Damned before they published

Two notes on the French publishers "censorship" of my Age of Extremes ("Did France censor Hobsbawn?", 11 October).

1) Be fair to Pierre Nora, even though he could certainly have published the book himself. He explained to me privately that he could not risk publishing without support from the reviewers and, in the anti-Marxist mood of the time, all the hatchets would be out against me. He wrote in public, and with admirable honesty, that the issue was ideological. The article David Lawday quotes was published in 1997, years after the leading publishers had made their decision. I have no evidence that he "put out the word" against the book before.

2) Very different is the situation of Fayard, which had published all the earlier volumes. After refusing for a long time to put anything about their decision in writing, even to admit that they had taken any decision, we now have two equally implausible explanations. One, from Lawday's anonymous "responsible editor" (who, almost certainly, had not read the book in English), that it was no good; the other - in mid-1997 - from the director-general of the firm. His line was that they might have run the risk of publishing at a loss, given "the importance of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, with which I am personally familiar", if only someone had paid the full costs of translation, but, alas, no one would. Taking the director's own figures, I calculate that the deficit they were prepared to envisage would have been covered by the sale of 400 extra copies. I am told that, even before the forthcoming French edition is in the shops, more than ten times that number have been ordered.

Eric Hobsbawm
London NW3

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?