The Magic Hour Issue

Fiction: 'The Fair'

"The dressy clothes, the parties, the cigars, the jacked-up prices in the hotels and restaurants, the disappointing food were all of a piece. It was exhausting and repetitive and depressing—and no one in publishing would have missed it for the world."

by Jonathan Galassi
Apr 21 2015, 6:20pm


Photos by Matthew Leifheit and Cynthia Talmadge

Excerpted from Muse by Jonathan Galassi. Copyright 2015 by Jonathan Galassi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The modern-day Frankfurt Book Fair was a postwar phenomenon, a vehicle for easing the readmission of Germany into the company of civilized Western societies. Originally, it had been a phenomenon of the Renaissance, Frankfurt being the largest trading center near Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg and his fellows had invented movable type in the late 1430s. The fair was established again in 1949 and grew into the most important annual gathering in international publishing. Every October, tens of thousands of publishers from all over the world scurried like so many ants among the warehouse-like halls of the fair's bleak campus on the edge of the city center, rushing to appointments with their counterparts.

But books weren't sold at the modern-day Frankfurt. Authors were—by the pound and sometimes by the gross. What the publishers did at Frankfurt was hump the right to sell their writers' work in other territories and languages, often pocketing a substantial portion of the earnings for themselves (the ever-paternalistic French were among the most egregious, raking off 50 percent of the take). The days before agents woke up to the potential of international deals were a wild and woolly era, though the seigneurial rituals of fair commerce were punctiliously observed by the players. Rights directors were the most visible players under the Frankfurt bell jar, and the acknowledged queen of them all was Cora Blamesly, Farrar, Straus and Giroux's mace-wielding Iron Maiden, who hailed from the arbor-draped hills of Carinthia and was a past master at brandishing her picked-up Sloane Ranger accent, with its ineradicable Germanic undertone, and her S/M selling techniques to extract outrageous contracts from her desperate European "friends."

Cora and her ilk would hold back important manuscripts for sale at the fair and then "slip" them with elaborate fanfare to favored editors in various territories, demanding that they be read overnight and soliciting preemptive offers, often inflated by the expectations and tensions of Frankfurt's carnival atmosphere.

The Europeans were desperate because the postwar cultural economy had dictated that Italian and German, Japanese and Brazilian, and sometimes even French readers needed and wanted to read American books. Not just the big commercial authors, either, the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels, but the Serious Literary Writers, too. First there'd been the anxiety-ridden, attitude-infused Jewish American novelists; followed by the less interesting, more self-regarding WASPs, the Updikes and Styrons and Foxxes; and the nondescript newbies, the young Turks full of sass and plausibility that Cora and her counterparts whipped up into supernovas for the four days of the fair, sometimes for book after book, year after year. European publishing nabobs like Jorge Vilas (Spain), Norberto Beltraffio (Italy), Mattias Schoenborn (Germany), and the biggest overspender of them all, Danny van Gennep, from Utrecht, had been playing this way for years, and were on the hook to Cora for literal millions. When Roger Straus or Lucy Morello brought a new author to Frankfurt, they all jumped, as they did for Rob Routman, the head-turning editor-in-chief of Owl House—sometimes, it was rumored, without reading all that much (or, let's be honest, any) of the manuscript—because often, or often enough anyway, the books "worked," i.e., sold copies back home. Many publishers played "Ready, Fire, Aim" buying foreign books, acquiring titles that sounded hot but often, when the commissioned translations materialized months later, would have them shaking their heads, wondering how such a dog could have appeared so leonine in the half-light of the smoke-infested Hessischer Hof bar, still packed at 2 AM with drunken, libidinous editors and rights people splayed across one another on the sagging couches.

The serial drink dates and langweilisch alcoholic dinners with self-congratulatory speeches by the hosting German publishers, followed by more drinks on into the night (same-time-next-year cohabitation was not unheard of, either), contributed to Frankfurt's nonstop bonhomie and its open-walleted frenzy. As one grand old man of Danish publishing had told Homer, "We come to Frankfurt every year to see if we're still alive." Some, alas, were not. The worst were former bigwigs who had the bad taste to reappear, wandering the cavernous halls, buttonholing former colleagues between nonexistent appointments. They were ghosts, revenants, and everyone knew it—including them, perhaps.

Frankfurt was anything but social; it was carnivorousness at its most rapacious, with a genteel European veneer. The dressy clothes, the parties, the cigars, the jacked-up prices in the hotels and restaurants, the disappointing food were all of a piece. It was exhausting and repetitive and depressing—and no one in publishing with any sense or style would have missed it for the world.

Homer was made for Frankfurt. Nowhere was he more relaxed, more full of avuncular wisdom and wisecracking anecdotes. He had refused to come to postwar Germany for years, but had been won over by Brigitta Bohlenball, the vivacious widow of Friedrich Bohlenball, who had almost instantaneously, thanks to a series of shrewd buys, used his Swiss milk fortune and Communist politics (a Swiss Communist: a rara avis indeed!) to become one of Europe's most stylish publishers. Friedrich had introduced a number of weighty novelists and philosophers before committing suicide at the age of 40, leaving Brigitta and young Friedchen with several hundred million Swiss francs, a villa near Lugano, and a Schloss in the Engadine, not to mention Zurich's swankiest publishing house.

"Come, Homer. You'll have such a good time, I promise you," Brigitta cooed over lunch at La Caravelle, and she'd made good on her vow, introducing her new American catch to the greatest, which is to say the most snobbish, editors in Europe.

If a snobbish publisher seems like an oxymoron today, it's only an indication of how the notion of class has degraded in the postwar era. The aristocrats of European publishing, the Gallimards, Einaudis, and Rowohlts, were good old bourgeois who had gotten through the war more or less intact, though sometimes with not-unblemished political affiliations in their back pockets, as was true for numberless European businessmen. They weren't very different, mutatis mutandis, from Homer, which is no doubt why he came to feel so at home among them. And he did feel gloriously, chest-thumpingly himself in those smoky, cold fair halls and smoky, overheated hotel bars and restaurants. Membership in Brigitta's club had long since stilled his qualms about the Krauts, as he still called them, and the saturnalia of Frankfurt had become the high point of Homer's and Sally's publishing year.

They appeared as a couple, and indeed many of Homer's foreign colleagues, some of whom enjoyed not-dissimilar domestic arrangements, thought they were married. Paul remembered a dinner at Homer's town house soon after he'd joined the company with a number of P & S's better-known foreign authors, including Piergiorgio Ponchielli and his wife, Anita Moreno, and Marianne O'Loane. Nor­berto Beltraffio, one of Homer's most exuberant European colleagues, sailed into the drawing room while Homer was seeing to the wine and, throwing his arms wide, asked the assembled crowd, "Where's Sally?" Luckily, Iphigene was also out of the room.

As a rule, Homer and Sally spent a long weekend at a spa on Lake Constance, resting up for the ardors of the fair, and afterward flew on to London or Paris to recover in style for a week or two. They were gone for a month's vacation, as some back in New York had it, and on the company dime.

Over the years, he'd come to be seen by many as the dean of Frankfurt's gang of literary publishers, "the King of the fair," as Brigitta had crowned him. His engagement in its rites, his small dinner at the fair's end every year, for which some leading European publishers stayed late, his charm and mode of dress, which fit right in here and didn't feel extravagant or slightly garish as it could in New York, even his contraband Cuban cigars—all added to Homer's stat­ure in the halls and watering holes of Frankfurt. The Spar­tan P & S booth, which echoed his no-frills offices in New York, was tacked onto a large international distributor's stand and overflowed with visitors from all over Europe, Latin America, and Asia, come to kiss the gold seal ring on Homer's well-veined hand.

There were other Frankfurts going on simultaneously that Homer and Sally and Paul, who had been attending with them for the past few years, had nothing to do with. The Big (i.e., irrelevant commercial) Publishers, the Ran­dom Houses and HarperCollinses and Simon & Schusters and Hachettes, wheeled and dealt multimillion-dollar con­tracts among themselves, though increasingly the agents were holding on to their authors' foreign rights, stalking the halls and booths like hyenas, or even, egregiously, like the upstart McTaggart, setting up their own stands with spiffy little tables and printed catalogs several inches thick handed out by demure young people, aping the publishers themselves (the nerve!). And then there was the religious publishers' Frankfurt; the techies' and scientists' Frank­furt; the illustrated-book publishers' Frankfurt; the uni­versity-press publishers' Frankfurt; the developing-world publishers' Frankfurt. Not to mention the hosting German publishers' Frankfurt, which was not just for one-on-one publisher-to-publisher deal making, but for the authors, the critics and journalists—believe it or not, books and writers were still news in Germany—and, after the first couple of days, the public, too. They gawked and dawdled like the tourists they were, till the aisles were virtually impassable.

All these fairs, and others, too, were going on at the same time in the same cavernous spaces, which were like the big­gest big-box stores ever built, their denizens streaming into the fairgrounds, riding half-mile-long mobile walk­ways, hitching rides on commuter trains from the beautiful old central railway station so evocative for Paul of prewar Europe, drinking late into the night in the dangerously crowded lobbies of the hotels, hungover and sleepless and hoarse by day, complaining and fibbing and wheedling and smoking and drinking, gorging and lying and drinking and fucking by night, and having the time of their lives.

To the literary publishers, however, Frankfurt was theirs and theirs alone. They set the tone; they published the Auth­ors Who Mattered—and who sometimes unwisely showed up for receptions and speeches, though those with any self-awareness soon realized they were irrelevant encumbrances to the business at hand. The literary publishers were the Lords of Culture, the master parasites sitting on top of this swarming dunghill. Their sense of their own importance showed when they walked the halls, rolling from side to side as if they were on board an ocean liner—which in a sense they were, without knowing it: a slow-moving ship-of-fools behemoth, heading willy-nilly for the great big digi­tal iceberg. They convened in gemütlich private receptions to which the riffraff were not invited (exclusive invitations were a ritual of the fair, sent out months in advance and occasionally even coveted). They eyed one another sharply but unobtrusively as they fibbed about their latest finds, which might conceivably be but most of the time emphati­cally were not the Major Contributions to World Litera­ture they aimed to pass them off as. The pros among these gentlemanly thieves understood one another perfectly: where amity ended and commerce held sway; where commerce took a backseat and long loyalty asserted its claims. Homer was widely generous with his information, be it good or bad, and he was a past master at spreading the rumors that were the lifeblood of Frankfurt: that McTaggart was mov­ing Hummock from Gallimard to Actes Sud; that Hum­mock had dumped McTaggart for the Nympho; that the Nympho was selling her agency to William Morris lock, stock, and barrel.

Homer would make special deals to keep certain authors within the inner circle—the cénacle, or cartel, some might call it—of independent houses that was informally run by him and his partners in crime. It was old-fashioned horse trading, sure, but it often proved salutary for the authors, for over time, if they truly had the stuff (and some of them did; if not, the whole house of cards would have collapsed long ago), their international stature would gradually mature, and their readership would inevitably spread like their pub­lishers' waistlines.

Quite a few of Homer's authors—more than from any other American house except FSG, a constant thorn in his side—had ended up with the Big One, the Giant Kahuna, the platinum standard in World Literature, the highest of stakes, for which he was always playing: the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded by the hypersecretive Swedish Acad­emy. In the United States, the Nobel didn't quite have the commercial heft it did elsewhere, but its prestige was still unparalleled. In recent years Homer had taken to raking in Nobels the way some collect watches. Seven of the last 12 literature prizes had gone to P & S authors, to the disgruntlement of many. Homer had been heard to boast that he was on familiar terms with the king of Sweden, whose major duty seemed to be handing out the Nobel medals.

The prize was traditionally announced on the Thursday of the fair at 1 PM, during the frenetic lunch hour. The big cheeses were far too suave to stand around waiting for the announcement; nevertheless, their underlings knew how to reach them at the all-important moment. This year, for the first time in decades, Homer hadn't come to Frank­furt; he was having a hip replacement that couldn't be post­poned, and Sally had stayed home to help nurse him. So Paul was there on his own to carry the flag, gingerly tread­ing in his boss's oversize footsteps through the set-in-stone routine of meetings and receptions, trying not to appear like the underdressed hick he felt he must be taken for by Homer's cliquish crowd.

In 2010, as had been the case for the past few years, Ida Perkins was rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel. How accurate such speculation was, was anybody's guess. The putatively short-listed candidates—nobody knew whether there actually was a short list—often failed to emerge as winners; and if a writer was mentioned year after year, she or he could become stale goods, even less likely to garner the ultimate accolade than the dark horses—though stale goods could miraculously become fresh-baked overnight and end up winning, as had happened more than once. This year Ida, who at 84 had entered Now or Never territory, was again being actively discussed as a potential winner: it was time for an American, a woman, a poet: why not all three in one?

"Now you must tell me, Paul," whined Maria Mariasdot­tir, who'd cornered him one evening in the Frankfurter Hof bar, a suite of spacious rooms furnished with lots of, but never enough, sofas and chairs on the ground floor of Hit­ler's favorite hotel, though it was larger and dowdier than the more exclusive Hessischer Hof, across town. At night the Frankfurter Hof became an even sweatier, smokier mosh pit than the Hessischer Hof, so packed with literary flesh peddlers you could barely move. Paul thought of it as the third circle of Hell.

"Who," Maria kept asking, "is this Ida Perkins?"

Maria was a hardworking, sloe-eyed, shapely young publisher from Reykjavík who often appealed to her fellow publishers in other territories for tips since she couldn't afford the staff to read most of the books submitted to her.

"Ida Perkins is to American poetry as Proust is to the French novel. Seriously." Paul recoiled internally hearing himself talking Frankfurt-speak, a repulsive commercial shorthand he loathed yet had developed a disgusting facil­ity with—even when it came to Ida; though she wasn't "his" author, he felt compelled to spread the word about her at every opportunity. It was nearing midnight, long past his normal witching hour, but the crowd was just beginning to thicken, like a rancid sauce. He knew he'd had far too much to drink and needed to get back to his two-star hotel in the red-light district near the Hauptbahnhof.

"Yes, but is she really good? I mean really, really, really good? I need to know."

"Yes, Maria, Ida is really, really, really good—absolutely the top. I'm telling you it's true—and we don't even publish her, alas."

"Are you sure, because translating her will be so difficult, so expensive..."

"Maria, I don't know your market. All I know is that Ida Perkins is the American poet of our time. And her work is going to last. Ask Mattias Schoenborn if you don't believe me. He's bringing out her Collected next year. Ask Beltraf­fio. Ask Jean-Marie Groddeck. They're all convinced." The fact that certain prestigious publishers had an author on their lists often carried irrational weight with their foreign colleagues.

"Yes, but is she really, really good?"

"Really, really, really good, Maria. Really." He hoped he wasn't slurring his words, but feared he just might be.

"I'm doubtful," she said.

Paul threw up his hands and planted a smooch on the nonplussed Maria's forehead (most Europeans were deft practitioners of the air kiss, where lips never touched skin, but Americans often failed to carry it off). At least Maria really, really wanted to know whether Ida was worth translating. The truth was, what was hot in New York was often dead on arrival in Reykjavík, and vice versa—that was the ter­rible truth, and maybe the saving grace, of international publishing. Paul sometimes had reason to wish there were a Frankfurt morning-after pill; but a deal was a deal, even one shaken on when one of the parties—or, better, both—was two or three sheets to the wind.

So Paul was feeling cautious when he sat down in Homer's stead at Mattias Schoenborn's table in the German hall the next morning for their annual discussion—lecture might have been a better word—about Mattias's prizewinning, best-selling Mitteleuropean authors. If Homer had been there, he and Mattias, who were mad about each other, would have spent their half hour telling off-color jokes and denigrating their closest collaborators, as happy as pigs in shit, but Paul knew he would have to settle for an actual business meeting. Experience told him that few or none of the writers Mattias would be pitching were likely to make an impact in America, just as he knew in his heart of hearts that Mattias, who was one of the shrewdest showboats among the international publishers, much admired for his ebullience and his nonstop promoting of his writers—a kind of latter-day European version of Homer—had no deep interest in the authors Homer and Paul published. Sure, Mattias would grumble about the fact that Eric Nielsen, now an enormous international presence, was published by Friedchen Bohlenball, though Mattias hadn't shown the slightest interest when Paul had buttonholed him excitedly about his discovery years ago. The truth was, Mattias didn't care about what Paul was doing any more than Paul cared about Mattias's Russian and Iranian émigrés eking out an existence as cabbies in Berlin. Still, they sat and talked ani­matedly every year—"He lies to me and I lie to him," as Homer put it—and went to each other's parties and were the best of Frankfurt pals, listening all the while for signs in each other's cascading verbiage of that rarest of things, the world-class author who could make a difference for both of them. How to listen, Paul had come to feel, was the real test of Homer's publishing "truffle hound." Many, unfortu­nately, listened only to themselves.

Still, over the years, Mattias and Homer and now Paul had shared certain core writers who had had an interna­tional impact, among them Homer's Three Aces. And Mat­tias, a respected avant-garde writer himself (Homer had published several of his dark, abstruse short novels before giving up the ghost), was Ida's German publisher, too, and he was well aware of Paul's passion for her and her work. Being the canny insider he was, Mattias often seemed to have privileged information about deliberations in Stock­holm, and this year was no exception.

"It's possible," he told Paul. "There are other currents afoot, but it's possible."

Paul didn't know what to make of these gnomic tea leaves. All he could do was what everyone else was doing: wait.

He was at the booth at one o'clock, but the silence was deafening. After an excruciating wait, word went around that Hendrijk David of the Netherlands had squeaked out enough votes to take the prize. It was said he'd been expect­ing it for years, sitting complacently by the phone on the appointed morning each October.

The rumor, though, turned out to be erroneous. Dries van Meegeren, another, far more obscure Dutch essayist, had won, setting off an unseemly free-for-all for the acqui­sition of his largely still-available rights. Publishers from nearly everywhere, who before today had never heard of van Meegeren, swarmed the normally empty Dutch hall, anxious to buy themselves a Nobel Prize winner. The booth of De Bezige Bij, the Busy Bee, van Meegeren's lucky publisher, resembled a rebooking desk in an airline terminal after a canceled flight. (David, meanwhile, never recovered, dying in bitter disappointment a couple of years later.)

In any case, the prize hadn't gone to Ida. Paul consoled himself with the fact that her not having won meant she still could.

He phoned Homer once the office was open in New York.

"Can you believe Dries won?" he cackled, giddy with dis­belief. Van Meegeren had been campaigning for the Nobel for ages, going on reading tours across Scandinavia, writing articles about the work of Swedish Academy members, even taking up with a Swedish woman reputed to be on a first-name basis with the academy's secretary.

"That gonif has been kissing Swedish ass for years," Homer answered. "I was hoping for Les or Adam. I need my Four of a Kind, you know."

"It will happen, Homer. All in good time. Everyone here sends love." Paul relayed greetings from a passel of Hom­er's long-standing confreres.

"Keep your nose clean and have fun. I'll see you Monday."

"Not Monday. Remember, I'm going to visit Ida Perkins in Venice after the fair."

"Right." Paul could hear Homer clearing his throat across the ocean. "Well, give her a slap on the ass for me, and tell her our arms are always open. Keep me posted!"

"Will do—at least the second and third parts," Paul answered, and rang off. The fair had another two days to run, but he could hardly wait for it to be over. He sleep­walked through his appointments and forced himself to put in an appearance at a few receptions, trying to mus­ter the enthusiasm to host the firm's Friday-night dinner in Homer's stead. He couldn't help feeling that, like him, Homer's pals would be on autopilot without their Fearless Leader to mirror back their well-rehearsed performances as cultural grandees—marshals of France, someone called them. Self-importance was ubiquitous, Paul knew, but there was a particular smarmy pungency to the horse trading in Frankfurt that he found revolting, especially when he was engaging in it. It was a far cry from the poetry of Ida Per­kins or the novels of Ted Jonas, sweated out in anguish and solitude. The idea of Ida or Eric Nielsen or Pepita here among these overdressed, overfed word merchants who acted as if they owned their writers' hides made him faintly ill.

On Friday evening he stood in his off-the-rack suit at a long table in an otherwise deserted hotel restaurant as Homer's crowd—Brigitta, Norberto, Mattias, Beatriz, Jorge and Lalli, Héloise, Gianni, Teresa—sat expectantly, waiting, he was sure, for him to commit an unforced error. He made a stab at imitating Homer's offhand delivery of one of his risqué toasts, but Paul's own attempts at pub­lic humor usually came off a little forced. All seemed to be going along all right, though, until he made the mistake of mentioning e-books:

"Why, before you know it, you'll be enjoying Padraic and Thor and Pepita and Dmitry on your own devices, just like us!" he exclaimed with ersatz jollity, given that he'd never opened an e-reader himself.

It was as if he'd farted at the table or mentioned the Holocaust. Brigitta and Mattias stared at each other bug-eyed and sucked in their cheeks, like specters out of Goya's Disasters of War, imagining the digital horde advancing from the West like the latest strain of American influenza. Thank God they would be too old to care when it reached their shores.

Paul shrank down in his seat. What would Homer and Sally say when word reached them, as it assuredly would, that he'd demonstrated once and for all how unsuited he was for this well-padded, backward-looking world?

He couldn't wait to breathe the fetid air of his beloved Venice, where he often escaped after the mind-numbing hothouse of the fair. He washed down the rest of his veal chop with too much syrupy Rotwein, ushered his last guests out of the funereal restaurant, and caught the midnight train with minutes to spare. He arrived in Venice early the next morning, sleepless but jangly with excitement.