Cantos: A New Directions Blog

Archive for July 2009

Andy Warhol: New Directions book designer

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Tucked in the history of New Directions book designers, book ended by Alvin Lustig on one side and Rodrigo Corral on the other, are four jacket designs by none other the legendary artist Andy Warhol. Yep, Andy Warhol worked for New Directions as a book designer off and on for almost 10 years. Our editor-in-chief recalls James Laughlin telling her an Andy Warhol anecdote:

“He was a very strange looking man. But all the secretaries loved him because he would sneak little origami creatures on their desks when they weren’t looking. One time as he was walking out of the office he looked bashfully over at a secretary goggling at him and said ‘I like you. You’re so hirsute.’ Her reply? A very soft and giggly ‘thank you.'”

For the most part the covers play it safe (The angel on Firbank’s Three Novels being the most well known, if only known until now, among the current staff), but uncovering The Adventures of Maud Noakes was a bit of a trip. It’s a satirical autobiographical account of a English woman with a naive fascination for Africans that wants to save the African continent from white missionaries. In a risque tongue-in cheek gesture, Andy covered both the front and back covers with what looks like potato-stamped African faces that surround a smiling raggedy-Ann looking white girl. Maud Nokes came out in 1961, a year before Andy’s fine arts debut at the Ferus Gallery which marked the beginning of his meteoric rise to art world stardom and the end of his time with New Directions. Of the four titles, only the Firbank remains in print with Andy’s very large cherub cupid on the cover, though without the candy pink back scrawl. Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is notable for not only the Warhol jacket, but also a Introduction by W.H. Auden. Someone in the office really likes the hair on the woman for Love is a Pie. Works by both Maude Hutchins and Baron Corvo have been reissued as Classics by the New York Review of Books. –Michael






Written by New Directions

July 23, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Lunch and books with Marie du Vaure

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A great privilege of working in publishing is dining with booksellers. I have yet to meet the bookseller who is not a first-rate conversationalist and a lover of good food. Over the course of a decade, I’ve had many memorable meals with booksellers where talk about books, current affairs, film, and travel flowed as easily as the wine. This past BEA, I lunched with Marie du Vaure, the head book buyer for Vromon’s, a large and well-known independent bookstore that has enriched the Southern California community for over a century with good books and events. While eating mussels with Marie, I was enchanted by both the width and depth of her book knowledge (the defining trait of the indy bookseller), and again realized how lucky I was to be sitting at a table and hearing about books, many of which I didn’t know but where Marie’s descriptions so struck me that I immediately wanted to run out to a bookstore and hunt them down.

In thinking about that wonderful lunch, I wished most of all to share some essence of that conversation with our readers, and so contacted Marie about book recommendations to post on our blog. She graciously accepted and the following post by Marie details the books she is currently reading in such a thoughtful and vivacious manner that I feel I am still at lunch with her:

“As a book buyer, I find myself reading mostly advance reader’s copies for the upcoming season. It is the nature of the job, and I have no complaints about that. I do however bemoan at how quickly I can be lured away from a current book to pick up a future publication. We depend so much on these early reading impressions to make hopefully better decisions on acquisitions. But once in awhile, it is grounding to be in the now of books, of current publications, of literature in the present. A lot of titles have been forgotten or went hazy from the time they were first looked upon in a publisher’s catalog. So it is reassuring, and pleasant actually, to be reminded at times of the surprise of stumbling upon an interesting book that has been out. Especially if it is something I should have remembered, a title that should have had my interest. How did I not notice it, what happened that I did not make a note to myself? The dual emotion of my realizing about my imperfect memory and my genuine excitement of discovery is both humbling and galvanizing. Such is how I felt when someone pointed out this short ‘entertainment’ on life after death called SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, written by David Eagleman, and published by Pantheon.

sum “The book was actually published back in February. I thought it ironically fitting that here I was, drawn to choosing what my job, which always looks ahead, would qualify as an ‘already’ book (already out), and that this said book dealt with the notions of what ultimately is even beyond looking ahead, basically the afterlife! This short book was a true delight to read, wholly unpredictable in its imagination and subversively funny. It comprises of forty vignettes describing possible scenarios of life after death. The author, a young neuroscientist, proves himself to be very ingenious and impertinent in his takes, but all stories have a real weight to them in the fundamental question of what do we make of ourselves. These are true philosophical questions put to us in the most innocuous but effective way: the nature of immortality (it is a suffering that God intends to share with us); the notion of faith, in the story named `Oz’ (one of my favorites); the paradox of curiosity in the story titled `Descent of Species’ (you choose for your next life to see what it is like to be a horse but as you become one, you forget what it is to be human). The weight of memory is handled in many subtle variations. In `Metamorphosis,’ one cannot die completely until one’s name is spoken for the last time. So there is a waiting room in the afterlife where many of the not-completely-forgotten linger forever, such as historical figures and mere loved ones, constantly evoked, who hope that they might finally fade away from the memory of the living. I was very much seduced by the format and enjoyed the wit that came with these stories. Eagleman’s unforgettable parables add up to a satisfying collection that I strongly recommend.

“Another book that was a delayed revelation to me was Robert Boswell’s latest collection of short stories titled The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, published by Graywolf Press. I had heard of Boswell, only good things, in reference to The Geography of Desire and Crooked Hearts. I however never got around reading him. Somehow late back in May, as I was checking the shelves, I came across his book. Not only is the title marvelous but the cover is priceless! I had to pick it up, and I can safely say that if I fell for the package, the content was well worth it too. Boswell’s style is unlike anything I have come across so far. heydayThere is a real manipulation of sounds, and meanings in and of the language. In the first story I read, `A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain’, I was caught quite off guard until I realized how the voice of the protagonist, who is a he and/or she, was a direct reflection of her/his hapless mind and synaptic confusion. This was such an uneasy yet wistful story, and the fact that I was thrown off-balance so surreptitiously rendered my curiosity for the other stories even more fervent. I was not disappointed. I read `Miss Famous’ (I chose the stories out of order, I tend to do that with collections, unless something says otherwise) and I found myself riveted by the very unspectacular life of Monica, a cleaning woman who desperately wants to be ‘special,’ mostly to try to get back a married boyfriend. Some of her clients have strange habits and Monica’s snooping reveals odd parts of their lives. She fiddles with the idea of writing about them, and becoming famous that way, and impressing her former boyfriend. But one knows that will never happen and the more she elaborates, the less she believes it. The pettiness of her life clashes with the quirkiness of her own clients’ lives. By hinting at the undisclosed existences of these other people, Boswell manages to have us absorbed by the secondary characters, yet allowing the central one to develop and to act as their intermediary to our fascination. ‘A Walk in Winter’ is another one that stayed with me for a long time. It’s a more straightforward story, about a young man returning to North Dakota in the middle of winter to identify his mother’s bones, although she disappeared in the wilderness when he was still a child. What unfolds is an unexpected truth that flips his world around. We find ourselves grateful for the local sheriff and his secretary who, no matter how clumsy they come across, do provide an emotional shelter to this young man. Boswell has offered us a solid and variegated work peopled by imperfect individuals he portrays with genuine concern and respect. I have truly loved every story and I think this is a collection that every one should possess. I will confess also that I have been using the title as a little mantra of my own, when I need to keep things in perspective….. The-Hey-day-of-the-In-sen-sitive-Bas-tards. You should try it.

“Last but not least, published by New Directions itself, is The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. This is actually a book that is slated to come out in September. I was sent an advance copy some time ago and read it right away in just a couple of sittings. I have to say that my interest in South American literature has been revived from a long slumber thanks to the selection and translations of particular works by New Directions. They always offer very original work of powerful impact. So trusting their choice, I dove into The Armies. I was rewarded by a searing novel that reads like a long crescendo, starting with the hush of smiles and gossip and ending in a scream of violence. One is lulled into thinking that the emotions the story stirs can remain within manageable confines, but the ruthlessness of the conflict between different armed factions in a small town in Colombia overrides the safety of any self-assigned ideal. armies
Ismail and his wife Otilia live a quiet retired life. Ismail spies on the beautiful wife of his neighbor and Otilia keeps busy with the community of San Jose and the upcoming yearly visit to her friend Geraldina, whose husband disappeared four years ago. Ismail decides to skip the yearly event and somehow from that point on, his world slowly disintegrates. Otilia herself disappears, military forces come and go, guerrillas and drug traffickers ruin the town, and killings and executions happen. Random kidnappings, random releases, lives obliterated, and time starts to contract and extend simultaneously. Ismail becomes a walking dead, never leaving San Jose, wandering the hills and slipping through the armies’ lines. His perception of things becomes surreal as he witnesses sorrow, anguish and shocking death, and he starts losing grip on his world. As a ghost of himself and a specter of a former life, he is the single witness to the destruction of all that stood for the sweetness of ordinary existence. Rosero wrote a disturbing yet necessary novel, intimating the terrible dislocation of people thrust into the heart of darkness. He sends the reader right into this madness, as a victim of it through his style and narration rather than as a spectator. There is no going back once you have stepped into the turmoil.

“So these are the three books that have permeated my last few weeks. I feel more enriched as a reader now that I know them.”

While I know that many readers avail themselves of booksellers’ expertise for new discoveries, I admit that I never talked much with booksellers until I started working in the industry. I was one of those silent persons roaming the aisles, never realizing that there’s so much wealth of information, thoughtful knowledge, and often strong literary opinions (and quite enjoyably so) in bookstores. Talking with booksellers has opened my reading habits, making me both a more diverse yet discriminating reader that allows me to get the most of my reading hours. If you have not yet talked with your local bookseller, you have a wonderful new experience awaiting you.

— Soo Jin

When Borges first arrived at ND…

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This summer we held a contest. A quiz question, “In which New Directions publication did Borges first appear?” was answered correctly by Ben B. of Chicago. His answer, New Directions in Prose and Poetry 11 which featured two stories: “Investigations on the Death of Herbert Quian” and “The Circular Ruins”.

Another reader to correctly answer this question was the translator of Borges’s Labyrinths, Donald Yates (who was very pleased to know that someone else correctly answered the question). He told me a bit more about the history of New Direction’s acquirement of Borges’s work:

“This early appearance of Borges’s fiction was the result of James Laughlin’s recognition of Borges’s importance, and no doubt influenced his decision to offer a contract when the manuscript of Labyrinths came across his desk — after it had been rejected by other publishers, including Barney Rosset at Grove Press, who immediately rushed ahead with a translation — by Anthony Kerrigan, et al., — of Borges’s Ficciones — immediately after Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the First International Editors in 1961.

“In a sense, I think it helped in Borges’ critical reception here. A lot of reviewers sat up and paid attention when two Borges collections came across their desk and often (New York Times, e.g.) both were reviewed together. If I had it all to do over again, since we had access to all of Borges’s prose published through 1960, I would have also included `El sur,’ `El aleph.’ and as you point out, `Herbert Quain.’”

“I was properly scolded by my friend Anthony Boucher, who reviewed mystery fiction for the NYTBR, for leaving out that story that touched on a subject close to both our hearts — detective literature. He, by the way, did the first translation ever of a Borges tale in English: `The Garden of Forking Paths,’ which appeared in the August, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In early 1963, Time magazine selected Labyrinths as one of the top ten fiction titles published in 1962. And in 2008 The Authors Society of London named Labyrinths as one of 50 outstanding English-language translations of the previous 50 years.” –Donald Yates

Mr. Yates is currently working on a memoir of his friendship and working relationship with Borges underling “the importance of the detective literature genre in the shaping of Borges’s creative attitude toward fiction” along with Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou, Rodolfo Jorge Walsh, Enrique Anderson Imbert, Anthony Boucher, and Yates himself.


It’s interesting to note the importance of the detective literature genre in another highly acclaimed Latin American author of ours, Roberto Bolaño. Not surprising from a writer who once claimed “I could live under a table reading Borges.” (My eyes brows are bobbing up and down and my finger is tapping my nose). The Skating Rink is as close to a who-dun-it, as one might get with Bolaño. It’s a murder mystery with a surprising twist ending written in a round-robin frenzy between three narrators. I am glad we didn’t place bets on the murderer, or the murdered, when the staff was reading The Skating Rink galleys. I would have become a poorer man.


Written by New Directions

July 17, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Basil Bunting

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I once heard a president of a publishing house say that the greatest joy of working in publishing was that it provided an education. Certainly, in my decade of working in publishing, I’ve been lucky to be exposed to many books in various categories that I would never have even heard of if it wasn’t for the companies I worked for and with. At New Directions, the central aesthetic of Modernism which shaped James Laughlin’s tastes abides and extends to even recent publications as an important tradition.

I was reminded of that in scanning through my shelves at work and randomly picking up Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems which were published by New Directions in 2000. Here’s a poet who was influenced by Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (Pound’s Guide to Kulchur is dedicated to Bunting and Zukofsky), who almost fell into obscurity until the publication of the masterful Briggflatts. Yet, as someone who spent quite a few years studying poetry, I had never heard of him until, while working with New Directions, the editors presented the book. This is a language melodic but hewn, playful but elaborate and grand, words that should be read by most anyone who cares about poetry.

Here is a portion of the first part of Briggflatts.

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bull’s hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworm’s way.

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
he lies. We rot.

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement
trembling. Rawthey trembles.
Tongue stumbles, ears err
for fear of spring.
Rub the stone with sand,
wet sandstone rending
roughness away. Fingers
ache on the rubbing stone.
The mason says: Rocks
happen by chance.
No one here bolts the door,
love is so sore.

Stone smooth as kin,
cold as the dead they load
on a low lorry by night.
The moon sits on the fell
but it will rain.
Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
crushed grit.

Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey,
head to a hard arm,
they kiss under the rain,
bruised by their marble bed.
In Garsdale, dawn;
at Hawes, tea from the can.
Rain stops, sacks
steam in the sun, they sit up.
Copper-wire moustache,
sea-reflecting eyes
and Baltic plainsong speech
declare: By such rocks
men killed Bloodaxe.

Fierce blood throbs in his tongue,
lean words.
Skulls cropped for steel caps
huddle round Stainmore.
Their becks ring onlimestone,
whisper to peat.
The clogged cart pushes the horse downhill.
In such soft air
they trudge and sing,
laying the tune frankly on the air.
All sounds fall still,
fellside bleat,
hide-and-seek peewit.

Bunting covers a range of subjects within such brief lines. His smooth transitions from a bull dancing to death and decay to a kiss and then hide-and-seek peewit are all accomplished in an alliterative language that combines plainer language with powerful consonants (such as “Decay thrusts the blade/wheat stands in excrement” with its dental sounds).

–Soo Jin

Written by New Directions

July 7, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Forrest Gander’s Approach

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While reading the review of Forrest Gander’s As a Friend in the Harvard Review, I was struck by J.T. Townley’s concluding paragraph:

“Few poets have produced innovative first novels that explore such varied emotional terrain in so few pages, while at the same time reminding us to `approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.’ In a recent essay, Gander makes his aesthetic project clear: `What I want is…to combine spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and technical elements into a resistant musical form.’ With this impressive, if imperfect, fiction debut, he’s come close.”

When I first read As a Friend , I said to the editor that somehow it reminded me Godard’s Masculin Feminin, but one that was set in the American pastoral. In both works, the central characters approach the world with vulnerability…with more vulnerability than either can sustain. Yet, one can’t help but admire that openness to the world, an openness which takes a great deal of courage to attempt.

~Soo Jin

Written by New Directions

July 2, 2009 at 7:50 pm