Thursday 11 December 2008

"But wonder how the devil they got there!" (Alexander Pope)

In my rare contacts with the Italian publishing mafia before my move to England in 1997, I have often asked myself this question. The people I met during my occasional visits to publishing houses in Milan and Rome as a poorly paid translator invariably gave me the impression of happening to be there rather than wanting to be there – to have landed their job almost by chance, not because they had followed their true vocation.

During my ten years as a bookseller, translator, editor and publisher in UK, that initial impression has not substantially changed. Of all the thousands of people I have come across in UK or during my many trips abroad, only a few dozens or so – as far as I can remember – appeared to be motivated by a sincere love of literature or, if not literature, books.

It is therefore always refreshing to get to know a real enthusiast such as Barbara Epler of New Directions. Barbara is one of those people who still cares about books, authors and words. She can get passionate about a novella by an unknown young Cuban writer, or stop by their archive room on the way out to give you two of her favourite books. Her office looks like John Calder’s basement den on a bad day, only it’s at the top of a high building on Eighth Avenue, with wonderful vistas of New York’s financial district, so it’s not half as depressing. Still, you have an obscure feeling that, were you to sneeze in her room, you’d be facing certain death by paper, and be found only weeks later.

Another great enthusiast is John Oakes, the founder of Four Walls Eighth Windows and, more recently, Atlas Books. I had the good fortune of spending some time with him and to meet his family and some of his friends. This afternoon, he made me a big present when he invited me to meet Barney Rosset, “the most dangerous man in publishing”, as a big feature on the latest issue of Newsweek describes him.

The publisher who brought Waiting for Godot and Tropic of Cancer to America is now a frail – but lucid – eighty-six-year-old who, I am told, is on his fifth marriage and doesn’t have a nickel to his name, having blown away fortunes on Grove Press, the publishing house he founded in the early Fifties and lost in 1985 to some oil heiress of the Getty family. He’s an old friend and rival of John Calder, so it was delightful to sit next to him and share with him some gossip over a glass of red wine (at 3:30 p.m…).

Like Calder, he hasn’t stopped writing, publishing or being politically involved. A book of memoirs is forthcoming from Algonquin, and a new venture – a sort of publishing co-op – will be launched next year by him and some of his friends.

This chance meeting, after the gloom and doom of the previous days, has left a very sweet aftertaste to my US trip, and I look forward to coming back to New York in May – hopefully with my wife Elisabetta – and enjoy again the company of some of my new American friends.


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