Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

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

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