Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 33

Dine with the publisher — Religions — No animal food — Unprofitable discussions — Principles of criticism — The book market — Newgate lives — Goethe a drug — German acquirements — Moral dignity.

On the Sunday I was punctual to my appointment to dine with the publisher. As I hurried along the square in which his house stood, my thoughts were fixed so intently on the great man, that I passed by him without seeing him. He had observed me, however, and joined me just as I was about to knock at the door. ‘Let us take a turn in the square,’ said he, ‘we shall not dine for half an hour.’

‘Well,’ said he, as we were walking in the square, ‘what have you been doing since I last saw you?’

‘I have been looking about London,’ said I, ‘and I have bought the Dairyman’s Daughter; here it is.’

‘Pray put it up,’ said the publisher; ‘I don’t want to look at such trash. Well, do you think you could write anything like it?’

‘I do not,’ said I.

‘How is that?’ said the publisher, looking at me.

‘Because,’ said I, ‘the man who wrote it seems to be perfectly well acquainted with his subject; and, moreover, to write from the heart.’

‘By the subject you mean — ’

‘Religion.’

‘And ain’t you acquainted with religion?’

‘Very little.’

‘I am sorry for that,’ said the publisher seriously, ‘for he who sets up for an author ought to be acquainted not only with religion, but religions, and indeed with all subjects, like my good friend in the country. It is well that I have changed my mind about the Dairyman’s Daughter, or I really don’t know whom I could apply to on the subject at the present moment, unless to himself; and after all I question whether his style is exactly suited for an evangelical novel.’

‘Then you do not wish for an imitation of the Dairyman’s Daughter?’

‘I do not, sir; I have changed my mind, as I told you before; I wish to employ you in another line, but will communicate to you my intentions after dinner.’

At dinner, beside the publisher and myself, were present his wife and son with his newly-married bride; the wife appeared a quiet respectable woman, and the young people looked very happy and good-natured; not so the publisher, who occasionally eyed both with contempt and dislike. Connected with this dinner there was one thing remarkable; the publisher took no animal food, but contented himself with feeding voraciously on rice and vegetables prepared in various ways.

‘You eat no animal food, sir?’ said I.

‘I do not, sir,’ said he; ‘I have forsworn it upwards of twenty years. In one respect, sir, I am a Brahmin. I abhor taking away life — the brutes have as much right to live as ourselves.’

‘But,’ said I, ‘if the brutes were not killed, there would be such a superabundance of them, that the land would be overrun with them.’

‘I do not think so, sir; few are killed in India, and yet there is plenty of room.’

‘But,’ said I, ‘Nature intended that they should be destroyed, and the brutes themselves prey upon one another, and it is well for themselves and the world that they do so. What would be the state of things if every insect, bird, and worm were left to perish of old age?’

‘We will change the subject,’ said the publisher; ‘I have never been a friend of unprofitable discussions.’

I looked at the publisher with some surprise, I had not been accustomed to be spoken to so magisterially; his countenance was dressed in a portentous frown, and his eye looked more sinister than ever; at that moment he put me in mind of some of those despots of whom I had read in the history of Morocco, whose word was law. He merely wants power, thought I to myself, to be a regular Muley Mehemet; and then I sighed, for I remembered how very much I was in the power of that man.

The dinner over, the publisher nodded to his wife, who departed, followed by her daughter-inlaw. The son looked as if he would willingly have attended them; he, however, remained seated; and, a small decanter of wine being placed on the table, the publisher filled two glasses, one of which he handed to myself, and the other to his son; saying, ‘Suppose you two drink to the success of the Review. I would join you,’ said he, addressing himself to me, ‘but I drink no wine; if I am a Brahmin with respect to meat, I am a Mahometan with respect to wine.’

So the son and I drank success to the Review, and then the young man asked me various questions; for example — How I liked London? — Whether I did not think it a very fine place? — Whether I was at the play the night before? — and whether I was in the park that afternoon? He seemed preparing to ask me some more questions; but, receiving a furious look from his father, he became silent, filled himself a glass of wine, drank it off, looked at the table for about a minute, then got up, pushed back his chair, made me a bow, and left the room.

‘Is that young gentleman, sir,’ said I, ‘well versed in the principles of criticism?’

‘He is not, sir,’ said the publisher; ‘and, if I place him at the head of the Review ostensibly, I do it merely in the hope of procuring him a maintenance; of the principle of a thing he knows nothing, except that the principle of bread is wheat, and that the principle of that wine is grape. Will you take another glass?’

I looked at the decanter; but, not feeling altogether so sure as the publisher’s son with respect to the principle of what it contained, I declined taking any more.

‘No, sir,’ said the publisher, adjusting himself in his chair, ‘he knows nothing about criticism, and will have nothing more to do with the reviewals than carrying about the books to those who have to review them; the real conductor of the Review will be a widely different person, to whom I will, when convenient, introduce you. And now we will talk of the matter which we touched upon before dinner: I told you then that I had changed my mind with respect to you; I have been considering the state of the market, sir, the book market, and I have come to the conclusion that, though you might be profitably employed upon evangelical novels, you could earn more money for me, sir, and consequently for yourself, by a compilation of Newgate lives and trials.’

‘Newgate lives and trials!’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the publisher, ‘Newgate lives and trials; and now, sir, I will briefly state to you the services which I expect you to perform, and the terms which I am willing to grant. I expect you, sir, to compile six volumes of Newgate lives and trials, each volume to contain by no manner of means less than one thousand pages; the remuneration which you will receive when the work is completed will be fifty pounds, which is likewise intended to cover any expenses you may incur in procuring books, papers, and manuscripts necessary for the compilation. Such will be one of your employments, sir, — such the terms. In the second place, you will be expected to make yourself useful in the Review — generally useful, sir — doing whatever is required of you; for it is not customary, at least with me, to permit writers, especially young writers, to choose their subjects. In these two departments, sir, namely compilation and reviewing, I had yesterday, after due consideration, determined upon employing you. I had intended to employ you no farther, sir — at least for the present; but, sir, this morning I received a letter from my valued friend in the country, in which he speaks in terms of strong admiration (I don’t overstate) of your German acquirements. Sir, he says that it would be a thousand pities if your knowledge of the German language should be lost to the world, or even permitted to sleep, and he entreats me to think of some plan by which it may be turned to account. Sir, I am at all times willing, if possible, to oblige my worthy friend, and likewise to encourage merit and talent; I have, therefore, determined to employ you in German.’

‘Sir,’ said I, rubbing my hands, ‘you are very kind, and so is our mutual friend; I shall be happy to make myself useful in German; and if you think a good translation from Goethe — his Sorrows for example, or more particularly his Faust — ’

‘Sir,’ said the publisher, ‘Goethe is a drug; his Sorrows are a drug, so is his Faustus, more especially the last, since that fool — rendered him into English. No, sir, I do not want you to translate Goethe or anything belonging to him; nor do I want you to translate anything from the German; what I want you to do, is to translate into German. I am willing to encourage merit, sir; and, as my good friend in his last letter has spoken very highly of your German acquirements, I have determined that you shall translate my book of philosophy into German.’

‘Your book of philosophy into German, sir?’

‘Yes, sir; my book of philosophy into German. I am not a drug, sir, in Germany as Goethe is here, no more is my book. I intend to print the translation at Leipzig, sir; and if it turns out a profitable speculation, as I make no doubt it will, provided the translation be well executed, I will make you some remuneration. Sir, your remuneration will be determined by the success of your translation.’

‘But, sir — ’

‘Sir,’ said the publisher, interrupting me, ‘you have heard my intentions; I consider that you ought to feel yourself highly gratified by my intentions towards you; it is not frequently that I deal with a writer, especially a young writer, as I have done with you. And now, sir, permit me to inform you that I wish to be alone. This is Sunday afternoon, sir; I never go to church, but I am in the habit of spending part of every Sunday afternoon alone — profitably I hope, sir — in musing on the magnificence of nature and the moral dignity of man.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32