Publishing can be a dangerous game. On my shelves I keep, as a warning to myself, a non-fiction book – perhaps the only surviving copy – which was written by a respected author, published by a major London house, and ran into awful trouble before it reached the bookshops. (Mine was a review copy, but sending a book out for review amounts to publishing it.) It was about Cold War spies and spying. It named an eminent scientist, said he was dead, and identified him as a spy and a traitor. Two errors there: first, he was very much alive, and second, he was neither a spy nor a traitor. Result: the entire print run was pulped, and undisclosed damages were paid.
And the danger doesn’t disappear when the book is fiction. Forget that routine paragraph about no resemblance intended to any person living or dead. It’s a fig leaf that falls off the instant a novelist libels someone who can be unmistakably identified. I know a novelist who created, as a character, a peer who behaved abominably. A peer of that name existed. The novel swiftly got the chop and the peer got hefty damages (tax-free).
So when I opened The Rose of Tibet and found that the story began in the office of a London publisher where an editor, the managing director and their lawyers all have considerable doubts about how to handle – indeed, whether to handle at all – a book which one of the manuscript readers has described as ‘a bit on the weird side’, I was hooked.
The anxious editor identified himself as Lionel Davidson. In real life, Davidson had in fact been an editor with Gollancz and with Cape. Now, in this novel, he wears two hats: first as sceptical editor, then as the author. On p.1 he says that what follows, although more than a bit weird, ‘is, however, mostly true; it is only because it is mostly true that a few introductory words are called for’. These words introduce Charles Duguid Houston, who left England for India on 25 January 1950 and flew back on 1
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in