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Publisher turns author in Muse, a novel fixated on world of books

Author and publisher Jonathan Galassi’s novel Muse is likely to appeal to those in or alongside the books industry rather than to general readers. Photo: SuppliedMuse
Nanjing Night Net

By Jonathan Galassi

​Text Publishing, $29.99. Buy now on Booktopia

Jonathan Galassi has massaged the copy of innumerable writers and turned out many a book as the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux​ but this is the first time he has written a novel. It’s not surprising that the debut of an editor-turned-novelist is full of gossipy insider information about the publishing world but those expecting a contemporary foray into printing practices should look elsewhere. Towards the end it does touch on the changes wrought by the digital evolution but for the most part Muse is bathed in a distinctly nostalgic glow as it traverses the golden years of the postwar literary boom in America.

The prelude acts like a soothing balm to any print-loving bibliophile who feels besieged by the encroaching takeover of electronic copy: “This is a love story. It’s about the good old days, when … books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell; when books furnished man a room, and their contents … were liquor, perfume, sex and glory to their devotees.”

The protagonist, Paul Dukach, is an earnest book editor who works for the magisterial Homer Stern, founder of the independent publishing house Purcell & Stern in New York. P&S is in direct competition with another firm, Impetus Editions, headed by the equally formidable Sterling Wainwright.

At the heart of their acrimonious rivalry is star poet Ida Perkins, a (fictional) luminous character whose body of work is equally appealing to critics and to the wider populace. Though Homer desperately wants her to be part of his list – writers to him were “what paintings of real estate or jewellery were to his richer relations: living, breathing collectibles”, Ida is the brightest light in Impetus’ stable of authors. She also happens to be a (kissing) second cousin of Sterling. Our hero Paul is a “connoisseur of Perkinsiana”; like his boss he is obsessed with signing up this elusive octogenarian, whose “absent presence” taunts him.

On the way home from the Frankfurt Book Fair, Paul finally gets to meet his life-long idol in Venice and learns more about her messy love life. She offers him an unreleased manuscript that contains an “onionskin bombshell” and the hapless editor has to decide what to do with it.

This is the basic premise of Muse, though Galassi is more interested in people watching and name-dropping a tangle of real and half-imaginary characters than he is in progressing the narrative in a straightforward fashion. The momentum is often stalled by literary and historical digressions. As a poet himself Galassi’s words are elegantly strung together although troublingly there is a surfeit of clichés throughout (swore like a trucker, heart of gold, haven in a heartless world, larger than life, rough and tumble), which smacks of laziness and is unforgivable in an editor of his calibre.

With his years of experience, Galassi is well placed to hold forth on his subjects and his portraits are lovingly though satirically and sometimes stereotypically drawn. (Homer’s delusions of grandeur extend to naming his twin sons Plato and Aristotle).This is a book about the mythology and pretensions of a cliquey group that’s perhaps best suited to a certain market: to the literati or to those who work in or alongside the books industry rather than to a general readership.

Ultimately, Muse is a valentine to editors and publishers who are devoted to their handmaiden jobs. The tireless and possibly idealised Paul “floated on a sea of entrancement, pistol-whipped by the vagaries of his writers’ oversize neediness and self-absorption yet buoyed by the rewards of helping their work see the light of day”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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