Roberto Calasso and the Irresistible Art of the Publisher

1 | Advice In judging Roberto Calasso’s brief, elegant book The Art of the Publisher, it might help to list the practical advice Calasso has to offer after 50 years in the trade. Or, if we have ...

1 | Advice

In judging Roberto Calasso’s brief, elegant book The Art of the Publisher, it might help to list the practical advice Calasso has to offer after 50 years in the trade. Or, if we have ambitions and money to burn, the essential practices necessary for becoming a book publisher, which involves nothing less than the creation of whole worlds. Calasso has written with aching beauty of the Gods—Indian, Greek, and Abrahamic—and the publisher, although a latecomer to that vanishing breed, is as wild and capricious as Dionysus, Prajapati, Brahma, Artemis, Indra, Agni, and all their kind.

As with Emerson, Calasso is full of sharp advice and insights. Publishing “has always involved prestige.” It is “a dangerous art since … money is … essential.” It “loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility.” Graphic Design has the “defect” of looking like “the creation of a graphic designer.” The book cover should “surprise” and practice the “reverse of ekphrasis.” There is one basic rule: “what has not disappointed us … will not disappoint others.”

As Calasso proceeds, the simple form of the manual ventures into more mysterious, sometimes comic ground. “Repetition and limitation are part of our nature,” and necessary in writing cover flaps. Without “an image of paradise it is very difficult to become a great publisher.” Judgment is the one “undeniable prerogative,” and the “real acid test” of publishing. The ability to root out the “false” is preferred, as are “pleasure” and “laughter.” At a “minimum,” the publisher should enjoy “everything he publishes.” And, most important of all, publishing is a “form.”


2 | The Precarious Balance of the Publisher’s Art


Calasso isn’t the type of thinker to let 35 centuries get in the way of a common concern. Ancient Vedic philosophy informs a great deal of his work, most notably in his books Ka (1998) and Ardor (2014), which ramble through the India of 1500 BCE as if it all happened a month ago. He shares with the Vedics a belief in ritual action and form. They are what bring the invisible, everything in our lives that we can’t readily access, to visibility or presence: from asat (non-being) to sat (being). Only then can rta (order) reign or achieve a kind of precarious balance—and for Calasso balance is always precarious, whether he’s writing of Talleyrand’s sly diplomacy in The Ruin of Kasch (1994) or the “bracing imbalance” of the publisher Vladimir Dimitrijevic’s book list here.

One of the most striking stories of many in The Art of the Publisher begins “at the height of the October Revolution … when printing presses had already been … shut down.” Under these less than ideal conditions, “a group of writers decided to throw themselves into the wild business of opening a Writers’ Bookshop that would still enable books … to circulate.” Their reaction to the Bolshevik’s burgeoning police state was “to keep certain practices alive: to continue to handle those rectangular paper objects, to leaf through them, order them, discuss them, read them … and finally to pass them on to other people.” It is nothing less than the organizing of books against the organization of the state.

<em>Roberto Calasso</em> (1991). Photograph by Erling Mandelmann

Roberto Calasso (1991). Photograph by Erling Mandelmann

In this way publishing—when it is an art—is close to self-generating, its practices the sole reason for its existence: “The important thing was to create and maintain an order, a form.” In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), Calasso, speaking of Dionysus, claims that “a god is never a constant presence,” and one could say the same of the publisher. They might publish one-copy editions from a Moscow bookstore, or, like Gallimard, a vast array of material, but we know them only fleetingly, and primarily by the books they leave behind. In the best way, they are brands, producing individual books and then imagining them as a series of “constituent parts … linked by an irresistible affinity.”

If all that sounds strange, it is, but there’s nothing blithe about Calasso’s method. He might verge toward the mystical, but it’s an exacting mysticism, and one finely attuned to the limits of rationality. For Calasso, publishing goes beyond the selling of books. It is also everything that eludes logic, sense, and production, an unseen and vast network of art, myth, and religion: “a good publisher is one who publishes one tenth of the books that he would like to,” and that the “Adelphi catalog should therefore be seen as indicating a path along which actual books are accompanied in every direction by many virtual books, like friendly shadows.”


3 | Roberto Bazlen and What He Didn’t Teach Calasso


The friendly shadow to The Art of the Publisher is Roberto Bazlen, a writer famous for being either unable or unwilling to produce a book. In many ways he is the prolific Calasso’s opposite, and yet Calasso is equally the reticent Bazlen’s double. Bazlen produced only fragments, and Calasso is the master of turning the fragmentary into singular and dazzling works of literary philosophy. He even manages, 18 years after Bazlen’s death, to edit his footnotes into a book, the aptly named Scritti (1983).

That Scritti is published by Adelphi in the Biblioteca series Bazlen conceived and shepherded into existence; that Bazlen imagined it as a chain of one-of-a-kind books; that all this happens because a 60-year-old writer—famous for his abandonment of writing—mentions to the 21-year-old Calasso—on his birthday—that a publishing house is “going to start where we might publish books we” like: well, it all feels more mythic than real.1

When asked by the Paris Review if Bazlen helped him navigate the world of letters, Calasso gives the most elusive “yes” you could come up with: “Bazlen was a great Taoist Master. He taught me more than anyone else, without teaching anything.” It’s quite an answer, and yet Calasso’s right to make the distinction. As surely as Bazlen wasn’t writing books, he certainly wasn’t teaching either. Instead, he was “fascinated by only one kind of book,” books that are “an experiment in knowledge, and as such can be transmuted into the experience of those who read.” For an aesthetic like that, no instruction is necessary.

For Bazlen, there is only the singular book, a book “in which it is clear that something has happened to the author and has been put into writing.” The correspondence between experience and writing is crucial, although “no experience, in itself, was enough to bring a book into existence.” That missing element is style, the form by which the experience comes to us and is recognized as being lived, and specific to one individual. “The writer needed to live through this other thing, he needed to absorb it physiologically … transforming it in style.”

Bazlen’s belief in what the singular book offers, knowledge that is unique and transformative, is a visionary and impassioned defense of “a way of knowledge that is closely connected to the use of the book.” That knowledge is never total, merely a fragment of experience, a glimpse into the unknown, a brief encounter with the gods. All of that is crucial to Calasso’s thinking, and yet to save Bazlen’s startling insights, Calasso must first overcome them.

That dramatic transformation slips by without real comment, and in a work so obsessed with links and connections the omission is more than enough to catch our attention. At first, it simply seems a story of another Adelphi publishing success, maybe even its culmination. The book was Alberto Savinio’s Nuova enciclopedia: “Savinio had sought to transform the encyclopedic form—essentially anonymous and collective—into the highest expression of idiosyncrasy: it is difficult to imagine a singular book that more exactly fits the definition.” It is as if Savinio’s book, in its perfect realization of Bazlen’s beliefs, precipitated a crisis.

And the crisis comes in the form of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, and how Adelphi “made a clear, decisive correction to our course” because of him. Calasso notes that, “Roth, like few others, is the author of linked narratives,” and “Bazlen’s idea … went contrary to the idea of complete works.” He is quick to add that it “was a very bold, far-reaching idea—and one for which the times were not yet ripe.” Despite this correction, Bazlen’s ideals are the animating principle behind The Art of the Publisher. The retrospective nature of the business memoir makes clear what was probably a much murkier development: that Calasso abandoned Bazlen in 1974 only to resurrect him some 30 years later for a battle of much greater consequence.

Rembrandt, <em>The Abduction of Europa</em> (1632)

Rembrandt, The Abduction of Europa (1632)

That shift is typical of Calasso’s style: everything always comes back around again. When he reaches a conclusion, it is almost always the result of a story; yet, by method and temperament, he’s adverse to endings. And so he tells many stories and we slowly gain, through repetition, a kind of knowledge. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony begins with Zeus’s abduction of Europa. In the guise of a white bull, Zeus lifts Europa onto his back, before “div[ing] into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough … to keep the girl from getting wet.”

And you think, well, that’s what happened. Until it happens again, and again, and again, seven times just at the beginning of the book, each variation slightly different from the one before, and you realize that it is not even the same story. Then the variations, by virtue of their number, take on the qualities of other abduction narratives: Io, Ariadne, and, most significantly, Helen. Each of these stories is separate, but linked, and in a constant state of metamorphosis.

So, no story is ever complete with Calasso, even the story of a business. It’s an ongoing myth to be recalibrated according to situation and need. The Bazlen he first encounters, already a legendary and mythic figure in Italian letters, gives way to another Bazlen here. The situation has changed: the art of publishing is no longer a difficult art, but a besieged one. When Adelphi changes its editorial policy in 1974, it is not just what Roth, Simenon, and Vladimir Nabakov offer, but also a looming threat that will appear—many years later—as Bazlen’s sinister double: not his singular book, but the coming of the singular and only book.


4 | Beware the Message and the Messenger


As in all of Calasso’s work, the double, the copy, everything that repeats threatens—both for good and ill. Bazlen’s double is Wired magazine’s “senior maverick” Kevin Kelly, a cheery messenger for the coming “digital revolution,” the end of the book, and the “universal library,” all breathlessly outlined in a much-read New York Times Magazine article from 2006.2 When Kelly means universal he means it in its most literal sense: “The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the millions of blog posts now gone—the ephemeral literature of our time.”

The impetus of Kelly’s enthusiastic futurism is Google’s announcement that “it would scan the books of five major research libraries.” Where Kelly envisions utility, Calasso sees the apocalypse, Bazlen’s humanism turned inside out. “What has been described is perhaps the most advanced form of persecution: life besieged by a life in which nothing is lost and everything is condemned to exist, available always, suffocating.” Bazlen’s idea of the  “singular book,” despite its conceptual ambition, recognizes limits and the importance of honoring them: “Singular books were therefore books that had also run the risk of never having been written.” Kelly’s cheerleading never sees the value of such a loss, or any loss at all.

“Certain things disappear almost unnoticed. And sometimes they are things of fundamental importance.”

Calasso knows, though, and teases out the monster behind the good will. What Kelly proposes is “a fairly rigorous attempt … to get rid of a whole way of knowledge that is closely connected to the use of the book. More precisely, to get rid of a certain way of relating to the unknown.” For Kelly, Google and the dream of the “universal library” promises a more effective way of relaying information; for Calasso, Kelly’s soapbox praise has the stench of a “bondage manual” and “evokes a feeling of asphyxia.” It’s as close to murder as an idea can get.

When Calasso tells us that it’s “time now to return to front covers,” it reminds us that the sharpest insights often seem comic and off. It also makes us realize that The Art of the Publisher is a defense of the whole book, and not, as Kelly would have it, information. His off-handed dismissal of covers as “inert” catches Calasso’s imagination. Why “so much disdain for covers,” he asks. His answer is shocking in its scope, precision, and how closely he aligns the book with life:

They [the covers] isolate the book from everything else, like the skin of every living being. And they isolate it in a highly analogical way, because the skin and what appears on the skin is the most powerful analogon of the being that it contains … The cover is an indication—one of many—of the obstinate, mute, desperate resistance to the process that seeks to make “all books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.”

Covers, like skin, signal the presence of unknown experiences that are both—following Bazlen—radically singular, and as amended by Calasso and Adelphi, vast, ongoing, and linked.

In perhaps the most pleasurable moment of this immensely pleasurable and sly how-to, Calasso writes of some of his favorite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević—and it has the feel of a pantheon. For a moment, they shimmer like gods, unique and irreplaceable, and it is here that Calasso’s debt to Bazlen is most obvious. Like the singular book, the art of the publisher is always in danger of not happening. If these essential acts vanish under the weight of “a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas,” we will lose a way of engaging with the world that has gone on for centuries. It would be an immeasurable loss, or even the final one. As Calasso says of these times and the publisher’s art: “Certain things disappear almost unnoticed. And sometimes they are things of fundamental importance.”

The Art of the Publisher is a plea, by way of a treatise on an art that no one knew was an art, so that it might again shepherd what isn’t (asat) into what might be (sat). icon

Featured image: The Caxton Celebration. From The Graphic (1877)