Feb 3 2012

    Bookforum talks with Jeannette Seaver

    Amelia Stein

    In 2009, Jeannette Seaver faced two life-altering problems. Her husband of over half a century, publishing giant Richard Seaver—known for legal triumphs over censorship and for helping to introduce Beckett, Duras, Robbe-Grillet and a number of other literary heavyweights to the American market—suffered a fatal heart attack. His company, Arcade Publishing, was in a state of financial irresolution, and Jeannette was forced to file for Chapter 11. But just as confounding were the nine hundred pages of an uncompleted autobiography that Richard left behind. Both problems, however, were eventually resolved: Arcade became an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, and Jeannette edited the pages into The Tender Hour of Twilight, which was released this month with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. This year, Jeannette Seaver will oversee the reissue of key works from Arcade’s backlist by authors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Octavio Paz, and is now in charge of acquiring new titles for Arcade.

    Bookforum: What was your relationship with literature before you met Richard?

    Jeannette Seaver: I came from an intellectual family. My father was a writer who became a diplomatic correspondent for a major European paper. All our friends were writers, so this had always been my world. In fact, I felt that my so-called talent as a musician interfered with my first love, which was books. It was like ballet, training to be a top professional takes your all, whereas I longed to read more and just didn’t have the time. I toured, I gave concerts, everything was highly professional until my third child came along and I expressed a desire not to travel any longer. At that point, I studied publishing and gradually came up the ranks and became Dick’s business partner.

    BF: Your earliest understanding of creativity was through music, then.

    JS: And being a performer and an artist, I tended to be very much on the side of the authors rather than the publisher. I understood their torment, their writer’s block, and in a way other publishers don’t because they haven’t been on the other side. The process of creating is sometimes very painful.

    BF: Richard first read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy in 1952 and you were married in 1953. That period seems to have been one of crystallization.

    JS: While Dick was working on his thesis on James Joyce and being an editor, he was writing novels; he was writing pages and pages of poetry. When he discovered Beckett, the first lines froze him completely: he felt he wasn’t worthy of putting pen to paper after this man. He felt that it had been said. So when I met him, all he could talk about was the discovery of this genius. They started to work together on translation and Beckett was so pleased with Dick’s work that he asked if Dick would kindly take it upon himself to translate Godot, and Dick bowed and said, “I’m honored but I can’t, because I have to finish my Joyce dissertation before the end of the year.” Can you imagine if he had done it? So yes, when I first met him he was in the ferment of this extraordinary literary discovery. He then met Eugène Ionesco and other people and brought them in to be translated into English for the magazine, Merlin, and subsequently introduced those people to Barney Rosset, who was young and working for the New York publishing house Grove Press, which was looking for foreign authors. After that, Dick owed the navy two years so he was recalled from France.

    BF: What did you do during Richard's two years of army service?

    JS: Don’t forget, I was a serious concert violinist. I had received a spectacular grant to study at Juilliard with Ivan Galamian, probably the greatest master of violin, certainly of our time. People were queuing up to have the honor of studying with him; he was the George Balanchine of violin, if you wish. He was Russian and had been teaching in the Russian Conservatory of Paris. Nobody knew who he was, he was earning pennies, and Serge Koussevitzky, who was then a well-known American conductor, heard him in Paris and said, “What are you doing here?” and took him to America. To be part of Galamian’s flock was the highest honor.

    BF: It’s interesting that Koussevitzky told Galamian to leave Paris when the city was experiencing such vitality at that time.

    JS: What happened to Galamian was a really specific thing. From a literary point of view, everything was happening in France. One of the things Dick did when he arrived at Grove was to bring this whole culture and all the people he knew in Paris, so to speak, to the United States. I am speaking broadly, but by the mid-sixties, Paris’s cultural effervescence had seemed to reach a plateau. The new novelists were not writing anything new. It had happened. Same with art. Paris was the focal point for painters for many centuries, but during this era, when abstract expressionism and pop art were born, Americans took the baton. It was happening in the U.S., it was no longer in Paris. Same with literature. I remember speaking on panels in the mid-seventies, and my French colleagues were horrified to hear me say that I felt that the French were nombrilisme—writing for their navels, for themselves—and no longer producing literature that could go beyond the border. Prior to this, in the fifties, it was the ‘day after the war’, so to speak, and people were expressing themselves in ways they couldn’t have during the five years of occupation. There was liberation, a literary liberation. Wonderful things were happening, and we were part of that wave.

    BF: Do you remember your impression of the authors you met at that time?

    JS: Yes, I do. First of all, Dick was in such reverence of ‘Mr. Beckett’. By the time I met him, they were on a first-name basis. I loved Beckett. I always said to Dick, ‘whenever I spend time with Sam I feel as if I’m hearing a Bach concerto or in a church.’ Not that he was religious, but there was something bigger than life in his reserve, in his profundity. And he was very funny at the same time, hilariously funny, very Irish. Dick made him laugh a lot. But being in his presence... he had that beautiful voice, and he was a musician. He and I became very close through music; we talked a great deal about different composers and musical interpretation. It was a very important factor in Beckett’s life.

    And yet he was very warm and very unassuming, extremely modest, more than modest—self deprecating. Godot first premiered at Théâtre de Babylone in a little tiny theatre that probably had no more than 50 seats. It was always empty for the first two years. When I first went to see Godot, three people were there. We went back again, and this time there were six people. Cut, and he’s a Nobel Prize recipient and everybody thinks he’s fabulous. The same reviewers, I remember Dick saying, that were very mean to him—“what is this Irishman, writing in French? How audacious”—were now saying he was the new Shakespeare. So there was a reopening of Godot at the Théâtre de L’Odeon, the national theatre in Paris, which is hundreds of years old and has a large stage. On the opening night, Beckett refused to go, but we saw the play—it was wonderful. It reverberated differently because of the larger space, and it was a beautiful production with the famous tree designed by Alberto Giacometti. After the show, we were to pick Beckett up and have dinner with Giacometti and Barney Rosset. So we arrive, and Beckett has his head in his hands in utter depression. We said, “Sam, it was a wonderful production! We are so thrilled for you!” and he said, “How can you say that? It’s a terrible play.” He was very depressive about his own work. We went out to dinner, he had some Irish whisky and things got a little better. But being with Beckett was very special.

    BF: Did you experience the same kind of kinship with other authors who came into your and Dick’s lives? By all accounts, Burroughs was a very difficult character.

    JS: Bill was a gentleman, despite what he wrote and the way he lived. He was very upper class, very aristocratic, and he was extremely nice. I had to become his editor when I was running Seaver Books [With William Burroughs, 1981], and I was terrified. It was my book, but he was already so consecrated and I felt, how dare I? But he was very receptive to productive criticism. Not everybody was nice, but he was. Ionesco was nice, but he was a hopeless drunk, so after forty-five minutes it didn’t matter who was with him. Marguerite Duras was very complicated—on the one hand she was warm; on the other, she was so vain and neurotic that spending time with her wasn’t a fun experience at all, eventually. But Beckett was a whole other sphere.

    BF: Has your relationship to literature and publishing changed?

    JS: Not at all, despite the fact that all publishers know that we’re in a very transitional phase. I’m not sure if many of will adapt to the changing relationship between author, publisher, and finished book in whatever form it takes. But this I do know: no matter what the end result is or will be, the process of reading, shaping a book and helping an author express themselves and surmount certain obstacles will all remain. This has to exist. How books are distributed and printed and how they become accessible is moving away from publishers; but not the quintessence, which is discovering a voice and leading that voice to express itself in the best possible way.

    BF: Do you feel that contemporary society is as conducive as it once was to creativity?

    JS: That is a very big question and I am not sure it’s possible to answer it intelligently. Society’s not as obviously conducive to creativity, that I agree on. People have less time to reflect and less time to receive the reflections of others. People have less psychic space to put down their thoughts. It’s very hard for us to understand how serious the changes happening in society, in politics, and in technology are, all of which have made us different beings. You see four year-olds who are far more fluent in technology than I am. All these factors contribute to new ways of doing things, but talent exists and it cannot be suppressed. Whatever the chaos, it will find its way like a weed. If you want to write beautifully, I don’t care if you write with a phone. It will be a little more exotic and a little more difficult, but it will come out. We live in a global society with very short attention span, but out of that will come a different jazz, you know? You have to be open. Good thoughts will be expressed differently, but they will be expressed.