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B : limited but fascinating
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Dalkey Days is Steven Moore's slim memoir of his time working at Dalkey Archive Press, from 1988 to 1996, and even if, as he at one point notes: "My years at Dalkey Archive were depressing and frustrating", it is a welcome history of some of the early days of this remarkable publishing house that also offers a behind-the-scenes look at how incredibly dysfunctional the running of it was under its founder, John O'Brien.
He became celebrated as a champion of literature in translation; while I wouldn't say that was just a front, virtually every writer he praised in my presence wrote in English. Nor did he settle for partial financial support, as in the past; he later expected ministries and donors to cover all production costs, which he wildly exaggerated, to ensure a profit before a single copy was sold. Some would call that a smart business strategy, but others would wonder if that is appropriate for a tax-exempt nonprofit cultural organization.(This was happening at a time when American publishers were publishing less and less in translation, and O'Brien clearly found a nice market gap -- more so, even, from the supply side (foreign governments willing to pay to get their works published in English) than demand (which I fear generally remained limited). At times this would go on to arguably resemble vanity publishing -- notably with the National Literature Series -- but it also made a great deal of work available in English that hardly would be otherwise.)
That things didn't get off to a great start between Moore and O'Brien isn't surprising when Moore points out that: "One of the first things that turned me off was his habit of lying; he's one of those people who feel lying is a normal part of social intercourse", and he also admits being: "turned off [...] by O'Brien's titanic arrogance". From the sound of it, however, O'Brien's personality was hard not to clash with.
Yes, Moore's account can tend to the ... barbed, but it's hard not to feel for him. His examples certainly suggest O'Brien had not only a peculiar and questionable management style, but also limited managerial skills on the business side (though his success in milking donors can't be denied). Moore does offer examples, but more exposition would have been welcome, too -- a catty remark such as, from the second section: "O'Brien didn't care for [Paul] West because [Gilbert] Sorrentino didn't, and he tended to ape his idol" practically begs for more explanation.
Fortunately, Dalkey Days is far from simply a bash-O'Brien account -- though that does bubble to the top a lot. Moore notes that: "at least two-thirds of the books Dalkey published between 1988 and 1996 were my choices or suggestions", and so there's also a good deal about many of these books and authors and their publication-history at Dalkey, especially then in the second section. Choice titbits include that it was Felipe Alfau's Locos that: "proved to be a turning point in Dalkey's fortunes, and may have even saved it" -- and that: "Alfau's novels proved to be a goldmine" (Who would have thought ?) Moore also edited the RCF (and: "at least half of the issues published between 1987 and 1996 were on authors I proposed") -- and it's interesting to hear that, as he reveals: "[Robert] Coover, Don DeLillo, Guy Davenport, and Philip Roth declined my invitations to be subjects of a special issue". (Some of these authors did eventually get the RCF treatment -- Robert Coover with a Festschrift issue (XXXII.1); Guy Davenport (along with Flann O'Brien and Aldous Huxley) in XXV.3.)
The first section is an overview-narrative of Moore's Dalkey days, while in the second he then goes, chronologically, book by book through the ones he was responsible for, generally just a paragraph or two describing some of the circumstances around each -- a neat little tour of many of the Dalkey titles from that period. These include behind-the-scenes looks such as the mishandling of (several editions of) David Markson's Reader's Block (complete with Moore's suggestion that "As a public service, anyone coming across the unauthorized second printing of 2001 should destroy it on sight"), or his account of having to fix up the text of Fernando del Paso's Palinuro of Mexico from the UK Quartet edition Dalkey licensed, which had so may translation "errors and typos that I asked for and got a discount on our licensing fee". Amusing, too, are some of the office experiences that, no doubt, many publishing professionals can relate to, as when Moore, working on a Raymond Queneau novel: "noticed a word that looked slightly off, and after locating it in the French original and consulting my French dictionary, I thoughtlessly changed it" (having missed why the more thoughtful translator of this Oulipian work had made that choice), -- and, of course, only a few weeks after the book came out someone called the office: "to ask if that was a typo. (Who does that !? Some people, obviously.)"
The final part collects five longer pieces, most previously and elsewhere printed, on authors Moore was more or particularly involved with: Felipe Alfau, Marguerite Young, Rikki Ducornet, Arno Schmidt, and Karen Elizabeth Gordon. While also fairly short -- five pages or so each -- they are the most leisurely-paced and enjoyable parts of this memoir, Moore able to go into greater depth about working with these authors and/or their work. From the rediscovery of Alfau and his works to the publication of much of Arno Schmidt's fiction (and the role of the Arno Schmidt Stiftung, and O'Brien's repeated efforts to squeeze yet more money out of them ...) to his working with Marguerite Young, these are fascinating glimpses of the publishing of these significant writers. (Among the interesting titbits: that Young insisted on Miss MacIntosh, My Darling being published: "the way she wanted it: in two volumes" -- even though Moore (sensibly) "preferred one big book".)
Dalkey Days is also richly illustrated with many black and white photographs, especially of book-covers, many of which Moore designed. (I must say that my aesthetic here is very different than Moore's and I find most of these -- notably, but hardly only, the two Miss MacIntosh, My Darling covers -- horrific; the David Markson covers, and the classic Jack Green are among the few exceptions; I will grant that the next iteration of covers for Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, done after Moore's time and which he politely calls "undistinguished", are , amazingly enough, even worse.)
Dalkey Days does pack quite a lot in, but from the sounds of it Moore could easily have written a fuller account -- there's certainly enough material here. The personal openness is welcome -- but also curiously doled out: there's an early mention of high school romantic disappointment, for example, but only parenthetically does he reveal, well into the book, that in 1979: "I owned my own bookstore", an experience that goes otherwise pretty much entirely unmentioned (yet which seems kind of pertinent ...). . As a Dalkey-history, a full bibliography of all their titles published during this time would also have been welcome -- chronological, and perhaps with the books Moore was responsible for in bold, for example.
Obviously, the bad relationship between O'Brien and Moore colors much of this account. Moore does note that he is grateful to O'Brien, but he can't help but note at the same time that O'Brien: "was a horrible example of a human being", and there are a few times when Moore seems just to toss the digs in for digs' sake, such as suggesting naming it 'Dalkey Archive Press' was already O'Brien's "first mistake" (because: few people recognized the allusion, or knew what it meant, plus it was hard to remember and often mispronounced"). (The name seems to have held up pretty well, as best I can tell)
Dalkey Days is a memoir of Moore's experiences, rather than the publishing house per se, but it's also a publishing-story, and for all of O'Brien's pretty obvious failings, bitterly enumerated by Moore, it's hard not to think that he got something right, given Dalkey Archive Press' remarkable output over the past four or so decades. No doubt, one reason for its success is that O'Brien hired people with a true passion for literature, like Moore, and managed to get them to stick around long enough to help shape its remarkable list.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 May 2023
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American writer Steven Moore was born in 1951.
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© 2023 the complete review