Oxford University Press is sad to hear of the passing of Chinua Achebe. The following is an excerpt from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by John Gross.
In 1957 Achebe spent several months in London. He had already completed a draft of his ﬁrst novel, Things Fall Apart, but felt that it needed further work; he took the manuscript back to Lagos, where he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, and ﬁnished revising it there:
When I was in England, I had seen advertisements about typing agencies; I had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed. So, foolishly, from Nigeria, I parceled my manuscript –– handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world –– wrapped it up and posted it to this typing agency that advertised in the Spectator. They wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for your manuscript. We’ll charge thirty-two pounds.’ That was what they wanted for two copies, and which they had to receive before they started. So I sent thirty-two pounds in British postal order to these people, and then I heard no more. Weeks passed, and months. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Finally, I was very lucky. My boss at the broadcasting house was going home to London on leave. A very stubborn Englishwoman. I told her about this. She said. ‘Give me their name and address.’ When she got to London she went there! She said, ‘What’s this nonsense?’ They must have been shocked, because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa –– well, there’s really nobody to follow it up. The British don’t normally behave like that. It’s not done, you see. But something from Africa was treated diﬀerently. So when this woman, Mrs Beattie, turned up in their oﬃce, and said, ‘What’s going on?’ they were confused. They said, ‘The manuscript was sent but customs returned it.’ Mrs. Beattie said, ‘Can I see your dispatch book?’ They had no dispatch book. So she said, ‘Well, send this thing, typed up, back to him in the next week, or otherwise you’ll hear about it.’ So soon after that, I received the typed manuscript of Things Fall Apart. One copy, not two. No letter at all to say what happened.
Interview in Paris Review, 1994
In his biography of Achebe, Ezenwa-Ohaeto quotes the novelist’s response to a friend who asked what his reaction would have been if the manuscript had been stolen: ‘he said that he would have died’.
In The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, master anthologist John Gross brings together a delectable smorgasbord of literary tales, offering striking new insight into some of the most important writers in history. John Gross is the editor of The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, The Oxford Book of Essays, After Shakespeare, and many other publications. He was editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1974 to 1981, and is currently theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph.