How is it possible that even the noisiest of publishers can merit a biography of the length normally reserved for Queen Victoria or members of the Bloomsbury Group – still more so when the gentleman in question was a byword for high-minded humbuggery, tucking into slap-up meals at the Savoy while urging his fellow citizens to tighten their belts to stave off starvation in post-war Germany, and loudly proclaiming brotherly love while trampling roughshod over those with whom he had dealings? Part of the answer, of course, is that – as the founder of the Left Book Club and a forceful advocate of left-wing and humanitarian causes – VG was a controversial and highly influential public figure; and by the end of this entertaining and altogether gripping book it’s hard to suppress a certain fondness for a bully and tyrant who was also, it seems, a genuinely as well as self-avowedly good and kindly man.
VG was born in Maida Vale in 1893. His father was a hard-working jeweller: they shared a love of music, but early on VG showed signs of abandoning Judaism for his own composite creed – part Judaism, part Christianity, with bits of Blake and Shelley thrown in – and throughout his life his relations with his fellow-Jews, like those with the Labour Party, remained somewhat strained. As a small child he was prone to dancing on the spot with disappointment or impatience, and in many ways he remained a child all his life, liable to tantrums and sudden spasms of rage, delight, enthusiasm or despair: years later we find ‘Tiny B’ writing to his wife (‘Mummy’) after a particularly dreadful display of misbehaviour, begging her forgiveness and promising to try harder in the future. Like a child, he was ludicrously thin-skinned (‘How dare you! I am incapable of error!’); and he retained a child ‘s prodigious energy, so much so that – according to his publishing colleague, Norman Collins – VG sharpening a pencil ‘was like a lesser man hewing down an oak tree.’
After St Paul’s and New College, Oxford, he was sent out by the army to supervise kosher rationing in Singapore but was immediately returned on a cargo ship with a stomach complaint. His career as a Repton schoolmaster was broken off by Geoffrey Fisher, the future Archbishop, who thought his civics classes overstimulating: from there he moved into the world of books, breathing new life into Benn Brothers and proving himself a master publicist and a natural publisher (‘I have today commissioned the most important work on dogs which has ever appeared’). Not a man to work for others, he set up on his own in 1927. For all his denunciations of capitalism, VG proved a nimble entrepreneur, selling Daphne du Maurier, A J Cronin and Dorothy Sayers in their tens of thousands to subsidise his activities as political proselytiser, particularly after the rise of Hitler. ‘I am anxious to publish nothing with which I am not myself in agreement, ‘ he once pronounced – an attitude which, after the foundation of the Left Book Club in 1936, brought him into conflict with unamenable contributors like Leonard Woolf, and led to his eventual break with George Orwell. In his anxiety not to offend the Communist Party or jeopardise the cause of a united Popular Front – which was disapproved of by the Labour Party – he may well have compromised his own liberal beliefs, nominating Stalin as his Man of the Year in 1937 and reissuing the Webbs’ notorious eulogy of the USSR. By the end of the 1930s VG was a national figure, addressing Club rallies in the Albert Hall and up and down the country while remaining a flamboyant and highly successful commercial publisher.
Nor did his energies flag with the coming of war, despite his rejection by the Home Guard. He drew attention to the I plight of the Jews in his pamphlet Let My People Go; like Allen Lane of Penguin , he laid the intellectual foundations for the welfare state and the post-war Labour government. After the war he upset many of his fellow Jews by defending the interests of the defeated Germans and the Arabs in Israel; he led·the campaign against capital punishment, including Eichmann among those who should be spared. All this was combined with raising a family of four daughters and much writing of his own, including two volumes of autobiography, both of them crammed with noble sentiments. Not surprisingly, VG seems to have suffered slight delusions of grandeur, comparing himself – with suitable disclaimers – to Beethoven and St James, the brother of Christ, and modestly intimating that although Our Lord was the greatest of men, his message needed to be completed and brought up to date. His own blurb for Journey Towards Music described it as ‘the most attractive book of the kind ever written in this country’, while WH·Smith’s order of a mere 100 copies of his uplifting anthology, A Year of Grace – instead of the expected thousands – seemed symptomatic of ‘the whole collapse of civilisation.’
For all the noise and shouting, humour was not, one senses, VG’s strongest point, yet his life is rich in comicality: VG writing to ask John Updike about the meaning of a ‘blow job’ and eventually deciding, after much rhetorical bravado, not to publish; VG and Edith Sitwell exchanging baffled but rhapsodic letters about James Purdy’s use of the word ‘motherfucker’ (the British edition finally settled on ‘ little bugger’ instead); VG, fearful that he might have picked up VD as a result of an untypical infidelity, carrying out a routine inspection in the window of his Henrietta Street office and exciting a complaint from the office over the road. In October 1966 he was struck down by a stroke. He fell from his office chair, and although ‘unable to move except crabwise, round and round in a circle’ he insisted on trying to dictate letters to his secretary, and then to light his cigar. Four months later he was dead. The firm he founded retains, thank goodness, its primordial independence: long may it remain so.