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Flight of the Seagull

How an Indian publisher brought Europe home

THIS APRIL, the New York Times ran a report on the biggest publishers of translated literature in the United States over the past five years. Amazon Crossing, which mostly does genre fiction, was in the lead, followed by Dalkey Archive Press. Third place was occupied by Seagull Books, a Kolkata-based publisher, which began in the early 1980s with a handful of books on the arts. Seagull has become highly regarded for putting out a broad range of European titles in translation, drawing international attention to literature never before published in English.

The best way into Seagull’s unique list and highly cultivated aesthetic is through its catalogues. If you were born in the 1970s or after, and reared on Anglo-American literature and the resultant disregard for the rest of the world, there is both discovery and embarrassment in browsing through these weighty and showily beautiful volumes. They come with covers of suede, leather, khadi or velvet and zari, are printed on luxuriously thick paper, and apart from information about the books, offer snippets of free-floating, imaginative text by Seagull authors and translators, interspersed with and overlaid by the editor and designer Sunandini Banerjee’s brilliantly hybrid art—inspired collages which draw on scrapbooks, handwriting, typography, sketches, advertising, family albums, photography, and art from across the ages. The books’ list is no afterthought either. Every title gets a page of crisp, intelligent description, free of overstatement, yet very clear about the author’s usually exalted position in European letters. Some of the names may appear vaguely familiar, yet most will not, even if the reputations of these writers have long been sealed in their own countries and languages.

Tributes such as “greatest,” “celebrated,” and “foremost” litter the catalogues. They suggest both a distinctive personality acquired and a certain responsibility shouldered—the old Shelleyian hope of poets being the legislators of the world. In English-language literature, now dominated by the novel, this hope seems to have been comprehensively betrayed, as some lonely voices have been noting. Quoting the novelist Ford Madox Ford, the literary critic James Wood rued last year the demise of the kind of work that undertakes “profoundly serious investigation into the human case,” and the rise in its place of fiction powered by ceaselessly inventive, ever-entertaining storytelling. The apparent moral emptiness and artistic decline of the literature coming out of England and the US has been explored by Gabriel Josipovici in his recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism? Pankaj Mishra has written more specifically about the American case.

Once-influential critics such as Edmund Wilson, whose imagination was in turn powered by the masterly European novelists, no longer hold sway; literature is a much less creditable domain now, one that belongs to writers who “appear to be cultivating their own gardens, on expansive plots given them by their powerful and affluent cultures.” The novelist Tim Parks has consistently been warning us that, with the global dominance of English, and the tendency, especially of younger writers in other languages, to make sure their work can be smoothly rendered into that tongue, we are losing “the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture.” The juggernaut of English and the marketability of a certain species of realist English fiction have conspired to make anything “foreign” and unfamiliar appear beyond the pale.

Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan. She is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans (2015) Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007) as well as the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012) and book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). Her reviews, short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in various publications in India and abroad. 

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