“The newly released English edition of an Italian novel set in Finland is now selling like hot cinnamon rolls. Imagine my surprise: Top of the Guardian newspaper’s bestseller list was a book called New Finnish Grammar. Surely some mistake? How could so many readers be queuing up to discover the perplexing intricacies of the Finnish language? Finland may be attracting plenty of delighted visitors, but how many of them take the trouble to learn more than the basics: kiitos (thank you) and olut (beer)?
Unlike most foreign literature that makes more than a passing reference to the country, the book attracted little attention when its Finnish edition appeared in 2003. The English version, on the other hand, appears to be jumping off the bookshop shelves and acquiring something of a cult status.”
These are the comments of a website run by the The Finnish Foreign Ministry. Many Fins have taken this book about Finland to their hearts but they are not alone. Eleven years after its Italian publication New Finnish Grammar is making the kind of impact publishers dream about and hardly ever experience, especially small independent literary publishers like Dedalus. First published in May 2011, New Finnish Grammar is now to be printed for the seventh time in February 2012.
It is not easy to find a rational explanation for its success. The book was originally scheduled to be published in September 2011 but the publication was brought forward to May as Diego Marani had been invited to appear at The European Literature Night at the British Library. For us there is no point having an author on at an event without having copies of the book to sell. Diego Marani came and had the audience in hysterics of laughter as he joked with them in Europanto, his invented language. The 40 copies they had to sell of the book went in 5 minutes and if there were 100 copies they would have sold too. I did try and get Foyles who were selling the books to take 100 copies but they replied that normally 40 copies would be too many. This was the first sign that this book was going to be different.
It probably would not have proved to be different if it wasn’t for Nick Lezard who gave New Finnish Grammar a truly wonderful review in his column in The Guardian. His review took New Finnish Grammar to the top of The Guardian Bookshop’s Bestsellers and probably single-handedly sold out the first 2 print runs. It provided the push which started New Finnish Grammar rolling down hill and picking up speed as it went. Other reviews followed and all of a sudden this obscure book with its grey cover and strange name was being praised from all sides.
However good publicity rarely has this effect. When we published Phil Baker’s The Dedalus Book of Absinthe it got 50 book reviews, some of which were features over 3 pages long, but with all this publicity it sold just over 4,000 copies. The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy was The Guardian’s Book of the Week and had a whole page review. That sold for us an extra 500 copies.
What is clear is without Nick Lezard, the ball would not have got rolling for New Finnish Grammar but it does not explain its success. Other critics like Rosie Goldsmith made Herculean efforts to promote New Finnish Grammar and most of the nationals have now reviewed it. It travels around the blogosphere and Twitter getting ever more adulation.
I think it has struck a chord with its readers. It deals with profound issues: the nature of identity and the need to belong. What is new is the importance that Diego Marani gives to language in making us who we are and helping us belong. It is also helped by the interest in Diego Marani’s invented language Europanto, a source of many column inches in the press. New Finnish Grammar has become a must read book for anyone with an interest in Finland and all matters Finnish. It sells like hot cinnamon rolls in Helsinki and Brussels, where Diego works as the E.U.’s Senior Linguist. A book about the importance of language, obviously belongs in a city with 2 languages and where language is so important it took a year for a government to be formed in Belgium. Doubly important is that it is available in a neutral language, English.
However none of the above really explains its success. This is the joy of literary publishing: most of the successes are unpredictable. If they were predictable there would be no small independent publishers and all successful books would be the monopoly of the large commercial publishers. This gives smaller publishers who publish books which are different a chance to compete with the big boys.
In May 2012 we publish Diego Marani’s second novel The Last of the Vostyachs and his collection of stories in Europanto: Las Adventures des inspector Cabillot. Kevin Jackson’s 15-minute film of The Last of the Vostyachs will be premiered and Diego Marani will visit the UK to promote his work. This should mean The Last of the Vostyachs will be selling like hot cinnamon rolls but it is equally possible that the opposite happens. Whatever the outcome Dedalus is doing another book by Diego Marani in May 2013 and such is the importance of language we can’t agree what the title should be in English.
Why did Nick Lezard review New Finnish Grammar in the first place? The answer is that he once had a Finnish girlfriend and had a soft spot for Finland and its culture. On such chance occurrences are born the vagaries of literary and commercial success.