Jonathan Galassi has translated the poems of Primo Levi from Italian for a new edition of his Complete Works, edited by Ann Goldstein. Galassi is President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), one of the most prestigious publishing companies in the United States. As well as being a translator and a publisher he is also a poet and a writer.
Why is Primo Levi’s work so widely read and successful in the United States?
One of the secrets of his success is that he writes like one of us; and also because Primo Levi was discovered in the US by Saul Bellow, who considered him a very important writer, and then supported and interviewed by Philip Roth.
You are a poet, but you recently wrote your first novel Muse, published by Alfred. A. Knopf. Why prose instead of poetry, as in the past?
I did it as a challenge. I have spent my whole life working with novelists as an editor, but I decided – in my sixties – to try to see what I could do, and I had great pleasure.
What is your novel about?
It is an elegy for a way of life in publishing that has disappeared, and about personalities who were larger than life in a way that we don’t really have today: gentlemen publishers, “grand bourgeois”, egoists who are following their own tastes and desires. They are the avatars of literature. There is of course an element of satire in the book, but it is loving satire. I was surprised and delighted that the Italian critics got the joke when the book was published in Italy by the publisher Guanda with the title La Musa.
You are a poet and the translator of the poetry of Eugenio Montale, Giacomo Leopardi and Primo Levi. Are you changing register?
I am still involved with translation, I am translating the later Montale, and there is poetry in my novel Muse because the protagonist is a fictional poet, the muse of all the other characters.
Are you writing another novel?
Yes, but it is not satirical. It is about another chapter in my life.
How has publishing changed in the United States since you started?
Publishing now is much more part of the mass communication system. It is more and more systematised, less the reflection of personal taste than it is a commercial enterprise. At the very beginning FSG published Italian writers like Carlo Levi and Alberto Moravia.
Would this still be possible now?
Yes, we continue the literary tradition that brought Farrar, Straus and Giroux distinction in its early days, but in a contemporary key.
What current trends are you aware of?
One of the major tendencies in European fiction today is a close relationship between memoir and fiction, non-fiction and fiction. Each seems to benefit from the other.
Is literature still appreciated today in the United States?
There is great writing everywhere in the world today, but I think that readers are more distracted than ever. What they need is solitude and quiet, and this is very difficult to find in our world. This means that writers are not always read in the way that they deserve to be.
Are you saying that books sell less nowadays?
Yes, they do sell less. Of course they also sell in different formats, for instance as ebooks.
Is it true that ebooks are not doing so well?
Ebooks have reached a plateau. The real issue is not the format, but time. Books are a quiet media and they are at a disadvantage, competing in the world of too much information.
How do you manage to be a publisher, a poet, a novelist and a translator all at once?
Badly (he laughs), but it’s all one thing. I am involved with words. I love working with writers and I have not lost my excitement about communicating their achievement. My own modest efforts at writing are a kind of reflection of that.
Shouldn’t a writer or a poet just write?
Writers need experience to draw on for their work, and I need the connection with others to feel I am fully engaged.
Is a publisher also a businessman?
Publishing is about joining a writer’s vision with reality. Publishing that is not practised with a profit motive lacks vigour and reality.
Do foreign books sell well in the US market?
Some writers like Elena Ferrante do very well, but it is a small selection, probably not representative of foreign cultures. It is a very hit and miss process, a process of chance. Cultural transmission, the taking of one culture into another culture, is often a very slow process, so what is happening today in Europe may not be recognised immediately here.
It took a long time to publish Giacomo Leopardi in English, and he is one of the most important Italian poets.
He has been translated before, many times, but a great writer needs to be translated in every generation because his language is fixed, but the translator’s language is more time bound.
Are short stories still a popular genre?
Some short story writers are much appreciated, but there are fewer places for them to be published, fewer journals and magazines.
Is it easier for poets?
The consumption of poetry has not changed much at all, because it was always non-commercial and the life of poetry has gone on pretty much like it always has.
Is America still very lively and creative?
America is very lively in a very widespread way. Young people have different media, like blogs, so I would say that America is a very split and lively culture, and that is hard for the kind of books we are talking about. It is hard to get centralised attention for anything. American culture is very alive, very contrasted. There is a lot of division in the country and this is reflected in our cultural practice to 360 degrees.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.
11 April, 2016
portrait: Elena Seibert