Silent Conversations: a reader’s life by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull, £24.50)

51i-gbItnlL._Silent Conversations comes to 748 pages, with the concluding bibliography being 118 pages. If you want the shorter version, it is a photograph pinned up on the Five Leaves Bookshop noticeboard, which also appears in this book, of the author at his desk in danger of being engulfed by toppling piles of books. In the longer version he writes about his life devoted to reading.

Rudolf is now in his seventies. For forty of those years he ran Menard Press, the small press that was the first to publish Primo Levi in English, the first to publish Paul Auster here. The press turned itself over to anti-nuclear publishing during the Reagan era, with some pamphlets selling 15,000-16,000 while in other years Rudolf’s commitment to translating the work of lesser known writers brought him credit but tiny sales. In an aside he refers to one writer’s publication as the worst selling Menard title ever, against very strong competition.

But this book is about his reading, not publishing, though the publishing gave him access and contacts to writers worldwide – not that the author is short of contacts. He is forever meeting with, writing to (and I mean writing), being sent proof copies of, being consulted on, chairing a meeting of… Anthony Rudolf gets himself around. Fortunately for those of us reading this book he also has a lifelong habit of writing in the books he accrues, the date and place of purchase, comments on the text and other marginalia that allows him to recreate his feeling about reading that book at this time.

It is tempting to dip into the book – to drift from subjects of interest to authors of interest, flicking through the short chapters. I tried that but found it more rewarding to start at the beginning and work my way through the text. It was full of authors and books I’d forgotten (and many, to use Iain Sinclair’s neologism, who were pre-forgotten) and full of authors I had not heard of. Rudolf is particularly strong on French writers – he is fluent. But it was as easy to read short chapters on subjects or groups of writers previously unknown to me than when I was on safer ground, not least as you start to understand the drifts and flows of his international reading life and get to know the man in the armchair. I do know Rudolf and we have friends in common, so it was no surprise to read the hints of difficulties in his life – his early academic failure, his years in psychotherapy, his disillusion with Israel… things which would be overlooked on dipping. There is also an understated wit leavened by the occasional short chapter which would not disgrace Private Eye‘s Pseud’s Column. The twenty-five lines on the French writer Anne Serre are a treat.

Those who do want to dip, however, will be well rewarded particularly if they have an interest in poetry, especially North American poetry, Portuguese writing (the author is the partner of the artist Paula Rego), Russian, Jewish and Hebrew (but limited Yiddish) writers, artists, anthropology… Thousands of books are mentioned, including several published by Five Leaves. But like any reading life it is partial. China? Nul points.

Silent Conversations took six or seven years to write. With the author now being in his seventies he reveals a growing awareness of time running out. If he re-reads the beloved Dostoevsky of his teenage years he won’t have time to read some English classics he’s never got round to. There is only so much reading time left.

At the end of the book I immediately ordered a Balzac short story, one barely known in English but one of the most referenced short stories in the world – Rudolf knows this (and at one time translated it), and will seek out his own favourite short story, by Eudora Welty, who I did read once and have forgotten. I’ll re-read John Berger’s A Fortunate Man, a book I loved forty years ago and some other early work by Berger. I’ll find my copy of Lelia Berg’s Flickerbook. And order some more Black Mountain poets for the bookshop.

The Indian publisher Seagull has done its typically terrific production job on this well-produced hardback but I’ve rarely seen their books outside of the London Review Bookshop and Five Leaves. I hope that the many living writers mentioned in this book will support Rudolf’s work, but also that keen readers might utilise Silent Conversations to help fill gaps in their own reading life and to take stock of the thousands of hours they put into reading.

Ross Bradshaw

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