Thursday, March 28, 2013

Letting Go -- Dramaworks' Exit the King

It is the rare regional theatre that would commit to the infrequently performed Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco.  It is so much easier to win over an audience, particularly here in South Florida, with a traditional play grounded in realism.  But Dramaworks is open to almost any theatrical challenge and it has earned the right to take on the occasional unconventional and controversial piece.  However, will it's loyal devotees follow them into the veritable shadow of the valley of death?  I think they will provided they check their usual theatrical expectations at the door, and give themselves over to a leading playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd, a skillful director, an incredibly talented cast, and supporting technicians.

While we are all reconciled to the inevitability of our own deaths, at least philosophically, how about being told you have an hour and a half to live, as does our "everyman" 400 year-old King Berenger in Ionesco's Exit the King?  Here's a fable on the art of dying, staged with the only sword we can thrust at the thought: humor.  The corollary is to learn the art of living.

I was more than curious how Dramaworks would stylize Ionesco's play, recently reading the play to familiarize myself with the possibilities. (The Dramaworks' production is based on the more recent, contemporized translation by Neil Armfield, the director of the 2009 Broadway production, and its star, Geoffrey Rush.) Without the strong hand of a director and superlative performances on the part of the actors, it could be a very maudlin evening -- as some earlier versions were purported to have been when the play was first staged in the 1960's.  Fear not, get ready for many hilarious moments with this production. 

The "Theatre of the Absurd" finds its philosophical roots in Albert Camus' 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus which presents the ultimate philosophical conundrum:.....much of our life is built on the hope for tomorrow yet tomorrow brings us closer to death and is the ultimate enemy; people live as if they didn't know about the certainty of death; once stripped of its common romanticisms, the world is a foreign, strange and inhuman place; true knowledge is impossible and rationality and science cannot explain the world: their stories ultimately end in meaningless abstractions, in metaphors. "From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all."

Playwrights like Ionesco, Genet, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, brought this philosophical view to drama.   It was critic Martin Esslin who defined this genre in his 1960's study, Absurd Drama: The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

At the time Esslin considered Samuel Beckett to be the leading playwright of the genre, and having seen his Happy Days a couple of years ago at the Westport Country Playhouse, I can see why. That play taught me the lesson of reading the script of an Absurdist drama before seeing it, saying at the time,  Happy Days is the kind of theatre that one thinks about as much in retrospect as when one experiences it. In fact, I would have been happy to have had a Samuel French edition in my lap with a tiny flashlight to follow what is mostly an uninterrupted monologue. It is so rich in meaning and innuendo.

But Ionesco is an equal master and Dramaworks' production of his Exit the King indeed releases "laughter of liberation" displacing any "tears of despair,"  watching clown-like King Berenger's kingdom go to rack and ruin as his control over it and as his own life slip away. Although he is given credit for virtually every invention of mankind, he also shoulders the blame for letting his kingdom devolve.  He has been oblivious to the passing of time, and has narcissistically whiled away his days  .  Like the rest of us in our own little kingdoms, we exercise the illusion of control in a world that will forget us in a nanosecond when we are gone. 

The play more or less follows the progression of the stages of dying as set forth by Kubler-Ross in "The Art of Dying": denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (not necessarily in that order, and sometimes going back and forth) with all of these stages facilitated by interaction with the five other characters in the play, mostly with the timing of a slapstick comedy. (Ionesco's own stage directions for one scene reads "This scene should be played like a tragic Punch and Judy show").

The skillful hand of director William Hayes applies Ionesco's instruction to much of the production, balancing the weighty philosophical content with some belly laughs. As Hayes said in Dramaworks' customary "Knowledge and Nibbles" session the afternoon before last night's preview, "The production has some aspects of a Monty Python film to lure the audience into turbulent territory.... having some characteristics of epic theatre, vaudeville, circus clowns and a puppet show, with a gradual shift in the middle of the play [at which point the audience begins to identify more with King Berenger]."

Last night was the first preview performance and as it is such an intricate play to stage, there were some off moments in this dress rehearsal but one can clearly see where Hayes is going with the orchestration, having selected the ideal actor for each role, choreographing their intricate movement on (and off) stage, and introducing sound effects of the opening and closing of doors, a cacophony of mostly circus sideshow music, bells, whistles, kettle drums and let's not forget the sound of the cuckoo clock, as well as a strobe light enhanced Keystone Kops chase scene.

Our 400 year old King Berenger is told he is dying and has 1 hour and 30 minutes before the play ends to do it. His kingdom is dying as well. He at first protests: "I'll die when I want to."  He asks the fundamental philosophical question: "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  Colin McPhillamy gives a tour de force performance as King Berenger.  Even before the actual performance begins he mingles with the audience, in good humor, just a regular guy like the rest of us.  His transformation through the various stages of his impending death on the stage requires great poise and physicality, constantly shifting between vaudevillian comedy to great pathos such as this monologue which settles down the hilarity, solemnly delivered with the cadence of a Gregorian chant: "Help me, you countless thousands who died before me! Tell me how you managed to accept death and die. Then teach me! Let your example be a consolation to me, let me lean on you like crutches, like a brother's arms. Help me to cross the threshold you have crossed! Come back from the other side a while and help me! Assist me, you who were frightened and did not want to go! What was it like? Who held you up? Who dragged you there, who pushed you? Were you afraid to the very end? And you who were strong and courageous, who accepted death with indifference and serenity, teach me your indifference and serenity, teach me resignation!"

It is Queen Marguerite, his first wife, played by Angie Radosh, a seasoned Dramaworks actress, (one of our favorites) who provides the constant voice of reason, telling the King over and over again to prepare for the inevitable: "It's your fault if you've been taken unawares, you ought to have been prepared. You never had the time.  You'd been condemned, and you should have thought about that the very first day, and then day after day, five minutes every day.  It wasn't much to give up.  Five minutes every day.  Then ten minutes, a quarter, half an hour.  That's the way to train yourself."

Radosh's role is often as challenging as McPhillamy's. Unlike the other characters she does not share in the slapstick frivolity, never appearing like a marionette figure.  She is the consummate actress and it is Queen Marguerite who carries the heavy lifting of the final scene in the play, as the King does indeed "exit" (after the other characters have left him alone to do so). Radosh delivers a moving performance in that scene, compassionately assisting the King to the final acceptance of the end of his life.

Countervailing the "old" Queen, is the young and beautiful trophy wife Queen Marie, who entreats the King to live, to fight death by exhorting him to "Cling to me, don't let go! It's I who keep you alive.  I keep you alive, you keep me alive.  D'you see, d'you understand?  If you forget me, if you abandon me, I no longer exist, I am nothing."  Claire Brownell, a newcomer to Dramaworks plays Queen Marie with the right balance of passion, and humor, reminding us at times of a vulnerable Sugar Plum Fairy.

Rob Donohoe performs the role of the Doctor, also Surgeon, Executioner, Bacteriologist & Astrologist!  His riotous first appearance on stage with his wild hair, hack saw in hand and bloody stains on his apron is a harbinger of more humor to come.  Donohoe, another seasoned Dramaworks actor is perfectly cast..  He sides with Queen Marguerite.  The king is dying.  Prepare.  Although he is mostly playing a caricature, he delivers one of the more profound Ionesco lines concerning the relative insignificance of a single life, even though it is that of the King's: "He will be a page in a book of ten thousand pages in one of a million libraries which has a million books." (Although, added to this is a line, presumably from the recent translation, "Or they can Google him.").

Juliette, "the domestic help and registered nurse," is persuasively and amusingly played by Elizabeth Dimon, wearing a sort of worn Raggedy Ann doll attire. The King has always taken her for granted, but she becomes a real person to him while dying, his being accused by the Doctor and Marguerite of trying to "gain time" in taking such interest, as illuminated by this interchange: "King: Tell me how you live. What sort of life do you have? / Juliette: A bad life, Sire. / King: Life can never be bad. It's a contradiction in terms. / Juliette: Life's not very beautiful. / King: Life is life." 

The Guard, performed by a helmeted and heavily armor breasted Jim Ballard, is the comic Greek chorus providing some of the heartiest laughs of the evening. These come from his deadpan announcements of what appears to be happening on the stage such as :"The King is walking! Long live the King!...The King is down! The King is dying!...The King is up! Long live the King! Etc., etc.

Suddenly the guard has a heart to heart talk with the audience, reminiscing about his great days (centuries) with his King and the King's accomplishments which naturally range from inventing gunpowder, steel, zeppelins, airplanes ("At the start it wasn't a success.  The first test pilots, Icarus and the rest, all fell into the sea."), tractors, the building of Rome, New York, Moscow, Paris. Etc. "He wrote tragedies under [the secret] name of Shakespeare." Ballard has played in several Dramaworks productions before and we'll never forget his wonderful voice in Caldwell Theatre Company's concert staging of Sondheim's classic Into the Woods.

When presenting a play that is not a period piece, but a more abstract philosophical concept, the nuances provided by the set design conceived by Michael Amico go a long way to tie the production together.  The set has sort of a three dimensional children's pop out book feel to it.  The costume designs by Leslye Menshouse are spot on, mostly emphasizing caricature, but with regal aspects particularly for Queen Marguerite. Lighting design by John Hall and sound design by Matt Corey are equally important to the overall artistic shape of a production such as this.

When the end finally comes, to our poor King, to his kingdom, to the play itself, we are left with an exhausted emptiness. We've laughed in the presence of the human predicament, sadly knowing what will happen sooner or later to each and every one of us..  But we  have more time, don't we?  It is not a play that will appeal to everyone.  The man next to my wife was very uncomfortable during the performance, while the one next to me just laughed the whole night long.  We exited to the melody of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"  from Monty Python....

Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Publishing Roots and Anecdotes

There was a time in my life when reading professional books and journals was nearly a full time job onto itself, especially when I was starting out in my career.  The books seemed to come first and then the journals, particularly Publishers Weekly and it's UK counterpart, The Bookseller.  Added to the mix were academic and library publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, and a number of related newsletters.  Weekends and nights were reserved for professional reading.

Now retired, I haven't read a professional book in years, although I try keep my eye on the publishing industry via the Web.  Nonetheless I've been remiss; it was only recently that I came across a book published some four years ago, a very important one to me and, I think, to the history of publishing, Immigrant Publishers: The Impact of Expatriate Publishers in Britain and America in the 20th Century (Transaction Publishers, 2009).  One of the co-editors, Richard Abel, was the founder of Richard Abel and Co., a major bookseller to academic and research libraries during my career.  Perhaps not too coincidentally, the book was published by Transaction Publishers which was headed by the late Irving Louis Horowitz, a sociologist who was a great publisher in his own right, publishing important works that others would have deemed too unprofitable to tackle.  I competed with Horowitz at times for authors but we had a cordial relationship.

Naturally, I was able to access large chunks of the book on Google Books but through one of Amazon's "partners" I was able to buy a new copy, still shrink wrapped for half the price.  Probably this was a review copy that had been sold.  Some things never change.  I wanted the hard cover for my collection of publishing books, particularly as it covers my own publishing roots.

Immigrant Publishers portrays a number of individuals I knew, worked with, and/or competed with.  For me personally, the most influential person was Walter J. Johnson, who was my first employer at the Johnson Reprint Division of Academic Press.  He was my "accidental mentor" and I would like to think that some of his better attributes, his intensely productive and entrepreneurial nature, became part of my working demeanor and without that subliminal tutelage, my career might have been very different. 

Two chapters are devoted to Walter Johnson, one by Edwin Beschler covering Johnson and his brother in law / partner Kurt Jacoby and their flight from Nazi dominated Europe to New York (with various stops between), establishing Academic Press (AP) in 1942. Johnson arrived with his wife, Thekla, after he had spent some time in a concentration camp but won his release. The other chapter is by Albert Henderson covering Johnson Reprint Corporation (JRC), run exclusively by Johnson (as was Walter J. Johnson, Inc., his antiquarian firm) and JRC's trailblazing accomplishments in the world of scholarly reprints.  I vaguely knew Beschler who was an AP editor but I worked closely with Henderson. 

Walter Johnson was an enigma to me when I joined the firm in 1964, straight out of college, winding up in the Production Department of JRC. On the one hand he could be charming, even endearing, but he also managed his businesses through fear and divisiveness, and constantly displayed a high level of distrustfulness.  But it was "justified paranoia" given his path to the United States (along with other publishers covered in the book) to escape (just barely) the encroaching threat of Nazi ideology inspired genocide (a fate of many of the family members of Johnson, nee' Jolowicz, changing his name and his religion "to never again be victimized"). 

Henderson recounts a meeting in the conference room of JRC which perfectly illustrates Johnson's suspicious personality, one that I also attended. It was a meeting called by my immediate boss, Fred Rappaport (another important influence on my career who is still a friend of ours after all these years).  Johnson was out of town but had placed a call to Fred waiting impatiently on the phone while the switchboard operators attempted to locate him.  At first they were unable to find him, until he was finally traced to the conference room. Johnson was incredulous and furious -- "what do you mean having a meeting without me?" -- you could hear Fred desperately trying to defend himself.

I also vividly remember another incident when Johnson stormed into the accounting department which was opposite my production department.  He was again furious, yelling at the accounting manager (whose name I've forgotten).  He picked up a calculator from a nearby desk (bear in mind, a 1960's calculator would weigh in at almost 40 pounds). raised it over his head, and smashed it to the floor, storming out of the department, leaving stunned silence in his wake. 

Yet, I had a different relationship with him.  He could never quite figure me out.  If he needed someone to come in all day Saturday to work on an "emergency" production project, normally no one would volunteer, something he pretty much expected (I think some of those projects were "tests", simply to demonstrate his willingness to be in on a Saturday while no one else was).  Well, in each and every case I said OK, I'll come in.  He eyed me suspiciously.  You want to come in to work?  Sure, I said.  (Actually, I needed the overtime -- my first wife was pregnant and about to retire from her lowly paying job -- and as I was on the clock early in my career, overtime was a gift.)

So I would see Walter in the office some Saturdays early in my career, and he began to depend on me to handle the  more difficult reprint projects.  Which leads to one of my favorite Johnson stories.  One such "rush" project (the rush was always to beat Kraus Reprint to the punch), was a large serial set of some public domain title, involving scores of volumes.  We needed to get 50 complete sets out of Arnold's Book Bindery (in Reading PA ASAP) and towards that end (and for other projects as well), I had to go to Arnolds from time to time on a small plane from Newark Airport.  I was also in frequent contact with them via phone from the office (remember, this is thirty years before emails and twenty before faxes).

Well, one of Johnson's favorite "management techniques" was to monitor activities through the two  Doberman Pinschers he had as receptionists/telephone operators. (There was no direct dial long distance -- all such calls had to be placed through the operators.) One morning I had to speak to Arnolds about that rush project and I asked one of the watch dogs to place the call and she said no.  I said, no? What do you mean?  And she said, Mr. Johnson said no long distance phone calls without his personal approval because our long distance bills were getting too high, goodbye.  I saw red and I grabbed the entire file on the project (everything was on paper of course so these files could be several inches thick), and I levitated (at least it seemed to me) down the stairs (his office was on the 10th floor, mine on the 11th) which meant passing the dogs at the desk (who smilingly glared at me, relishing their brief moment of power) and I approached Johnson's office, which had two doors, one from the hallway which had a red light over it and if the light was lit it meant he was in a meeting (the light was on that day) and could not be disturbed, and the other door from the editorial department (where Al Henderson was sitting).  I went through the editorial department and threw open Johnson's door and indeed he was meeting with some people I didn't know, and as I entered, he started to mutter, slightly outraged,  Bob, what is this?  I slammed the file on his desk and said, you want the books, you call Arnold's Bookbindery!  I walked out to the refrains of Bob, Bob, Bob! following my back out the door.

Of course by the time I returned to my office the thought occurred to me that I better start packing up my personal stuff as probably I'd be losing my job that very day.  Indeed, ten minutes later he called and demanded that I come back to the office, which I did.  But there he was at the switchboard castigating (mostly for my benefit) the Dobermans at the desk, saying over and over again "I didn't mean Bob!"  Although it was a vivid illustration of his divisive management techniques, I also think the incident was a lesson for him that his rough tactics did not intimidate me.  From then on, I never had any difficulty with him and if anything,  he treated me solicitously.

There was no question that Johnson was a brilliant publisher, from a publishing family, and Academic Press and Johnson Reprint, addressed a real need for scientific and academic information, producing new research material and bringing back out of print works to fulfill the insatiable appetite for such information, particularly by libraries who at that time enjoyed very lucrative government funded budgets. 

Although I learned a lot from my "accidental mentor" my relationship with Johnson and his firm was doomed as I had learned everything I could in production, moved on to head up the editorial department, and even though he named me an "Assistant Vice President" in November 1969, I could see the handwriting on the wall when Harcourt Brace Jovanovich entered the picture at the end of that decade.  I was solicited by a start-up competitor, Greenwood Press, headed by Harold Mason, a librarian who had briefly worked for Johnson's antiquarian division.  Johnson offered me raises, promotions, anything to keep me from the competition.  What he could not offer me was any kind of career path into original publishing, which is where I was trying to take some new JRC programs, but Harcourt blocked the way and even Academic Press was moving into the humanities and the social sciences where I was trying to go with their new "Seminar Press" (which Harcourt squashed anyhow).

My soon-to-be new wife, Ann, headed up customer service for JRC and Johnson's knee jerk reaction was to be suspicious of her -- she remaining at JRC while I went to a competitor.  He called her into his office to be interrogated and in the end we both had to assure him of the ethical standards we both adhered to and remarkably he accepted it.  As it turned out, it was only a couple years later that JRC was closed in spite of Bill Jovanovich's reassurances of continuing everything as before.  My decision was the right one and within a few years I was President of Greenwood Press and as I said, I would like to think that the better aspects of Walter's work ethic materialized in my own management techniques. 

At first we had little contact, but later he begrudgingly acknowledged my career progress and we used to chat regularly at Frankfurt, long after he left Academic but remained the largest shareholder of Harcourt which purchased Academic in 1969.  I think Ann and I were among the very few former employees at his funeral service in 1996, his working until he died at the age of 88, on the day of my 54th birthday.

Whereas Johnson had his redeeming virtues, another "publishing expatriate" that I dealt with during my career, Robert Maxwell, seemed to have none.  In fact he very much reminded me of Walter, but without the charm. He too ruled those who let him by fear and intimidation.  I had the unpleasant and totally unscheduled task of "debating" him -- I think it was 1972 or 1973 -- at one of the American Library Association's annual meetings

His company, Pergamon Press and ours were both caught up in heady days of microfiche reproduction of public domain government documents.  We had been filming all the Congressional Hearings to 1969 and we had rolled out a similar program for municipal documents.  Both Pergamon and Greenwood had started to tackle State Documents, so we were head to head competitors although both programs were still in their formative stages.  Each company had produced promotional literature describing its forthcoming program and the American Library Association had asked us to speak about them at one of their government documents sessions.  The editor of our program, however, was also the editor of our municipal project and he discovered, sort of at the last minute, that he had a conflicting speaking engagement about the municipal documents program and as that was much further along (and perhaps he didn't relish the thought of taking on Robert Maxwell who was to speak on behalf of Pergamon), I was thrown to the sharks with only a couple hours notice.  I had written the promotion piece myself so I was familiar with many of the details, but not all.  In any event, there I was, a thirty year old utterly inexperienced public speaker, having to face someone whose public speaking ability was legendary,  a former Member of Parliament with a booming voice, whose reputation preceded him.

The dreaded time finally arrived and I was shocked at the sea of faces attending this meeting, maybe a couple of hundred, a far larger crowd than I imagined.  Perhaps Maxwell was the draw and he was invited to speak first.  OK I said to myself, that will give me time to prepare any rejoinders if I need them.  He stood at the podium and held up the very brochure I wrote (not his own), the cover of which heralded "Solve All Your State Documents Problems -- acquisitions, claims, checking-in, cataloging, binding, shelving, retrieval." He silently held it up (it seemed like hours to me, but it was only for about 15 seconds) waving it back and forth so all could see.  (It was a June meeting, in Detroit as I recall. I had worn a Haspel Wash and Wear suit and I could feel the sweat trickling down my back.  I felt certain that pits of stain were forming under my arms.  Why was he holding up our brochure, not saying anything?)  Suddenly, in his bass English voice he boomed "Huckster!"  I blinked in astonishment (never having been called a huckster before, but thinking it must take one to know one).  He then went on tearing our program apart, saying nearly nothing about their own.  In a way it didn't surprise me, given his reputation and given both programs were "announcements" and in fact did not yet exist.  Easier to criticize ours than say something about their own.  He looked at me sitting in the first row with every thrust of his voice.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of my verbal whipping, it was my turn. I remembered the fear of whether my anxiety-induced sweat would be evident on my way up to the podium.  The crowd was clearly agitated by the tension Maxwell had created, some librarians uncomfortable about a verbal confrontation between the two of us.  Well, they didn't have to worry about me as I knew there was no way I could win that battle.  Maxwell knew it too and the smirk on his face showed his pleasure at having me where he wanted me.  

So instead of saying anything about the attack he levied, or defending our program in any way, or, forbid, attacking his, I basically went about my business of explaining our program, how it would work, the tentative nature of it at that point, and we would be eager to have their input as to the directions we should take.  In other words, I completely ignored Maxwell, as if he had never spoken.  Afterwards, librarians came up to me to thank me for not responding in kind. 

Any future contact between Maxwell and myself was confined to merely passing by one another in the aisles of Frankfurt or some other ALA meetings, one not acknowledging the other.  He died a mysterious death, presumably having fallen off his yacht in the Atlantic, after which it was discovered he had raided his company's pension fund to keep his publishing empire floating.

Another publisher profiled in the book is Fred Praeger whose parents failed to escape Nazi Germany and died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, leaving a profound impact on Fred.  He ultimately formed Praeger Publishers and, with the help of CIA funds, began to publish the very successful "Special Studies" series that was squarely aimed at the threat of the Soviet Union.  One of his early successes was the publication of Milovan Djilas' The New Class which sold 50,000 copies, a work I had read in college and have a copy on my bookshelf ever since. 

In fact, to digress somewhat, many of these "immigrant publishers" shared a kind of Ayn Rand prospective on business and viewed any totalitarian regime with revulsion, particularly the Soviet Union at the time. I remember an amusing anecdote involving Walter Johnson in that regard.  On November 9, 1965 I was waiting for the elevator on the 11th Floor of 111 Fifth Avenue.  It was about 5.20 PM and out the window in front of the elevators, I was gazing north at the top of the Empire State Building as darkness gathered but the city and the Empire State were still ablaze in lights.  Suddenly those lights started to go out until the city was in darkness, the elevators had stopped and all lights in the building were extinguished.  I asked if anyone had a flashlight. No, no one did.  Then, I made my way downstairs in the dark to the 10th Floor.  Surely, I thought,  Mr. Johnson would know where there was a flashlight and perhaps what was going on.  He was frantic, listening to a portable radio and indeed, he had a flashlight and offered to lead everyone down the eleven flights to the street.  I remember going down the stairs with Mr. Johnson, the two of us leading a couple of dozen other employees, Johnson turning to me and moaning over and over again:  The Russians! The Russians!  It's an attack!  They've done this! Set in the context of how these immigrant publishers landed on the shores of the United States, the reaction was quite understandable.

So in light of that, it is utterly plausible for a Fred Praeger to embrace anti Soviet studies while conveniently accepting CIA funding.

My first personal encounter with Fred Praeger -  other than running into him at Frankfurt or some of the scholarly association meetings we both regularly attended -  was a day I spent with him at his Westview Press office in Boulder Co.  It was sometime in the Fall of 1984, not long after Publisher's Weekly had published a long article about me and I think Fred was curious about the competition but basically I think he wanted me to see his operation and pay homage.  Of course I was curious as well.  We competed with one another but had chosen different paths -- he trying to control all aspects of the business, including manufacturing, whereas my philosophical approach to publishing was to focus on bringing authors and markets together, leaving all manufacturing to subcontractors. 

We had a good day together and our relationship remained cordial until the end of 1985 when CBS Publishing put his former business, the eponymous Praeger Publishers, Inc. on the market.  We did preliminary due diligence on the business and so did Fred.  Sealed bids were submitted.  We won the right to complete the due diligence process and to negotiate a final price based on our findings.  During that process I had my regularly scheduled Frankfurt Bookfair rendezvous in October.  I ran into Fred. He was furious with me.  What right did I have to buy a company with his name?  What right!!!????  (The name of course was an inseparable part of the company.)

He stormed off and my contacts with him from then on at meetings were his menacing glares. He was a creative publisher, and I respected him, but he, too, could be a intimidating and difficult person. He sold Westview only a few years later.

There are other individuals mentioned or portrayed in Immigrant Publishers who I knew or dealt with, but not to the extent of the three I talk about here.  They were exiles from their homelands who immigrated to the US or the UK in search of security and entrepreneurial opportunities in publishing.  They were on the cusp of the information age and instinctively they seized that opening for new, thriving scientific, technical and social science publishing businesses.  They indirectly paved the way for what we now know as the Internet age (one wonders what they would have done with today's technology).  But it all harkens back to what constitutes knowledge.  As Charles Kegan Paul (publisher of Kegan Paul & Trench) said towards the end of the 19th century,  "It is by books that mind speaks to mind, by books the world's intelligence grows, books are the tree of knowledge, which has grown into and twined its branches with those of the tree of life, and of the common fruit men eat and become as gods knowing good and evil." 

These "immigrant publishers" gave rise to another generation of publishers -- I was among them -- ones that learned the ropes from these pioneers.  We in turn laid down the groundwork for the ubiquitous use of computers in publishing and anticipated on demand and on line publishing.  As that May 25, 1984 Publisher's Weekly profile concluded its article..."We're working on disseminating online information," says Hagelstein -- derived at first from books, but ultimately, he believes, to be online only....What Greenwood's whole approach seems to be leading to is that so-far elusive development we are always being told is in our future: books on demand.... Perhaps, in its own way and with all deliberate speed, [it] is pointing the way to the future of the book."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Oh What A Paradise It Could Be

I can't put Oh What A Paradise It Seems back onto our bookshelf, for a second time in my life, without saying something about it, what John Cheever has meant to me, and the catalyst the monumental biography by Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life, has played in this mix.

It is unusual for us to have two copies of the same book and only one such title resides alongside our two different bedsides, here at our home in Florida and on our boat in Connecticut, The Stories of John Cheever.  Before I retired, I used to carry it on any business trip that involved an airport or a hotel.  It was my "get out of jail free" card. In case of any delay, that book was my reclamation, picking out a short story that was ideal to fill in the time, and as I had read them all before, nonetheless always finding some new meaning or just again enjoying Cheever's charmed lyricism.  Cheever was the master short story writer and that is his genre.  His novels, although a pleasure to read, never seemed to measure up to the "reread test." Until recently.

I had read his last novel Oh What A Paradise It Seems when it was first published in the early 1980s.  At the time I was a forty years old.  I hadn't known of Cheever's illness then but probably thought of him as "old man" and the work seemed to me at the time to be disoriented and sad.  But Bailey's biography led me to reread the work and today, from the prospective being not only an older man myself, even older than Cheever when he died, it seems prophetic and profound.  It is a poignant work, clearly written by a man who knew he was dying and knew he would write little afterwards.  And writing to Cheever was like breathing.

I feel Cheever's pain rereading the work, even his personal pain of being so conflicted over his bisexuality, and his failing sexual powers, and the macro-pain of his knowing he was leaving a planet that at times was such a paradise, but one which also seemed to be slouching towards a hellish environmental ruin.

The story is less important to me than the feeling it leaves me with -- almost one of regret.  It is sad to bear witness, as does Cheever in the novel, to an overpopulated, hyperkinetic, media-obsessed society, seemingly hell-bent on environmental self destruction.  This is a far cry from the suburbia normally associated with Cheever's work.  Yet there is always hope and Cheever leaves us with that sense.

Cheever's favorite image, that of rain, begins the novel...

"This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night."
The protagonist, Lemuel Sears is skating on the pond in his old village, where his daughter now lives.  (Cheever was separated from his place of boyhood for most of his life, the Quincy, MA area, and he was returned there to be buried.)  The setting of the mythical "sleepy village" of Janice of the novel must be very similar to where he was born. This beautiful passage denotes his "homecoming:" "Swinging down a long stretch of black ice gave Sears a sense of homecoming.  at long last, at the end of a cold, long journey, he was returning to a place where his name was known and loved and lamps burned in the rooms and fires of the hearth.  It seemed to Sears that all the skaters moved over the ice with the happy conviction that they were on their way home. Home might be an empty room and an empty bed to many of them, including Sears, but swinging over the black ice convinced Sears that he was on his way home. Someone more skeptical might point out that this illuminated how ephemeral is our illusion of homecoming."

But the characters seem lost, homeless, nomads in the modern world.  Harold Chisholm is one such character:

"Nothing waited for him in his apartment. There was no woman, no man, no dog, no cat, and his answering tape would likely be empty and the neighborhood where he lived had become so anonymous and transient that there were no waiters or shopkeepers or bartenders who would greet him. He turned on the radio but all the music he seemed able to get was disco music, and disco music from those discos that had been closed the year before the year before last for drug pushing or nonpayment of income tax. He seemed to be searching for the memory of some place, some evidence of the fact that he had once been able to put himself into a supremely creative touch with his world and his kind. He longed for this as if it were some country which he had been forced to leave."

And in its 100 short pages we circle back to water and its primordial symbolism to Cheever:

"Now and then the voice of the brook was louder than Chisholm's voice. A trout stream in a forest, a traverse of potable water, seemed for Sears to be the bridge that spans the mysterious abyss between our spiritual and our carnal selves. How contemptible this made his panic about his own contamination. When he was young, brooks had seemed to speak to him in the tongues of men and angels. Now that he was an old man who spoke five or six languages-all of them poorly-the sound of water seemed to be the language of his nativity, some tongue he had spoken before his birth. Soft and loud, high and low, the sound of water reminded him of eavesdropping in some other room than where the party was."

Cheever died only a few short months after its publication.  Yet, his love of life always shines through as in the lyricism of one of the concluding paragraphs:

"The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none.  The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling, What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come, It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on the planet. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love, What a paradise it seemed!"

I would like to remember Cheever for the beauty he captured in his writings, and as opening day approaches -- with the impending cry of "play ball!" -- I will revisit his short story, "National Pastime," of which I am fortunate enough to have a limited edition, signed by Cheever, something to be cherished. It tells a story, in a small way similar to my boyhood -- when I pursued baseball without much help of my own father who was either bogged down by his troubled marriage or by his photography business.  As Cheever puts it, "the feeling that I could not assume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes."