Italy’s Publishing Maestro


Stephen Heyman interviews Roberto Calasso, in the NYT:

The Paris Review once described Roberto Calasso, 74, as a “literary institution of one.” The author of more than 12 books on everything from Kafka to Indian mythology, he’s also a translator, a rare book collector, and the majority owner and longtime publisher of Adelphi Edizioni, among Italy’s most esteemed, and unpredictable, publishing houses. Adelphi specializes in what others overlook, bringing together underappreciated literary titans like Robert Walser alongside fantasy novels, Tibetan religious texts and popular books on animal behavior. How a publishing house can unite such disparate things, and not go bankrupt, is the subject of Mr. Calasso’s new memoir, “The Art of the Publisher,” which comes out this week in Britain and the United States. By phone from Milan, Mr. Calasso said that Adelphi’s interests have long stumped its critics. “At the beginning,” he said, “we were considered rather eccentric and aristocratic. Then, when we started to have remarkable commercial successes, we were accused of being too populist. That was curious because we were publishing exactly the same books.”

Q. Where does the idea of publishing as an art form come from?

A. It starts with the greatest of publishers and printers, Aldus Manutius, who lived in the Renaissance. He was the first one who considered how books should be presented. He invented the form of the paperback. He called it libelli portatiles, a portable book. In the 20th century, the best example may be Kurt Wolff. He’s famous now because he was the first publisher of Kafka. But he published totally unknown writers who were very different from each other but who belonged, in some way, to the same literary landscape.

Q. Starting in the 1970s, Adelphi championed a lot of Mitteleuropean authors like Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler. Is it surprising to see how they have infiltrated popular culture?

A. We had no idea these people would become so popular. At the time some were not even in print in Germany. The reason why we published them was not about a kind of geographical inclination. You cannot do without Vienna in a way. From Joseph Roth to Wittgenstein from Adolf Loos to Schiele, they are all essential figures of the 20th century. I remember, when I myself was translating Karl Kraus’s aphorisms, I met Erich Linder, who was maybe the greatest literary agent of those years. He told me, “Ya, that’s good that you’re doing Kraus. You’ll sell 20 copies.” By now Kraus is near his 20th printing. So a lot has changed.

More here.