Editors seldom earn much notice outside the world of publishing. Edward Garnett fostered the careers of Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, but, I suspect, far more people remember his wife, Constance Garnett, the first great translator of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and many other Russian writers. In this country, only one editor ever appears as a “Jeopardy!” answer: Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.
Yet Richard Seaver is, arguably, just as important to our time as Garnett and Perkins to theirs. While a young man in Paris, preparing a Sorbonne thesis on James Joyce, he happened upon — and was bowled over by — the fiction of a middle-aged and virtually unknown Irishman. With dogged persistence, Seaver urged the work of Samuel Beckett on his friends, with some of whom he edited a small English-language magazine called Merlin. In due course, Seaver and his colleagues printed Beckett’s short stories in the magazine, translated some of his French fiction into English and published the early novel “Watt.” When “Waiting for Godot” opened to a mostly empty house, Seaver was among the few there for that historic first night. He recalls the famous review — which Seaver finds “damning,” although it seems a brilliant precis to me: “This is a play where nothing happens. Twice.”
A half-dozen years later, having returned to the United States with his French bride, the violinist Jeannette Medina, “Dick” Seaver joined Grove Press. In tandem with its owner, Barney Rosset, Seaver continued to champion Beckett but also helped establish Grove as the lightning-rod publisher of the 1960s. From the beginning, Rosset and Seaver set themselves against censorship of any kind. Despite suits and First Amendment trials that dragged on for years, Grove brought out Lawrence’s unbowdlerized version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers,” William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” John Rechy’s “City of Night,” Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and Pauline Reage’s “The Story of O,” as well as a great deal of controversial nonfiction, including “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” and Eric Berne’s best-selling “Games People Play.” Grove also published the now legendary countercultural magazine the Evergreen Review and established a lock on printing avant-garde plays — not only Beckett’s but also those of Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and many others. A related film division made available the screenplays for movies such as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “Last Year at Marienbad,” produced Beckett’s “Film” (starring Buster Keaton) and imported from Sweden the soft-core classic “I am Curious (Yellow).”
In “The Tender Hour of Twilight,” Seaver looks back on these two heady periods of his life. In the first half, he re-creates the excitement of living in Paris as a young man, growing fluent in French, traveling around Europe and falling in love with several free-spirited young women. “Thirty cents a day would get you a hotel room — not with bath, mind you . . . The room had a bed, a basin, a table, and a chair. Around the corner were the public baths, where for a few francs you could take a scalding-hot shower. Payment by the quarter hour. . . . If your budget was really tight, you could take a douche double, two for the price of one, the sex of your co-showerer up to you, no questions asked by the management.”
In those days, 25 cents would buy you a liter of red wine from a cask — if you brought along your own bottle. Over that gros rouge and cheap pasta dinners, the Merlin crowd would gather to discuss their magazine and how they might finance another issue. The regulars included founder Alexander Trocchi, who became a heroin addict and wrote “Cain’s Book” (published by Grove); poet Christopher Logue, now remembered for his modernized versions of several sections of “The Iliad”; Patrick Bowles, co-translator with the author of Beckett’s “Murphy”; and the elegant Austryn Wainhouse, who rendered the major works of the Marquis de Sade into English. As Wordsworth wrote of his own time in Paris, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.”
In these pages, Seaver describes meeting the disturbingly walleyed and intimidating Jean-Paul Sartre, being charmed by Orson Welles and becoming friends with the painter Ellsworth Kelly (whom his then-girlfriend tried to seduce, even after Seaver pointed out that Kelly was gay). But none of these eminences prepares Seaver for Brendan Behan, the former Borstal boy and a legendary drinker even by Irish standards. Shortly after Behan storms into Seaver’s life, the playwright asks — at 4 in the morning — if there might be “anything to eat handy?” While devouring Camembert cheese and sausages, he solemnly intones, between mouthfuls, that “food . . . is the great enabler.” Seaver is impressed by the phrase but asks his unwelcome and temporary roommate what it means. “To get on with the drinking,” Behan slurs back. “Without food you pass out much too quickly.”
And then there’s Maurice Girodias, the notorious force behind the Olympia Press, which somehow published Beckett, Miller and Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), partly through the profits from its notorious Traveller’s Companion line, a series of pornographic green-covered paperbacks (to which the Merlin group, desperate for cash, contributed more than a few titles). Once back in New York as a second in command at Grove, Seaver worked frequently on projects with the flamboyant and litigious Girodias. It was Seaver, under the pseudonym Sabine d’Estree, who produced the exquisite English translation of Olympia Press’s “Histoire d’O” — “The Story of O.”
Like so many stories of the 1960s, “The Tender Hour of Twilight” culminates in the 1968 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago. Esquire magazine decided to send a trio of controversial literary figures to cover the convention: Burroughs, Terry Southern (co-author of “Candy”) and Jean Genet. Seaver and his wife went along to help translate for Genet. Esquire, in its turn, sent an unflappable young editor to be their major-domo and chaperone: None other than John Berendt, later the author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” In this section, Seaver reproduces sections of his diary, setting down his impressions of Allen Ginsberg chanting “om” in Lincoln Park, the pincer movement of the Chicago police, and the eventual charge upon and beating of the protesters. Back in 1968 there wasn’t as much competition for what newscaster Eric Sevareid then called “the most disgraceful spectacle in the history of American politics.”
Richard Seaver died before he could edit these memories into a finished book. But his wife, Jeannette, has done a superb job, even if the narrative ends somewhat abruptly with Seaver’s departure from Grove. (He and Jeannette went on to start their own publishing house, Arcade, and continued to bring out important new writers.) No matter. If you’re at all interested in modern literature, Paris, the 1960s or the “golden age of publishing,” you won’t want to miss “The Tender Hour of Twilight.”
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” was recently published.
The Tender Hour of Twilight
Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s
A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age
By Richard Seaver
Farrar Straus Giroux. 457 pp. $35