ANDRe SCHIFFRIN’S memoir begins and ends in Paris, neatly encircling a long career as a titan of publishing in New York City, where he managed Pantheon Books for 30 years. An introspective wish to explore his “dual nature” has led him to compose a narrative of fractured halves: of French and American loyalties, of personal history and political opinion and -- perhaps most significant -- of a father and a son gesturing to each other across death’s divide.
Schiffrin’s father, Jacques, was also an influential publisher in France and New York. He was the son of a Russian longshoreman who made and lost a fortune manufacturing petrochemicals in oil-rich Baku on the Caspian Sea around the turn of the 20th century. After studying law in Geneva during World War I, Jacques traveled across Europe, making friends with just about every notable cultural figure during that brilliant era, including Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and art-world luminaries Bernard Berenson and Peggy Guggenheim.
In the early 1920s, Jacques settled in Paris and launched a publishing house called Editions de la Pleiade, producing an extremely successful series of French classics, which was acquired in 1933 by the grand French publishing firm Gallimard. In 1940, eager to keep his business during the German occupation, Gaston Gallimard fired his Jewish employees, including Jacques, and welcomed Nazi-appointed editors into the firm.
With no illusions about their chances for survival in Paris, the Schiffrins -- Jacques, wife Simone and their only child, Andre, who’d just turned 5 -- were desperate to leave. It was the writer Andre Gide, Jacques’ best friend, who orchestrated their dramatic escape. (Well-known for his anti-Semitism, Gide once commented that Jacques was “the only Jew he ever really liked.”)
Through the intervention of Gide and American journalist Varian Fry, the Schiffrins boarded a ship originally bound for the United States that stopped in Morocco, leaving them stranded for months in Casablanca. They were rescued again by Gide’s financial assistance, and in August 1941 they finally reached New York. Jacques went to work at Pantheon Books, which was founded by the German Jewish exiles Kurt and Helen Wolff. After the war, Jacques suffered too seriously from emphysema to return to his beloved Paris, but before his death in 1950, he published the first works of the French Resistance writers such as Gide, Albert Camus and many others.
Young Andre, who was 15 when his father died, took advantage of the opportunities his adopted country offered him. Through family connections he secured a full scholarship to Yale, where he started a student chapter of the Socialist League for Industrial Democracy, later famously renamed Students for a Democratic Society. After graduation, he attended Clare College at Cambridge University, where he studied history and served as the first American editor of Granta, the university’s venerable magazine.
After returning to New York, Schiffrin enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University, simultaneously working full time for the paperback house New American Library, where he dreamed up the idea for soft-cover editions of world literature called Signet Classics. It wasn’t until years later that he realized, as he wrote in an earlier memoir, “The Business of Books” (2000), that the Signet series was “an inexpensive version of my father’s Pleiade series in France.”
Surprisingly, Schiffrin did not at this point envision a life in publishing; he could not imagine himself a worthy enough successor to his prodigious, polyglot father. Nonetheless, in 1962, Schiffrin was invited to work as a junior editor at Pantheon, his father’s old firm. Eventually he became its director, producing mostly highbrow books by writers whose leftist politics he admired, including Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, Studs Terkel and Marguerite Duras.
Schiffrin calls this new autobiography a political memoir, although he acknowledges that historians, many of whom he has published, are better equipped to write a political history of the 20th century’s second half. His politics have remained unchanged from the moment he declared himself a Socialist at age 13; for every historical episode his book describes -- McCarthyism, the Korean War, the student revolts of the early 1960s, Vietnam, the Reagan revolution -- he offers a thoroughly unsurprising left-liberal response, making his “political education” a scrupulously consistent but far less compelling journey than his personal history.
In fact, of all the divisions in Schiffrin’s book, the most interesting is the suspenseful gap between his unshakable political responses to public events and the often painfully emotional private history that hovers fretfully alongside.
Consider, for example, the recounting of his dramatic, widely publicized dismissal from Pantheon in 1990, after S.I. Newhouse bought its parent company, Random House, from RCA. Schiffrin uses the occasion, as he did in his 2000 memoir, to criticize the ruinous direction in which he sees the book business going, along with the country at large.
Some of his accusations are easy to accept -- that the ownership of publishing houses by profit-mad international conglomerates is a bad thing, as is what he believes is the general dumbing-down of the American media; others, such as his suggestion that right-wing conspiracies have suppressed the publication of books critical of the Iraq war, are not.
In the end, one can agree or disagree with this kind of subjective cultural criticism, but opinions only beget other opinions. After working oneself into a lather of endorsement or dissent, there is nowhere else to go. What I yearn for, after reading the riveting passages about the author’s family history, is a peek at the vast emotional terrain that he hints at but does not explore.
Did Schiffrin’s sacking from Pantheon evoke ghostly feelings about his father’s crushing removal from Gallimard? Was his subsequent venture, the creation of a foundation-sponsored publishing house called the New Press, inspired in any way by his father’s phoenix-like determination to survive after the war? And was Schiffrin’s 2003 sojourn in Paris, where he claims to have felt more at home than he did during his 60 years in the United States, a fulfillment of his father’s dream to return to France?
“I felt I had a personal experience that shed light on some of our common experiences,” Schiffrin writes of his autobiographical motives.
Yet what impresses is the singularity of this smart, proud, embattled man who, by remaining within a safe zone of political argument, has produced the least introspective of memoirs. *
From A Political Education
WHILE I was busy battling with the accountants and showing them the impossibility of [management’s] demands, my younger colleagues, schooled in the politics of 1968, spent their evenings otherwise. They wrote to all of our authors and to many others explaining what was happening: It led to a growing protest, full-page ads in our support, and finally a gathering of several hundred people in front of the Random House building on East Fiftieth Street. Demonstrators included Studs Terkel, who flew in from Chicago, and many of our other authors, but also those from other publishers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, who understood the issues that were at stake. All of these people, by the way, were covertly photographed by the Random House public-relations department.