I’ve been fascinated by The Albatross Press and their huge selection of books solely issued in the English language although printed and circulated only in continental Europe for well over twenty years, possibly thirty, from when I first became aware of their existence and the obvious influence the press had on Allen Lane when he came to found Penguin Books back in 1935. However until this book was published in 2017 information about Albatross was patchy at best and for my 250th blog I’ve decided to look again at my small Albatross collection along with reviewing Michele Troy’s excellent book. The Albatross Press books are difficult to find here in the UK as due to copyright restrictions they were not available in the UK, British Empire or the USA and indeed were seized by customs officials if anyone tried to bring them in, but they can be found occasionally and when I see one at a reasonable price I normally pick it up to add to my library. I’m going to split this blog into two sections, firstly a review of Michele Troy’s superb and phenomenally well researched book and then a piece about my collection which will give an idea as to the sort of titles published by Albatross from its foundation in 1932 until closing down soon after 1947. In fact it survived as an entity until 1955 but didn’t produce any new books in the 1950’s merely trying to sell its back stocks as it faced competition from a wave of American and British new paperback publishers all able to undercut Albatross prices.
Strange Bird – Michele K. Troy
As implied by the subtitle of this impressive volume 1932 was not a good year to start a publishing venture in Germany as Hitler along with his followers burgeoning censorship of books, sometimes for little reason, made operating there extremely difficult from his rise to power in 1933. Alongside the issues of Nazi interference as to what may or may not be published there was a significant problem with the business model for The Albatross Press and that was that there was already a well established publishing company issuing English language books on the continent and the German firm Tauchnitz had been in that market for over ninety years. The Albatross Press was an extremely complicated company, initially printing books in Italy and then moving that part of the business to Germany to get round Nazi regulations. European distribution was also run from Germany but the editorial team were in Paris whilst the funding came from Britain via a holding company in Luxembourg. It’s founding partners were John Holroyd-Reece a German born naturalised Brit who was half Jewish and German Max Christian Wegner who had recently been fired as Managing Director of Tauchnitz. Running the distribution from his existing company was another German, Kurt Enoch, who was also Jewish. You can see the problems that will rapidly start to accumulate under the rise of the Nazis. Holroyd-Reece also started numerous other publishing companies some of which owned shares in the other ones and it is frankly amazing that not only does Michele Troy explain this dense web of businesses but does so in a highly readable way.
Part of the reason for the complexity was a desire to present the company as German to Germans, British to the British and sufficiently international to confuse everyone else but you may wonder why there was not only a market for English language books on the continent and how such a market got started. Troy does her best to cover this as well, initially created by Tauchnitz partly in order to allow British and later American authors to obtain copyright for their works in Europe decades before international copyright was available. Well educated Europeans could also normally read English perfectly and having books in the original language is always seen as preferable to translations. By the mid to late 1930’s though the main thing that was driving the existence of Albatross and Tauchnitz, which by then Albatross had succeeded in getting editorial control over, was the need for foreign currency by Hitler’s government. This is another complicating aspect ably covered by Michele Troy as she digs into Nazi files and reveals the various sides trying to decide if Albatross, as a British firm, should be trading in Germany at all, especially when it turned out that the main British backer was also a Jew. Amazingly even after war broke out Albatross continued to trade until 1944 although it was largely concerned in selling it’s stored books.
What starts off as the history of a now largely forgotten publishing house turns into almost a detective story as she pieces together the surviving documentation despite both Albatross and Tauchnitz archives being destroyed during the war. The notes and citations alone run to fifty seven pages and the selected bibliography a further twelve pages. This is a major academic research project from the professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford and is well worth a read even if you have never heard of Albatross because it is so well written the story draws you in.
My collection of Albatross Press books
As has become clear to anyone reading my blog for a while I collect Penguin Books and have over 3,500 of them so Albatross are a logical side collection. The inspiration for Penguin Books was partly due to the press being named after a bird but mainly for the cheap but smart editions which are colour coded by subject matter, something that Allan Lane immediately adopted for his new enterprise. The chart shown below is from the dust wrapper of Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.
Troy explains the importance of Tauchnitz and if anything volumes from this publisher are even more difficult to find in the UK than Albatross, I just have four, three of which are from 1879 and 1880 and the final one, ‘Twelve Men’ is from 1930 so shows the plain typographical covers that the bright and colourful Albatross were going up against to attract customers.
I have managed to accumulate twenty three Albatross books, so roughly one a year since I started looking for them, and their immediate attraction is obvious even if the standardisation of colours is sometimes poor to say the least. Both ‘Journal’ and ‘The Arches of the Years’ are purple and ‘Journal’ isn’t faded as it is that shade on the spine and rear cover as well.
- 16 – The Brothers printed in Italy in 193?
- 19 – Ambrose Holt and Family printed in Germany in 1932
- 31 – Apocalypse printed in Germany in 1932
- 32 – The White Peacock printed in Germany in 1932
- 52 – Journal printed in Germany in 1933
- 203 – The Arches of the Years printed in Germany in 1934
- 216 (Extra Volume) – All Men are Enemies printed in Germany in 1934
- 236 – Pelican Walking printed in Germany in 1934
- 240 – Unfinished Cathedral printed in Germany in 1934
- 247 – Brief Candles printed in Germany in 1935
- 260 – Music at Night printed in Germany in 1935
- 310 – The Asiatics reprinted in Italy in 1947
- 317 (Special Volume) – The Weather in the Streets reprinted in Italy in 1947
- 326 (Extra Volume) – Aaron’s Rod printed in Germany in 1937
- 359 – The Bridge printed by Collins in Scotland in 1938 as Les Editions Albatros, Paris
- 377 – Juan in China printed in Germany in 1938
- 390 (Extra Volume) – The Letters of D.H. Lawrence printed in Germany in 1938
- 514 – Grandma Called it Carnal printed in Italy in 1947
- 551 (Special Volume) – Operation Neptune printed in Holland in 1947
- 556 (Special Volume) – English Saga printed in Holland in 1947
- 558 – Siegfried’s Journey printed in Holland in 1947
- 4802 – Lord Jim printed in Italy for Librairie Marcel Didier in 1947
- 4975 – Memories of a Fox-Hunting Man printed in Italy for Librairie Marcel Didier in 1947
The massive leap in the numbering scheme for the last two books should not be taken to show thousands of new titles suddenly being released. Rather I suspect that this is to keep the Librairie Marcel Didier volumes well out of the numbering scheme of the existing Albatross Press books. Penguin did something similar when launching Penguin Inc in America during the war and starting their book numbering at 500. Penguin Inc’s managing director was Kurt Enoch having escaped the Nazi’s so this was his second publishing venture. In 1948 following disagreements with Allen Lane back at Penguin headquarters in England Penguin Inc was dissolved and Enoch started again with his third publishing firm this time as Signet and Mentor. As for the Extra and Special Volumes these are normally significantly thicker than ‘normal’ volumes and presumably had a higher price although 558 Siegfried’s Journey is a normal size so maybe Special Volumes had a different rule.
But why Albatross? Holroyd-Reece had several explanations but the one I find most persuasive is because the word is similar in a lot of European languages: Albatros in Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish amongst many others, Albatro in Italian, Albatrosz in Hungarian and surprisingly Albatross in Estonian and those last two languages I know from personal experience are normally miles away from English. I’m still on the lookout for more volumes from The Albatross Press and have even added a sideline of want to be Albatross books including the Italian Corvi press, which is undated but numbered 4 in the series and looks to be from the 1930’s. This is a true polyglot of a title as it is a biography of a British Prime Minister written by a French politician and translated into Italian. Alongside is a book I picked up earlier this year in Budapest which is much later, 1979, but is clearly inspired by Albatross design and in this case is written in Hungarian but published in Bucharest, Romania. Fabre was a French naturalist and this is a translation of one of his books about insects.
All in all The Albatross Press produced some very attractive books from a wide range of significant authors so are well worth looking for and are a pleasant surprise when you do find one on a shelf in a second hand bookshop. As Michelle Troy’s incredibly well researched book proves they also had a fascinating history behind them.