by Jonathan Galassi, Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House, 258 pages
Toward the end of Jonathan Galassi’s Muse, the protagonist Paul Dukach feels he has reached the summit of his editing career and decides to become a writer. This decision may be in accord with our celebrity culture. It seems that great editors can no longer be relied upon to remain only great editors. Galassi, a celebrated editor and president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has published poetry in the past, but Muse is his first foray into the novel form.
Paul is a connoisseur of Ida Perkins, a beloved American poet. There’s something florally appealing about Ida’s presence, her talent, and her too-goodto-be-true career. She is idealized to such a degree, she’s a veritable goddess: her publisher adores her, as do her readers; lovers and husbands are strewn on the path she’s traveled. Midway through this book, Ida reminded me of John Galsworthy’s treatment of the elusive and enchanting Irene in The Forsyte Saga. Both Ida and Irene are Venus and Athena rolled into one — they’re more mythical than relatable.
Despite her goddess aura, Galassi does attempt to make Ida real. She’s had a glorious life and now lives in Venice, but when we meet her, she’s an aging and lonely countess. Galassi makes a brave decision to let us taste Ida’s poetry. Her poems are accessible and rich in feeling. Still, it’s a stretch to believe that Ida would have been venerated in so many ways. At the end of the novel, we get a bibliography of Ida’s work. For a novel that ostensibly has a poet and an editor at its heart, there’s not a lot here about the artistry of poetry or storytelling.
While Paul’s love of poetry is palpable, what’s more evident is Galassi’s insider knowledge of the publishing world. The sketch he draws of the Frankfurt Book Fair — its origins and the people who attend it year after year — is at once brutal and hilarious. Throughout this book, we get an irresistible, briskly drawn account of the publishing business from the proverbial horse’s mouth: the rivalry between houses; the hand-holding authors want from their editors; and the corporate sharks who threaten to swallow a reputable, independent house. This is mostly a world of privilege and only rarely is hardship, much less poverty or the underbelly of publishing, alluded to: “One of the tricks of publishing was catching the wave of public taste at the right moment. If you were too prescient, too far ahead of the swell, literally nothing would happen — until lightning struck, if it did, years, sometimes decades, later. In the meantime, you had to have other ways of keeping body and soul together to be a serious writer — or a publisher.”
Galassi’s prose is impeccable, but the book reads more like a biography than a novel. This is interesting, because after Paul drops out of the publishing world, the first project he tackles is a biography of Ida Perkins. The experience of reading this book is of having a story told to you, not a sensory plunging into the story. In a recent interview in The New York Times, author David McCullough spoke of his time studying English at Yale: “Greater for me was the influence of the extraordinary lectures on architecture by the incomparable Vincent Scully, who taught us all to see as never before. Wasn’t it Dickens who said, ‘Make me see’?” It’s not as though Galassi doesn’t make us see, but he mostly does so in an essayistic sense. The more novelistic scenes occur when Paul goes to Venice to meet Ida.
Paul comes from an unlikely background to succeed in the world of publishing, but a recommendation from his local bookstore owner, who will remain his friend for life, gets him an entry-level position. He goes on to work with a colorful publisher, Homer Stern at Purcell & Stern, who has all the swagger of a Harvey Weinstein. Later, Paul becomes friend, and eventual enemy, to Ida’s iconic publisher Sterling Wainwright at Impetus. Those familiar with publishing lore will see that both Homer and Sterling are drawn from former legends in that world — Galassi’s inimitable predecessor Roger W. Straus Jr. and his more genteel contemporary James Laughlin.
The novel’s mood is contained — it’s like a man in a white suit who remains unflappably cool as the story heats up. Homer is the book’s most explosive character, but he is reduced to his lewd one-liners, as Sterling is constricted by his lifelong adulation of Ida and his obliviousness to his wife’s feelings.
Galassi was a student of the poet Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard, and in this novel, he references her as well as her fellow poets Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. It’s interesting to contrast his “willfully obscure, surrealist early Bishop” with his Ida Perkins in whom “Nothing is hidden or remote . . . it’s all on the surface, in your face.” Ida’s ascendency, enthronement, and longevity as America’s favorite poet is a stunning vision — of a vast public that appreciates poetry and enables a poet to live as poets ought to live. We can only wish that reality were more like this. — Priyanka Kumar