In its initial incarnation, The Book of Dirt was to be presented as a “found manuscript”. The structure would take the form of Talmudic pages, with a central narrative and surrounding commentaries. I’ll be posting a sample page soon, but in the meantime, here’s the original prologue. It’s kind of embarrassing and overdone in parts, and it’s pretty long, but hey, it’s also kind of fun. So here goes:
A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER ON THE SECOND EDITION OF PRESSER’S “THE BOOK OF DIRT”
I first discovered The Book of Dirt while on holiday in the Czech Republic. A colleague had given me a list of her favourite Prague bookstores, literary oases far removed from the throng of tourists that infest the more popular historical sites, and told me that I was to visit any one of them whenever I needed an escape. There are many things to love about these stores, she said, not the least of which is the vast selection of novels by Czech authors that are published by small independent houses and that never find their way to the outside world. She then joked about the tax deductibility of the trip should I happen to acquire one of these works for publication.
The morning I arrived, I headed straight to The Globe, a strange yet inviting amalgam of bookstore, restaurant and internet café, a hub for backpackers and booklovers alike. The place was mostly empty, but for a couple of college kids who were frantically typing emails before their allotted time expired, an elderly couple eating a very American looking brunch and a rather dishevelled young man behind the counter. I asked him where I might find Czech authors in English. “Kafka? Kundera? Skvorecky?” he asked, motioning to small stacks of books laid out in front of him. I said I was hoping for something other than the usual suspects. The man pointed toward the back corner.
I spent the better part of an hour trawling through the display and picked up a few novels by the likes of Capek, Viewegh, Fuchs, Kohout and Hrabal. As I headed back to the counter to pay, a wicker basket filled with dog-eared books caught my eye: “Czech Fiction Clearance Stock Only CZK5”. From what I could gather, these were all secondhand books that had done the rounds of the various youth hostels in the area until they were ready to fall apart, at which point some enterprising young backpacker brought them in and sold them for whatever junk change the owner was willing to shell out. At the bottom of the pile lay The Book of Dirt.
I don’t know what made me choose it. The cover was drab, the author completely unknown to me. Judging by its position in the basket, nobody else had been remotely interested in buying this runt of the literary litter. But it was fairly slim, the blurb was mildly intriguing and it only cost five Czech crowns so I figured I had nothing to lose.
That afternoon, I sat down for a late lunch at Mlejnice, a small stone cavern renowned for its long waits and succulent pork knuckle special. I took The Book of Dirt from my bag and began to read it, figuring that if I was not sold within the first twenty pages I would leave it on my table as a gift to the next diner. Midway through the prologue, I knew I had found something special. I sat at Mlejnice all afternoon, ordering the odd serve of beer cheese and herring to keep the exasperated wait staff at bay, finally finishing the book over a dinner of steaming goulash and Pilsner. As I lay it on the table, I had only one thought: we had to publish this book.
Acquiring the novel was far more complicated. The author was untraceable and the publishing house didn’t seem to exist. There was no listing of Bram Presser or Vaclav’s Pony Printing at The British Library, The Library of Congress or any other of the major world cataloguing depositories. None of my European connections had heard of them either. After several months I was forced to begrudgingly accept that I was in possession of what would probably be the only English language copy of Presser’s strange little novel ever to be printed.
Long after I had given up on the idea, I received a letter postmarked Hodonín, a small city near the border of Slovakia. Its sender was a man named Borivoj Stojespal and, he wrote, he was the founder of Vaclav’s Pony Printing. Without explaining how he had heard of my attempts to acquire The Book of Dirt, he said that he was writing to me as a courtesy to let me know that the author “had dropped off the face of the earth”. They had only met once, he wrote, at a poetry reading held in London by a little known group called The Czech Counter-Realists. Stojespal was bemused by this young Australian tourist, who was obviously enamoured of early and mid-20th century Czech literature despite the fact he couldn’t speak a word of the language. At the end of the night, after most of the attendees had wandered back into the streets of Cambden, Stopejspal and Presser stayed on to finish what was left of the beer. They spoke of their grand plans; Presser had aspirations to writing, Stojespal to publishing. They made a pact that, should Presser ever write a book, Stojespal would have first right of refusal. The deal was sealed with a drunken handshake. They exchanged details on the back of two napkins and parted ways. Stojespal returned to Hodnín and thought little of his encounter until he received a package in the mail some months later containing a manuscript and a terse covering letter. Presser didn’t mince his words. As per our agreement, he wrote, here is the manuscript. I give you the exclusive right to publish it and ask for nothing in return. Like me, Stojespal was completely taken in by the book though he struggled to reconcile the words on the page with the unkempt man he had met at the reading. It was as though an old European soul had entered the body of a young Australian tramp.
Vaclav’s Pony Printing did not yet exist. On his return to Hodnin, Stojespal had simply resumed his work in the local bank, figuring that his literary dreams could wait. But The Book of Dirt changed that; it was the perfect first novel for such a venture. Unfortunately, Stojespal knew nothing of business and went about establishing his company in a completely haphazard manner. Vaclav’s Pony Printing existed in his mind from the moment he decided to fulfill his end of the deal, but he never went about the formalities of registering the company or seeking out distribution networks. It was, in essence, little more than a vanity press.
When the book arrived at his front door he was quite impressed with what he had achieved given his meager budget. He immediately sent a copy to the address Presser had written on the napkin the previous year. Less than a month later it was back in his mailbox, stamped “Return To Sender”. Numerous attempts to locate the writer came to nothing. Meanwhile, Stojespal had been trying to convince bookstores to stock the novel but he wasn’t having much luck. Without press, without an author to participate in events, without a name to attract readers, they just weren’t interested in taking the risk. The book industry was changing, they told him. It now trades on celebrity. Stojespal ended up clearing only fifty-seven copies of the two hundred that he had printed. He burnt the rest and cried while watching his short-lived literary dreams literally go up in smoke.
In closing, Stojespal wished me luck with the book. “I sincerely hope you can make something of it,” he wrote. “In that spirit I assign all my copyright interest in The Book of Dirt to your publishing house. I now ask for nothing more than to be left alone.”
Unfortunately, our first edition of Presser’s book didn’t fare a great deal better than the one from Vaclav’s Pony Printing. Although it received quite good reviews, it sold in only modest numbers, causing any planned future print runs to be abandoned.
Why then print a second edition?
The thought would never have crossed my mind had I not received an unexpected package containing a well-worn copy of the book, a fresh manuscript and what amounted to the greatest mea culpa of my publishing career. “Dear Ms. H,” it began. “It is not in my nature to deal with your kind but circumstances now force me to make an exception. Some years ago you published a book I wrote. For me it was merely an act of exorcism; I sent it to the most obscure publisher I could think of in the hope that it would disappear. I didn’t want its ghosts to continue to haunt me. Much to my dismay, the novel seems to have gained minor traction, if only in that a more reputable publisher saw fit to release it to a wider audience. Thankfully, it was a commercial failure. I could not possibly have lived with myself had it been different for soon after its release I learned that most of what I had written was wrong. As such, I enclose a revised manuscript in which you will find a number of amendments accompanied by commentary and correspondence. Should you wish to print them side by side, I think you will find a significantly different Book of Dirt to the one you first published. Whether you do is a different question altogether. It is for you to decide whether a phoenix can rise from the ashes of a stillbirth.” The letter was signed Bram Presser. Again, he didn’t include any contact details.
As I read over the manuscript it was like discovering the novel anew. Only this time, with the benefit of the added material, I could no longer tell whether it was a novel at all. I have included everything Presser sent in this edition and leave it to you, the reader, to make up you own mind.