Jonathan Galassi’s new novel, Muse, is built around a charming, if unlikely, premise: that an important American poet could become as famous as a pop star or a screen siren or an athlete. His heroine, Ida Perkins, created a sensation at age eighteen as a Bryn Mawr undergraduate with her first book of poems, Virgin Again (1949), and to the end of her days not only was admired by a coterie of editors, professors, bookstore clerks, and fellow writers but also appeared on Charlie Rose and Dick Cavett, modeled for a Blackglama ad (“What becomes a legend most?”), visited Eldridge Cleaver in Watts, dined with Babe Paley and Truman Capote at La Côte Basque, had her picture taken between “sunburned, shirtless Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell” in Maine by Elizabeth Hardwick, and had a highway named after her.
After her death, its anniversary, which was also her birthday, was made a national holiday by President Obama, who invited her circle to the White House to hear her poems read by Oprah Winfrey. Thanks to Ida, Galassi writes, poetry “found itself at the heart of American culture and society”; Ida “made poetry fans out of ordinary women and men.”
Here we are in the midst of fantasy, but a fantasy not far, as Galassi’s novel eloquently illustrates, from the one inhabited by people in the literature business. The main character of Muse is a self-effacing, nearly shlumpy editor named Paul Dukach who has fulfilled a dream harbored since his youth shelving books in a small-town bookstore to be an editor at the distinguished literary house of Purcell & Stern. He conceived this dream around the time he discovered the enthralling work of Ida Perkins, who is published by P&S’s scrappier yet, in some senses, more exalted rival, Impetus Press. The central place that Ida’s work occupies in his heart echoes his boss’s yearning to secure her as the most sought-after prize for his writerly stable. A world in which Ida Perkins appears on Dick Cavett might be remote to the average American, but it is not incommensurate with her status for editors at P&S and Impetus.
Galassi is well situated to document the manners of this particular subculture. He joined Farrar, Straus and Giroux (where the present reviewer was once employed and remains somewhat entangled) as the protégé of its founder, Roger Straus Jr., in 1986 and has run it himself since Straus’s death in 2004. Straus was a larger-than-life figure and reappears in Muse as Homer Stern, P&S’s founder and archimagos.1
Galassi renders the internal milieu of the old FSG with tender exactitude. Many of its minor characters are immediately recognizable. Roger Straus in particular is observed in all his magnificent plumage: profane, hilarious, high-minded, spontaneous, petty, formidable. Of Ida Perkins’s publisher, Sterling Wainwright, he moans, “God, I wish he’d roll over so I could put my hand on Ida Perkins’s thigh”; of an imperious agent and a bit of a gossip, he says, “When Nympho finds out, she’ll have a vaginal collapse.”
But Paul, whose quiet and unsuccessful pursuit of happiness with other men seems to have gone unnoticed by his mentor (“‘Davidoff is a faggot,’ he’d assert, more or less out of thin air”), never loses his sympathetic regard for his boss. Of Stern’s aggressive sexualizing Paul observes astutely, “Sexual activity for Homer was an index of moral fallibility and vitality at one and the same time.” More than the biographers and journalists, Galassi registers the extent to which such “colorful” behavior can be cruel and destructive at close range, even as it powers a certain mythological potency.
As the unfolding drama of Muse makes clear, the fate of these publishing houses is of more than local interest. Homer and his counterpart and rival, Sterling Wainwright, were among the last and most important independent publishers of an era in which large personalities, dedicated to books and writers, shaped what was published and read in America. Muse chronicles the passing of that era into one in which popularity and commercial success threaten to be predicted by algorithm.
Paul Dukach, in his love for reading and his ardor for the art of publishing, finds himself drawn to Homer’s competitor, the elegant and cerebral Sterling Wainwright. Wainwright is plainly based on New Directions’ James Laughlin, of whom Galassi was a close friend and FSG recently published a capacious biography.2 Wainwright is the publisher and cousin and sometime lover of Ida Perkins, but also, as the founder of Impetus Press, the source of several waves of the European and American avant-garde writing that have had their effect on American letters. Describing a shelf in Wainwright’s barn, Paul exults: “Everyone from Tagore to Blaisdell, early Luteri to late Broch, Robert Duncan to Dermot Weems to César Vallejo to Pélieu to Serenghetti—it was a checkerboard of world literature, mind-boggling in its depth and adventurousness and originality.” (It is one of the pleasures of Muse to watch Galassi mix his fictional literati with the real ones. The fictional Bishop, Pound, and Sontag—and even Straus and Laughlin—bump up against their real-life counterparts. The novel’s next-to-last page refers to an imaginary posthumous compilation of Ida’s ephemera edited by Eliot Weinberger—a contributor to these pages—in 2021.)
Where Homer is Jewish, mercantile, pugnacious, Sterling is WASP, entitled, leisurely. Homer leaves the office only to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair (and rest up afterward in Paris and London); Sterling winters in his bespoke Wyoming ski resort and works, when he does, out of a rustic family compound upstate. Homer’s authors are paid little; Sterling’s less. Homer’s list has plenty of Nobel laureates, but Sterling’s has, over the years, consistently met the standards of a more selective avant-garde readership. It’s a fine distinction but very visible to them both.
Muse spends much time describing the two publishers before it starts to tell Paul’s story. Anyone with an interest in how literary publishing has conducted itself over the last several decades will read these passages with fascination. There are moments of rare candor about the editorial mind. Galassi writes of one of P&S’s prize writers, for example:
What [she] really loved was sitting at the long table in Paul’s office and going over her manuscript with him, word by word. She radiated joy at his undivided but critical attention, and Paul himself never felt more wanted or appreciated than during their chaste love fests. The fact that she could walk past him in the square the next day without recognizing him hardly mattered.
Or, “Paul had learned over time that most publishers were haunted by the Ones That Got Away—usually thanks to their own blindness or chintziness or lack of nerve. They seemed to matter more than the ones they’d managed to snare.” Galassi describes the shark-like machinations of editors and publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair: “The pros among these gentlemanly thieves understood each other perfectly: where amity ended and commerce held sway; where commerce took a backseat and long loyalty asserted its claims.” He praises the hardy members of the house sales force:
Old-timers who at heart were as devoted to good books as anyone in the office, if not more so, but who had to make a buck, as did Homer and Co.—though the editors often seemed unaware that this was a fundamental aspect of their work.
Among the deepest themes of this book are the entanglements of love, judgment, business, art, narcissism, craft, and power in which this dying ecosystem was once suspended.
Although the staff and internal structure and ecology of the publishing house are rendered with great precision, the writers themselves, the center of the whole operation, are deliberately smudged. The troika that Galassi refers to as the Three Aces, Homer’s three Nobel laureate poets, in real life the Russian Joseph Brodsky, the Irish Seamus Heaney, and the St. Lucian Derek Walcott, become the Georgian Dmitry Chavchavadze, the South African St. John Vezey, and the loosely Caribbean Granada Brooks. Another FSG troika, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth, appear as the “leading Jewish American novelists of the late sixties, Abe Burack, Byron Hummock, and Jonathan Targoff.” Reigning above these figures is Pepita Erskine, Galassi’s version of Susan Sontag, who has been recast as a “taboo-smashing fire-brand African American critic and novelist.”
The Jewish writers don’t get much attention; the Three Aces largely appear as clichés, perhaps because their presence as poets would interfere with the primacy of Ida Perkins; but the Pepita Erskine character has her own presence. Like Sontag, she rose from obscurity, began as a scourge of authority, and became a spokeswoman for a provocative version of high culture. Galassi writes:
It was Pepita’s voice—insolent, belabored with Germanic Seriousness, lightened and enlivened by a dash of jive, and insistent on its own unimpeachability—that had become the hallmark of the P&S style. At a critical point in its history, Pepita’s intellectual reach and tropism for controversy had lent the house an aura of urgent cultural significance that it had never lost.
And he goes on to describe Pepita’s quasi-sexual, but nevertheless finally “transactional” relationship with Homer.
Another smudge in the story involves timing. The two Troikas—the three Jewish patriarchs and the three international Nobel laureate poets—and the primacy of Sontag were phenomena of the 1980s and early 1990s, well before the ascent of Amazon and e-books and social networking, but roughly synchronous with Galassi’s arrival at FSG and youth as an editor. By 1999, half of them had died. But the main events of the novel unfold between 2006 and 2011. Muse occupies a somewhat hypothetical space in which the strong intellectual presences of the pre-Internet world are still with us, but digitization and its consequences are already being felt. The intellectual circles around Ida likewise reach back through the century: her contemporary friends and rivals and lovers—most notably her Poundesque lover, A.O.—often have as prototypes writers a generation or two older. Her social and intellectual world is, as Galassi puts it, “modern in the old-fashioned sense”; it has patina.
Homer has been trying to secure Ida as a writer for years, and Paul has been subject to a powerful semierotic, semimaternal attraction to her and her work for most of his life. The opportunity arrives for both of them as a friendship develops between Paul and Ida’s publisher, Sterling Wainwright, notwithstanding their professional rivalry. First Sterling, noting Paul’s impressive command of Ida’s work, invites him to try to decipher the enigmatic last notebooks of A.O. This leads Paul to Venice, where Ida has managed, in spite of her great fame, to live in seclusion for several decades.
Paul finds the now eighty-year-old Ida, though frail and subdued, every bit the galvanizing presence he had always expected, and she responds to his rapt and respectful attention by confiding in him and, in the end, surprising him with the gift of her last manuscript, with instructions to publish it after her death. With this she dismisses him and, a few weeks later, dies, leaving Paul with a quandary. He has of course rushed back to his hotel to read the book, which he finds not only a breakthrough work of contemporary verse but an explosive coda to a legendary life. In it she divulges that she has had a decades-long affair with the late wife of none other than Sterling Wainwright. Handing such a book to the emissary of Sterling’s rival is thus a double betrayal, but Paul brings off its publication with the consummate editorial finesse we would expect of him, capping his own editorial career and that of his boss, and even helping out a few minor characters.
Getting the book, this particular book, is what has kept Galassi’s novel in motion—the writer everyone wants, who is beloved, who sells in the hundreds of thousands of copies, who shapes the literature as she moves hearts, who makes an art everyone fears is in decline sexy and irresistible and central, who achieves fame without courting it, who bestows on editors the feeling of acceptance and inclusion in the higher circles of art. As Paul worries late in the book over “content provision” and some of the more advanced digital forms, it is the departure of this person and her kind that he laments, the living breathing being who miraculously makes art—her own, inevitably specific, uniquely personal art—possible. Of the Jeff Bezos character he is hobnobbing with, he realizes that however many books he may have on his nightstand, “if he couldn’t get one kind of content he’d find something else.” It is a special gift to Paul that the book Ida left him has at its core her secret affirmation of love for a person of one’s own sex, in a world where they had both been bullied by heterosexual expectations.
In the end, though, the novel shares with Paul a central, aching absence. The actual act of literary creation itself, and literary experience, remain somehow offstage. Most of the writers depicted are comical, narcissistic oafs when they are visible at all, and rarely do we glimpse any creative work as it is “sweated out in anguish and solitude,” as Paul disconcertingly recalls it must be while moving about on the trading floor at Frankfurt. The novel is even a little unsure how to describe it. The words “talent” and “gift” appear a lot. Work “makes a difference” or “has an…impact.”
But what new vistas of human experience or understanding the artist might be reaching for, or how that might be done, or what might be the human costs of the effort, is not really within this novel’s purview. Only Ida seems to carry this understanding as a kind of cloaked secret, in her reluctance to write letters or expose herself or feed the machine of her fame. When she finally confides in Paul in Venice, she tells him about her lovers, not her work of creation, her life as a poet; that central reality remains shielded within her.
Galassi courageously offers up some of her work for our scrutiny, especially, in the end, large swaths of her triumphant final book. The enormous claims he makes for it might seem a poison pill—it is after all part of the point that we precisely do not live in a society that produces major poets who are also enormous popular successes; the author who proposes to write examples of such poetry sets himself a high bar. But the work he gives Ida doesn’t strain to impress; it is strikingly charming and direct. She writes in very short, clean lines, with informal occasional rhymes that echo the “modern in the old-fashioned sense” style of, say, Louis MacNeice, while also sounding very fresh and contemporary:
in the sun all afternoon
on the dock
till it was cold
And when I raised my head up
I was old
That Galassi gives us such direct and personal poetry as an example of what a popular, serious poet might sound like leads us back to the question, who is Ida? There is certainly no historical American poet her character might suggest. Ida also has some echoes of Sontag: the early fame, the notorious beauty, the independence, the embrace of sensuality in art while avoiding personal disclosure, even the posthumously revealed polyamorous attachments. But Galassi’s Ida is in other respects very much her own woman. Her art is inward-looking and meditative and not at all like the socially involved Sontag.
Galassi dedicates the book to her memory, suggesting perhaps some personal human prototype. But I suspect that Ida is less a specific person than the idea of what a writer meant to those who were committed to literary life, as Paul and Galassi are. Her first name contains a hypothetical (I would have), and Paul says at one point of the literary figures he admires, “What he valued most was their all-or-nothing faith in themselves—something he wished he had more of.” It’s not just the literary gift—it’s also the impulse to embrace and surrender to it that stirs Paul. It’s this magic knot of art and character that he fears may be loosening in today’s reading life, and that he yearns to hold tight; such longing for a vanishing métier and its muse forms the novel’s love story, and the love story of the world it affectionately eulogizes.
Readers interested in decoding the relevant personalities might consult Boris Kachka’s recent history, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Simon and Schuster, 2013), reviewed in these pages by another of the period’s titans, Random House’s Jason Epstein, September 26, 2013. ↩
Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); reviewed in these pages by Charles Simic, April 2, 2015. ↩