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Books In Conversation

George Braziller with Phong Bui

For George

Elementary Cosmogony

How to the invisible
I hired myself to learn
Whatever trade it might
Consent to teach me. 

How the invisible
Came out for a walk
On a certain evening
Casting the shadow of a man. 

How I followed behind
Dragging my body
Which is my toolbox,
Which is my music box, 

For a long apprenticeship
That has as its last
And seventh rule:
The submission to chance. 

—Charles Simic

Phong Bui (Rail): Let’s begin first, George, with a bit of your background. What was the motivation that inspired you to become a publisher, and when in fact did you begin your career in book publishing?

George Braziller: What got me into publishing was actually my first job. I was a shipping clerk making $15 a week, and the nature of that work was remainders. I knew very little about remainders or book publishing, but as I worked with these books, I got a sense of the kind of books that people were reading. And I also was influenced by the legendary English publisher Victor Gollancz, who started the Left Book Club. There was no such thing in America, so I decided to give it a chance. But I didn’t want to call it “Left Book Club”; instead I called it the Book Find Club. In other words, it was an attempt to look for good literature and distribute it. Well, how do you get a business started?

Photo of George Braziller at The Brooklyn Rail’s headquarters by Lee Weaver.
Photo of George Braziller at The Brooklyn Rail’s headquarters by Lee Weaver.

Rail: That’s my next question.

Braziller: [Laughs] I started with what I learned in working with remainders from my first job, which lasted for several years until I quit. I still remember the title of the first book, going back 60 years: The Liberators by John Hyde Preston. And I bought the ten copies for a quarter each. I went to ten friends and relatives and I was in business. Then I went into the army for almost three years, and while I was away my late wife stepped in and took control of the club until I came back in 1946. As the book club grew, so did my feeling of wanting to be a publisher. It wasn’t long before I started publishing books under my name. But then my wife got ill and we needed money, so I sold the book club to Time-Life Publishing. They paid a lot of money for it, and I took half of that money and put it into my publishing house.

Rail: And what year did you start publishing?

Braziller: We’re now celebrating our 50th anniversary, so it was in 1955. As you can imagine, I didn’t know a damn thing about publishing, and we quickly lost a little bit of money. But in those days, there was a response to book publishing. You could count on the bookstores—people were interested in literature. Still, I didn’t know how to begin, so I decided to see what was going on in Europe. Well, if you want to start a publishing house, can you think of a better place than Paris?

Rail: Not really, especially at that time.

Braziller: So I went to Paris. I was there in May 1968. Have you ever been in a country or a city where there was a general strike? Paris was shut down, nothing moved! De Gaulle was in power and there was a revolution going on in Algeria. In Paris, people were throwing plastiques. Standing at the corner on the right of the Boulevard St. Germain, you could see Sartre’s house facing the square, and he was in constant danger. While I was there, a book came out called La Question (The Question), Henri Alleg’s autobiography, which revealed torture and brutal practices by French forces in Algeria, and which single-handedly pressured the French to withdraw. It is as if nothing has changed, because we have the same damn thing happening today in Iraq. Well, I got the book, took it back to America, got a hold of Richard Howard to translate it, brought the book out overnight, and we sold 10,000 copies. Just like that we became famous. Those were really exciting times in Paris. I remember you’d go to the corner café, and there were artists like Max Ernst, Giacometti, Calder, and then the writers, poets, playwrights, dramatists like Camus, Michaux, Ionesco, Dürrenmatt. They would just go to the café to get warm because Paris after the war was very cold. But Paris was the place to be. And it was there that I discovered the work of Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Claude Mauriac. But I missed out on Beckett. And it’s to the credit of Barney Rossett that he got to him first.

Anyway, the backlist sales of La Question alone helped keep the company going. So, flush with the experience of Paris and a growing reputation, the house began to grow slowly but steadily with the aim of trying to publish some new writers. Those were the early years—when you would say “only in America” could you start a book club with only 25 bucks and move it up to 100,000 members and then start a publishing house.

Rail: Going back to Nathalie Sarraute and her book Portrait of a Man Unknown, which was regarded as a major work of avant-garde literature: She was, in a way, the pioneer of the nouveau roman, and you helped bring her work to American readers. Could you tell us about that?

Braziller: Yes, through a friend of mine I met a wonderful woman named Maria Jolas, who handed me the manuscript of Sarraute’s Portrait of a Man Unknown. She said that the manuscript had been translated but that nobody wanted it, and it had been sitting around for 10 years. Well, I took it home. I don’t read French, so I had a reader give me a report. It was good, so I decided to do it. And we went on to publish everything of Sarraute’s for the next 30 years. It was at a time when Knopf really dominated European literature. You must remember, the first generation of American publishers really looked to England for publications. Germany and France didn’t interest them. The only one who was interested in some of the best writers—Thomas Mann, Albert Camus—was Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred. The gossip was that Blanche Knopf didn’t think there was anybody worthwhile after Camus. The important publishers during this time were Kurt and Helen Wolff, who fled Germany and started Pantheon. They were truly the outstanding publishers of the postwar era. And Roger Straus, of course. And then came the second generation, like David Godine, Dick Seaver. I’m sure I’m leaving out a number of others. They were familiar with European literature, they could speak the language. And that is where they began to move and develop their list. Today’s generation is looking toward Asia and the Middle East. Anyway, what a period that was. To have lived and worked through those years. And then of course, there was Korea and Vietnam and now Iraq, and I still feel that my commitment as a publisher is to deal with the complexities of our society today.

Rail: Does that have something to do with your desire to publish many young authors from diverse cultural backgrounds? For instance, Carlo Emilio Gadda from Italy, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, David Malouf from Australia, and Buchi Emecheta from Nigeria.

Braziller: And my Irish writers.

Rail: You mean Neil Jordan, who also is known as a film director?

Braziller: Right. A thing that I used to do was I would go looking for writers in their twenties or early thirties. I knew that if I could find that one writer, which I did in Ireland with Neil, I would ask him who else was writing. Of course he would rattle off his contemporaries, and I just loved that. As a result we published around six or seven contemporary young Irish writers. I did the same in Australia when I met David [Malouf], whom I published in America. Then of course there’s my most famous and great writer Janet Frame, from New Zealand, whom I published for almost 40 years. She recently died, and it was a blow. We had a remarkable friendship. One of the problems of running a small house is holding on to authors. You know that sooner or later they may be taken away or might leave. The early writers that I published—for instance, Kathleen Raine, Claude Simon—it was understood that they would stay with you forever, but that has changed now. The hard thing is learning how to deal with that eventuality, but it’s a good thing to learn and to understand what happens when an author is offered the kind of advances that they’re being offered. You have to tell them to do what is best for them. Let’s say you work very hard and closely with a writer from Turkey and you take him or her to galleries and museums, and then when you get good reviews for the book, you know you are going to lose them. So you have to start all over again. One of the keys to surviving as a publisher is acquiring writers who will stay with you so that you can build a backlist. You have to wonder where all the energy comes from, because you feel like you have spent it all on the previous writer. It’s not easy.

Recently, two children’s book manuscripts came in. They are so good, so original, and I said I am going to do them. Well, I pick up the Times the other day, and there is a whole range of children’s books being published called “graphic art.” This genre is so new, so extraordinary in terms of being the new image of what the kids want nowadays. I suddenly feel behind. So, how do you stay in touch with all that? That is what makes for good publishing, but how do you do it at my age, how do you keep up with these graphic artists who are extraordinary? They might be junk in [textual] content, I’m not sure, but visually they are remarkable.

Rail: But that is the great charm of being independent, George. Many of your peers might have started out with an intention limited to their initial interests in literature but then went on to be corporate. You haven’t done that.

Braziller: Perhaps one of the things about my publishing house is that we never had the money to hire what you would call “specialists in the field,” and, as a result, I always feel we are a little behind. We might wait too long for something to come in, and the only way to overcome that is to have the forces and the money to commission and advance. Anyway, people look at my list and praise its diversity. Well, it is diversified, but I didn’t plan it that way, to be frank. I was able to recognize a good book on music and do it, or a good novel and do it. You want to do everything, but you can’t. It took me fifty years to learn that.

Rail: Let’s shift the subject a bit. You’re also known in the art community as a publisher of art books. For instance, the Great American Artists series, which includes Lloyd Goodrich on the great Albert Pinkham Ryder, Frank O’Hara on Jackson Pollock, Tom Hess on Willem de Kooning, and Fairfield Porter on Thomas Eakins. And another series is Masters of World Architecture: Arthur Drexler on Mies Van der Rohe, Ada Louise Huxtable on one of my all-time favorite architects, Pier Luigi Nervi, Vincent Scully on Frank Lloyd Wright, and so on. Can you tell us a bit about both of these series?

Braziller: I had an equal interest in art without knowing too much about it. But you can recognize that Albert Pinkham Ryder or Jackson Pollock is a great artist, or that Le Corbusier is a great architect. You look around and you see there is nothing available. So, I simply got the idea for the Great American Artists series and the Masters of World Architecture series, and I realized that if you find and work with one or two persons who knows about art, they in turn will help you build a list. In the case of the Great American Artists series, I went to Dore Ashton, the art critic, and Tom Hess, who was then editor of Art News, and they were very instrumental in helping me develop the list of artists for this series. And of course, I have to admit that meeting people like Picasso and de Kooning and Stuart Davis was a great pleasure. If you look at our list carefully, the strength of the program has always been our creation of a series. I like, for example, our medieval art program. I knew nothing about that period, but when I was introduced to it, I just said let’s do it as best we can. So, for nearly 35 years, we focused on books about medieval art. I truly can say that I think we have the best publications on medieval art.

Rail: How did that come about?

Braziller: It came out of a visit to the Morgan Library, where they were holding an exhibition of the stunning illuminated manuscript The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. What was so wonderful about it was that each of the 137 colored plates was mounted in a shadow box with the light coming in so vividly and brilliantly, with the gold showing up, and I said, “I just have to do this book.” Of course I asked John Plummer, a distinguished scholar of medieval art who also called other similar treasures to our attention, to write the text. I’m grateful to him for that.

Rail: While we are talking about art, I remember meeting Meyer Schapiro in 1986, and he recounted the unhappy episode with Harry Abrams about his Cézanne book that belongs to Abrams’s Library of Great Painters, a series that was based on Albert Skira’s previous format. That conflict led Meyer to leave Abrams, and then you became his publisher. Can you tell us about how you met Meyer and about your relationship with him?

Braziller: Well, with Meyer, I only knew of him by reputation. I had not read many of his papers, but I decided that he was someone we would want on our list. So, I began to attend his lectures, and after every lecture, all of them brilliant, I would go up to him and tell him how much I admired him and his lecture. He always would say thank you. This went on for a number of years.

Rail: Like a courtship?

Braziller: Right, but I would never say anything about being his publisher. I must have gone to about ten lectures or more over five years. And then one day the phone rang and he said, “How would you like to be my publisher?” Just like that. And I think if I had not attended those lectures, I would never have gotten him. So it began. I also had a brilliant young editor, Adrienne Baxter. Meyer needed an editor and he needed someone to work with. And Adrienne Baxter, for about seven or eight years, regularly went down there and worked with Meyer.

I remember once calling him and saying, “Meyer, I hate to ask you this, but will you give us a quote, just like four lines?” And he said, “George, I just don’t have the time.” And then he went on for about twenty minutes on the very topic I was hoping to quote him on. That was so typical of Meyer. Similarly, on another occasion, I went to a lecture of his on Guernica up at Columbia. It was scheduled to last about an hour and Meyer had a bad cold. Well Meyer, without a single note in front of him, spoke extemporaneously for over two hours. There was an amusing thing that happened. A slide came up and he spoke about it. Twenty minutes later, the same slide came up again, and he said something completely different from what he had said the first time. [Laughs] What he saw in a painting was not always the same the second time around, or it may have been what he’d omitted, but it was like two different things. His mind would run away with it as he would speak. You just couldn’t keep up with him. And he was very generous with his time with us. The second volume of his papers that we did, on modern art, received the National Book Critics Circle Award. And we still have his books in print. Just yesterday, a publisher made an offer for Greek rights to three of Meyer’s books. And of course, with Meyer’s name on our list, the number of writers who have come to us is incredible.

Rail: How about your poetry series, George? How does someone like Richard Howard come into the picture?

Braziller: You have to understand that one of the things that we believed in was that we never tried to take the attitude of focusing solely on what was new. Quality was something else, however. There are 40,000 poets waiting to be published, and we get dozens of manuscripts every week, and I just didn’t know what to do. So I called Richard Howard and said that I would like to start a poetry program. Richard gave us his time, he was most generous, and it began. And he brought me Charles Simic. And you know, publishers rightfully say that they lose money in publishing poetry, but the income we have gotten from Charles Simic has compensated for many of our poetry losses. And of course I am concerned about what goes on politically and socially, so when a poet like Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh had a fatwa declared against her, I immediately asked to be her publisher.

Rail: Her book The Game in Reverse is still considered very controversial in the Muslim community.

Braziller: In the same spirit, two years ago we put together an anthology of poets protesting the war in Iraq before it began. I am very proud of that effort. I try, with my limited means as a publisher accountable only to myself, to contribute something.

Rail: I had dinner with Dore Ashton the other night, and she told me about Ronald Glasser, a young doctor in Vietnam, who had just come back from Vietnam in the ‘60s and written a book about his experience there. Do you recall that whole event?

Braziller: Oh my, that's such a wonderful story. I got a phone call from Dore Ashton, who said to me, "George, I have never asked you for a favor, but there is a young doctor in New York feeling quite terrible because a publisher turned down his manuscript after keeping it for about six months". Dore asked if I could see him, and I said of course. In any case, Ronald asked if it would take me very long to read because he was leaving the next day, and I said, “Nope, I'll read it tonight.” So the next day I told him that we were going to do it. It was a novel called 365 Days, the first novel on Vietnam. It received smashing reviews across America. It was a sensation! The book is still in print with us today. Translation rights were sold all over Europe. That book to this day is still adopted for use in classrooms. And he became a national figure immediately. It was incredible. We then went on to publish three more books about Vietnam, but this was the breakthrough book, and we still sell a couple of thousand copies a year—that’s pretty good. There are a few other books like that. Like right now we are doing something I am very excited about, which is Langston Hughes’s poem called “Let America Be America Again.”

Rail: That would be very timely considering what's going on today. “Let America Be America Again” was his great epic poem. Although it was published in 1938, I believe that he wrote it in his ‘20s. Amazing.

Braziller: What a figure. I met him once. And of course we also publish The Langston Hughes Reader, a compilation of essays and poetry from before 1958. I am happy to have that on our list.

Rail: One more question. In your generation, can you name a publisher or two you really admire?

Braziller: Oh, that’s not fair, and I can tell you why. I read an article in the New York Times not long ago about John W. Heisman, the great football coach for whom the trophy is named. He actually never wanted his associated with the award, because he simply didn't believe in the notion of singling out an individual in what he considered to be a team effort. I am paraphrasing him: “There is no such thing. All of the players on a team contribute to the game of football, and one player cannot be great without his team.” In light of what is going on in every profession, not only the art of football, but in literature and everything else, why do we have to pick only one? It’s ridiculous.

Rail: Yeah, that’s how we feel about it too—the Rail as a collective, definitely. Thank you for that final thought.

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Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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