What a Good Book Can Be: An Interview with Edwin Frank


At Work

In 1999, Edwin Frank founded New York Review Books to reintroduce out-of-print works—many in first translations from around the world—to the reading public. “From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” Frank told the New York Times last year. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.” In the last seventeen years, you’ve likely picked up a New York Review Book—maybe because you were taken with its arresting design, or because you recognized a work you didn’t know by a major author: Walt Whitman’s unexpurgated Drum-Taps, say, or unpublished stories by Chekhov, or new versions of Aeschylus and Balzac, Dante and Euripides, or essay collections by Sartre, Lionel Trilling, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm.

Since its inception, the series has won dozens of awards for its translations; the New York Times chose Magda Szabó’s The Door as one of the ten best books of 2015. New York Review Books have met not just with critical plaudits but commercial success, which naturally leads the curious reader to wonder: Who is Edwin Frank, anyway? We met in his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn to discuss his process: how he finds the books he publishes and what provokes his interest. Frank has a soft-spoken manner and a reader’s excellent dispatch of vocabulary, but he clearly enjoys regular punctuations of loud laughter, provoked by his knowing, bone-dry sense of humor.

You’ve published two books of poetry. Has your background as a poet affected your tastes as an editor? 

Well you could say that reading and writing poetry saved me from ever being a professional reader or writer. I had a Stegner Fellowship after college, but the main thing I took away from it was a permanent aversion to the world of writing programs, and poetry is also a pretty effective inoculation against commercial publishing. And I was always sure that I wanted to have nothing to do with the academic study of literature. Then again, poetry did in some sense lead me to publishing—a kind of gateway drug—since in the nineties my friend Andy McCord and I started a small press, Alef Books, in which we published Joseph Lease, Ilya Kutik, Melissa Monroe, Michael Ruby. But that was a labor of love. In fact I came to editing very late, in my midthirties, which is unusual in publishing, a business people mostly go into right after college. It was a lucky break. I needed a job and I thought that having put out a handful of books of poems would make me of interest to publishers, which of course was dead wrong.

What were your poetic passions?

That same year I discovered Dostoevsky I discovered “Prufrock” and I thought Eliot was utterly electrifying. Wallace Stevens I loved and Yeats and Keats and Auden and Plath and then Robert Lowell, his great dark early rhyming poems like “Jonathan Edwards and the Spider” and his book of sonnets History, which was among other things an education. I still like Robert Lowell, though he was somebody whose grandiloquent voice and sense of who he was I had to purge at a certain point. I liked the fact that he was a private poet but also a public one. Who invoked the power of poetry in order to challenge power—most famously by refusing LBJ’s invitation to the White House during the Vietnam War, which put him on the front page of the Times—hard to imagine now. He was central to American history, American literature, but also he stood at a distance from it, apart certainly from an American cheerleading which was audible enough where I grew up. Then he also had the vulnerability that came with his madness and that came out in his strange keening Southern-accented voice, and that was also undoubtedly appealing to a vulnerable adolescent. The English poet C. H. Sisson made a deep impression on me. And foreign poets too, Montale. The poets who have had the strongest effect on my own poetry are Robert Creeley on the one hand and Geoffrey Hill on the other.

Do you think you have a different sense of language as a poet? Does it affect what you look for as an editor?

Well, I have a habit of reading the last line of a book, or the last paragraph, as a sign of whether the book will be worth reading, and I’m sure that comes from poetry, where the last line is so important. “Who knows but that on other frequencies I speak for you”: you read that and then you read Invisible Man. You read the last paragraph of The Goldfinch and you put the book down. Then I used to think the interesting sentence was the thing that was the mark of the interest of a book. I don’t think I think that at this point. It’s certainly one of the markers.

What are some others?

Well, there are books of straightforwardly documentary interest, something like Vasily Grossman. Documentary isn’t quite fair to Grossman. He’s a much bigger writer than that. But Vasily Grossman is not a writer of particularly brilliant sentences. They are pretty flat and functional sentences. He’s a writer, though, with an incredible empathy for human beings and an incredible troubled sense of history. Very differently, there’s something like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. It’s a thriller. It’s also not a book of remarkable sentences, but it’s a perfectly delicious book, perfectly plotted and paced. But in general, a good book revises your sense of what a good book can be. That’s a basic truth that I hope the classics series helps to keep alive.

How did you become an editor?

I was in graduate school at Columbia for many years not getting Ph.D in Art History. I was in my midthirties, and I was living not to complete my Ph.D. But I had two kids, so I began to cast around for something to do. Eventually I got a job at something called The Reader’s Catalog—an idea of Jason Epstein’s at the end of the eighties. The independent bookstores were already taking the hit they would continue to take for a very long time, and Jason realized that there were huge swaths of the country where you couldn’t get a good book anymore. So the idea was to have a kind of Sears catalog of “the forty thousand best books in print” and people would be able to order them. The catalog was lightly annotated. It would tell you this is the major novelist of postwar Italy and this was his best book and so on, give the browser a little guidance plus a reason to browse. The catalog sold pretty well, so a second edition was planned in the midnineties, which is when I got involved. At that point the whole catalog had been computerized so that books that had gone out of print were immediately deleted. My first job was to look through the different sections and say, This book shouldn’t be here or, Where is this book, which should be? And a lot of good books, books I loved or books I’d heard about and had always been curious to read—a lot of good books had gone out of print. Based on that, I began to assemble a list of interesting books that we could reprint and a few years later this turned into the classics series.

What was the first book?

We started with Chekhov’s Peasants, a collection of Chekhov’s late long stories edited by Edmund Wilson. Wilson is a supremely sophisticated if at times stubbornly close-minded reader and critic. He was both a total professional and an unrepentant amateur. His work was a model for the editors of the New York Review, which he contributed to from the start, and it had also mattered a lot to me. To the Finland Station is one of my favorite books, and we later reprinted that. So we started with Peasants as a tribute to Wilson and also to Anchor Books, which was the first American trade paperback series and where Peasants first appeared.

This was the fall of 1999. We did ten books in pretty short order in a different design from the one we have now, an unsatisfactory design, with every book numbered boldly on a kind of faux butcher-paper cover, and we soon changed it. One of the books was Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, which had been on a list of the hundred best books of the twentieth century that some distinguished committee had drawn up for Modern Library in anticipation of the new millennium. Most of them were in print, but not Hughes, and our getting it was a coup. It did very well. So did J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. It was encouraging. Publishing’s a very fatalistic business, or at least I am very fatalistic. Always assume everything will fail. So it was encouraging.

You once described the process of looking for books with your colleague Sara Kramer as “rigorously by whim.”

Well, the other way I put this is to say that I want to mix things up—something old, something new, something whatever color it is, and something blue. Be unpredictable, including to yourself. So there’s the question of how do you go about finding things—or better their finding you? You have to be open to surprise and at the same time assiduous in pursuing the things you are really interested in. You have to be patient. And along the way when you are pursuing things you are confident you want, other things may crop up. Rigorously by whim. One of Sara’s books, for example, is The One-Straw Revolution, a kind of a bible for the green movement. It’s a book about growing rice but it’s also a spiritual autobiography of the author, Masanoba Fukuoka, who was a renegade Japanese agronomist. It’s not a book I would have discovered in a million years, but Sara heard about it and I immediately thought, How interesting. Here’s a book like no other book, a good book, and a book no one would ever expect us to publish. Perfect!

You also said, “From the beginning it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue.” What did you mean by that?

There are existing voices—writers we have a commitment to, like Andrey Platonov or Vasily Grossman—you build on those. And then there are new voices, new kinds of writing, you introduce. I think of the series as having different strands. A carpet rather than a fugue. We started with Moravia and went on to add a number of Italian writers. Pavese, Sciascia, Gadda. There’s an Italian strand and a Russian strand and an American strand, and so on. We started as a reprint series but one of the first “new” books we did was Cesar Pavese’s The Moon and Bonfires, an unpublished translation by R. W. Flint. He’d done a series for Farrar, Straus and Giroux—a compendium of Pavese’s stuff—and in it he went on and on about how The Moon and the Bonfires, though it was Pavese’s best-known book, was perhaps not his most successful. So they decided not to include it. I called him and I said, It’s a pity you didn’t translate The Moon and the Bonfires, which is a great book. Your translations are wonderful and the only existing translation of the book is terrible. And he said, Well, actually I did do it, but then I sent it to Roger Straus, who looked at the sales figures and said, Why do I need another fucking book by another fucking Italian communist! So Flint just put it away in his top drawer, but he had it still. A few days later, on onionskin paper, the whole manuscript arrived. Did he have a carbon copy, or had he just stuck it in an envelope and mailed it out? In any case, it went on to win a PEN translation prize.

Have you had moments where you’re sent something and you start reading it and the hairs on the back of your neck begin to rise …

I’m afraid I’m temperamentally too much of a skeptic, perhaps, but there are moments. I was very interested in the poet James Wright’s translation of Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse, for instance. I picked it up and decided to take a bath. It was winter and dark and dreary. And I opened it thinking, A novella about a man who’s a dikemaster in northern Germany—nobody’s going to want to read that! But by the time I finished it, I had no question. We had to do it! Then there was the strange Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy. I had never heard anything like him. I had never heard anything remotely like him, mythic like Bruno Schulz, funny like P. G. Wodehouse, and weirdly sexy with Gypsy violins playing in the background. You never know if others are going to share your enthusiasm, but happily they sometimes do.

Were you surprised by how successful the series has been?

The point of the series should be to get the books out there, spread the news, and to pay its way. It does pay its way. You could say the series started at a difficult but also opportune moment in a still ongoing crisis in publishing, a difficult business. Because this last decade has been a time when more than ever books are getting pushed aside by other kinds of entertainments and sources of information, and that has been a challenge for publishers and contributed to the decline of the independent bookstore that went on for so long and seemed inevitable. But in fact it’s changed. The decline has not only stopped but been reversed, and I imagine that’s because with books and literature under siege people who really care about books and literature care about them all the more. They want to defend them and seeing them as something you have to defend can put them in new light, makes you think again. What is it I love about these things? What difference do they make? And then again for people growing up with all the gadgets, perhaps the book offers a very specific respite, a place apart, a welcomingly unsocial medium, you could say. That may be going on, too. In any case, this ancient space of books has been changed by the new economy and the new technology. It doesn’t feel the way it used to feel—it feels threatened in some ways—but you can feel it all the more and feel it’s there to explore precisely because it can’t be taken for granted. Old as it is it feels different and in fact new and I think that may help to account for the new independent bookstores opening up, as well as for the success of our series and adventurous publishers like Archipelago.

What do you think explains the success of John Williams’s Stoner?

First, it’s just very well written and put together, and when you get down to it, it’s a tour de force, taking this non-story of a man’s sad and ever-more circumscribed life and making you feel it so keenly. It also has a certain kind of Edward Hopper, long-shadowed American loneliness, which I think has a certain appeal both at home and abroad. The book’s got clean lines. And finally, it’s a book about reading and the meaning of reading at a time when, as I was just saying, people are are preoccupied with that question. In that way, it becomes a kind of talismanic book for people. It’s our best-selling book. It’s been a best-seller all over the world! In Holland it was only knocked off the top of the list by Dan Brown.

How did Magda Szabó’s The Door come to you?

After I discovered Krudy, I got interested in Hungarian literature, wondering if other Hungarian writers were as wild and woolly as he was, and was it something perhaps about the linguistic isolation of Hungarian? In any case, The Door was suggested to me by Adam Freudenheim, the publisher of Pushkin Press. Vintage had published it in the UK and Adam, who was at Penguin then, told me how good it was, and how he wished he’d brought it out. So I went and read it and admired it and bought the U.S. rights. Szabó is very different from Krudy. She’s a Communist-era writer and though she had a vexed relationship to the regime she basically was able to have a career. Tense relationships, power struggles, especially between women—she writes about those things. By the way, that’s another strand of the series, writers who were anathematized in the West and especially the U.S. for political reasons during the Cold War. Writers like Grossman, who were misread or given a very reductive reading as dissident writers and, accordingly, the minute the Wall came down, were allowed to go out of print. We’d won that war, so why bother with the losers, even the ones who’d been useful to us? Look at Anna Seghers, whose Seventh Cross, a prison break book that offered a shocking inside view of Nazi Germany in the thirties, was a best-seller when it came out in the U. S. After the war, Seghers, who was a Communist, went to East Germany, and there were no more American publications.

Photo: booksonthepark, via Instagram.

What would you say is your greatest rediscovery?

For me, the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, who did her best work when she was young in the 1940s—we’ve published some of that in a book called Love in a Fallen City. That at least has been the general view, but it may change because a lot of unpublished manuscripts have come to light since her death in the nineties. She’d fled the mainland and come to the U.S. and become a recluse. She’s immense, a cult figure in Taiwan and also in the PRC, but she certainly wasn’t well known in English. I discovered her in a footnote to a reference book, The Oxford Book of Literature in English Translation, in which she was said to have written a novella that was the equal of Death in Venice. Well, Death in Venice has for some reason become the inescapable yardstick for novellas, so that was pretty meaningless, but what caught my eye was that Chang had translated her own work and, it was said, spectacularly well. Writers who can write well in two languages are few and far between—Nabokov, Beckett. Chang is great on, as she put it, “the little things that happen between men and women,” ruthless little things, and she’s also got an extraordinarily vivid, almost disorienting, visual imagination.

I’m also especially fond of The Root and the Flower by L. H. Myers, though no one else seems to be, apart from Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote the introduction. It’s a historical novel set in Mughal India, or it purports to be, but it’s really an India of the mind. The mind’s India. It’s a calm, almost Olympian book full of crazy extremes, psychological collapse, sex games, political conspiracies, murder, Buddhist enlightenment, beautiful descriptions of landscapes. It’s a really wonderful book, a kind of private myth that I find completely convincing but perhaps it’s too much off any of the existing maps of literature for anyone to find his way to it, though you know Fitzgerald is such a fine and unlikely novelist—perhaps the best English novelist of her generation— that you’d think her advocacy would count for something. 

Then there’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, an immaculate and heartbreaking book and another straggler, unfortunately, perhaps because of its odd title. That’s by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a fascinating figure, a completely modern writer but in no way a modernist writer, with a love of the bizarre and uncanny which she shares with a number of other British writers, John Cowper Powys, for example. T.H. White.

What’s it about? 

A maggot is an Elizabethan term for a quirky or whimsical piece of music. Warner worked on a seminal gathering of English church music and was meant to study composition with Schoenberg—she was only nineteen or so—when World War I broke out and that was that. But then she set up as a writer. Mr. Fortune is a bank clerk and a devout Methodist who quits his job and goes to Polynesia to convert the heathen and then falls in love with a young man there. He doesn’t know what to make of the new emotional, sensual world he finds himself in. He is in love and completely displaced and the book brings out both the wonder and finally the tragedy of that. And it is a musical book. Elizabethan keyboard and lute music is full of these lovely sad offbeat and dissonant dances and the book has that feel, too.

When was it published?

In the mid 1920s.

How was it received at the time?

Well, there’s no sex, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on. It’s not as if the book was seen as a shocker, though Warner was in fact gay. It is not so much a love story as a book about love, a sad and profound one. Like Swann in Love, though very different of course. It was Warner’s second novel. Before it she wrote a novel called Lolly Willoweswe publish that, too—which was in a way more overtly subversive and was quite a success. It was the first selection of the Book of the Month Club in the U. S. It’s about a spinster who breaks with her proper middle-class family and becomes a witch—a cute story and that may explain some of its popularity. At the end, it turns seriously strange, though. The devil says to Lolly, I’ll marry you—quite a compliment!—but she refuses him. She leaves the devil behind and wanders off, perhaps, it’s suggested, to die in a ditch. She leaves everything behind, not just proper society, but the whole distinction between bourgeois and bohemian, right and wrong, all that, and Warner makes that complete and total forsaking very imaginable and attractive. The spinster and witch has moved on to a kind of transcendent nihilism.

Warner’s like a lot of other authors in the series. She didn’t fit the mold of what a modern writer was supposed to be, so she got left out of the story, as it gets told and retold in the academy, in book reviews, of the literature of the last century, the story of modernism, whatever that was or is.

You’re writing a book about the twentieth-century novel. Did your work on the series lead you to it?

Yes, encountering writers like Warner and Chang and Krudy and, oh, Ernst Kästner, who Walter Benjamin dismissed as a purveyor of “left-wing melancholy,” made me think about the literature of the last century differently. Although I was surprised to find myself turning into a critic. It grew out of a thought experiment I had one night while doing the dishes. I was thinking about Alex Ross’s book about classical music in the twentieth century, which had just come out, where he starts from a basic assumption that the formal characteristics and changes in music can be very directly related to the history of the twentieth century, its political convulsions, technological advances. I was sympathetic to that way of looking at the question and I thought, Could you do that for the novel? Write a book like that, I mean. My immediate thought was absolutely not. There are too many novels in too many languages for one thing. What kind of net could hold them all? Then I thought, no maybe you could. Sure, literature is broken up by languages, but then again a central fact about twentieth century literature and almost all twentieth century writers is that they read across languages. In translation, of course, or mostly, but that’s the point. The twentieth century novel is born of translation, is, you could almost say written, even in its native tongue, in translation. Here the Russians are central, the fascination exerted by the Russian nineteenth-century giants and the very rapid dissemination of their books all over the world. By 1880, Dostoevsky is being translated and published everywhere. Japanese writers are picking up on the signal. What made the Russians matter so much so far away from home? Well, these are writers who are on the one hand latecomers to the novel with a world of their own, quite different from the European world that the novel grew up in, a troubled world, and they have to find a way to describe it for the first time. They bring everything they can to that problem and in a way that problem becomes what their books are about. Then in the twentieth century that problem became everybody’s problem.

Would it be too much to ask you to give us a brief history of the twentieth-century novel?

I can mention a few basic things, I guess, and perhaps the first is that lots of novels written in the twentieth century are not what I am calling the twentieth-century novel. That novel is a novel written to grapple with the startling new realities of twentieth-century life and history, not just the obvious horrors, but things like electricity, mass education, women voting and in workplace, homosexuality, mass literacy, movies, you name it, all these huge transformations that the century brought, and in that sense the twentieth-century novel was caught in a continuous, unending, struggle to capture all these changes, to respond to them, to achieve realism. Much more so than the nineteenth-century novel, whose vaunted realism I’d describe as judicial rather than mimetic, a question of arriving at a balance between the claims of self and the claims of society, the two poles of the nineteenth-century novel, a balance that does justice to both those claims because, realistically, anyone knows that both claims have to be respected. If one crushes or ignores the other: tragedy. If an accommodation is reached, well that makes for a happy ending or at least ordinary unhappiness. And so the comedy of life goes on. But that balance is upset in the twentieth century. Among other things people set out to upset it.

Another thing that interests me is the place of the historical novel. In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster makes merciless fun of Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist par excellence, for being ridiculously implausible shuffler of novelistic conventions and tricks, and you could say that if there is a novel that an imaginatively ambitious twentieth-century novelist, whether it’s Colette or Raymond Chandler, didn’t want to write it was Gone with the Wind. The twentieth-century moment is too close, too demanding, too threatening and too exciting to ignore, too immediately momentous, and the settled perspective the historical novel calls for—well, that’s a lie. However starting in the sixties that starts to change. You might date the change to the publication of The Leopard, which was rejected time and time again and only comes out after Lampedusa’s death. When the author is history. But then it’s a huge success and though The Leopard just is a beautiful novel that success also marks a point where once again the historical novel seems to speak to the moment. Then later you get Ragtime, J. G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur, Hilary Mantel, who in a way finds in the historical novel the sense of uncertainty and urgency that was so much part of the twentieth-century novel, and now publishers’ catalogs all over the world are crammed with historical novels, more often than not about the horrors of twentieth century history, as if born of weird nostalgia for disaster.

I’m very aware that this thing, the twentieth-century novel, I’m writing about is notional. A fiction in some ways. Once I described it as the hero of a picaresque novel.

What’s the most peculiar book you have published?

Probably Maude Hutchins’s Victorine. Hutchin was the wife of Robert Hutchins, the famous president of the University of Chicago, before they had an acrimonious divorce. She scandalized the university by sending out Christmas cards with a nude girl on them. This is in the forties. Anyway, I found this book of hers in a used bookstore in New Orleans in a very attractive edition published by Alan Swallow, an adventurous small press from the midcentury I knew about though I had never heard of Hutchins. So I was curious, and all more so since there was no jacket copy, just a blue-tinted picture of Hutchins staring off into space and a bio note saying she flew airplanes. I opened it and I had never read anything like it. The book is about a pubescent girl and it starts with her watching a farmhand killing chickens and getting aroused. She’s on her way to church. The sentences were stylish but the content was out of control, and I thought at the time, knowing nothing about Hutchins, that it might even count as a outsider literature in the sense of outsider art, art made out of private obsession as much as a conscious artistry. But Hutchins had a fair amount of recognition in her day and was compared to Colette, though she’s much more arch and creepy really and frankly not nearly as good as Colette. But Victorine was certainly like nothing else I’d read and being like nothing else is a touchstones for me, though I’d say it can be a treacherous one. Terry Castle wrote the introduction.

Any new plans?

We are doing something we don’t do very often which is reissuing all of a writer’s work—in this case the novels of Henry Green. I’m also looking forward to Robert Chandler’s translations of Grossman’s Stalingrad, in effect the first part of Life and Fate, and of Platonov’s Chevengur, a very important book. Also Michael Hofmann’s long-awaited version of Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

As editor of the series, Do you have a sense of mission, that you are doing something for letters?

Well I hope so. These are good books and I want them to be available and to find readers. And the whole strange activity of reading and writing, which has taken up so much of my life—I guess I hope to abet it if only because I still wonder what it’s about.

One last question, the series has some great book titles as we have heard. What is your personal favorite?

The Anatomy of Melancholy.


Susannah Hunnewell is publisher of The Paris Review.