For one who has, since boyhood, regarded the secondhand bookshop as a paradise of total immersion, it is quite shocking to discover Albatross, an unknown imprint from the English literary past. Before Albatross there was Tauchnitz, the Leipzig firm which for 100 years cornered the market in English language books outside the territories of the British Empire and the USA. One often comes across Tauchnitz and I have two of its editions: a Thomas de Quincey, with a stamp from a circulating library in Lausanne; and a Ruskin, with one from a British club in Portugal. I only keep them as curiosities, because normally I avoid Tauchnitz editions: cheap boards with awful print on awful paper. But its market was huge, not only among expats but also foreigners who wished to pursue the new world language, which, following the defeat of Napoleon, was English.
By the time Albatross came along in 1932, Tauchnitz had sold 40 million books since its inauguration in 1837. But Albatross, licensed in the same territories, was soon outselling its predecessor and indeed took over its management, though the two firms remained technically separated. Yet I’ve never seen an Albatross book, which is astonishing, because Albatross stole the Tauchnitz thunder not only by under-cutting on price but by being very attractive visually, and the imprint sold in vast numbers.
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The Albatross Modern Continental Library pioneered the paperback market — Penguin, learning much from it, started out in 1935. Albatross invented colour-coding, in the form of fully saturated covers: red for crime, blue for romance, yellow for literary novels and essays, purple for biography and history, green for travel, orange for short stories. These made irresistible window displays. The list went from fairly highbrow (Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield) to middlebrow (Sinclair Lewis, Humbert Wolfe, Richard Aldington, John Steinbeck, E.M. Forster), to their lowbrow staple, which was detective fiction with British settings. Albatross preferred living to dead authors and was nimble, even unscrupulous, from the beginning (it pinched James Joyce from Tauchnitz).
The brains behind it was one of the most delightfully raffish characters to come before us in a long time, John Holroyd-Reece, whose extreme Englishness was linked to a gift for languages, which opened cosmopolitan doors. He turned out to be a Jew from Dresden who was schooled at Repton and changed his name. The backing money came from the copper magnate Edmund Davis, also Jewish. They linked up with a distributor in Hamburg, Kurt Enoch, again Jewish. None of this would have mattered, except that in 1933 Hitler came to power, and Albatross had been registered as a German company, since its stock was printed in Leipzig. Yet its front was as a British enterprise, and its editorial heart was in Paris, then as now a more adventurous base than London for modern literature. There were also links with Mondadori in Italy.
Strange Bird recounts how Albatross survived the Nazi era, and its pages swerve through audacious acts of brinkmanship and occult allegiance. At the outbreak of the second world war, Holroyd-Reece had to fly to Paris to persuade the French that Albatross stock was allied-British not enemy-German property. He appeared in the rue Royale, ‘sporting a bright red waistcoat, an ostentatiously tall fur hat and a glass walking-stick’, and once again succeeded in unlikely circumstances.
The Nazis tolerated it, as Albatross-Tauchnitz, because it generated foreign currency and was a propagandist fig leaf for the regime’s monomania. Albatross sales stood up well during the war. But as Michele K. Troy drily remarks, ‘few among the occupied peoples of Europe were in the mood for anything German’. After the war, it was bedevilled by its German associations, its confused holding companies in different countries, and the problem of wartime royalties. It ended up in the hands of the William Collins house, who, failing to sell it on, pulled the plug in 1955. Many of those involved were exceptional operators who became key figures in postwar publishing in Europe and the USA (Enoch founded the New American Library). But Holroyd-Reece floundered, tried to establish himself in milk distribution and died a forgotten figure in 1969.
Troy’s account is a painstaking act of exhumation. No coherent Albatross archive exists and she has had to recover its lost story from many disparate sources whose bewildering cross-currents remind us that transnational dubiety and multiple identity are not new phenomena. Given the historical context, she might have been tempted to slide off into overview waffle, but thankfully she sticks tenaciously to her unique dig, presenting us with a remarkable reconstruction. But something of the enigma remains. Why, in all my travels, have I never seen an Albatross book?