KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Here is a
question to braid into the one about literary culture: Is there such a thing as
CORNELIA BESSIE: What do you mean?
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Im not
sure, but let me try to approach this. Literacy volunteers like to say that reading
anything at all is important. They mean to encourage people to read. It is said by
teachers, and becomes common thinking,that Whatever they read doesnt matter:
get them to read, and theyll go on to something good. People say this, knowing
that in their childhood they had read what would have been called bad books, and yet that,
for some time, at least, they had gone on to read good books.
MICHAEL BESSIE: They acquired reading.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Yes. But
Im not necessarily convinced it happens easily. Of course, anybody can go on to read
good books. But I wonder if there is a sort of trash reading that only leads
to more trash?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I think that, as so
often, both things are true. I think there is junk-reading that leads to more junk; and,
occasionally, to the opposite.
I taught, briefly, in a community college; and the best
student I ever had was a mail carrier, who came from an illiterate household, who was
semi-literate himself for a period of time, and who told me the following story. One day
he was delivering mail. The windows were open in a house, and music was coming out. He
found out, later, that this was Beethoven. It transfixed him, and he decided that a world
that included Beethoven could include other things, as well, and he started to read.
Any kind of anecdotal evidence is nothing but that:
anecdotal; but if an adult, like the mail carrier, can be turned on by Beethoven, there
will be, out there, somebody or other who can be turned on to Shakespeare.
MICHAEL BESSIE: It occurs to me that
there is a perfect paradigm for this. When I was young, the reading of comics was banned
in a lot of houses.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: It was banned in
CORNELIA BESSIE: In mine, too. And
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: In the fear that
the child would grow up into pop culture. And its happened. It did
MICHAEL BESSIE: There was no notion
that comics were real. Well, we are now living the apotheosis of the comic: MAUS.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: They call it a
graphic novel. Although there were brilliant graphic novels in the 30s, for instance: the Germans were very good at them...
(to CB): You read several languages:
would you say which ones?
CORNELIA BESSIE: French, German,
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When you came to
Harpers, what had you been reading?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I was an only child
and a bookworm. There was a time, early on, when I read my way through my parents
library, just going counter-clockwise. And amazingly, in this way, when I was about 13 or 14, I discovered Ezra Pound for myself, and
was mesmerized. We then lived in a suburb, and my parents went to New York. The first time
I ever asked them to buy me a book in New York was when I wanted another Ezra Pound. This
was right after the war, and my father came home snorting, saying, The first time
she asks for a book its by a famous traitor! (Laughter)
Anyhow, that was the background: I had read everything I
could get my hands on. I think if you dont read those classic texts at a certain
age, youre unlikely to, later. By that, I mean, probably before college, and
certainly before the end of college. In order to have what we call taste, you
have to have been exposed to, and, hopefully, set on fire by, the great readings, and if
that doesnt happen at a time when youre ready for them, it probably wont
As you know, my secret sin is riding horses, which means
that youre usually riding with some teenaged female companion. I was constantly
riding through the woods where I live in Connecticut saying to some damsel, There
is, you know, life after horses. (Laughter)
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And youre
met with skepticism. (Laughter)
CORNELIA BESSIE: Oh yes! My favorite
of those incidents was: one day, I was riding through the woods with a 14-year
old, and she said, You know Hemingway? I said, Yep. She said,
Well, you told me he was good, but you didnt tell me he was cute!
(Laughter) Shed just run across a photograph! But she was exactly at the age when
she should have been reading Hemingway, and I guess, trotting through the woods, I
put something into her head that made her go to a book. The really sad thing is, when I
look at the kids around me, is how few of them go through that marvelous stage of reading
everything and devouring everything and finding things you love.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: I asked this of
one of my assistants, and she said she used to read everything when she was a kid:
Wheaties boxes, comics: anything that came across her eyes, shed read. Because of
that, she read everything, including good books. But she noticed that people who
didnt read good books, didnt read everything: they didnt read
Wheaties boxes, they didnt read newspapers; they just didnt read.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Ive watched
several kids at a very young age, particularly if it was at a house I was supplying with
childrens books, read with great pleasure; and, suddenly, in about the fifth grade,
they stop. I dont know whether this is because -- for the males -- sports suddenly
become all-encompassing; or whether its because they encounter a computer for the
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Is this true of
girls and boys?
CORNELIA BESSIE: When Im
thinking of several kids who were wonderful readers... I think it is true of kids,
particularly now that theres equality in sports, which means the girls are being
pushed as much as the boys.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: If you were to
think of a foundation of reading, or, your foundation of reading, what books would you
CORNELIA BESSIE: I fell in love with
Shakespeare at a very early age, which amused my father because he was persuaded that I
couldnt understand what I was reading. What he didnt understand was that I
probably didnt understand, in his sense, but I was set afire by the beauty. I could
understand the beauty, if I couldnt understand any more.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When I was a
kid, there was so much I didnt understand that it gave me a large desire to learn.
That was very exciting. I understand children now are often discouraged by teachers and
librarians from reading books that are considered too hard for them.
CORNELIA BESSIE: I think thats
true. In fact, no one was encouraging me to read, which is probably one of the reasons why
I read so much! (Laughter)
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: They
werent discouraging you, however.
CORNELIA BESSIE: They werent discouraging
me, but they certainly werent encouraging. I dont know why.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Your father was
an art dealer. Was he a reader? He had a library.
CORNELIA BESSIE: He was; he was. He
had a Classical background. He was German; and not only German, he was Prussian. So there
was a lot of this: How can you read Shakespeare when you cant understand
him?! And of course, I was too young and too naive to answer. But now that you bring
it up, I remember this scene: he was laughing, because he had a big, one-volume edition of
Shakespeare, and I was reading my way through it. I was very offended!
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: How old were
you: 10, 12?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Must have been. And
I actually didnt understand, but the love of that has stayed with me,
and the love of poetry, which started at a very early age. Poetry and music. If you love
one, you often love the other.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Did you have the
third in the trivium: mathematics?
CORNELIA BESSIE: No. No, Im
the genius who failed Math I twice. (Laughs) In fact, at the last
school I went to -- you know, they give you these aptitude tests, and I had just been
thrown out of a school, so getting into a school was quite a thing -- the
headmistress, who later became a friend, said, Weve seldom seen such a
disparity: such a low math aptitude and a high English one. Well take you, but we
will not attempt to teach you math. (Laughs)
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And so,
Shakespeare and Pound.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, Pound, whom I
discovered for myself, as Ive said, reading along the family shelves; Shakespeare;
all poetry; and then, all those things everyone falls in love with: LE
ROUGE ET LE NOIR, D.H. Lawrence--
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Did you read
Stendhal in French?
CORNELIA BESSIE: No, I didnt;
not the first time. We used to do something called Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, where
wed go to a college and teach for a short time. Michael and I did it together. You
were supposed to talk about what you did, and I decided I would be happy to talk about
what I did, but Id also like to teach something, and I chose LE ROUGE
ET LE NOIR. So I sat under a tree down South and reread it, which I hadnt
done since I was a kid, and it was amazing how that book had grown up! (Laughter) The
questions you ask yourself, such as, What choices did Mathilde de la Môle have? you of
course dont ask yourself the first time through.
I talked to you earlier about my experience with THE LEOPARD. My experience with reading it in manuscript was that you knew
on page five of the very faint typescript that you were in the presence of literature. But
to explain to somebody how you knew this is like explaining how you know youre in
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Can you think of
any other books?
CORNELIA BESSIE: WAR
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Were you a
Tolstoyan or a Dostoyevskian?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I was first a
Dostoyevskian. I didnt read WAR AND PEACE until I went to
Oxford, because Id always saved it. I said I wasnt going to read it until I
could read it through. While youre in school, you dont have that kind of time.
I read it at Oxford shut up in a flat for the better part of a week, at the end of which I
almost married the wrong man, since I thought I was in 19th century
Russia. (Laughs) A 19th century character came down the pike, and I
didnt realize till later that he was a 19th century
character but he was also a son of a bitch. So much for the dangers of reading.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Was
Harpers good for you?
CORNELIA BESSIE: No, because
Harpers was so totally sexist. That was at a time when Papa Knopf could say, in
print, Women shouldnt expect to be paid in publishing, they should pay to be
in publishing. And he could say that without blinking, and was quoted in a magazine.
Harpers was super-sexist, which is why all those wonderful women were
under-appreciated; and it was the women who did most of the work and had, I thought, the
finer taste. Not that some of the boys didnt have it, when they could sit still for
long enough. Already then, you were being rewarded for beating the bushes rather than for
publishing good books. And I think thats still true; its more true.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Yes, is more
true; but it hadnt been true before?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Oh, I dont
know. By the time I appeared, it was true. I suppose the question is, when did
commercialism start? It was always there.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: You said that
one of the jobs of the editor is choosing books well. For what purpose do you choose a
book? It seems that now, books are chosen for marketability, for adding to the
bottom-line; but I think that is not your purpose.
CORNELIA BESSIE: No. I have never
been editor-in-chief or publisher of a large list, so Ive never had the
responsibility of making a viable list, which means that you have to balance off a few of
the things that will pay the light bill with the things you love.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Those are almost
always in opposition?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Mostly. Ive
bought a few books that I didnt dislike, and certainly didnt look down on, but
that I sure didnt think were great literature, because I knew that they would do
well. Its rare that Ive had to do that. If you have a responsibility, as Lee
[Goerner, 1947-95, the final publisher at Atheneum] had, for
making a place live, then you have to have those thoughts. Ive had the luxury of
never having had to do that.
Whatever that book you take on is, you have to live with
it. On one occasion there was a book that I really thought was quite remarkable; but the
book was so horrifying, it horrified me so much, which meant it was so well done, that I
suddenly thought: I cant live with this. I couldnt see myself
presenting it to the sales force. So far as I know, the book wasnt published.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When you read
now, do you think you know when a book is commercial?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes, and Im
so often wrong. I think it is commercial, and it isnt. Ive come to the
conclusion that I dont have that set of instincts.
Ive been working for a couple of years with somebody
whos never written a book before, and who comes from another part of the forest; who
doesnt know about book publishing. One day I said to him, There arent
that many people who would spend two years with you doing what I call an elementary
writing course. He happens to be a very smart fellow and caught on immediately, and
its been a great pleasure working with him because he is so smart. But, you know, he
thinks this is what publishing is like! And its not, to a great extent, that way
And then the New York Times runs a piece saying,
How come we cant find any young people who will edit books? I dont
know if youve had any experience with cybernetics. In that field, they talk about
the payoff. Now the payoff is in the wrong place: I think thats
one of the intrinsic problems with publishing now, that the payoffs are all in the wrong
place. What do people get rewarded for, or get raises for?
What do they get secure places in the system for? Its not for doing the grubby work
late at night with a pencil. Not only that you dont get rewarded: people are
absolutely not rewarded, theyre told theyre wasting their time. The
pay-off work goes into making a best-seller.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Have you never
considered writing, yourself, nor been drawn to it?
CB (pleased): Yeah (drawn out). Ive performed small
acts of the dread deed, yes.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And are those
available to be read?
CORNELIA BESSIE: (Laughs.) No.
I did do a lot of translating; my translations paid for my
travel. Oxford I paid for with Simenon, believe it or not. And Ive done one book
which was a pure act of love. I announced at the time that it would be my first and last
German translation, and it has been: it was a book by a well-known writer there called
Ilse Aichinger. Shes a lovely writer, and I fell in love with this book.
I met her again by chance about two months ago, and it was
quite wonderful: we had the same sort of magical, instant communication we had had before.
In German, the literal translation of the title is, The Greater Hope, which
doesnt work in English, and so I called the book HERODS
CHILDREN. Shes a great lady and, now, an old lady. The book is about a group
of Jewish children in Vienna during the war. In each chapter their world grows narrower,
smaller, as the Nazi edicts about the Jews progress, until the only place for them to go
is up, into their imagination. Its both very real and a blessedly imaginative work
of fiction. It still moves me as much today as it did when I worked on it, when I woke
sometimes in tears in the middle of the night.
--And heres a book I did that was great fun to do.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Oh, this is
marvelous. [BESTIARE DAMOUR, Jean Rostand, Doubleday 1961, tr. Cornelia Schaeffer]
CORNELIA BESSIE: He was still alive
when I did that. That was fun. I paid for my travels and studies -- at one point I did
anything anyone would pay me to do. Most of it was from the French,
The Simenons -- you know, he wrote them all in 11 days, and so, my point of pride was that I translated them in 11 days! (Laughter.) (Except that I used the 12th
day to revise. Maybe he did, too.) So, 24 days of work paid for a
year at Oxford. Thats not bad.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Not bad at all.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Mind you, I was
paying £5 a week for my room.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Even so. Are the
titles still available?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I dont have
them in the house. He wasnt a bad writer, you know. At that time, he was married to
a Canadian woman. The publisher was Doubleday, and she had editorial rights, and her
notion of a good translation was that the words appear in the same order in the English
sentence as in the original. I refused to sign the translations, because she mangled them.
But they paid for my education.