interview those authors being ignored by the big-hitting high-brow periodicals.

"If you wrote the 5,000th essay on Saul Bellow, you had a pretty good chance of getting it published because editors knew who he was and so publishing yet another essay on Bellow was safe," said O'Brien. "But they didn't know who Douglas Woolf was, nor did they very much care about not knowing who he was."

Thus O'Brien's magazine the Review Of Contemporary Fiction was born and proved so successful (with the anti-establishment literary criticism crowd, that is) that he was inspired to start the Dalkey Archive Press a few years later as a way of publishing and preserving the works of those authors he had been writing about in the magazine.

As with many of these things, by doing it, it became a permanent fixture and 25 years later, the Dalkey Archive Press is an anomaly in the digital era. It keeps all of its titles in print, regardless of their sales, and is kept afloat mainly on the strength of grants and donations.

O'Brien himself has described it as a 'hopelessly quixotic venture'. But despite being such an idealistic press, amazingly it is now the leading publisher of translated literary fiction in the English-speaking world.

O'Brien has been honoured with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle in 2011 (very establishment) and to mark the opening of its Irish outpost the press will publish the anthology The Best European Fiction 2011 featuring Irish writers Kevin Barry and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, and with a foreword by Colum McCann.

In his introduction to the collection, McCann questions exactly what the term European means in the context of a writer's identity. It's a much more elusive term than American or African, for sure. McCann writes: "There is no real sense -- not yet at least -- of anyone wanting to draw attention to the great European novel in the same sense that the world anticipates, rightly or wrongly, the great American novel, but that might because there is still no final lockdown on what European actually means."

The fall of the Berlin wall forms a focal point for the latest generation of European writers to react against, as with it went the sense of being bordered and came liberation, both literal and literary.

In literature, these borders are more imaginary than most; writers can easily transgress them. But readers can only traverse these lines if a translation press like Dalkey Archive exists. Best European Fiction 2011 Edited by Aleksandar Hemon with a preface by Colum McCann. €16.35

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