Things Fall

The clas­sic novel by Chinua Achebe, and how it came to be, are leg­endary African tales

Mail & Guardian - - Music And Books - Idowu Omoyele

Sixty years ago, 27-year-old Chinua Achebe ini­ti­ated a pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion when Lon­don-based William Heine­mann printed 2 000 hard­back copies of his de­but novel, Things Fall Apart.

Born Al­bert Chin­u­alu­mogu Achebe in Ogidi, east­ern Nige­ria, on Novem­ber 16 1930, he was in the first set of stu­dents ad­mit­ted to the Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, Ibadan, when it was founded in 1948. Although he was sup­posed to study medicine on schol­ar­ship, he grad­u­ated with a BA de­gree in English, his­tory and re­li­gious stud­ies in 1953. Achebe be­gan work­ing at the Nige­rian Broad­cast­ing Ser­vice (NBS) in La­gos in 1954 and trav­elled out of Nige­ria for the first time in 1956, when he flew to Eng­land on a schol­ar­ship to at­tend a course in ra­dio pro­duc­tion at the BBC Staff Train­ing School.

Achebe, who brought a man­u­script with him, showed it to one of the in­struc­tors, British broad­caster, novelist and critic Gilbert Phelps. Phelps re­calls: “As it hap­pens I can throw some light on the novel’s gen­e­sis. I was work­ing for the BBC staff train­ing de­part­ment in Lon­don when Achebe was at­tend­ing a course there. Achebe showed me his type­scripts and I was im­me­di­ately struck by their qual­ity. I ad­vised him to di­vide his ma­te­rial into sev­eral separate nov­els — at that stage Achebe was con­tem­plat­ing one very long one — and when the first part, Things Fall Apart, was fin­ished, I in­tro­duced it to his Lon­don pub­lisher.”

Hav­ing amended his man­u­script to re­flect the sec­tion that would be Things Fall Apart, Achebe sent a hand­writ­ten ver­sion to a Lon­don typ­ing agency in re­sponse to an ad­vert, “Au­thors’ manuscripts typed”, in The Spec­ta­tor and sent £22 in British postal or­ders for two copies. The agency failed to con­tact Achebe and he be­came con­cerned. But Achebe’s boss, An­gela Beattie, whom he would suc­ceed as head of the NBS’s talks de­part­ment in 1957, traced and re­cov­ered the man­u­script from the agency while she was in Lon­don on an­nual leave. One typed copy of the man­u­script of Things Fall Apart was even­tu­ally sent to Achebe in La­gos.

Hav­ing not pre­vi­ously pub­lished a novel by an African, the ex­ec­u­tives at Heine­mann were ini­tially re­luc­tant to bring out Achebe’s novel. Then Don­ald MacRae, a reader in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and one of Heine­mann’s ed­u­ca­tional ad­vis­ers, who had just re­turned from West Africa, read Achebe’s novel and re­port­edly de­clared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”

Achebe took his ti­tle from The Se­cond Com­ing (1919) by Ir­ish poet WB Yeats: “Turn­ing and turn­ing in the widen­ing gyre/ The fal­con can­not hear the fal­coner;/ Things fall apart; the cen­tre can­not hold;/ Mere an­ar­chy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and ev­ery­where/ The cer­e­mony of in­no­cence is drowned;/ The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst/ Are full of pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.”

Heine­mann’s African Writ­ers’ Se­ries (AWS) was founded in 1962 by Alan Hill, who had been a di­rec­tor at Heine­mann when he over­saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Things Fall Apart in 1958, and Evan­der van Milne, whose ca­reer in­cluded stints at Thomas Nel­son, the Scot­tish pub­lish­ing house and Heine­mann Ed­u­ca­tional Books. The AWS made pa­per­back copies (with their trade­mark or­ange cov­ers) of African texts avail­able at af­ford­able prices to stu­dents in schools and uni­ver­si­ties in Africa. Things Fall Apart was the first text pub­lished in the se­ries, as AWS1. Achebe served as ed­i­to­rial ad­viser to the AWS from 1962 to 1972.

Since 1958, an es­ti­mated

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