I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.
The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.
There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.
Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole. To those accustomed to a linear, PowerPoint-like arrangement of information, this “agglomerative” way of proceeding can be baffling. The following is my own attempt — not Calasso’s — to show what the experience of reading Calasso can be like:
While out walking you spy a coin on the sidewalk. You pick it up, intending to make a wish and throw it over your shoulder, a gesture that already connects you to a distant past. But, wait, it’s a gold coin with the image of a head crowned with a laurel wreath. And old. Did a coin collector accidentally drop it? You turn it over in your palm, recalling your own coin collection — the buffalo nickel, the pure silver dollars, the tiny pockets in the album. Did you know that the Smithsonian’s coin collection, the largest in the world, has more than 450,000 coins? Unfortunately, the exhibit closed years ago for lack of money. Upon closer inspection, you see that the image on the coin is likely Roman. The Romans minted coins from the 4th century BC at the temple of Juno Moneta, (the source of our word money), and they set up mints across the Empire, establishing minting practices for all time. Earlier still, Ploutos, the sometimes-blind Greek god of wealth, carried a cornucopia and dispensed riches. His near contemporary, a Phrygian named Midas, and the latter’s fairy-tale descendants had a different attitude toward wealth, one akin to the hedge fund manager’s. Along with coins and money came trade, banking, and the Medici, though the Romans had already invented checks, which are today dispatched on smartphones.
Question: When you toss the coin over your shoulder, what do you toss? Answer: Civilization. A book by Calasso is always a journey into and through civilization in the company of an expert guide.
In The Art of the Publisher, Calasso concerns himself with what the good publisher is and argues in favor of the publisher’s critical role in the furtherance of civilization through the expression of his own, highly refined sensibility. Consequently, it seems surprisingly self-evident when he says that the good publishing house is one that publishes “only good books,” i.e., “books of which the publisher tends to feel proud rather than ashamed.” Or that, as in most artistic activities, success in publishing is frequently unremunerative:
…along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away his fortune.
At this point, Calasso explores some questions in contemporary publishing the answers to which aren’t necessarily obvious.
1. Why does one become a publisher?
[Because]…publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art…[and]…in order to practice it, money is an essential element.“
With respect to publishing itself, he allows that “very little has changed since [Johann] Gutenberg’s time.” He takes the reader down a rabbit hole of publishing history — typefaces, woodcuts, prefaces, publicity, and, of course, books — wherein we meet Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist (1449-1515), the creator of “the most beautiful book ever made,” the inventor of the paperback, and “the first to conceive of the publishing house as form:
…the choice and sequence of titles to be published; the texts that accompany the books; the way in which the books are presented as objects.
In other words, the good publisher gives form to the “essential reading of his time.” This is very, very important to Calasso.
Today’s dispersed and disparate publishing business, particularly the digital universe, directly challenges Calasso’s claim that a good publisher has an essential role and is himself artist. Even among the well read, Calasso’s kind of publisher seems a relic of an earlier time. In advocating for the relevance of those very few publishers who still remain faithful to the publisher’s art, Calasso can seem like a unicorn among donkeys. Undeterred, he insists that the good publisher by imposing his judgments, his noes and yeses, his style, his taste on the available possibilities…
. . . give[s] form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book. . . [and takes] . . . a passionate and obsessive care over the appearance of every volume.
In this way, a good publishing house becomes:
…a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by all its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, and quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented…[and this totality is]…a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own.
This vision is at the heart of Calasso’s argument. It is both secular and spiritual. The “single chain” that is “formed by all the books published by the publisher” is the unique work of art that the publisher brings to the literary table. It is both tangible — the books — and intangible — a reflection of the mythos or sensibility that is expressed in the “chain” and the “totality,” which “imply other related books not written.” For Calasso this totality is numinous.
2. Couldn’t these tangible and intangible connections exist without the publisher?
For the most part, publishing today, whether print or digital, lacks the overarching sensibility that only the good publisher provides:
There would still be good and bad books, but those good books would appear as sporadic, isolated events with no congenial context into which to fit them.
Calasso’s good publisher is an endangered species in a business sense as well. In publishing today, form has become the organization chart, and mythos is merely brand power:
There are very few people today who can be given the title of publisher. They could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. Editors, on the other hand, are many and increasing, if editors are those who discover, follow, develop, and launch a certain number of books within the catalog of a publishing house. All editors are associated with a list of authors and books as though they are theirs. This, however, does not include the form itself — the catalog, the program of the publishing house for which they work. If a publishing house is not conceived as a form, as a self-sufficient composition held together by a high physiological compatibility between all of its constituent parts, it easily turns into a casual association, incapable of triggering that magical element — brand power — that even marketing experts consider essential for achieving some degree of success.
Managers in today’s publishing houses often know little or nothing of books and care even less about form. Their mandate is profits. Calasso believes this organizational pattern precludes the publisher’s art. It is, in fact, anti-art.
3. But won’t information technology make all written works more widely available?
A little web-surfing — mine — turns up dozens of niche sites for contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, and works of art — an argument in favor of art for art’s sake as the artists contribute their work gratis. Publishers’ websites — publicity arms, really, but presented as literary hubs — display varied imprints defined by consumer preferences. Other sites are more serious literary efforts that vanish when the editor gets a paying job. Barriers to entry are low, and some sites are scarcely more than hobbies. Often, sites are cross-listed, the better to achieve a higher ranking within the Google algorithms. The result is ever more self-referential and enclosed universes. A few sites, such as this one, grow and thrive because they serve real needs.
Calasso doubts the literary value of such websites and that Google books can become the greatest library in history. Quantity is not quality. He finds Google’s ambitions totalitarian and oppressive and the implications for publishers negative:
In the face of…[immediate access to everything]…which grows wider and better every day, the publisher can only seem like a miserable obstacle.
Democratization in literary publishing isn’t necessarily desirable either:
…information technology aims toward a situation — its own utopian vision — in which, as everything is connected with everything else, the result is…[a state of confusion and disorder]…in which everyone can claim to have contributed…Whether or not a world of this kind is desirable does not, for most people, seem a question of any urgency…
The “cloud” is an apt image for this digital fog:
…if we limit the field to that of publishing, it can be said with certainty that there is one element that the cloud of knowing (or, more accurately, the cloud of information, though hasn’t the very distinction between information and knowledge become blurred?) can do without: judgment, that primeval capacity to say yes or no. But judgment was the basic founding element for the existence of the publisher…[who]…has always had the one undeniable prerogative: to say yes or no to a manuscript and decide in what form to present it. But if judgment can be easily dispensed with, this is even truer of form. Indeed, discussion about form could soon become meaningless.
4. Still, doesn’t the existence of literary sites, publishing houses driven by consumer preferences, as well as the self-publishing boom refute Calasso’s claim that only the good publisher can provide a meaningful place for literary output?
In the digital universe everyone with a computer can be his own publisher, his own arbiter of taste, his own stylist of content, his own “decider,” but absent the publisher’s taste and judgment, there can be no art in Calasso’s sense of the word. Absent the “chain,” the “totality,” the publisher’s vision, there is no form, no mythos. Writers, readers, and books bob alone on a sea of dreck.
5. Why is someone like Calasso better at choosing what to bring to our attention than we are?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Calasso has been accused of elitism and paternalism. To be fair, however, his argument rests on more subtle grounds than simply that the good publisher is the necessary, singular arbiter of quality. Rather, he sees the publisher as having a responsibility to establish a vision and within that vision to practice his art. In this way, the publisher becomes the custodian and purveyor of what he believes is essential to his culture and time. “The gods are the fugitive guests of literature,” he says, meaning that the publisher’s mission, while secular, has a sacred element: the carrier or custodian of a mythos that guides and is reflected in the collective works he publishes. This “spirit” unites otherwise solitary authors, readers, and books. The sum of his acts as a publisher thus constitutes a form, which is, like sculpture or painting, art.
Calasso ends by returning to the image of Manutius. He wants publishers to aspire to create new books that are equally as beautiful as Manutius’s perfect book. For some this charge may seem precious and as suffocating in its imposition of critical judgment as the Internet is in its lack of discrimination. This much is certain: No other publisher today has dared to claim as his own the singular judgment and unique artistry of the publisher-artist Calasso describes so precisely. That is because the one he has in mind is himself and the art his own.
“I think I’ve been had,” John Huston remarked when he finished filming his adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, which was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Or at least that’s the story the screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald tells. Huston’s take was that the film had a darkly comic heart, dressed in religious trappings. He was not convinced that the main character, the staunch atheist Hazel Motes, finds God in the end. That is, until the Fitzgeralds persuaded him otherwise.If anyone other than O’Connor was aware of her intentions, the Fitzgeralds were. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald provided her with a room for two years while she wrote the novel, parts of which she shared with them. Robert became the executor of her estate after she died and Sally edited volumes of her letters and nonfiction. Wise Blood stayed in the family, so to speak, when their sons, Benedict and Michael set out to turn the novel into film, for which they recruited John Huston as the director. The brothers and their mother were present on location during the filming in Macon, Georgia, and among other things, made sure Huston’s depiction remained faithful to O’Connor’s vision.If Huston was had, it was only because Hazel Motes was too. Haze wants more than anything to out Jesus as a liar and false prophet and to found his own religion, the Church Without Christ, as a response to the evangelism that he grew up with and has thrived around him. The grandson of a circuit preacher who would park his car, climb atop the hood, and start preaching hellfire and redemption, Haze determined early on to become a preacher too – but one who speaks against belief, who disabuses its converts of the false notions, needless guilt, and notions of depravity.After a stint in the army, Haze makes his way to a small southern town called Taulkinham, where he finds a whore, buys a ramshackle car, and sets out to start the Church Without Christ. As O’Connor explained in a letter to the novelist John Hawkes, Haze’s striking out against Jesus was a rebellion against a deep-set faith within him: “There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not.” With the same fervor that Haze rejects Christianity and the street preacher’s refrain, he crashes into it head-on.So it goes with Haze, that in spite of his valiant efforts to discern what is true, he’s often unable to see what lies directly in front of him. And he’s not the only one. Much is made of eyes and vision in Wise Blood; appearances are often merely facades. The blind street preacher, Asa Hawks, who Haze follows when he first arrives in Taulkinham and later becomes obsessed with, isn’t really a man of God and isn’t really blind. Asa’s bastard daughter, Sabbath Lily, gives Haze “fast eye” when they first meet, and of course there’s Haze, whose penetrating eyes, according to Sabbath, “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep looking.” That Haze continues to look becomes his saving grace. When Wise Blood’s characters believe they have clarity, it’s often the point where they’re led most astray. Take Haze’s car. He has great pride in his decrepit jalopy with one door attached by a rope; even when it breaks down, he claims it’s as fine as any. And as they’re sputtering along, Sabbath corroborates, telling Haze it runs “as smooth as honey.”In this vein, Huston’s partial blindness to O’Connor’s ultimate vision while filming Wise Blood may help explain why the film stays so true to the novel’s tone and intent. The Fitzgeralds’ guiding hand made sure Huston didn’t stray too far from the course, but the eccentric characters and the humor of their foibles could easily have slipped into caricature. Instead, they strike O’Connor’s unique pitch. Thanks to Benedict Fitzgerald’s screenplay, many of the best lines remain untouched, such as Enoch Emery’s description of his foster mother whose hair was so thin “it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.” Perhaps the only off note is the musical score, that inserts a punchy banjo riff a la the Beverly Hillbillies during interludes and whenever the town’s desperate newcomer Enoch Emery appears, as if to cue laughter. In contrast, Emery’s on-screen presence – disheveled, lonely, and naively enthusiastic – is nuanced and pitiably comedic. Had the director been more attuned to O’Connor’s religious vision, the depictions could easily have become more-heavy handed, and lost some of their comic potential if not their humanity.To speak of O’Connor without touching on religion is missing the point, but to focus so intently on religion that the story is sacrificed would be the greater loss. O’Connor’s genius was that she could perform the balancing act and execute it with near perfection. As she confided to John Hawkes, “I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel that is not of the greatest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe with the air of our times.” That O’Connor’s characters so believably grapple with disbelief makes them more human, and their struggles more profound. In the best sense, Huston’s film breathes life into O’Connor’s characters, with a single-minded Hazel Motes, a befuddled Emery Enoch, and an elfin Sabbath Lily, along with a host of characters from this small southern town, trying to find their way as best they can.John Huston’s Wise Blood was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Bonus goodies include John Huston interviewed by Bill Moyers, an essay by Francine Prose, and an audio track of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
Joseph Luzzi’s memoir begins with the slaughter of his pet rabbit:
I don’t know what it took — my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers — but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.
The rabbit, an Easter present intended for the table, had never really been a pet, but to a young Joseph Luzzi, the bunny’s demise was just another example of the way his Italian immigrant parents were out of place in their suburban Rhode Island surroundings. While the parents of Luzzi’s friends bought frozen and pre-prepared foods from the grocery store, his parents grew their own vegetables in their backyard, where they also raised chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and a goat. They preserved much of their harvest, too: “from tomatoes and beans to peaches and pears in rows of mason jars that filled the cellar alongside the hanging shanks of prosciutto and soppressata.”
Today, the Luzzi basement would be the pride of any urban homesteader, but in the 1970s, it was something Luzzi wanted to hide: “As a kid, I had scorned all that homemade freshness, desperate for the packaged and processed, the fructose and trans fat that would help me fit in.” It was only as an adult that he realized that his parents were producing “boutique food at a bargain rate.” Now, Luzzi emulates his father’s thrift, using leftover vegetables to make ribolitta, a peasant stew. It’s a dish that his father never made or even knew, because he was from southern Italy, and ribolitta is from Tuscany, a northern region. Luzzi’s embrace of the dish is one of the many ways he has learned to marry his “Two Italies” — the rustic southern traditions he grew up with and the cultured, northern traditions he studied in graduate school and now teaches as a professor and critic.
My Two Italies is a hybrid memoir, both a recollection of personal experience and growth and a scholarly look at the long-standing divide between Italy’s north and south — the north characterized by wealth and culture, and the south by poverty and crime. For Luzzi, the divide is personally felt. As the child of parents from the Calabria region of Italy, his blood is rooted in the south, but as a scholar of Italian culture, his intellect is drawn to the north. There is also an important linguistic divide between north and south, which is complicated, but boils down to the fact that a northern dialect, Tuscan, was designated “Italian” even though, at the time of Italy’s unification in 1861, a majority of Italians spoke a variety of other dialects. These other dialects flourished well into the 20th century, and put Luzzi in the peculiar position of speaking “better” Italian than his parents, whose southern Calabrian dialect was at odds with the literary Italian he learned in school. Luzzi’s parents ended up speaking their own peculiar mix of Calabrian and Amrican English, resulting in words like uascina mascina for “washing machine,” ŉu carru for “a car,” and u porciu for “the porch.” It was a language so unique that Luzzi had trouble remembering it after his father’s death:
After he died, I heard my father’s voice but I couldn’t fill it with words. When I forced him to speak to me in English, it sounded pedantic and prissy. His Italian, though, was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to say but no way to say it, a reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words I lost a way of describing a world.
Luzzi’s memoir is in part a tribute to his parents. His father was a war hero who survived capture by the Nazis; his mother immigrated to the U.S. alone in order to gain citizenship for her husband and four children, and to escape the crushing poverty of Calabria. The youngest of five children, Luzzi is the only one of his siblings born in America. His decision to study Italian came out of a desire to understand where his parents and siblings had come from. At the same time, Luzzi wanted to suppress his southern heritage and to remake himself as a wealthy, cultured northern Italian. As an undergrad studying abroad for the first time, he chooses Florence, the city of Dante and Botticelli: “Florence, I believed, would enable me to upgrade from my parents’ Calabria to a calzone-free Italian lineage.”
My Two Italies helped to complicate my view of Italy. I know Italy as a tourist, and many years ago, as an undergrad studying abroad in Rome. I fell in love with the country for its beauty, as everyone does, and knew of its crimes mainly through movies and TV shows. I never bothered to ask why Italy was beautiful or corrupt, or how those two qualities might be linked. I also never peered too deeply into Italy’s contemporary history, preferring, instead, to dwell on the glories of ancient Rome and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
Luzzi addresses these common blind spots, delving into Italy’s contemporary problems, which include economic stagnation, a low birth rate, “brain drain,” and a level of corruption second only to Greece. In a chapter on the career of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s staggeringly sleazy Prime Minister, Luzzi looks to a 19th-century poet and philospher, Giacomo Leopardi, to explain Berlusconi’s success:
Leopardi wrote that Italy’s fundamental problem was a lack of “society”: it had no sense of national community to unite its people, no public sphere that regulated conduct and taste and gave rise to sentiments of honor and shame…In Leopardi’s view, this resistance to collective thinking made Italians the most cynical of peoples…
Luzzi sees this cynicism in modern Italian voters, who “stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” Luzzi also attributes Berlusconi’s rise to the very spectacle of his excess: “With his face-lifts, seaside villas, Marinella ties, sprawling estates, and near-naked showgirls, Berlusconi embodies the Italian love of surfaces.” Again, turning to literature, Luzzi quotes froma classic Italian novel, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in which the title character observes that Italy’s great beauty is derived from “the squalor and filth of the streets around.” That is, the extravagance that we associate with la dolce vita comes at a price. Interpreting Lampedusa, Luzzi writes, “you cannot have a nation obsessed with beautiful forms without the devotion to seductive appearances devoid of moral substance.” Finally, Luzzi quotes the English poet Percy Bysse Shelley, who observed that there are “two Italies”, one “sublime” and the other “odious.”
In a discussion of the untranslatable Italian phrase, bella figura — literally, ‘beautiful figure,’ but better understood as a theatrical gesture, a “beautiful act’ — Luzzi evokes the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in shallow waters, a disaster that was the result of the captain wanting to show off his ship and sailing too close to a small island. It was a theatrical gesture gone terribly wrong. Photographs of the half-submerged ship captured the world’s imagination: it was somehow both sublime and odious. The Italian filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino, used the image to great effect in his Academy Award-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). In his film, Sorrentino’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a washed-up writer who nevertheless lives in great style and comfort, visits the wreck. From a nearby cliff, he gazes down at the ship as if looking at his own wrecked life in need of salvage. Or, maybe it is Italy that Sorrentino’s Gambardella sees: a beautiful country run aground.
Luzzi closes his memoir with an image of his daughter, climbing the steps of Santa Croce in Florence. As eager as he is to show her the beauties of his adopted city, Luzzi is aware that she will always see Italy in a nostalgic way, that she will never understand the immigrant struggles of her grandparents, or even her own father’s struggle to reconcile his multiple heritages: “Free from the reservoirs of la miseria I had inherited from my parents, my daughter would likely stare one day at black-and-white photographs of a lost Calabrian world and wonder how on earth she was related to it.”