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Edwin Frank discusses 17 Years at the Helm of the New York Review Books

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on November 17, 2016
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Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review Books, was recently at Paris' iconic bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, to discuss the program and history of the publishing house he founded in 1999. Its goal was a far shot--to re-introduce the public to books that were out of print, often in translation, and to commission new translations of certain classics. Seventeen years later the New York Review Books is a critical and commercial success. Frank, in conversation with Daniel Meldin, a comparative literature professor and Man Booker International Prize judge, talked about the evolution of the publishing company and how readers are taking books more seriously perhaps, today, than ever before. Following, are excerpts from their conversation.

Daniel Meldin: How did the project come into existence?

Crab-wise and incidentally. Bookshops were folding in the US and I was working for The Reader's Catalogue, going through sections of it and removing the books that were out of print. There were so many important books that had gone out of print. I didn't realize that they had gone out of print because they didn't sell. I proposed a list of books that were inexplicably out of print, and sent it to the New York Review and this turned into the first "Classics" list that we published: 14 books in 1999. The design was kind of disastrous but the response was more excited than anyone expected. I didn't really want to call the series "Classics" because who knows what a "classic" is...it took a while for people to realize that we weren't doing a new copy of Euthydemus. Our books are somewhere between the vinyl bin and the repertory theatre. At the beginning it was about reprints, like a repertory theatre. Our series did well, so we thought about new translations and even books that had never been translated before. 

"Our books are somewhere between the vinyl bin and the repertory theatre."

Daniel Meldin: I'm also a great fan of the imprints that you have developed, such as NYRB Poets, NYR Children's Collection, NYRB Lit and now even NYR Comics. 

I personally find reading a BD [comic or graphic novel] more difficult than Finnegan's Wake, but these young editors are running it and the focus is international. We're also reprinting some of Saul Steinberg's work next year, some of these books have been out of print for up to 50 years. With poetry, well poetry gets published more and more in tomes, which seems funereal, so I wanted to do something that was even smaller than a trade paperback. So we have a young Palestinian poet, Najwan Darwish, Russian poet Eugene Ostashevsky, or even Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps.

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    Untitled, 1944. Ink on paper.
    Originally published in Steinberg, All in Line (1945) courtesy Saul Steinberg Foundation

     

    Daniel Meldin: French literature is a strong strand. What is your relationship to French?

    I read French because my mother brought me to France when I was six. But I didn't stay long. French is always a possession that is slipping away from me which makes it precious. But there's no getting around French literature anyway. The books we publish are no-brainers. [Jules] Vallès' The Child is a rare French book though, because it's the only one since Rabelais that is funny. With Douglas Parmee, the translator, I did a great misdeed as a publisher. I did serious editing of his translation. His translation was very good but it was very British. I needed to find a mid-Atlantic registry. But I began to pull it apart and there I was and the book was late. Off it went to the printers and I hadn't sent it back to the translator. When it came back I packaged it up and sent to to him brightly. He wrote back "I had no idea that the American language was so different from English. Job well done." I never did that again and we worked together again.  Another example of a book we have published is the collected essays of Simon Leys--good deeds sometimes do go unpunished--it's more than 500 pages and it's doing well. 

    Daniel Meldin: You don't only publish French literature. How do you curate your list from languages that you don't read in? Your Hungarian titles are extraordinary...

    It varies. The Hungarian case is an interesting one because the language is so isolated. The Hungarian state had a program to translate Hungarian books into English and it was really very well done. Take [Gyula] Krúdy for example. His work is totally bizarre, like a strange cross between [Polish author] Bruno Shulz and P.G. Wodehouse with gypsy music thrown in. Another example of one of my favorite authors is Eileen Chang. She wrote in the 1940s and died in the 1990s. In 2002 or 2003 I stumbled on her name. She had been so well known in China, moreover she translated her own work from Chinese into English. [Joseph] Conrad had done that but it was quite unusual. It took a while to track her down and to find out where her heirs were. She began to write extraordinary novellas in 1921, in Shanghai that was occupied by the Japanese so she couldn't write anything political. She wrote about relationships between men and women as in the collection Love in a Fallen City; she is a tremendous figure of the 20th century. Another extraordinary writer that I came to as a middle-aged convert is [British author] Henry Green. We have published six titles and will publish all his novels. Back, for example, is about a guy who was a POW who comes back home shattered. The core is about the war but nothing is conventional. Green moves words around on a page the way a painter moves colors. 

    Daniel Meldin: Can you tell us a little about the success of some of your books, such as [John Williams'] Stoner, which sold millions of copies world-wide or Magda Szabó?

    For us and other publishers like us, there's been some sort of change of mood. It's a time when people feel a commitment to reading more strongly and seriously. Independent bookstores are growing for the first time in a long time. People feel they are upholding something that matters to them. The New York Times acknowledged a changed literary moment by choosing Magda Szabó's The Door as one of the best ten books of 2015. As for Stoner, well, it's a mid-century, midwestern novel about a medievalist. Read it!

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    Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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