Remembering the Golden Age of Book Publishing

A review of Richard Seaver’s The Tender Hour of Twilight

The Tender Hour of Twilight | By Richard Seaver | Farrar, Straus, and Giroux | 480 pages, $35.00

An engaging memoir about the history of the publishing industry sounds about as plausible as a successful magazine about plumbing; people normally just want to read the books that get published, not the vulgar details of how these books made their way through the industry’s clogged pipes. So when I received my review copy of The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ‘50s, New York in the ‘60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age, my first reaction was satirical. I thought how I might refer to the wisecracking Groucho Marx, who once made a tongue-in-cheek effort to write something serious about his agent. (“The little fellow climbed upon my lap and tugged me gently by the beard, “Tell me, grandfather,” he said, “about your first press agent.”…something within me stirred. My whole body seemed on fire. I seemed to catch a faint odor of hyacinth. Ah, youth! Those first interviews! Those passionate scenes!”)

Author Richard Seaver, however, was not only a legend in publishing, he was a renowned translator who, though an American, received the Ordre Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres from the French government. His years at Grove Press in the 1960s were spent publishing—and defending in court—some of the most controversial writers of the twentieth century, with D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs topping the list. Moreover, a great deal of The Tender Hour of Twilight is in fact engaging, with Seaver winning me over with his charming, amiable sense of self-awareness. (“A bordello replaced by a publisher,” he writes of one Parisian establishment. “Was that progress? I wasn’t sure.”)

Seaver died in 2009. His wife, Jeannette Seaver, reveals in the foreword that his memoir was edited down from the more than nine hundred pages of journal entries he left behind. He died before he was allowed to finish it—“polish it,” Jeannette Seaver euphemistically puts it. This helps explain a great deal about this book, because The Tender Hour of Twilight shines and impresses with a clean, bright finish in some places and bores and vexes with dull, uneven passages in others. It’s an incredible shame Seaver didn’t get to see his book through to the final proof; if it weren’t for the importance of Seaver’s life story, it’s questionable whether this draft of The Tender Hour of Twilight should have been published at all.

As its lengthy subtitle suggests, Tender Hour is divided into two sections, based on time and place. The first section covers Paris in the 1950s, where Seaver moves after being released from the Navy (he’s later recalled for a brief stint, thanks to the Korean War). There, Seaver helps found a scrappy literary quarterly called Merlin. Though short-lived, Merlin published works by some of the most well-known writers of the twentieth century, including Miller, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Seaver’s best storytelling occurs in the Paris section. We meet a host of unusual characters, some refined, others coarse, but none pedestrian. Like the brilliant, walleyed Sartre. Or the drunk, lowlife Irish playwright who shows up at Seaver’s door after midnight after being expelled from his country for consorting with the IRA. Or the mercurial diamond smuggler whose brief association with Seaver gets Seaver briefly arrested. Seaver’s easy writing style and his amicable reaction to his adventures gives the impression that he was not only a very intelligent man but a likeable fellow to boot.

Tender Hour’s Paris section stands out because it shows a young Seaver fueled by a passionate wonder for the works of Samuel Beckett. Having discovered copies of Molloy and Malone in the display window of a French publishing house, Seaver decides to write a laudatory essay about the Irish writer for Merlin. This puts Seaver on course for a professional relationship with Beckett that would last many years, including Merlin’s publication of Beckett’s novel Watt, and Seaver’s translating a number of Beckett’s stories from French into English. Beckett himself rarely appears, however, even as his work and his persona offer a framework for this section—rather, Seaver spends a great deal of time talking about, attempting to contact, and assuaging the feelings of the aloof, enigmatic writer.

Seaver has given interviews before about his relationship with Beckett; what’s missing from the public record are Beckett’s thoughts about Seaver. Very little is said about the American translator in Beckett’s collected letters or in James Knowlson’s acclaimed biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. At one point in 1954 Beckett fumed about the “Merlin juveniles” who had no money to pay him royalties for the publication of Watt, but Beckett’s wrath wasn’t leveled directly at Seaver, and in any case the incident was resolved quickly.

Seaver moves back to America to eventually work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press; the New York section of the memoir covers those years. Tone changes with geography. Now older, married with kids (read: settled) Seaver’s attention turns away from the tumult of his youth to the grown-up anti-censorship battles he fought with Rosset at Grove. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, Seaver and Grove Press were on the front lines of the free speech wars of the 1960s.

It’s important, worthy history, but as storytelling the memoir the New York chapters often feel discrete and mechanical. The stories of literary litigation read as dry case histories, not riveting skirmishes against America’s puritanical hypocrisies. It’s a shame, because the ’60s were a turbulent decade; Seaver could have found a more convincing way to portray that fact.

Perhaps it’s not his fault. Perhaps Seaver knew these chapters needed work. Regardless, try reading this excerpt without letting your eyes wander off the page:

We debated whether to publish as a paperback original or a hardcover, the former to make it widely available to its core market, which we saw as essentially black, the latter to make sure the book was properly and widely reviewed. The hardcover constituency won out, but the paperback backers were assured we’d issue an inexpensive edition in short order. Finally, advance copies of the finished book, with a list price of $7.50, the lowest we could make it and not lose money, arrived in the office, an impressive package bearing a handsome photograph of Malcolm, the bearded prophet, on the jacket. Our first printing was ten thousand copies…

This is the dull kind of information I hoped Tender Hour would avoid: Only avid bibliophiles and writers in negotiation care about questions of hardcover versus paperback, and Tender Hour is purportedly aiming for a broader audience. It doubly disappoints because the excerpt concerns The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one of the toughest, liveliest memoirs of the past half-century, concerning one of history’s most intriguing figures. Seaver does cover the basics concerning how Malcolm X got published, but the chapter lacks any real insight about race relations, the publishing industry, or—preferably—both. What would Seaver have written if he had been able to “polish” his book? I wonder.

Still, the late Richard Seaver should get his due. His contributions to literature and the publishing industry are beyond dispute. Anybody interested in learning about them would be well served to read this book.

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Phil Campbell is the author of Zioncheck for President. Tags: , , , , ,