Barney Rosset Memorial by Jim Feast
Jim Feast Barney Rosset Memorial
There’s a well-known line from Julius Caesar about the dead at memorial services that goes, “The good is oft interred with their bones.” However, when I attended Barney Rosset’s memorial at Cooper Union on May 9, I thought of an apt reversal of this line, for “the evil that is done against them is oft interred with their bones” also. Why did I think that?
A number of publishing executives took the rostrum to lavish praise on the famed editor, yet, in the mid-1980s, when Rosset was financially insolvent, he sold Grove Press to a publishing combine with the understanding that he would remain as a senior editor. As Rosset, who I worked with for seven years, noted with chagrin, less than a year later, relying on a loophole in his contract, the new owners ignominiously fired him. This was such an outrage that Beckett, Japanese Nobelist Oe, and other writers from Grove, publically broke all ties, saying they would never publish with the company again.
Obviously, none of the publishing honchos who spoke had anything to do with this infamy, but they didn’t mention it either. To my mind, this reticence stems from the fact that, with the even greater prevalence in publishing today of a corporate, bottom line mindset, Rosset, the great maverick, if he appeared again, would be treated even more shabbily.
That said, let me acknowledge that there is a certain justice in not stirring up old hurts at a memorial, for such is a time to scan over the deceased’s triumphs and accomplishments. For Rosset, these were many. His bold championing of freedom of speech in defending authors such as Lawrence, Miller and Burroughs; his establishing and going to bat for unconventional authors such as Beckett, Duras, Ionesco, and Pinter; his deep friendships with some of these authors, including the great Irishman.
Among a night of speakers, three most felicitously conveyed of sense of both his achievements and of Barney Rosset, the man. One was his widow, Astrid, who in a few well-chosen words evoked the splendor of his achievement and the vivacity of his character.
However, if you wanted to hear someone who not only talked about but acted quite a bit like Rosset, you’d have to name Academy Award-winning cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler. Like Rosset, he was cantankerous, larger than life and a raconteur for the ages. Being allotted seven minutes, he went on with wit, verve and brilliance for 30 before he was reminded of the time.
He and Rosset knew each other since childhood, and Wexler regaled the audience with stories of how, for example, in Depression era Chicago, the two would go down to the hobo jungle and watch the tramps cook bananas on sticks.
Then he jumped ahead to the mid 1980s when he was making a film in Sandinista Nicaragua and Rosset had come down to watch. They went to see Allen Ginsberg reading and Haskell, who speaks Spanish, observed the amusing actions of the translator. Allen said, “I hate the American Moloch.” The translator said, “I hate the American Moloch.” Then Allen said, “I am gay.” And the translator said, “He is gay.”
In other words, like Rosset, Wexler was an amazing talker, associative, unrestrained, and enthralling.
Last of note was Barney’s daughter, Chantal, who said all of two sentences. She had planned more, I think, but couldn’t continue. She was so broke up, that she began crying and ran off the stage, memories of her father becoming too much for her. Her pretty tears ended the evening.
And it was an unforgettable one.
It occurred to me to wonder what I would have said if I were asked about Barney, and had been told to accentuate the positive. And I think I might have said the following. (Note, part of this next part appeared in Evergreen Review online.)
I consider Barney Rosset as my teacher and, as I see it, you can’t give anyone that name unless the teacher has caused you to alter your life in more ways than one.
Because of Barney I did two things. One, in 2010, I went to Kunming. God, he talked about that city for years. It’s where he’d been stationed as a combat photographer during World War II, and spent some of the most glorious days of his life, not discounting his years with Grove. And, as I can testify now confidently, Kuming is well worth the trip.
And, two, I learned how to review books. You see, after working with him for about three years, Barney asked me to do reviews for Evergreen. I said, “I’d be more than happy to, but I don’t know anything about reviewing.”
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll teach you.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” I asked.
“I’ll just tell you what I think of a book and you write it down.”
“OK,” I said. You think I’m exaggerating. Let me read you from a few of my reviews.
I started with paraphrasing. Here from Issue 123, June 2010. Barney had shown me a passage on Bukowski, who labeled himself “a literary outlaw.” Barney questioned Bukowski’s status, comparing writers such as Bukowski and others all of whom were “considered, at least by the mainstream, as literary bandits of one sort or another, to Genet. Genet spent years in prison, even in a Nazi one, jailed as a thief. When Rosset tried to get him a visa (so he could come to the U.S. and report on the ’68 Democratic Convention), his request was turned down. Genet was banned as a homosexual. The French author promptly smuggled himself across the Canadian border.” As Barney put it, “That’s an outlaw.”
By Issue 125, January 2011, I quoted directly. Reviewing Gilbert Sorrentino’s posthumous novel, I asked Barney to assess Sorrentino’s overall career. Remember, Sorrentino had worked at Grove which published Mulligan’s Stew, his most famous book. “Gil had real talent,” he said, “but he never quite … Theoretically, Gil had enormous talent, yet it never fully flowered.
“And here’s a curious thing. He was surrounded by people who acted as if -- and he had an aura as if -- it had flowered. You see, he presented himself as if he had delivered on that promise. Yet he never did. In his whole life, he never did.”
I commented, “You could say that about a lot of contemporary American literature.”
He returned, “That is contemporary American literature.”
That judgment may seem harsh, but not uncharacteristic, for, as he told me in an interview in December 2009, “I was never as close to the writers [as a group] as I was to the painters. …“The painters were very convivial. But also very poor,” at least till they moved to East Hampton. Rosset followed them to the Hamptons, buying a house, but, as he said in a most revealing and capping statement, “I myself was not a painter. I was an outsider.”