“Friends and Colleagues Remember the Late Writer and Legendary Publisher Robert Calasso”

From a story on lithub.com headlined “A Tribute to Robert Calasso: Friends and Colleagues Remember the Late Writer and Legendary Publisher”:

By Jamie Byng, Publisher of Canongate Books

Roberto Calasso was always a mythical figure to me, even after I met him and we became friends.

I’m pretty certain it was at a Frankfurt Book Fair in the late nineties and I’m pretty certain it was Morgan Entrekin who introduced us. I knew of Roberto prior to this because of his writing and specifically The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, his magnificent book on Greek mythology. What I hadn’t appreciated when we first met was what a brilliant, inspirational, careful, caring and completely uncompromising publisher he was.

The publishing house he was inextricably linked to was Adelphi which he joined aged nineteen and never left. He didn’t need to because he helped make Adelphi one of the most admired and successful independent publishing houses in the world.

I found Roberto intimidating when we first met. Part of me always did because intellectually he was orbiting me at such a distance. And even being called a publisher made me feel like an imposter of sorts when compared to Roberto—for Roberto was the real deal, a publisher who was fluent in half a dozen languages, whose knowledge extended into so many areas it made me dizzy, whose appreciation of art, film, politics and culture was so refined, whose understanding of publishing was so subtle and nuanced.

But his erudition rarely shrouded his impish and maverick qualities, his mischievous sense of humour, his insatiable curiosity, his openness to new ideas.  He was great company because he could discourse on such a wide range of subjects and he was refreshingly down to earth considering how high-minded he could have been. And he was a true Epicurean.

One of my favourite Calasso stories, one I remember him telling me with great glee and gusto, is how he came to publish Sandor Marai, the Hungarian writer whose novel Embers became a global sensation twenty or so years ago and almost sixty years after it was first published. Roberto was in Paris, browsing in a second-hand bookshop when he came across a French translation of Embers  from the 1950s. He didn’t know the novel but he thought it looked very interesting so he bought and read it.  And he liked it so much that he contacted a Hungarian friend and asked him to read the novel in its original language as he wanted to get it translated into Italian. It was only when his friend alerted him to the fact that this French translation had taken terrible liberties with the original that Roberto realised the novel was even better than he had initially thought. So he acquired world rights in the novel, made the book a huge bestseller in Italy and proceeded to license it all around the world and it became a global bestseller as did a number of Marai’s other books which Roberto went on to publish.

In his own subsequent book, The Art of the Publisher, Roberto shares many of his insights and thoughts on the complex business and art that is making books, and since his death I have been rereading this seminal book and I have been hearing his unmistakable voice and it has been making me sad because I am never going to be in his presence again and I am never going to see his animated face and bright eyes or hear his wicked laugh. But I will never forget Roberto as long as I live because he made a huge mark on me, both as a reader and as a publisher. And I think he was one of the greatest publishers ever and I feel so lucky to have come into his orbit all the times that I did.

Thank you Roberto for brightening my world. And guiding me in ways that I only partially understand.

Also see the July 31 New York Times obit by Alexandra Alter headlined “Robert Calasso: A rare figure in the literary world—an erudite writer and a savvy publisher”

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