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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