The story of Britain's colorful, contradictory publisher Gollancz

Victor Gollancz: A Biography, by Ruth Dudley Edwards. London: Victor Gollancz, dist. by David & Charles, Inc., North Pomfret, Vt. 05053. 782 pp. Illustrated. $45. Two decades after his death, Victor Gollancz (1893-1967) is remembered almost solely for the publishing house he founded in 1927. It continues today as one of London's last independent publishers - one of the few not absorbed into one of the hydra-headed ``groups'' that dominate the British book trade.

But, as Ruth Dudley Edwards shows in this fine biography, Gollancz was a mass of contradictions. A hardheaded businessman making money off best-selling authors like Daphne du Maurier, he also published many money-losing books and pamphlets because they promoted the causes he championed. A nonpracticing Jew, he came to be regarded - on account of his fiery and influential preachings - as ``the best Christian in England'' (at a time and place where the designation sounded perhaps less patronizing than it does now). Founding genius behind the influential Left Book Club of the 1930s and '40s, which many thought responsible for bringing about Labour's stunning electoral victory in 1945, Gollancz admired Churchill far more than any of the Labour politicians.

A leader in the struggle to persuade his own nation and others to accept refugees from Hitler's Germany, Gollancz found himself bitterly attacked in the state of Israel for denouncing the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann. A man so devastated by the Nazi Holocaust that he had a nervous breakdown from contemplating the individual tragedies behind the vast numbers, Gollancz became a hero in postwar Germany because of his passionate campaign to improve the food rations of the defeated Germans. A happily married husband with five daughters and a champion of the sanctity of marriage, he was unfaithful to the end of his life to the wife he adored and even wrote about his infidelities in his autobiography. A loud proclaimer of the virtue of Christian forgiveness, he could be harsh and unforgiving to family, friends, employees, colleagues, collaborators, and even authors he published, including George Orwell, whom he lost in any case when he refused to publish ``Animal Farm.''

One of the many virtues of this fascinating biography is that Edwards, throughout her detailed, beautifully structured account of Gollancz's complex personal, business, and political lives, never becomes an apologist for her subject. Edwards shows ``VG'' (as he was known) with all his faults, perhaps because his virtues are so impressive.

For it is hard not to admire a crusader against capital punishment who, throughout the night before each hanging, made a point of actually imagining himself in the place of the person to be executed. Nor did Gollancz spare himself the burden of extending forgiveness to more fortunate criminals, whom he visited in prison and helped rehabilitate upon their release, no matter how heinous their crimes.

The author of texts with titles like ``Our Threatened Values'' did his best to have people - including himself, however imperfectly - live up to the values he championed: affection, tolerance, humility, forgiveness, generosity of spirit. During the 1950s, it was often rumored that he was about to convert to Christianity, but he never did. The values, he pointed out, were central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Through pamphlets, public speeches, and broadcasts on radio and television, he remained a powerful force for these values.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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