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Eric Lane: Dante Alighieri’s Publishing Company

In 1978 Eric Lane attended a novel writing class at Morley College in London. He was very impressed by the novels he heard read out by the others and was surprised that every single one, including his own, was rejected by publishers and/or agents. He felt that many of them were as good as or superior to what was being published. Accordingly he decided to set up his own publishing company to rectify this. However, his classmates were less than enthusiastic. Lane persisted, by attending a Start Your Own Business class and finding a printer in Durham, much cheaper than in London. He took on every task himself, including storing 20,000 books in his front room.

This book novelises the whole story. Doubtless there are many differences between what happened in real life and what happens in the book, but there are two key ones that we see at once. The novel is narrated by Eric Lane. However the Eric Lane’s alter ego in this book is not called Eric Lane but, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, Dante Alighieri. (Lane’s mother was Italian so there is an Italian connection). His wife (Marie in real life) is called Beatrice Portinari. In real life Beatrice Portinari was married to a banker, Simone dei Bardi, and not Dante. She became Dante’s muse but he said he only ever saw her twice in his life. She died when she was only twenty-five. In real life Dante married Gemma Donati but, of course, few people have heard of her. Dante and Gemma had at least four children but none of them share the name of the child of Dante and Beatrice in this book. Their child is to be called Francesco but turns out to be a Francesca, a name which recalls Francesca da Rimini, who appears In Dante’s Inferno. To avoid confusion future references to Dante and Beatrice will refer to the fictitious ones in this book.

Dante and Beatrice are not the only ones appropriating the names of famous people. Dante’s fellow writers include Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Yoll. Wolfgang Goethe and Anton Chekov alas make an appearance. Yoll, by the way, is the tale-teller in Robert Irwin‘s The Arabian Nightmare and therefore clearly represents Irwin, one of Lane’s co-founders.

The other distortion of history is Dante’s premature death, while crossing Charing Cross Road from Foyles (still there) to Books, Etc. (long since gone). Beatrice stated Dante showed an Italian disregard for traffic, though traffic on Charing Cross Road is usually fairly slow. However, buses can conceal dangers. Beatrice hands over Dante’s notebooks to Eric Lane and they are the basis for this novel. The real Eric Lane is still very much alive at the time of writing.

The publishing company which will becomes Dedalus in real life and Dead Loss in this book had their genesis in the writing class mentioned above. The focus is on Dante and while he is clearly a highly motivated person, he is not always a good man, getting involved in a fist fight with his wife and his mother, for example. We are no longer on talking terms and communicate by rude gestures. Women have no understanding and Beatrice even less than most. Like many publishers, he is an alcoholic.

His father and two older brothers are all lawyers and he was expected to follow in their footsteps and when he shows a preference for writing/publishing, he is very much criticised.

However the main interest is in setting up the publishing company. His fellow writers are less than enthusiastic, particularly when money is involved. He has to get temp jobs to help pay the bills. He lasts less than one day at the Inland Revenue but does somewhat better acting as a tour guide, taking a bunch of Americans round Europe while his wife is pregnant. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tour ends with a riot. The next trip is to Hell.

The business does take off and he and his fellow authors spend a long and quite funny time reppping, i.e. going around bookshops persuading them to stock their books, with mixed results. However some of his authors are more helpful than others. Authors I have discovered are a tiresome lot, even worse than lawyers.

They plan an official launch, involving a coffin, but it all goes horribly wrong as the main printing union is on strike and no newspapers are published. They try again later with more success. We continue to follow their ups and downs, including the not always harmonious marriage and relations with other family members.

Having had some success, though limited, with his fellow English authors, he branches out into Italian where he discovers British readers are often not too keen on unknown foreigners. I have read more Italian novels than most of my compatriots but never took to Giovanni Verga, even when translated by D H Lawrence. He is a bit too nineteenth century for my taste. I have read and reviewedGrazia Deledda but can confirm that her page is very much not one of the most visited pages on my website. Despite my efforts and Dedalus’ efforts, she remains unknown in the UK. I can confirm that Luigi Pirandello is known only as a playwright in the UK, though I thought his novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal) excellent as did and do Italian readers.

Lane has written books (including this one) but, as he (or, rather, Dante) says he sees himself more cut out to be a publisher than a writer. I have to say I enjoyed this book very much. It is witty, self-deprecating and tells a good story. I certainly found it interesting to see how a small publisher comes into being and survives, particularly in a culture where quality books are not always appreciated. However while praising Lane as an author, it is as a publisher that I really appreciate him. A quick count reveals that I have nineteen Dedalus books on this site and there will doubtless be more. Dante Alighieri may be dead but here’s hoping Eric Lane keeps publishing for many more years and, who knows he may yet produce another novel.

This book is being republished on Bloomsday, the day Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, which features Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego and after whom the publishing company is named so the review will first appear on that day.

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by Dedalus