John de Falbe on Harvill Press, Leopard series - Slightly Foxed Issue 13

Riding the Leopard

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The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs. The rest of us know that every ‘classic’ multiplies infinitely into minor classics, frivolities and squibs. You cannot possibly read them all now, but you know you want to read them one day. Some of these you will buy and, although they may remain unread, they contain a promise of future pleasure and their company alone helps sustain an idea of yourself, and of the world.

Looking along my own shelves I find that a high proportion of the books there, both read and unread, were published by Harvill Press. This was the name – based on a combination of their surnames – given to the imprint set up in 1947 by Manya Harari and Marjorie Villiers, who had worked side by side on the Russian Desk in Intelligence during the war. They began with the specific intention of rebuilding cultural bridges lost during the war, especially those between Russia and the West. In 1958, the year Harvill was absorbed by Collins (later to become HarperCollins), they published Doctor Zhivago (translated by Manya) and Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Christopher MacLehose, who was to become Harvill’s genie, took charge in 1984 and, thanks to a group of private backers, brought the imprint to independence again in 1995, after it had been jettisoned by HarperCollins. But the sums didn’t add up, and in 2005 the list was incorporated into the Random House group and yoked to what had been Secker & Warburg as HarvillSecker. Last year MacLehose left to join a new publishing venture, Quercus.

In 1991, under MacLehose’s aegis, Harvill published the first in the ‘Leopard’ series, the centrepiece of one of the great publishing ventures of our age. Edited by the Russian poet Oleg Chukhontsev – who was ostracized in 1968 for his poe

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About the contributor

John de Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for 20 years.

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