Bob Silvers made his writers want to be equal to a possible image he had of a possible you.
I was thirty when Bob Silvers first sent me a book for review—a collection of Nabokov’s translations of Russian poetry into English. This was toward the end of 2008. I revered The New York Review of Books; it was an ideal supranational habitat. The unexpected FedEx package, with its accompanying modest note making the proposal, as if continuing a permanent—if ineffable—conversation, made me dazzlingly anxious. A couple of weeks later, he e-mailed—on New Year’s Eve, which was also, I would discover, his birthday—to say that while reading “with admiration” a book I had written, he had noticed an error in it that might be corrected in a paperback edition. I had quoted the duc de Saint-Simon’s portrait of “Madame” from his Memoirs and glossed this as a portrait of Madame de Maintenon. “Saint-Simon was referring not to Madame de Maintenon,” wrote Bob—or, as I was to find out, dictated Bob, “but to ‘Madame,’ i.e. Elizabeth Charlotte, Palatine of Bavaria, second wife of ‘Monsieur,’ duc d’Orleans. She was in fact German.”
I felt a rush of total love.
A few months later, we sat down on a sofa in the Review’s offices on Hudson Street to discuss the essay on Nabokov. (Bob sprawled magnificently on sofas. One time I remember noticing that in order to talk we were both essentially reclining, cheek to cheek.) And while we spoke, my anxiety only increased, as I realized that not only had nearly all the moments of historic significance in the essay—Nabokov’s argument with Edmund Wilson, Nabokov’s argument with Robert Lowell—taken place in the pages of the NYRB itself, but that Bob was mentioning by their first names everyone I had written about: Edmund Wilson, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Lowell, Nabokov himself.
His gravitas was the most glamorous quality I had ever known.
And as I remember all this now, it feels important not just to attend to these miniature memories but to try to attempt some kind of definition. Bob’s charisma was due to a particular bundle of charmed values—justice, precision, intimacy, élan—which in turn were rooted in a philosophy so comprehensive it could only be examined through specificities. There’s a wonderful moment in Henry James at Work, Theodora Bosanquet’s memoir of working as Henry James’s amanuensis, when she sketches her vision of his vision: “‘When he walked out of the refuge of his study into the world and looked about him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of the doomed, defenseless children of light.” I always thought that something similar was true of Bob, too, if you were to delete the adjective “doomed.” His great intellectual passion (which placed him in an Atlantic European tradition whose center, I guess, was Isaiah Berlin) was to identify and analyze predatory power—where it was located, how it might be resisted. It meant that he was characterized by what should be an oxymoron: a broad depth. He was remarkable both for his polymathy and for his precision. This is not, after all, so usual. It was always as if he had just met world history at a party. To be precise about power—this was roughly his lesson—really required a double precision: of erudition and of personal style. For power was always an assault on individual integrity. Power preferred the communal blur. It could only be resisted through the specifics of one’s knowledge and bravura.
And so, as a writer for him, you wanted to be better than you were, equal to a possible image Bob had of a possible you—and sometimes, at happy moments, it seemed that he believed that you were. What interested him was the particularity of a mind’s adventures. Everyone should have a metaphysical vision, a particular intellectual project, and he gave you the opportunity to believe that you had one. He gave you the courage of your interests and intuitions. The last book he gave me for review was a novel for which I’d already provided a few sentences of praise. I pointed this out to him, worrying that perhaps I should include a demurral. His reply was conspicuous not just for the comical exaggeration of its flattery but for the precision of its ethical ideal: “Our view is that if a distinguished writer like yourself makes a brief statement about a book,” Bob replied, “it’s all the more appropriate and indeed morally right to say more.” I was only one of his junior writers, after all, but I so wanted to be equal to this utopia.
This exacting idealism was visible within paragraphs, too. I know that Bob has been mythologized for his manic work ethic—and his attention to small problems of vocabulary or punctuation. But for me the most constant and inventive lesson was his attention to obscurity: his notes in the margin of the galleys posing apparently minor questions, small cajolings to perhaps find a greater clarity for a paragraph. All obscurity was a failure of intelligence—or of soul. It was a lapse in your imagination of the reader. And although there might be obscurities of style—where a rhetorical trick was being used to conceal an inconsistency or a gap in the argument—the greatest obscurity was in not following a thought through to its end. His editing, therefore, oddly expanded your writing. It refused to allow you the consolation of abandoning a sentence at moments when you felt lazy or tired or lost. For those, in the end, were the points of greatest interest.
This lesson in criticism was really a lesson in life: the demands of style were endless. And it became, when on my own, when writing a novel, a method to be mimicked. I think when I first met Bob I had enjoyed being the novelist as perverse aesthete—for whom style and character, or style and politics, were pristinely separate—but now, nearly a decade later, I am much more somber. For what one writes, of course, is corrupted and enlivened by one’s history—and the history of that history. And this transformation, I think, came from him, from the process of his editing. He became the imaginary editor of everything I wrote—its hidden executive producer, headlining an invisible credit sequence.
Ah, he represented an impossible sprezzatura, the kind of person equally interested in Madame du Deffand and Karl Marx. He had the only glamour worth admiring—the glamour of gluttonous precision. Once, when I said I was going to Beirut, he reminisced about a time in the sixties when he had taken a plane from the Riviera in order to lunch at a seafood restaurant in Byblos. This was the same man who entered late a drunken, hilarious party in an East Village apartment for a novel I’d written, and stood there by the fridge, with his red Légion d’honneur discreetly visible, pinned to his suit jacket, advising Lorin Stein that I should be sent by The Paris Review to interview Václav Havel. For Mitteleuropa had been another grand experiment in power; he understood the detail of its historic machinations—and therefore he had also known its grand heroes of resistance: Havel, Kundera, Kiš … And so, of course, I went.
An editor’s work produces a serial—not a sequence of individual works. Or so runs the usual thinking. But as I think about Bob, and the meaning of editing, I’m not sure if that’s true. The other night, mourning him, desolate, I found myself reading an issue of The New York Review from the eighties, where Joseph Brodsky was writing on Derek Walcott, Alfred Kazin was writing on William James, and E. H. Gombrich was reviewing Svetlana Alpers’s brilliant book on Dutch painting, The Art of Describing. There it was: the miniature, patient, cosmopolitan universe he’d invented with Barbara Epstein—and which will always remain my ideal society. And then I also realized: but each issue was a work! It’s a different kind of work, of course, from a novel or a film, but still, a magazine—or paper, to use his term—is an art form of its own. And that this art form is collaborative, minute, gigantic, that it is a form of ongoing and international process, perhaps only hints that it may be the most modern, most urgent form we have in this era of exorbitant power.
Adam Thirlwell is The Paris Review’s London editor. His most recent novel is Lurid & Cute.