Patrician hauteur. Interview - Christopher MacLehose.

Baret Magarianinvestigates the success of the pioneering Harvill Press

If there were a competition to find the most interesting publishing house in Britain, the maverick independent Harvill Press would be a prime contender. The Harvill list comprises three elements: translations of European fiction and poetry, English and American writing, and large-format illustrated books. What, one wonders, is the secret of its commercial success, given the rarefied appeal of much of its output?

Christopher MacLehose, chairman and co-owner, is a tall, patrician Scot, an old-fashioned maker of fine books. He is famously elliptical in speech; there is a sense that even if the earth were to explode, he's going to take his time answering questions. He is also a shrewd judge of the literary market, maximising the accessibility of his list without compromising it. He joined Harvill, then owned by HarperCollins, in 1984, having previously been editorial director of Chatto and Windus.

Harvill was founded in 1946 by Manya Harari and Marjorie Villiers, former BBC broadcasters who wished to build cultural bridges in Europe after the war. It regained independence, in April 1995, following a management buyout led by MacLehose. "Many senior executives at HarperCollins had decided that Harvill was not essential," MacLehose says of the period. "They asked, 'Are we are genuinely interested in, say, Ismail Kadare?' They decided they weren't and to make life simple they'd stop publishing him. The powers that be proposed that Harvill only be allowed to publish eight or nine books a year. I said that I wouldn't stand back and let that happen. It made me angry to think of the stupidity of what was being suggested. To crush something that had taken almost 50 years to build seemed seriously to misjudge what it was."

Harvill has been successful because "we left HarperCollins with a substantial part of our backlist intact. So the fuel was there to keep the motor running, as it were. There was also a broad acceptance among young booksellers - and among the public that bought our books - that Harvill stood for something: first-class works in whatever language in the world translated into English." The Harvill backlist includes Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Today, Harvill issues books from 22 languages; its leading authors include Peter Hoeg, whose Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow was an international bestseller, W G Sebald, Cees Noteboom, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.

But the pursuit of a resolutely international agenda would, MacLehose points out, be unremarkable on the continent. "If you put Harvill, or John Calder, or Serpent's Tail, or Quartet into Paris, Munich or Milan, they wouldn't be looked upon as anything out of the ordinary. They would be no different from any other publishing house, because in Europe people take it for granted that you read books by foreign authors. And in this country there is a catastrophic want of curiosity, which is why Harvill will always remain small."

A recent Harvill success was German-born W G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, a haunting work drawing seemingly disparate narrative strands into a seamless whole. It is part autobiography, part history and part travel book. One senses that most publishers would have been perturbed by its very unclassifiability.

"Sebald appeals to me in the same way Aldous Huxley does, as a scholar who draws down references from the shelves of his mind and lays them out in intellectually exhilarating configurations. I would like people not so much to ape the genre as to adopt the clarity and economy of his prose style. It would save many trees from being chopped down."

Will Harvill take on more British authors? "Well, I don't believe that we turn away many outstanding writers in the English language. We publish British authors who belong on the list. Nicholas Shakespeare, for example, thinks like a European writer. James Buchan could be a German novelist."

What is his greatest fear with regard to the future of publishing? "Probably that the process by which very good books are well translated and published is so arduous that it will wear down those who do it. I don't think this is sufficiently understood. But fortunately there are young, idealistic, knowledgeable people who continue to throw their lives into it."

MacLehose has commented on the way the English intelligentsia refuses to make itself visible - in contrast to continental intellectuals, who discuss ideas through the circuit of cafe society. People here prefer to communicate through e-mail and on the telephone. "The way ideas spread from one community to another is a slow process; you have to inflame that crucial virus - word of mouth - and how you do so forms the subject of relentless discussions in your marketing department. There's another problem: that people just don't read enough today. But we shouldn't waste our time reading the mediocre. What really matters is what is excellent."