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Novel Approach: Peter Owen

Few people can claim to have published Henry Miller, Salvador Dali and Anais Nin in their lifetime. But renegade bookworm Peter Owen can – and he did it all from his kitchen table

Taken from the February 2011 issue of Dazed:

Peter Owen is a man with the ability to make book lovers swoon with pleasure. For the last 60 years the publishing house that bears his name has brought out the kind of esoteric and brilliant novels that have the same effect on a bibliomaniac’s brain as Anna Piaggi’s wardrobe might upon a fashion fanatic. In an age of bulk publishing, when the latest literary novel by Sebastian Faulks is about as thrilling a prospect as the fourth mutation of Katie Price’s autobiography, Owen and his tiny team print the exciting, the difficult and, occasionally, the downright weird, including a fistful of Nobel Prize winners, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and Salvador Dalí’s only novel.

“Some of my best friends have been writers,” Owen says. “Dalí was a creep and there was a feel of evil about his wife Gala. I went out to them in Cadaqués. There were a lot of people there and they were dishing out this cracking wine. Dalí took a look at a canvas and said, ‘Ah, he’s done well today.’ I was horrified.” The great surrealist, apparently, didn’t always paint his own melting clock faces. Dalí did, however, devote, by his own account, “14 implacable hours a day” to his novel Hidden Faces, which Owen published in 1973. It is still one of Owen’s bestsellers despite Dalí’s fondness for piling up the adjectives. “We were all lush with money,” says Owen, referring to the party scene he was revelling in at the time. “We could have parties at The Savoy – whereas, now, one has to agonise for the backing of a good book.” Not that Dalí was so flush with money he forgot his roots. “Dalí loved money. He just completely changed when the question of copyright came up. ‘I’m a notary’s son,’ he said.”

Born Peter Offenstadt in 1927, Owen grew up in Nuremberg where his parents owned a leather factory. The German city, which had been hosting rallies of the Nazi party since 1923, was not a place that the Offenstadts could have survived WI. Peter was sent to England at the age of five to stay with his grandparents and learn English. The rest of the family came to settle in north London and Owen’s father changed the family name. Following a short stint in the RAF, Owen first set out on a career in journalism but, finding it was too difficult a sphere to get into, sidestepped into publishing. At the tender age of 21 he went into business with Neville Armstrong, helped out by a paper quota he was allotted thanks to his time in the air force. In 1951, at the age of 24, he was bought out of the business by Armstrong for £500. He added to this sum a bank overdraft of £350 (which had to be guaranteed by his mother) and set up his own publishing house, Peter Owen.

“He’s the last survivor, still active, of those great immigrant publishers who fled tyranny in Europe and helped the British defend themselves against their own philistinism,” author and critic Duncan Fallowell drawls somewhat majestically down the telephone. “Publishing is now a rather minor branch of the entertainment industry. But literature is the greatest of the arts. The new generation of publishers is fed on the idea that a book has to be rubbish. Peter is a wonderful example of a person who thinks books should not be rubbish.”

Owen’s first list included Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life, an anthology of Russian literature that included Ezra Pound and the then almost unknown author Boris Pasternak, who would shortly go on to pen DrZhivago and turn down the Nobel Prize. Owen’s first major triumph was snapping up Hermann Hesse’s cult classic Siddhartha – the book that arguably kicked off the 60s counterculture – for a £25 advance. Although Hesse had won the Nobel Prize for literature, virtually no one at that time outside his native Germany had ever heard of him. This early coup meant business was set to boom for Owen in the 60s and 70s – as Crashauthor JG Ballard proclaimed before he died last year: “Never has an investment of £900 produced such vast riches.”

As the business grew, Owen began to take on staff. Muriel Spark, author of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, was his first editor, and later wrote a novel partly based on her experience of working in Owen’s office, A Far Cry From Kensington. Owen had already published two of her books before she came to work for him. “Muriel at that point was a very great friend,” explains Owen. “She was very helpful to me when I had a breakdown. But then, when she was getting famous, she started moving around with the Queen of Greece…”

“Publishing is now a rather minor branch of the entertainment industry. But literature is the greatest of the arts” – Duncan Fallowell

It was Spark who urged Owen to sign another future Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, to his roster but Owen did not do so. Alongside upsetting Frau Hesse by changing the title of one of Hesse’s novels without her permission, Owen puts this down as one of his greatest mistakes. “It was inexperience. At 21 or 24 you do silly things that you don’t do later on. I saw no reason to pick up Beckett!”

Until recently Peter Owen Ltd was based at a house on Kenway Road near Earl’s Court. Owen’s personal office, upholstered more like a 1960s lair than a place of business, was in the basement, the walls papered all over with black and red flowers and lined with bookcases filled with his first editions. It has always been an intimate concern, novelist and Whitbread awardwinning biographer DJ Taylor tells me. “I doff my cap to him. His list is full of the esoteric and avantgarde. If it hadn’t been for Peter and his one-man band doing it all off a kitchen table in SW5 none of it would have happened.” 

Throughout his career, Owen has been far more interested in bringing out writers of quality, rather than those who would simply rake in the moolah. The American writer Paul Bowles became a close friend and Owen developed a real taste for foreign literature. The book he is most proud of publishing is The Ice Palace by Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas. “It’s a cult book,” says Owen. “We’re printing it every two years or so.” He also developed quite a thing for the Japanese. Yukio Mishima – who Owen, once again recognising early, published Confessions Of A Mask in 1960 – included a letter to Owen in the several he sent just before he committed suicide by seppuku (a samurai ritual of disembowelment) in 1970. “He was very Europeanised,” Owen says, talking of nights when the sake flowed. “But he couldn’t reconcile that with Japanese culture.” Film director Martin Scorsese was so enthralled by another Owen discovery, Shusaku Endo’s Silence, he has been obsessed with filming it for ten years. Endo’s tale of Jesuit priests sent to convert the Japanese to Catholicism will hit cinemas in 2013, starring Daniel DayLewis, Benicio Del Toro and Gael García Bernal.

Owen had a strained relationship with the French writer Anaïs Nin, famous for her volumes of erotica, her affair with Henry Miller and her indiscreet journals. In these journals, she wondered why Owen always picked her up from the airport drunk. “Peter Grosvenor asked her if Henry Miller (infamous for the sexual exploits he published in the taboo-breaking Tropic Of Capricorn) was a good lover.” Owen recalls. “‘No, he was terrible,’ she said… But it turned out she was quite a liar. She was a manipulator. We were all halfway in love with her.” After she died, it turned out Nin had written some pretty unpleasant passages about Owen and his first wife, the author Wendy Owen, in her journals. It also emerged that Nin was a bigamist, who had a husband on either side of America. Calling this her “bicoastal trapeze act”, Nin kept two sets of chequebooks, two sets of prescription bottles and a collection of file cards in a box to keep track of all her elaborate fibs. 

“I didn’t realise at the time that I was dealing with a really major writer who would become a cult figure” – Peter Owen

The cult junkie author Anna Kavan, whom Nin admired, owes her posthumous reputation to Owen, who has singlehandedly kept her work in print. The author of Ice, who died in 1968 with enough heroin stockpiled in her house to kill the whole street, did so on the night she was expected at one of Peter Owen’s parties. When the police broke in the door, they found the gold invitation, so Owen was the first person they called. “I didn’t realise at the time that I was dealing with a really major writer who would become a cult figure,” Owen admits. She was also rather difficult to deal with. After one brusque encounter with Kavan, Owen was told by a mutual friend, “You’ve got off lightly tonight. The last time I was here she threw a chicken at me.” 

Another femme fatale with whom Owen did not quite see eye to eye was Yoko Ono. Owen, who was a regular at the French House in Soho, knew Dylan Thomas, and had a house next door to Francis Bacon’s studio. He first met Lennon’s widow on the London party scene, before she became famous. “This weird lady came up wearing a Japanese hat – kinda trilby, not quite a trilby,” he recalls. “She was pretentious. Then I was appalled to hear that she had got on the Lennon scene… We went to see them at Apple, and they were sitting at a big desk. Yoko had the same hat on – she was eating Fortnum & Mason’s caviar with a kitchen spoon, and not offering it to anyone.” Owen had been persuaded to publish Ono’s book, Grapefruit. “By this time she had started ringing me up. It was at night, ‘Oh, this is Yoko, you’re not promoting it properly, I’ve got ideas for promoting it…’ I got fed up of this. I don’t think I would have been crude enough or silly enough to say, ‘This is a load of shit!’ but I wasn’t particularly complimentary.” 

“When he started out he was a young hustler who was keen to make his mark – and did with a number of titles,” says Arcadia publisher, Gary Pulsifer, who worked for Owen in the 90s. “That backlist gave him the freedom to do a certain kind of book that others wouldn’t touch – literature in translation, and new writers. He also did a couple of large illustrated books, including Jean Cocteau’s The Passionate Penis. He took a photocopy of one drawing and used to pull it out of his wallet at the French House.” And it is with such chutzpah and an enduring sense of humour that Peter Owen now sets out on his seventh decade as an inspiring and unique man of books.