Dick Seaver - a publisher of intellect, courage and loyalty

Alessandra Bastagli
News - Publishing 12 Jan 2009

Richard W Seaver's accomplishments as publisher, editor, and translator are legendary. He edited and published literary giants such as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs; he translated the notorious Story of O and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Dick was only in his 20s when he first discovered Beckett in Paris, publishing an essay about him in a literary magazine he had co-founded called Merlin where he had been publishing works by Ionesco and Genet. Thus began a life-long friendship between the obscure Irish author who wrote in French and the young American expat living in Paris.

Barney Rosset, who hired Dick at Grove in the late 1950s, found in him a kindred spirit as they battled censorship side by side, waging and winning major First Amendment battles over books like Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. A recent documentary film, Obscene, about Barney and the early years at Grove, has so much of Dick in it that it feels like spending a pleasant evening with him, chatting about publishing in his Upper West Side apartment.
After leaving Grove in the early 1970s, Dick worked at Viking and Holt before founding Arcade Publishing in 1988 with his wife Jeannette. It's impossible to talk about Dick without talking about Jeannette. A talented concert violinist at a very young age, Jeannette Medina met, fell in love with and married Dick Seaver in Paris in the early 1950s. This love, too, is deservedly the stuff of legend. They were married for 55 years and always made it a point to dress for dinner - even if it was just the two of them after a long, hard day at work - to light the candles and sit down to one of Jeannette's famous meals, making clever and courteous conversation. A few days after Dick passed away, Jeannette said to me: 'He was more than half of me, he was two-thirds of me.' If asked, he would have said the same of her.
It was Jeannette who offered me my first job in publishing, after I had been interning at Arcade for only three weeks. She called me into her office, which felt rather like a warm, cozy living room in Provence, looked me in the eye and said: 'Are you sure you want to be an economist? [I had a spot waiting for me at the London School of Economics] Because we think you'd make a good editor.' Luckily, I already knew by that point that I couldn't be happy doing anything else. The first task Dick assigned to me was to complete the research and assembling of The Hitler Virus by their late friend, Peter Wyden. This was also my first lesson in publishing - loyalty to your authors. Peter's widow had sent Arcade boxes and boxes crammed full with notes and clippings, many of which were in German. It was a mammoth task. But the Seavers were determined to be true to their friend and publish the book, no matter what.
I had been working at Arcade for about a year when Dick asked me out of the blue to do a sample translation for a German novel, Der Boxer by Jurek Becker, author of Jacob the Liar. A few days later he called me into his office and promptly hired me to translate the entire book. I was 25 years old. Since this was a work-for-hire agreement, I would translate the novel nights and weekends, delivering the manuscript to Dick a chunk at a time. In the evenings, right at six, Dick would call me into the conference room at 141 Fifth Avenue, and we would sit, side by side at the big glass table, the manuscript in front of us. Under the watchful black-and-white portraits of Arcade authors like John Irving, Andrei Makine and Ismail Kadare, Dick would edit my translation in blue pencil. He would question each word choice, each sentence that came off as even slightly awkward. He taught me that a good translation must read as if the book had been originally written in English. In sum, he taught me how to translate. More than that: he taught me how to edit. This extraordinary man, publisher of genius, spent hours and hours on end, evening after evening, teaching a young Italian woman to be an editor and, as additional proof of his greatness, this seemed to him and to all of us at Arcade like the most natural, obvious way for him to be spending his time.
Everything about Dick Seaver was larger than life - his career, his taste, his intellect, his courage, his discovery and support of writers, even his marriage. He left us a legacy of classic books and of intellectually brave and honest publishing. Dick has also given to the publishing industry a legacy of editors, hired and mentored by him, who remain inspired by his passion for good books even - especially - if they present groundbreaking or controversial ideas, by his loyalty to his authors, by his encouragement and support of young talent, and by his friendship.
Alessandra Bastagli is Senior Editor at Palgrave Macmillan, a fellow of both the Frankfurt and Jerusalem Book Fairs, and translator, most recently, of short stories by Primo Levi published in A Tranquil Star.

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