Carefully chosen words
ANYONE who reads a lot knows how remarkable an experience it is to find four wonderful books in a row and how much gratitude you feel toward the publishers behind them. That’s the experience I’ve had with New York Review Books -- not entirely unexpected as its editor is an old friend whose literary smarts I’ve learned to value over the years.
The four I enjoyed most in the past year or so started with “Cassandra at the Wedding” (232 pp., $12.95 paper), Dorothy Baker’s novel about a lesbian graduate student and her stormy relationship with her twin sister. After this, I turned to Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August” (336 pp., $14.95 paper), a funny, fat novel about a hipster in the Indian civil service. These were followed by a slim noir murder mystery, “The Big Clock” by Kenneth Fearing (200 pp., $14 paper), and “A Time of Gifts” (384 pp., $16.95 paper), the record of British author Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trek as an 18-year-old, mostly across Mitteleuropa.
New York Review Books, the book-publishing arm of the well-respected journal, wasn’t the original publisher of any of these -- Fearing’s dates from 1946, Baker’s from 1962, Leigh Fermor’s from 1977 and Chatterjee’s from 1988 -- but it reissued them as part of its list of about 200 titles now available. This series bids fair to be the most interesting reissue series of our lifetimes.
Why? What do they do so well? Their line offers readers discernment, innovation and the varied thorniness of the best literature, whether one’s taste is for Renaissance physician Girolamo Cardano’s improbable “Book of My Life” or for Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar’s unsettling “The Winners.”
There are no cliches and few repeated pieties in these titles. They require you to practice primary judgment. A few have not been to my taste, of course -- French comic novelist Jules Valles’ “The Child” left me cold -- but these are rare exceptions, and I am not sure the fault is not more mine than theirs.
More typical is my experience with “A Time of Gifts.” Dressed in dazzling language and chronicling a world that was about to be destroyed -- Leigh Fermor takes his trip across Europe in the mid-1930s -- it’s quite simply among the most remarkable travel books I have ever read. “I woke up in a bargemen’s lodging house above a cluster of masts and determined to stay another day in this marvelous town,” he says about Cologne.
Or consider Chatterjee’s “English, August,” which had never before been published in this country. I had had no idea there was such a thing as alienated Indian fiction, of Indian civil servants with a wry sense of humor. When I found out, I pressed the book, which I refer to as “Bright Heat, Big Dust,” on all my friends.
The range of the New York Review Books series is another reason for its quality. Classic reissue lines, even the most ambitious, tend to work a narrow vein. Take a couple of fey British classics, a minor work or two from the prolific greats that Penguin let fall out of print and add some forgotten travel books: There you have a reissue line. But New York Review Books goes so much further. In the series, 20-year-old American novels sit side by side with the Goncourt brothers, Balzac with Harold Cruse. What are we to make of the many nonfiction titles in the series? Nonfiction titles that aren’t memoirs rarely appear in lines of classics, and here they add a new dimension to our intellectual history.
One of the series’ signatures -- consistent with the generally retro look of the book designs -- is that they are classically sized paperbacks. Their size and trim, usually associated with mass-market books, enable you to take them wherever you want, tucked into your back pocket (which is what I do). And when I travel, I find that I am not alone. Wherever I go, I discover we are like a little club -- reviewers, critics and writers -- regularly discussing, not the newest hardcover Charlie Rose just had on, but the Prussian blue, ochre, chartreuse and magenta paperback offerings of this quiet, steadily expanding, beautifully thought-out series.
To my mind, the most significant cultural contributions of the series are the reissued American novels. These books show that recently published novels by writers now no longer much mentioned can recapture the public -- a daring proposition when so many new novels don’t find readers. There is a beauty, a purity, to the way New York Review Books pursues this claim: No one was clamoring to bring back Baker or noir novelist Fearing. Yet after you read them, you are upset that their books were at some point not available. You realize that something more than a good story died when they went out of print.
Take the novel “Stoner” (288 pp., $14.95 paper) by John Williams, first published in 1965. I picked it up because I thought it was a Beat novel. “Stoner” turned out in fact to be an exquisite study, bleak as a Hopper, of a hopelessly honest academic at a meretricious Midwestern university. I had not known that postmodern, bored-with-being-bored prose predated the 1980s; nor that the kind of unsparing portrait of failed marriage shown in “Stoner” existed before John Cheever. And because I did not know that such art existed, I did not know that such mind-sets existed either. That’s the real contribution that New York Review Books makes. It helps you to see that the world is more different than you thought. By teaching you what the American novel has been, they teach you what it can be and in turn what the American people have been and can be.
One would expect a series as protean as New York Review Books would require a talented staff of acquiring editors. As it happens, there’s essentially only one editor at the imprint. In the 1980s, at Harvard, I was friendly with another undergraduate named Edwin Frank. He was funny, smart and remarkably well-read. He had a high, pale Robert Lowell-like forehead and smoked Lucky Strikes, which stood him in good stead with the literary crowd. Ordinarily such a sensibility would condemn a student to a lifetime of low-paid work in academia. I don’t know how Frank managed to avoid living out “Stoner” instead of publishing it. I would bump into him occasionally -- I think he was writing criticism -- on the New York City subway, that Stygian environment making him seem even ghostlier. We would have a good talk until 72nd or 86th Street, then one of us would have to go. I sometimes got good reading tips that way.
We lost touch. Fast forward to the ‘00s and the reading tips mysteriously became a new classics line. Not that Frank has to find all these gems himself -- the excellent introductions by writers like James Wood and David Leavitt suggest that some of the texts not only convey but are also the result of the enthusiasms of other writers. However that may be, soon I will have another new old book by Williams called “Butcher’s Crossing,” plus Erich Auerbach’s long unavailable study “Dante: Poet of the Secular World.” There are also plans to publish Penelope Farmer’s young adult novel of time travel called “Charlotte Sometimes” -- the line also publishes intriguing, off-beat children’s books. And what is John Glassco’s “Memoirs of Montparnasse” about? Will it show me life in that well-chronicled corner of Paris as I have never before seen it? I’m expecting so. When you are in the hands of a reprint series as good as this one, what’s old is made new again. *