The following is an edited transcript of a conversation held at Shakespeare & Company in Paris on November 15, 2016. Video and a podcast of the complete event is available here at the bookstore’s website.
Daniel Medin: Could you tell us about the origins of NYRB Classics?
Edwin Frank: NYRB came into existence crab-wise, almost accidentally. I was in my mid-30s and had never had anything to do with publishing when I got a freelance job with a business associate of the New York Review called The Readers’ Catalog, a sort of a giant Sears Catalog of books. The idea was to sell the 40,000 best books in print. Independent stores were closing across the United States, so you could get The Readers’ Catalog and order the books you couldn’t find. And I got this job that basically consisted of reading through sections and saying “this shouldn’t be here” or “why isn’t this here?” The most prominent example that has stuck in my mind is that [Alberto] Moravia was pretty much completely out of print everywhere, this would have been around ’96. And lots of other things were out of print that I just thought by definition would be in print. I didn’t know why they weren’t in print, and since I didn’t work in publishing it took me a while to figure out that they weren’t in print because they wouldn’t sell. So I made a list and at some point made a proposal to the publisher of the New York Review, Rea Hederman, that effectively said, “maybe we should have a publishing project.” It took a few years to come together, but in 1999 we did come out with about 14 books, in a different design than we have now, a sort of disastrous design, but we survived that. And the books did better than anybody would have expected; I think we sort of went into it on tiptoes, but the response was more excited than I think anyone anticipated.
DM: I wonder about the vision of the project. You mentioned that the initial idea was to do reprints, so maybe you can talk about how it has developed since 1999.
EF: The fact is, I really, really didn’t want to call the series “classics.” Who knows what a classic is? It’s difficult to explain to people in the States, and also to foreign publishers, where “classics” has a much more defined meaning. So it was difficult for a while to get people to understand that we weren’t doing new editions of Thucydides. But it’s just as well, or else we would have been arguing about the name of the series to this day. Anyway, from the beginning our goal was always to mix things up. Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.
DM: So about two or three years into it, it becomes not just a question of buying rights to certain books that have gone out of print but of actually commissioning new translations too—
EF: Yes, exactly, yes.
DM: —and at this point it’s a very broad enterprise. I’m a fan of several imprints that emerged from this expansion; one is NYRB Poets, which is a series that’s equally eclectic as the prose editions. You had for a period NYRB Lit, which were ebooks of almost exclusively translated lit . . .
EF: That’s what it ended up being. It didn’t start that way, but that’s what it ended up as yes.
DM: . . . there’s an outstanding children’s collection. And most recently you’ve embarked on a series of comics.
EF: Not under my editorial direction, though. Two young guys who work in the office of the magazine came up with this proposal, and it seemed really interesting, so we’re doing four or five books a year, and again the focus is international. They’re also reprinting things as well. In the next year we’re doing books by Saul Steinberg, who worked on his books as objects of art as much as he did on individual drawings. For a long time his estate after his death blocked the publication of the books, wanting him to be seen as a person who made individual artistic images, but they’ve come around now to this notion that we should also look at the books as things he created. They’ve been out of print for 20, 25 years, maybe more, I think 50 year for some of these books.
DM: In terms of the poets, this was yours . . .
EF: Yeah, I always wanted to do it. We did some poets in the Classics line, we did A.C. Graham’s great Poets of the Late Tang, which along with David Hawkes’s little primer of Du Fu are I think the two most interesting translations of Chinese poets in English, though I should also say Pound’s Cathay, though that’s not quite a translation. So we’ve done some, but I wanted—well, poetry gets more and more published in big tomes these days, and there’s something funereal, tomblike about the tome—there’s something virtuous and last-minute about it, “let’s do a huge Montale”—and that’s good, they should be done, but those books tend to go into the library for people who are already familiar with the work. They’re not likely to introduce people who don’t already know the work to these significant, small selection that will make them want to get the tome. When I was a kid there was a great series from Penguin, Penguin Modern European Poets, so I wanted to do something like that.
DM: And then NYRB Poets also has some thick volumes, like [gestures to display] the Apollinaire . . .
EF: Yeah, and so that was the idea. I’ve generally avoided classics. We’ve done some young poets, we did this young Palestinian poet [Najan Darwish], we’re doing Eugene Ostashevsky’s book this spring, a few reprints. We’re doing Walt Whitman. It’s true Whitman is known, but I was surprised to see that Drum-Taps, his Civil War book, though folded into Leaves of Grass, was broken up and divided and cast about. It was in no way the book he had originally published, right after Lincoln’s death—no, before Lincoln’s death—and it hadn’t been republished since the 1860s. So we published it for the anniversary of the Civil War.
DM: Equally strong, diverse, and surprising as the list of poets is the list of French literature published in translation. To give you a sense of the diversity, there’s Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, the recent publication of a novel by Jean Giono, a memoir by Victor Serge, books by Albert Cossery . . . you have international writers who work in French—from Africa, from the Caribbean, and so on—within this list. You also have 19th-century classics, but not necessarily the obvious choices, or only obvious if you go to school in France, like [Jules] Vallès. We spoke a bit about a book that I love, one of Stendhal’s memoirs that you reprinted a number of years ago [The Life of Henry Brulard]. It’s quite obvious that French writing is a strong strand among the literatures represented by the press. I know you read French, and I was wondering if you could tell us more about your experiences with its literature.
EF: Well, I read French, I was brought to Paris when I was six, by my mother who had a Fulbright, and put into school here. That said, I was brought back to the States and was never really instructed in the language, so French is always a possession that’s slipping away from me. So I guess that makes it precious in a sense. But French literature—there’s no getting around French literature really, and I often feel to some extent that the books we publish are no-brainers in a way, Queneau and so on. I’m particularly keen on—well, the Vallès [The Child], it was a real discovery for me, Richard Sieburth told me it was a great book. He said it was one of the rare French books since Rabelais that you could say was funny. And it is funny. I also like the translator a lot, Douglas Parmée, who had done a lot of work for Oxford and Penguin and then retired in his 90s to go to Australia and be near the vineyards, from where he went on translating. With him I did one of the great misdeeds of my career as a publisher. This was really the first translation I commissioned that involved me in serious editing of the translation. It’s very well-done, but it’s done in 19th-century schoolboy French, and how you translate that into English, especially when it’s a translator from England and translating for publication in the American market? So knowing what Douglas had done I said let’s try to find a mid-Atlantic registry, and he said fine. So it came and I began reading it and sort of pulled at this thread, that thread, and more threads came loose and it began to unravel, and I was sort of surrounded by my pencil markings, and Douglas—
DM: This kind of editing is of course something very particular to a commission that’s coming from another language . . .
EF: —yeah, and it wasn’t that Douglas’s translation was bad by any means, it was a good translation. It was very much that I was a neophyte editor. But anyway there I was, and the book was getting late—which isn’t unheard of at New York Review Books—and I was surrounded by markings, and I finally said, let’s make these changes and send it off. But, I did not send it to Douglas. So off the book went, and I sat and began to feel increasingly guilty. And then the book came back printed, and I packaged up some copies and sent them off to Douglas. After a few weeks I got a letter from Douglas, and I opened it, and it said, “I had no idea that the American language was so different from English.” [laughter] Then he said, “job well done.” Which was a great relief, unless it was irony. But we did work together after that, and I have never done that again.
DM: A great story. And to get back to the French list, one of the attractive things about it is its range. When I was naming different genres, I became so excited about the Vallès that I didn’t mention crime fiction: the [Georges] Simenon and [Jean-Patrick] Manchette. How did those titles appear?
EF: Well I guess in general you start with something that’s missing. I’d never really read Simenon, and frankly I’m not a huge fan of detective fiction, but I was curious about Simenon, who had been such a huge figure, I remembered his reputation. And also Roberto Calasso at Adelphi was publishing him, and he was a strong advocate for Simenon, so I began reading them, the romans durs as they’re called . . . that was a strange history, as the whole estate had fallen into a kind of crypt, something like a cult, the business-world equivalent of Scientology, and they also did Agatha Christie, and they had these little pie charts and things like that, and you were supposed to put a little flame representing the Simenon brand on every single book (I think a few of them have it). When you looked at the pie chart, it showed impressive sales of Simenon in Latin American countries; I think at one point he was the bestselling writer of the century. But then you looked again at the pie charts and there was a sort of toothpick representing sales in the Anglosphere, so I saw an opportunity. It was easy to argue that we really shouldn’t have to pay much [for the rights] to get these books because, frankly, they hadn’t sold that much. So then Simenon led me to Manchette, which was of interest both because of his connection with Situationism, and also his connection with American hardboiled fiction. He’s even more hardboiled than the American hardboiled. Like the atmosphere in something like Fatale, which of course you know is the story of a town around Bordeaux, and everybody there is up to his neck in corruption, and here comes our heroine, who’s an avenging goddess, but also quite a monster. It’s a total Quentin Tarantino book. It ends with a quote from Sade, “philosophical women, I love you,” it’s a complete non sequitur [laughter].
DM: Before we move on from French literature, I just want to plug something I see on the display here, The Death of Napoleon, which is a beautiful novel by Belgian writer Simon Leys. And of course New York Review Classics, as is often its wont, adopts authors, and so this is not the only book by Leys that you’ve published. You also did the essays [The Hall of Uselessness].
EF: Right the collected essays, a wonderful book, a book of 400 or 500 pages. He’s an author who published in the Review for many years, but I have to say when that came from his Australian publisher I said, “I just can’t possibly do a 500-page book of essays.” But I started reading them, and they are just phenomenal, so I said we just had to. And sometimes good deeds do go unpunished. This book really had quite a warm reception. There are essays on China, a portrait of André Gide, very acid, but nonetheless respectful, it’s really one of the books I’ve been most excited about these last four or five years.
DM: He’s an extraordinary essayist in French, although many of the ones included in Hall were originally written in English. Leys was also the source of a Cahier we published, whose text is gathered in your volume too. . . Well, it’s not just French literature, this eclectic approach to curation, I’ve found that the lists from Eastern and Central Europe and Latin American are just as essential—and just as diverse. I’m curious as to how you’ve curated the lists from languages you cannot read. Hungarian literature, for instance. I happen to specialize in writing from that region—and your Hungarian list is remarkable. Anybody in this audience can go online and look at NYRB’s offerings, and if you pick a title and mention it to an author or cultivated reader from Hungary, they will acknowledge its importance. And Hungarian’s only one example among many in your catalog. What’s been the approach?
EF: Well, it varies. The Hungarian case is an interesting one because the language is so isolated that basically the Hungarian state commissioned a program of translating Hungarian literature into English. And the translators they employed were actually quite brilliant. (The Soviets also had that kind of program, but the translations were a lot iffier.) So a book like [Gyula] Krúdy—one of my favorite books in the whole series is Krúdy’s Sunflower—a totally bizarre book, I’d never read anything like it. I mean it’s a book that . . . I used to compare it to a strange cross between Bruno Schulz and PG Wodehouse, with gypsy music kind of thrown in, funny and sexy and just odd. Like nothing I’d ever read. It’s not often you read a book that’s like nothing else you ever read. I sometime think if I read a book like that I should publish it, but sometimes that’s a mistake. Anyway, so for the most part [the Hungarian translations] haven’t been commissioned, and to get back to the larger question, you are dependent to an extent to the translators or the literary criticism. We were talking earlier about one of my favorite authors, Eileen Chang, who wrote from the ’40s until she died in the ’90s, and who is in China a hugely important and widely loved writer but who was unknown to me around 2002 or 2003, when I found her in a reference book, the Oxford Guide to Literature in Translation. Eileen Chang was in a footnote as not only an extraordinary writer but also someone who translated extraordinarily well her own work into English from Chinese. Well, it’s not that uncommon now, people working in two languages, but midcentury it was very uncommon. So it took a while to track down Chang’s rights, often it takes a certain amount of detective work. She has an interesting story. She came from an old Chinese family, her father was a real mandarin, which is to say he kept concubines and smoked opium all the time. Her mother was a new liberated woman of the early 20th century who lived in England and kept as far away as she could from her mandarin husband. She was very much caught betwixt and between. Her father is said to have imprisoned her in her bedroom, and she slipped out, married a critic in 1920 or 1921, began to write these extraordinary novellas, began to design clothes and write articles and essays for the Chinese press. But the thing is, she’s writing in occupied Shanghai, so you can’t write the book that gets written again and again in China—before the revolution, during, after—which is the book about the abuses of the last revolution. You can’t write an overtly political thing under Japanese occupation, so she’s in a sense freed by the occupation to write about the little things that happen between men and women. And they’re not that little, as she chronicles rather dramatically. So you get these intense novels of family relationships and love relationships that are fraught, to say the least. And she really is one of the singular figures of 20th-century literature.
DM: Maybe we can speak a little about one book in particular, the first of two Eileen Chang books you’ve done. It’s a collection of novellas called Love in a Fallen City, and as an editor myself this is a very interesting project. Could you tell the story of it?
EF: The scuttlebutt was that her greatest work was her novellas, it’s one of those things that’s been said so long that people are beginning to question it. But before we get to that, just to fill out the biography, the critic she was married to during the Japanese occupation was actually a collaborator, and so she rapidly distanced herself from him after the war. She then fled to Hong Kong, she came to America, and she really was a lost person. She begins to be rediscovered in the early ’60s in Taiwan, she was then working as a screenwriter, she spends the rest of her life in Los Angeles more or less. She becomes more and more of a recluse. She continued to write, and after she died various manuscripts have come out, but she was really a kind of bag lady. Her will left her literary remains to her associates in Hong Kong who had published her literary work, and the will stipulated that her ashes be scattered in some desolate place. Many years later I was reading My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather, and that was what the lady at the end of that book says, I want my ashes to be scattered in a desolate place. This book was very big in Chinese . . . So, anyway, we were supposed to do the novellas, I was told they were best, etc. I was guided very much by what translator Karen S. Kingsbury thought were the best books, but I also very much wanted to include one of the Chang [self]-translations. The effects she works in English are very precise Eileen Chang effects; a bit like Conrad, they feel like an English of her own.
DM: So the selection in this volume contains newly commissioned translations [by Kingsbury] before and after a story translated by Chang. . . . Another author I want to turn to is British novelist Henry Green. There are three titles newly out, and with them New York Review is going to inaugurate a year or so of nine books.
EF: All of the novels will be brought out in new editions. What a publisher can do is to try and gain a public for an author. Green is an extraordinary writer, one I came to as a middle-aged convert. I first read him in college and found it terribly affected, I didn’t get it. So it took me quite a while to get to the book that made me a convert, Back. The core of Green’s work is really the war, without being in any way conventional war novels. Nothing he ever did was conventional. He works with words the way a painter might use colors, and he does so with an incredible ear for spoken language. He catches people saying really awkward things that are really beautiful. The variety of effects he pulls out of spoken language is really astonishing. He makes conversation a kind of color. Back is this really moving book about this guy who comes back from being shattered as a POW in the Second World War, and he comes back to an English that is still at war. He’d been in love with a married woman who died, and he becomes completely convinced that this other woman is that woman. He pursues her. It’s a picture of a shattered mind, and a really forgiving book.
DM: The beauty is there’s no condescension in Green’s irony, and he’s able to walk between the classes and do extraordinary dialogue that feels so alive and vital.
EF: He was a huge influence on Nathalie Sarraute. And Green loved Céline, he was very, very taken with that kind of idiomatic voice. And they may have shared that mania for the ballet, Céline always wanted to be known as a choreographer. And Green’s novel, Back, he thought of it first as a dance. It should also be said that Green was a tremendous alcoholic, and he has like Joseph Roth, he had a particular ability to fall asleep at the beginning of the sentence and wake up at a very interesting place at the end.
DM: I know that you’ve been writing a book on the 20th-century novel. I imagine there are some ways in which your work as an editor touches on this project. I wonder if you could talk a little about it.
EF: Well, it came about with a thought experiment. I was doing the dishes and listening to Radiohead, which I’ve always had mixed feelings about, and Alex Ross’s great book The Rest Is Silence, about 20th-century music and 20th-century history, their relationship, had just come out, and I was thinking “could you do that for the novel?” And at first I thought you couldn’t because it was just in too many languages, but then I thought maybe you could. Because a kind of central feature of 20th-century literature is that it is written to be translated, it’s written in an awareness of the global horizon and a desire that the book find a readership elsewhere. It’s funny that the Russians are always grumbling that their literature is untranslatable, because theirs is the great story of national translation. . . I mean Dostoevsky is being translated into Japanese within 15 years of writing his last books. So one notion is that you would have an international account. It would also be essential to forego the “isms,” which I find entirely useless and scholastic now, the sort of debate about “is it modernist, is it not modernist?” Or the sort of genealogies, that sort of thing. So it was easy to figure what not to do. Then there was the business about writing a book about the 20th-century and the novel, the idea that the invention of the 20th-century novel is a sort of reaction to the changes of all sorts, from, well, female suffrage to the, well, gas chambers. Finally, the struggle is to write a book that’s not about specific movements and careers but to write a book about books, and in such a way as to interest people who have not read them to read them.
DM: Is it safe to guess that some of the authors you’ve published appear in the book? And what kind of a framework do you use?
EF: It’s roughly chronological. It begins with the problems of thinking about the novel . . . well, if you think of it as a picaresque with the novel as the main character, then he goes missing somewhere around 1975. He still crops up in a way, but less and less, maybe he’s found a nice place to settle in and retire. It begins with Notes from Underground, then it comes to deal with the response of the novel to political and social trauma—stress, let’s say—which eventually becomes mainly expressed in this completely unreliable narrator that gets rewritten again and again. Céline, for instance, is in a way rewriting Notes from Underground, even down to the ellipses. And then in a way Portnoy’s Complain is Notes from Underground revisited. Bernhard and so on. There are some other basic problems that I go to, but that’s the beginning one. I’m trying to avoid doing decades and things like that.
Edwin Frank is the editorial director of New York Review Books and the author of Snake Train: Poems 1984–2013. Daniel Medin is a professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris and an editor for Music & Literature, The Cahiers Series, and The White Review.
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