What would you say if you had met a person of genuine historical significance -- one who might with some justice be called a "great man," -- and were completely oblivious to the experience?
Such was my contact with Richard Seaver (1926-2009) - -subject of a new, posthumous autobiography, The Tender Hour of Twilight.
In 2006, my literary agent Fred Hill, himself sadly now deceased, was trying to sell my novel The Nazi Hunter -- a thriller set in Washington D.C. that deals with an investigation to expose a singer of classical lieder as a war criminal who had served in the Belzec extermination camp.
The project was particularly dear to my heart (of course, all books are dear to their authors' hearts) because my own grandparents died at Belzec. I wanted to bring some attention to the camp where half a million Jews were killed in the span of a year in 1942 but which, unlike Auschwitz and Treblinka, was almost unknown to the general public.
Fred told me he'd found a publisher in the shape of Arcade Publishing, a small but tremendously prestigious house in New York. He said the editor, Richard Seaver, and his wife Jeanette, had both read and enjoyed my book and were willing to offer a small advance to bring it out.
I had no idea how honored I ought to have been and asked Fred if he could negotiate a larger advance. He dutifully went back to Mr. Seaver who generously upped his offer by a little.
A week later, I met Seaver at a restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. It was our only meeting. I recall that the German Nobel Prize Winner Gunter Grass had just told the world that as a teenager he had joined the Waffen SS. The story fit perfectly into the plot of my book -- in both cases a distinguished artist had covered up for decades their wartime involvement with the Nazis.
"Why do you think he kept it a secret all these years?" Dick asked me. I don't exactly recall my answer. No doubt I pontificated in some fashion. "Of course," Dick then disclosed, "I've know Grass since the early 1950s." He had apparently been involved in bringing out Grass's work in English. I was suitably abashed.
Over the following weeks and months, Seaver personally went over my book, applying his rigorous editorial scalpel to my often clumsy prose, improving almost every page. I had accepted a fellowship to teach journalism for a year in Romania so we interacted by phone and email -- but never again in person.
Seaver tragically died on January 6, 2009 and Arcade went into bankruptcy and was eventually acquired by another company. And it's only now, reading reviews of Seaver's autobiography, that I realize that I was published by a literary legend.
The New York Times review has a 1968 photo showing Richard and Jeanette Seaver alongside William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Allan Ginsburg.
I discovered from the review how it was Seaver who introduced Americans to Samuel Beckett, Genet and Eugene Ionesco. Even more dramatically, Seaver together with Barney Rosset of Grove Press, took on and smashed once and for all literary censorship in the United States.
Writes reviewer Jason Epstein in the Times, "Rosset also decided with Seaver's support to uproot literary censorship in the United States once and for all, beginning with Grove's defiant publication of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover, followed by Henry Miller's Tropics; Naked Lunch; and Story of O. The legal fees were crushing. The victory was historic."
Seaver actually translated The Story of O from the French himself under the name Sabine d'Estrée.
Reading these essays, I am both humbled and embarrassed -- and also somewhat jubilant. I'm embarrassed I didn't take advantage of my opportunity to interact more with Seaver and learn from him -- but I'm humbled and jubilant that he chose to publish my book.
It's a bit like that movie Six Degrees of Separation. I'm now two degrees removed from Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and Gunter Grass.
I am buoyed by the thought that if Richard Seaver liked it, my book must have had merit.