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Editing an Anthology

Then came his break. Random House was looking for an editor in tune with new developments in France, and it decided to entrust Auster with editing its anthology of 20th-century French poetry. Anthologies involve vast amounts of time-consuming correspondence. The editor must contact, get permission from, and approve payment to dozens of contributors. These interaction rituals would benefit Auster in numerous ways, as he selected what he considered the best of other writers’ work. He conferred distinction on them, but in accepting it they elevated his status. Auster seems to have realized that he could use this position to bootstrap himself up. His letters at the New York Public Library show him in patient dialogue with fussy translators, the widow of John Dos Passos, and the estates of T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.79 He used several translations from the poet Charles Simic, whom he had met. More important was W. S. Merwin, thirteen of whose translations he used. Auster could have lightened the paperwork load by using more of his own work, but only 38 of the 328 translations are his own—mostly those of Jacques Dupin, Alain Delahaye, and Philippe Denis. He used three translations by Davis, although they had parted. He used some by Gavronsky, but not many other people from his old circle. He went for better-known writers, with whom the interaction might bear fruit: W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, and Samuel Beckett. Even on Yves Bonnefoy, he deferred to others. Even for Jabes, Rene Char, Ponge, and his beloved Tristan Tzara, he chose translations that placed him in contact with writers whose opinions mattered. This gatekeeping for others was astute and would soon have a major payoff.

The back and forth of obtaining permissions involves civilities and acknowledgments of each other’s work. Auster in his letters is deferential and clearly knows his correspondents’ work. We can imagine that some authors had to look up Auster’s publications and read them, before acknowledging him as a worthy editor. He became, at the moment when French literary theory ascended the throne, the foremost American arbiter of contemporary French poetry. Recognition at this moment was important to the translators too, and he was in a position to give it. Hopefully they would reciprocate. Then there was the introduction, which was most of the things that Auster had railed against in TriQuarterly; it was historical, it found the trend-lines (locating them in Dada, surrealism, Tel Quel, Ponge, Dupin, and Jabes), and lobbied openly for “a poetry of the object that is at the same time a method of contemplation. ... The primary act of the poet, therefore, becomes the act of seeing, as if no one had ever seen the object before.”80

The literary quality of the collection was uniformly praised. The first review, by academic translator Marilyn Gaddis Rose in the October 1982 issue of Library Journal, called it “the best bilingual anthology of post-Baudelairean French poetry to date.” She praised Auster’s “felicitous translations” and (without irony) “historically oriented introduction.”81 Paul Schmidt in Nation said the book was “excellent” and praised Auster for recovering Segalen, Artaud, and Jabes, but he wondered at the “absence of Cocteau and Genet” and he pointed out the near total absence of women (perhaps Davis’ presence was missed).82 The New York Times did not review the volume until January 23, 1983, but it assigned Peter Brooks, who was laudatory: “The overwhelming impression left by Mr. Auster’s anthology is of riches prodigally offered ... To my knowledge, no current anthology is as full and as deftly edited. One wants to call this an indispensable work.”83

 
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