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Quirky as They Come

November 29, 2007 By:
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The New York Review of Books, as any lover of literature knows, has been a feature on the publishing scene for more than 40 years now, the brainchild of several New York intellectuals, not a few of whom were Jewish. They included Jason Epstein and his wife, the late Barbara Epstein, both movers and shakers in the publishing world; and the critics Elizabeth Hardwick and Edmund Wilson, powerhouses in their own right. These folks had long been convinced that The New York Times Book Review had grown anemic. They were assured as well that New York City deserved a first-class venue where books could be properly reviewed, either skewered when necessary or praised in proportion to their merit.

And so, in 1963, in the midst of a protracted New York Times strike, the tabloid-sized publication, edited by Barbara Epstein (until her death last year) and Robert Silvers, began appearing on a biweekly basis, and swiftly made its reputation through the literacy of its famous contributors -- both American and British -- as well as for some of the more outrageous political proclamations it issued, especially in the wild and woolly days of the 1960s. But no matter what people might still think about those political prognostications, the Review's reputation for critical excellence has never faltered.

What may not be as well-known is that the magazine began a book-publishing unit more than a decade ago, and since then has built up one of the most surprising and varied lists of books appearing anywhere in the world. Its modus operandi has been, until recently, to reprint a few classics along with lots of wonderful oddball favorites beloved by readers, most of them dating from the 20th century. The majority of them have appeared in paperback in a somewhat uniform -- and quite lovely -- format (the cover art varies, of course, as does the color of the spine, but the typeset and size never stray from one volume to the next). Only in the last few years has the publishing unit begun to issue new fiction (and a smattering of nonfiction), often in hardback.

The only drawback I've found to the enterprise -- and it's a minor one, but may explain why the books aren't better known -- is that the publishing unit calls itself "New York Review Books," which may at first seem clever, but can get downright confusing at times. NYRB is the acronym that's used to identify these volumes, but I imagine most people confuse that symbol with the magazine itself.

But enough of trivialities. This is a compilation of books to revel in. I have to admit that I may find these titles so satisfying simply because they contain so many of my own favorites, along with many of the authors I've admired for years. The thing that rattles me most is when NYRB publishes a book I already have in my library, and I have to hold myself back from purchasing the new edition. It's a struggle, believe me, for these are objects that are beautiful to look at in terms of format and typology, and often contain insightful prefaces contributed by a wonderful set of current writers. The cover art alone is often worth the price of the book.

The classic titles include items like Dante's The New Life, a series of lesser-known works by Henry James, Stendahl's The Life of Henry Brulard and Turgenev's Virgin Soil. As for the quirkier favorites, a brief list of them would have to include My Father and Myself, Hindoo Holiday and My Dog Tulip, all by J.R. Ackerley; J.G. Farrell's trilogy, Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip; The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley; Murray Kempton's Part of Our Time; the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor; A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien; a selection from the novels of Cesare Pavese; new translations of the psychological novellas of Georges Simenon, creator of the classic French detective Inspector Maigret; and The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger.

And that's the short list.

The only truly outright Jewish title on the list is Gershom Scholem's Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, though this is a personal tale and more about a particular time in European Jewish history than about Jewish literature per se. There are books by Jewish writers -- Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey, Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older and Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity -- to mention a few, though none is particularly Jewish in their subject matter either.

One of the volumes that NYRB will be returning to print in a matter of weeks does have as its central motif the gentile main character's unending fascination with Jews. Gregor Von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is a book of five interrelated stories masquerading as a novel that is probably the most incisive depiction of the collision of Jewish life with Middle European society during some of the most brutal decades of the 20th century.

Dog Days at the Cafe

Another tangentially Jewish, but fascinating, title is The Stray Dog Cabaret, subtitled A Book of Russian Poems, which has been edited by Catherine Ciepiela and Honor Moore, and translated by the late Paul Schmidt. I say it's tangentially Jewish because two of the great poets included, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, were born Jewish, though their poetry hardly took up Jewish themes. The other poets included are Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva and Sergei Esenin.

But The Stray Dog Cabaret is as compelling for the poems included as for its back story, which tells us a great deal about Russian society and literature in the period preceding the revolution. According to Ciepiela, author of The Same Solitude, a study of the epistolary "romance" between Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, the Stray Dog Cabaret opened in St. Petersburg on New Year's Eve in 1912, and quickly became the haunt of the Russian avant-garde in literature and many other arts.

In its brief life, writes Ciepiela, "the cabaret hosted scores of musical evenings, poetry readings, aesthetic debates, and elaborately staged performances. Its true purpose, though, was not to entertain 'the pharmacists,' as the regulars called the bourgeois patrons eager to make the scene, but to create a gathering place for artistic bohemia. Just as important as the formal programs were the unscripted dramas played out among the cabaret's brilliant clientele as they drank, argued and jockeyed for attention. In the spotlight were exciting young poets just making their debuts: here Anna Akhmatova posed with queenly majesty, Osip Mandelstam read in a shamanistic trance, and Vladimir Mayakovsky banged his drum whenever a fellow futurist came through the door. Velimir Khlebnikov, as one observer put it, simply 'radiated a certain incomprehensible importance.' "

Space limitations allow for only a single poem. And that should be Mandelstam's "Poem About Stalin," which he could not have read at the Stray Dog, as the work was written in 1933, but which ensured his swift death at the hands of the eponymous dictator and his thugs.

 

"We live in a land with no ground beneath our feet,
We whisper whatever we say whenever we meet.
In each pause in the conversation
We think of who governs the nation.

 

His fingers are slimy as worms and greasy and fat;
His words are solid as rocks and they knock you flat.
He has snickering cockroach whiskers,
And he never gets sh-- on his shoes.

 

His gang is a gaggle of no-neck monsters and crooks;
They shake in their boots, they're all afraid of his looks.
They say DA! They say NYET!
But he goes BANG! and they sweat.

 

He tosses his orders like horseshoes over the Kremlin walls --
We get hit in the face, in the back, in the butt, in the balls.
And every time someone gets murdered,
he sticks out his chest for a medal."

 

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