The ‘untold history’ of Faber & Faber should be a cause for celebration. For so many of us, possessing the unadorned, severe paperbacks with the lower-case ‘ff’ on the spine meant graduation to serious reading: coming of literary age by absorbing the words and thoughts of Beckett, Eliot, Larkin, Stoppard, Hughes, Plath, Miłosz, Golding, Ishiguro, Heaney, Carey, Golding, Barnes – Djuna, not Julian – and dozens of others. (Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, too, even for those of us who didn’t get past the middle of Justine.)
Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber, tells the story of his family firm from its beginnings in the 1920s to 1990, encompassing what he evidently considers Faber’s glory years. He has put together his history more or less chronologically from correspondence, memos, and diary entries, interleaved with shortish paragraphs of commentary and background. At first glance this seems promising, especially for readers who – like me – enjoy reading other people’s mail in print. But it doesn’t take long to realise that this approach has significant and rather puzzling problems. The most obvious of these is the lack of a strong narrative line; there is no clear indication of the company’s development, no tracing of the means by which Faber became the multifaceted publisher it now is. Who, for instance, decided that Faber should publish musical texts as well as words? How well did that work? Toby Faber’s commentaries are neither pungent nor particularly informative. And the lack of an index doesn’t help either.