Metro Column — An Interview With Edwin Frank — Editor of the New York Review of Books Classics

This is the full version of my interview with Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series originally posted in truncated form in my weekly metro column.

I was too timid to ask Mr. Frank for a picture so I ended up having to take a shot of some of my favorite NYRB Classics on my fire escape for the post. Lesson learned. In any event, I want thank Mr. Frank and the New York Review of Books for taking the time to sit down with me and talk to me about their catalog.

How did New York Review Books Classics get started?

Frank: It started in the fall of 1999. It grew out of another enterprise we used to do here [at the New York Review of Books] called the “Reader’s Catalog,” which was basically a big catalog bookstore —  the subtitle was “the 40,000 best books in print” — in the course of the second edition of that in the mid-nineties we discovered that many of the books we wanted to include in it were not in print. So the idea arose to put them back in print. So we began by doing that and then have gone on increasingly to do books in translation.

How many people are involved in the decision of what to print?

"For years it has been me and the managing editor Sara Kramer. My usual answer to that question is “rigorously by whim,” — but there is a certain kind of strategy to make the series seriously eclectic covering a whole range of books including fiction and non-fiction, to better suggest the range of things books can be, and to draw in different kinds of readers. With that general strategy of pulling things in there end up being strands — for example there is a strand of travel writing with Patrick Lee Fermor. We have a good deal of Hungarian writers — a good amount of Italian writers. We have done a number of Walser’s works. We try to build on what we have and we go away from what we have to find new things. So in that sense there is a certain amount of balancing the new and the old.

One of the strains seems to be Eastern Europe; for instance Gregor von Rezzori and Gyula Krudy. Is that one of your reading interests?

Yes it always has been. The Hungarian for example…when I was a kid there was a great series edited by Phillip Roth called “Writers from the Other Europe,” — That was something I cut my teeth on. Some of their books have fallen out of print in the meantime. The Hungarians are really different from the others — there is something very peculiar about Hungarian literature possibly because of its linguistic isolation as well as its cultural integration into the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungarian literature ended being something really quite strange and fascinating.

Can you discuss your personal favorites?

There are a number that I am particularly fond of. There is a wonderful book of China called “Peking Story” set in China right after the revolution.  It’s a memoir of an extraordinary traditional Chinese house which the writer, an Englishman, saw because he was married to the daughter of the owner (a member of the Chinese Supreme Court). It’s sadly the account of the destruction of that house where very palpably the end of a civilization comes through. It’s more entranced by things, it’s a short book, than it is with people. People you expect to disappear but things and material culture you think will last longer.

There is also a wonderful, kind of delirious historical novel (though it’s not really a historical novel it’s a historical novel of the mind) about Mughal India called The Root and Flower by L.H. Myers which  Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introduction to. It has sex and drugs — part of it is a weird roman à clef about Bloomsbury and I think it’s a wonderful book. 

Sylvia Townsend Warner has a slim book called Mr. Fortune which we just re-issued. It’s an almost immaculate book. 

What are your plans with respect to e-books?

We have 100 books available as ebooks already. We are making more of them available on a monthly basis. And all of the books we acquire now we have e-rights to. So really about a third are available already — some sell very well as ebooks. For instance the Long Ships, which does very well in general is thriving as an ebook. So it’s part of our business plan. 

I wanted to ask you about this because the unique design of your books is such a conspicuous part of the series, and I thought that the loss of this aspect of the book…

Ebooks do take away these elements. But it’s also true that people can pick up big books and read them more comfortably. It’s nice to make nice looking books but it’s also nice to get books people’s hands one way or the other. 

So you don’t necessarily see ebooks as a bad thing?

No, I think they have different qualities. I myself am not a reader of them.

You don’t own a kindle?

No I don’t.

There is something to be said about the convenience factor.

Yeah the convenience factor is great but I don’t know what I’ll do ifI have to lose the habit of hauling around heaps of books on one shoulder off balance.

Yeah I guess especially in the city — if you don’t drive you can’t have a trunk full of books. And choosing which books to take before you leave your apartment.

Hours of my life have been devoted to weighing that — and then weighing them literally.

How do you determine which books will have reading events?

Inevitably the books which are new books with a translator who is active or we have a number of book where we have living writers. A few years ago Mavis Gallant came to New York. She doesn’t do that very often (she’s into her eighties). We had  reading together with Symphony Space. 

We’re doing an event next month of where Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg will be reading from Rezzorri . Later we are doing another Rezzorri event based on Rezorri’s “Bukovina Trilogy” as he came to call these books [An Ermine in Czernopol, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and the Snows of Yesteryear] once he finished writing them.

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The newest book in the NYRBC series is Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, a book that will certainly please observers of urban landscapes and embittered artists — though its appeal is certainly larger than that. Susan Bernofsky, the translator of Berlin Stories, will be reading selections from her translation at 192 Books on Thursday, February 2, at 7 p.m. (if you’d like to attend you must call 212.255.4022 to reserve a spot).