Jonathan Galassi Muse

ISBN 13: 9781443433556

Muse

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9781443433556: Muse
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Muse is a love letter to the heroic days when books were ink-and-paper, publishers were outsize, outrageous personalities, and authors were gods and goddesses. Homer Stern and Sterling Wainwright are two old-school New York publishing grandees, professional enemies and life-long rivals over the work—and affection—of the beautiful and elusive Ida Perkins, one of America’s great poets. When a young editor who works for Homer gets hold of Ida’s last manuscript, mayhem ensues.

Publishing veteran Jonathan Galassi's elegy for a disappearing era in our culture is hilarious, wise and deeply affecting, a thought-provoking meditation on love and work that reverberates in many directions.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Galassi's first collection of poems, Morning Run, appeared in 1988. He has also published several volumes of translations of the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, most recently Collected Poems 1920-1954 in 19998. He is chairman of the Academy of American Poets and lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

viii

The Fair
 
The modern-day Frankfurt Book Fair was a postwar phenomenon, a vehicle for easing the readmission of Germany into the company of civilized Western societies. Originally, it had been a phenomenon of the Renaissance, Frankfurt being the largest trading center near Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg and his fellows had invented movable type in the late 1430s. The fair had been established again in 1949 and had grown into the most important annual gathering in international publishing. Every October, tens of thousands of publishers from all over the world scurried like so many ants among the warehouse-like halls of the fair’s bleak cam- pus on the edge of the city center, rushing to appointments with their counterparts.
 
But books weren’t sold at the modern-day Frankfurt. Authors were—by the pound and sometimes by the gross. What the publishers did at Frankfurt was hump the right to sell their writers’ work in other territories and languages, often pocketing a substantial portion of the earnings for themselves (the ever-paternalistic French were among the most egregious, raking off 50 percent of the take). The days before agents woke up to the potential of international deals were a wild and woolly era, though the seigneurial rituals of fair commerce were punctiliously observed by the players. Rights directors were the most visible players under the Frankfurt bell jar, and the acknowledged queen of them all was Cora Blamesly, FSG’s mace-wielding Iron Maiden, who hailed from the arbor-draped hills of Carinthia and was a past master at brandishing her picked-up Sloane Ranger accent, with its ineradicable Germanic undertone, and her S/M selling techniques to extract outrageous con- tracts from her desperate European “friends.”
 
Cora and her ilk would hold back important manuscripts for sale at the fair and then “slip” them with elaborate fanfare to favored editors in various territories, demanding that they be read overnight and soliciting preemptive offers, often inflated by the expectations and tensions of Frankfurt’s carnival atmosphere.
 
The Europeans were desperate because the postwar cultural economy had dictated that Italian and German, Japanese and Brazilian, and sometimes even French readers needed and wanted to read American books. Not just the big commercial authors, either, the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels, but the Serious Literary Writers, too. First there’d been the anxiety-ridden, attitude-infused Jewish American novelists; followed by the less interesting, more self-regarding WASPs, the Updikes and Styrons and Foxxes; and the nondescript newbies, the young Turks full of sass and plausibility that Cora and her counterparts whipped up into supernovas for the four days of the fair, sometimes for book after book, year after year. European publishing nabobs like Jorge Vilas (Spain), Norberto Beltraffio (Italy), Matthias Schoenborn (Germany), and the biggest overspender of them all, Danny van Gennep from Utrecht, had been playing this way for years, and were on the hook to Cora for literal millions. When Roger Straus or Lucy Morello brought a new author to Frankfurt, they all jumped, as they did for Rob Routman, the head-turning editor in chief of Owl House—sometimes, it was rumored, without reading all that much (or, let’s be honest, any) of the manuscript—because often, or often enough anyway, the books “worked,” i.e., sold copies back home. Many publishers played “Ready, Fire, Aim” buying foreign books, acquiring titles that sounded hot but often, when the com- missioned translations materialized months later, would have them shaking their heads, wondering how such a dog could have appeared so leonine in the half-light of the smoke-infested Hessischer Hof bar, still packed at two a.m. with drunken, libidinous editors and rights people splayed across each other on the sagging couches.
 
The serial drink dates and langweilisch alcoholic dinners with self-congratulatory speeches by the hosting German publishers, followed by more drinks on into the night (same-time-next-year cohabitation was not unheard of, either) contributed to Frankfurt’s nonstop bonhomie and its open-walleted frenzy. As one grand old man of Danish publishing had told Homer, “We come to Frankfurt every year to see if we’re still alive.” Some, alas, were not. The worst were former bigwigs who had the bad taste to reap- pear, wandering the cavernous halls, buttonholing former colleagues between nonexistent appointments. They were ghosts, revenants, and everyone knew it—including them, perhaps.
 
Frankfurt was anything but social; it was carnivorous- ness at its most rapacious, with a genteel European veneer. The dressy clothes, the parties, the cigars, the jacked-up prices in the hotels and restaurants, the disappointing food were all of a piece. It was exhausting and repetitive and depressing—and no one in publishing with any sense or style would have missed it for the world.
 
Homer was made for Frankfurt. Nowhere was he more relaxed, more full of avuncular wisdom and wisecracking anecdotes. He had refused to come to postwar Germany for years, but had been won over by Brigitta Bohlenball, the vivacious widow of Friedrich Bohlenball, who had almost instantaneously, thanks to a series of shrewd buys, used his Swiss milk fortune and Communist politics (a Swiss Communist: a rara avis indeed!) to become one of Europe’s most stylish publishers. Friedrich had introduced a number of weighty novelists and philosophers before commit- ting suicide at the age of forty, leaving Brigitta and young Friedchen with several hundred million Swiss francs, a villa near Lugano, and a Schloss in the Engadine, not to mention Zurich’s swankiest publishing house.
 
“Come, Homer. You’ll have such a good time, I promise you,” Brigitta cooed over lunch at La Caravelle, and she’d made good on her vow, introducing her new American catch to the greatest, which is to say the most snobbish, editors in Europe.
 
If a snobbish publisher seems like an oxymoron today, it’s only an indication of how the notion of class has degraded in the postwar era. The aristocrats of European publishing, the Gallimards, Einaudis, and Rowohlts, were good old bourgeois who had gotten through the war more or less intact, though sometimes with not-unblemished political affiliations in their back pockets, as was true for numberless European businessmen. They weren’t very different, muta- tis mutandis, from Homer, which is no doubt why he came to feel so at home among them. And he did feel gloriously, chest-thumpingly himself in those smoky, cold fair halls and smoky, overheated hotel bars and restaurants. Membership in Brigitta’s club had long since stilled his qualms about the Krauts, as he still called them, and the saturnalia of Frankfurt had become the high point of Homer’s and Sally’s publishing year.
 
They appeared as a couple, and indeed many of Homer’s foreign colleagues, some of whom enjoyed not-dissimilar domestic arrangements, thought they were married. Paul remembered a dinner at Homer’s town house soon after he’d joined the company with a number of P & S’s better-known foreign authors, including Piergiorgio Ponchielli and his wife, Anita Moreno, and Marianne O’Loane. Norberto Beltraffio, one of Homer’s most exuberant European colleagues, sailed into the drawing room while Homer was seeing to the wine and, throwing his arms wide, asked the assembled crowd, “Where’s Sally?” Luckily, Iphigene was also out of the room.
 
As a rule, Homer and Sally spent a long weekend at a spa on Lake Constance, resting up for the ardors of the fair, and afterward flew on to London or Paris to recover in style for a week or two. They were gone for a month’s vacation, as some back in New York had it, and on the company dime.
 
Over the years, he’d come to be seen by many as the dean of Frankfurt’s gang of literary publishers, “the King of the fair,” as Brigitta had crowned him. His engagement in its rites, his small dinner at the fair’s end every year, for which some leading European publishers stayed late, his charm and mode of dress, which fit right in here and didn’t feel extravagant or slightly garish as it could in New York, even his contraband Cuban cigars—all added to Homer’s stature in the halls and watering holes of Frankfurt. The Spar- tan P & S booth, which echoed his no-frills offices in New York, was tacked onto a large international distributor’s stand and overflowed with visitors from all over Europe, Latin America, and Asia, come to kiss the gold seal ring on Homer’s well-veined hand.
 
There were other Frankfurts going on simultaneously that Homer and Sally and Paul, who had been attending with them for the past few years, had nothing to do with. The Big (i.e., irrelevant commercial) Publishers, the Random Houses and HarperCollinses and Simon & Schusters and Hachettes, wheeled and dealt multimillion-dollar con- tracts among themselves, though increasingly the agents were holding on to their authors’ foreign rights, stalking the halls and booths like hyenas, or even, egregiously, like the upstart McTaggart, setting up their own stands with spiffy little tables and printed catalogs several inches thick handed out by demure young people, aping the publishers themselves (the nerve!). And then there was the religious publishers’ Frankfurt; the techies’ and scientists’ Frankfurt; the illustrated book publishers’ Frankfurt; the university press publishers’ Frankfurt; the developing world publishers’ Frankfurt. Not to mention the hosting German publishers’ Frankfurt, which was not just for one-on-one publisher-to-publisher deal making, but for the authors, the critics and journalists—believe it or not, books and writers were still news in Germany—and, after the first couple of days, the public, too. They gawked and dawdled like the tourists they were, till the aisles were virtually impassable.
 
All these fairs, and others, too, were going on at the same time in the same cavernous spaces, which were like the biggest big-box stores ever built, their denizens streaming into the fairgrounds, riding half-mile-long mobile walkways, hitching rides on commuter trains from the beautiful old central railway station so evocative for Paul of prewar Europe, drinking late into the night in the dangerously crowded lobbies of the hotels, hungover and sleepless and hoarse by day, complaining and fibbing and wheedling and smoking and drinking, gorging and lying and drinking and fucking by night, and having the time of their lives.
 
To the literary publishers, however, Frankfurt was theirs and theirs alone. They set the tone; they published the Authors Who Mattered—and who sometimes unwisely showed up for receptions and speeches, though those with any self- awareness soon realized they were irrelevant encumbrances to the business at hand. The literary publishers were the Lords of Culture, the master parasites sitting on top of this swarming dunghill. Their sense of their own importance showed when they walked the halls, rolling from side to side as if they were on board an ocean liner—which in a sense they were, without knowing it: a slow-moving Ship of Fools behemoth, heading willy-nilly for the great big digital iceberg. They convened in gemütlich private receptions to which the riffraff were not invited (exclusive invitations were a ritual of the fair, sent out months in advance and occasionally even coveted). They eyed each other sharply but unobtrusively as they fibbed about their latest finds, which might conceivably be but most of the time emphatically were not the Major Contributions to World Literature they aimed to pass them off as. The pros among these gentlemanly thieves understood each other perfectly: where amity ended and commerce held sway; where commerce took a backseat and long loyalty asserted its claims. Homer was widely generous with his information, be it good or bad, and he was a past master at spreading the rumors that were the lifeblood of Frankfurt: that McTaggart was moving Hummock from Gallimard to Actes Sud; that Hum- mock had dumped McTaggart for the Nympho; that the Nympho was selling her agency to William Morris lock, stock, and barrel.
 
Homer would make special deals to keep certain authors within the inner circle—the cénacle, or cartel, some might call it—of independent houses that was informally run by him and his partners in crime. It was old-fashioned horse- trading, sure, but it often proved salutary for the authors, for over time, if they truly had the stuff (and some of them did; if not, the whole house of cards would have collapsed long ago), their international stature would gradually mature, and their readership would inevitably spread like their publishers’ waistlines.
 
Quite a few of Homer’s authors—more than from any other American house except FSG, a constant thorn in his side—had ended up with the Big One, the Giant Kahuna, the platinum standard in World Literature, the highest of stakes, for which he was always playing: the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded by the hypersecretive Swedish Academy. In the United States, the Nobel didn’t quite have the commercial heft it did elsewhere, but its prestige was still unparalleled. In recent years Homer had taken to raking in Nobels the way some collect watches. Seven of the last twelve literature prizes had gone to P & S authors, to the disgruntlement of many. Homer had been heard to boast that he was on familiar terms with the king of Sweden, whose major duty seemed to be handing out the Nobel medals.
 
The prize was traditionally announced on the Thursday of the fair at one p.m., during the frenetic lunch hour. The big cheeses were far too suave to stand around waiting for the announcement; nevertheless, their underlings knew how to reach them at the all-important moment. This year, for the first time in decades, Homer hadn’t come to Frankfurt; he was having a hip replacement that couldn’t be postponed, and Sally had stayed home to help nurse him. So Paul was there on his own to carry the flag, gingerly treading in his boss’s oversize footsteps through the set-in-stone routine of meetings and receptions, trying not to appear like the underdressed hick he felt he must be taken for by Homer’s cliquish crowd.
 
In 2010, as had been the case for the past few years, Ida Perkins was rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel. How accurate such speculation was, was anybody’s guess. The putatively short-listed candidates—nobody knew if there actually was a short list—often failed to emerge as winners; and if a writer was mentioned year after year, she or he could become stale goods, even less likely to garner the ultimate accolade than the dark horses—though stale goods could miraculously become fresh-baked overnight and end up winning, as had happened more than once. This year Ida, who at eighty-four had entered Now or Never territory, was again being actively discussed as a potential winner: it was time for an American, a woman, a poet: why not all three in one?
 
“Now you must tell me, Paul,” whined Maria Mariasdottir, who’d cornered him one evening in the Frankfurter Hof bar, a suite of spacious rooms furnished with lots of, b...

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9780804172493: Muse

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