Flight of the Seagull

How an Indian publisher brought Europe home

01 July 2015
courtesy Seagul Books
courtesy Seagul Books

THIS APRIL, the New York Times ran a report on the biggest publishers of translated literature in the United States over the past five years. Amazon Crossing, which mostly does genre fiction, was in the lead, followed by Dalkey Archive Press. Third place was occupied by Seagull Books, a Kolkata-based publisher, which began in the early 1980s with a handful of books on the arts. Seagull has become highly regarded for putting out a broad range of European titles in translation, drawing international attention to literature never before published in English.

The best way into Seagull’s unique list and highly cultivated aesthetic is through its catalogues. If you were born in the 1970s or after, and reared on Anglo-American literature and the resultant disregard for the rest of the world, there is both discovery and embarrassment in browsing through these weighty and showily beautiful volumes. They come with covers of suede, leather, khadi or velvet and zari, are printed on luxuriously thick paper, and apart from information about the books, offer snippets of free-floating, imaginative text by Seagull authors and translators, interspersed with and overlaid by the editor and designer Sunandini Banerjee’s brilliantly hybrid art—inspired collages which draw on scrapbooks, handwriting, typography, sketches, advertising, family albums, photography, and art from across the ages. The books’ list is no afterthought either. Every title gets a page of crisp, intelligent description, free of overstatement, yet very clear about the author’s usually exalted position in European letters. Some of the names may appear vaguely familiar, yet most will not, even if the reputations of these writers have long been sealed in their own countries and languages.

Tributes such as “greatest,” “celebrated,” and “foremost” litter the catalogues. They suggest both a distinctive personality acquired and a certain responsibility shouldered—the old Shelleyian hope of poets being the legislators of the world. In English-language literature, now dominated by the novel, this hope seems to have been comprehensively betrayed, as some lonely voices have been noting. Quoting the novelist Ford Madox Ford, the literary critic James Wood rued last year the demise of the kind of work that undertakes “profoundly serious investigation into the human case,” and the rise in its place of fiction powered by ceaselessly inventive, ever-entertaining storytelling. The apparent moral emptiness and artistic decline of the literature coming out of England and the US has been explored by Gabriel Josipovici in his recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism? Pankaj Mishra has written more specifically about the American case.

Anjum Hasan is the author of several works of fiction. Her latest book is the collection of stories A Day in the Life. See more at www.anjumhasan.com.