The changes in the publishing industry in recent times can seem really daunting and, like most writers, there are times when I’ve thought dark thoughts about just what the future might hold. But if there are many challenges in the new landscape of publishing, there are also great new opportunities. The rise of self-publishing is one of those opportunities that has been discussed at length, but another that hasn’t been quite so prominently discussed is the fact that the fall in printing prices caused by the advent of digital-based typesetting, design and proofs, as well as new methods of raising money, such as crowdfunding, has meant also a rise in small presses: people, sometimes authors and artists, sometimes not, following their passion and taking on publishing projects that in the past would simply have seemed like a pipe-dream. For me, one of those dreams is actually coming true: being actively involved in reintroducing to English-speaking readers a classic French novel that was one of the great books of my own life.
As a French-speaking child living in both Australia and France, Jules Verne’s great adventure novel Michel Strogoff was my favourite book in the world when I was around 12. The book was enormously influential on me, both as a reader and a writer, leading to a lifelong fascination with Russia and a lifelong love of both reading and writing adventure fiction. I’ve re-read the book many times over since then and love it just as much. An epic chase novel set in Tsarist Russia, it’s also beautifully written. With its mix of vivid characters (including, unusually for Verne, strong and interesting female characters), cracking pace, colourful settings, non-stop action, adventure and suspense, leavened by deft touches of romance and humour, it’s reckoned in France to be Jules Verne’s best novel, and not only has it never been out of print, it’s also inspired dozens of film and TV adaptations.
But it always frustrated me that when I mentioned it to English-language friends, they had never heard of it because the only English translation had been done back when the original French edition was first published. That translation was very much of its time, and in my opinion did not capture the liveliness and freshness of the French original, as 19th century popular French novels are much more ‘immediate,’ pacey, and less densely wordy than was the prevailing literary taste in 19th century English-language novels. ‘Michael Strogoff’ as it was titled in English, had been popular in its day—indeed, in the US it was popular enough for not only the first film ever of the book to be made there, in 1914, but also for a small town in Texas to be named after one of its main characters, Strogoff’s tough and indomitable mother, Marfa.
But the translation had dated quite badly and by the time I was growing up, the novel had fallen out of favour in English speaking countries, though in France its enormous influence continued unabated. There, not only writers speak of being first turned on to the love of reading by Michel Strogoff, but people in many other walks of life do as well, including the former President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
As I’m bilingual, I had toyed with the idea of creating a new translation myself but other books and other projects got in the way. And then one day I met the wonderful translator and writer Stephanie Smee, who had just translated the works of another great classic French author, the Countess de Ségur, another childhood favourite of mine. Stephanie’s translations of the Countess’ books captured perfectly the brightness and verve of the Countess’ works and I mentioned to her, very hopefully, Michel Strogoff. Stephanie hadn’t read the book but immediately went and got it (in the original French edition), loved it, and began the work of translating it.
Meanwhile, in 2013, a couple of artist friends and I started Christmas Press, a small press specialising in picture books for children, featuring beautifully illustrated retold traditional stories—fairy tales, legends, myths. And after a year or so we had the idea of a new imprint within the Press, another revival of tradition—Eagle Books, which would specialise in novels of high adventure for young people, by authors both classic and contemporary. And that’s when we stepped in and asked Stephanie if she’d be interested in the notion of her translation of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, as we’re titling it, to be the launch title for Eagle Books in 2016! I am so absolutely thrilled that she agreed, so thrilled that next year will see the appearance of the first new full English translation in over a hundred years of the best adventure novel ever written.
And I’m so thrilled that I’ve been able to give back something to a work which has given so much to me. Twelve-year-old Sophie, totally swept up in the book, spine tingling, head spinning with the imaginative vistas opening before her as she devoured every word, would be totally in tune with the idea that magic can happen, adventure can be real, and dreams can come true!
Over to you: What neglected classics in your own reading life would you select for inclusion in your dream publishing list?