With a week to go until publication, our Associate Publisher Katharina Bielenberg describes the extraordinary history of THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR.
[This article was originally published in New Books Magazine; visit them online at http://www.newbooksmag.com]
While we are conscious that a work of brilliance and originality may slip through our fingers, we also ask ourselves whether our readers will be receptive to these or those aspects of another culture. And yet that is precisely what publishers of translations set out to do: to bring difference, to open eyes and minds, and at best to build bridges of understanding. Should not our reading reflect the increasingly diverse environments in which we live? To help us make these decisions at MacLehose Press, we listen to a trusted network of readers when we cannot read the language ourselves, as well as like-minded publishers abroad. This can often take time. The experience of acquiring The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss-French writer Joël Dicker was quite different, however.
In September 2012, reports from in-house readers of the French edition, which had just been published and was being serially shortlisted for all the prizes of the season, were exuberant; they spoke of a book to be “devoured”, one that would “turn everything you previously thought on its head”. They marvelled at the skill and complexity, but also at the sheer readability of a book that “takes you, often at breakneck speed, in directions you do not suspect”. Publisher Christopher MacLehose swiftly made an offer, a few weeks before the Frankfurt bookfair at which a veritable stampede of publishers would bid for the rights to translate the book into thirty-five other languages.
There was a great deal that made The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair stand out: it had been written in French, but was set in New Hampshire and read like an American novel, even a “Great American Novel”. Its many strands made it all but unclassifiable: the mystery of the disappearance in 1975 of a young girl, Nola Kellergan, whose body is discovered thirty-three years later; the story of a young writer, Marcus Goldman, and his mentor, Harry Quebert; the love story of Nola and Harry, who now becomes the prime suspect; a crime story, as Marcus seeks to clear his friend’s name, and woven through all of this, a comedy about authorship and publishing.
So, a compelling and accessible book that appeals to, well, anybody, and one that was certain to work in English. Sam Taylor, the book’s translator, said of his part, “As I read the novel in French, it seemed to unfurl magically in English inside my head. Everything about it ‒ not only the setting, but the sentence structures, the narrative voice ‒ seemed more American-English than French to me. In terms of translation it was a very simple and natural process. I didn’t really have to think about it at all: the voice just seemed to be there.”
Colleagues and booksellers who read early proofs became immediately gripped by the story, and felt that Dicker’s book would be recommended, handed on and talked about for years and decades to come. Film production companies in Hollywood and elsewhere began to make their bids, the outcome of which is still not decided. As Harry Quebert says to his protégé, “A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.” In the case of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair I couldn’t agree more – I envy those of you who have the pleasure before you.
Katharina Bielenberg is Associate Publisher at MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Publishing
That summer, struggling author Harry Quebert fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard, along with a manuscript copy of the novel that made him a household name. Quebert is the only suspect.
Marcus Goldman – Quebert’s most gifted protégé – throws off his writer’s block to clear his mentor’s name. Solving the case and penning a new bestseller soon merge into one. As his book begins to take on a life of its own, the nation is gripped by the mystery of ‘The Girl Who Touched the Heart of America’.
But with Nola, in death as in life, nothing is ever as it seems.