Cornelia, Reading

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Here is a question to braid into the one about literary culture: Is there such a thing as “illegitimate” reading?

CORNELIA BESSIE: What do you mean?

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: I’m 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 doesn’t matter: get them to read, and they’ll 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 I’m 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 my house.

CORNELIA BESSIE: In mine, too. And everybody else’s.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: In the fear that the child would grow up into “pop” culture. And it’s happened. It did happen.

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, some Italian.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When you came to Harper’s, 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 it’s by a famous traitor!” (Laughter)

Anyhow, that was the background: I had read everything I could get my hands on. I think if you don’t read those classic texts at a certain age, you’re 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 doesn’t happen at a time when you’re ready for them, it probably won’t happen.

As you know, my secret sin is riding horses, which means that you’re 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 you’re 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 didn’t tell me he was cute!” (Laughter) She’d 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, she’d read. Because of that, she read everything, including good books. But she noticed that people who didn’t read good books, didn’t read everything: they didn’t read Wheaties boxes, they didn’t read newspapers; they just didn’t read.

CORNELIA BESSIE: I’ve watched several kids at a very young age, particularly if it was at a house I was supplying with children’s books, read with great pleasure; and, suddenly, in about the fifth grade, they stop. I don’t know whether this is because -- for the males -- sports suddenly become all-encompassing; or whether it’s because they encounter a computer for the first time...

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Is this true of girls and boys?

CORNELIA BESSIE: When I’m thinking of several kids who were wonderful readers... I think it is true of kids, particularly now that there’s 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 name?

CORNELIA BESSIE: I fell in love with Shakespeare at a very early age, which amused my father because he was persuaded that I couldn’t understand what I was reading. What he didn’t understand was that I probably didn’t understand, in his sense, but I was set afire by the beauty. I could understand the beauty, if I couldn’t understand any more.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When I was a kid, there was so much I didn’t 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 that’s 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 weren’t discouraging you, however.

CORNELIA BESSIE: They weren’t discouraging me, but they certainly weren’t encouraging. I don’t 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 can’t 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 didn’t 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, I’m 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, “We’ve seldom seen such a disparity: such a low math aptitude and a high English one. We’ll 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 I’ve 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 didn’t; not the first time. We used to do something called Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, where we’d 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 I’d 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 hadn’t 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 Mle have? you of course don’t 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 you’re in love.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Can you think of any other books?


KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Were you a Tolstoyan or a Dostoyevskian?

CORNELIA BESSIE: I was first a Dostoyevskian. I didn’t read WAR AND PEACE until I went to Oxford, because I’d always saved it. I said I wasn’t going to read it until I could read it through. While you’re in school, you don’t 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 didn’t 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 Harper’s good for you?

CORNELIA BESSIE: No, because Harper’s was so totally sexist. That was at a time when Papa Knopf could say, in print, “Women shouldn’t 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. Harper’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s still true; it’s more true.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Yes, is more true; but it hadn’t been true before?

CORNELIA BESSIE: Oh, I don’t 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 I’ve 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. I’ve bought a few books that I didn’t dislike, and certainly didn’t look down on, but that I sure didn’t think were great literature, because I knew that they would do well. It’s rare that I’ve 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. I’ve 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 can’t live with this.” I couldn’t see myself presenting it to the sales force. So far as I know, the book wasn’t published.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: When you read now, do you think you know when a book is commercial?

CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes, and I’m so often wrong. I think it is commercial, and it isn’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have that set of instincts.

I’ve been working for a couple of years with somebody who’s never written a book before, and who comes from another part of the forest; who doesn’t know about book publishing. One day I said to him, “There aren’t 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 it’s been a great pleasure working with him because he is so smart. But, you know, he thinks this is what publishing is like! And it’s not, to a great extent, that way anymore.

And then the New York Times runs a piece saying, “How come we can’t find any young people who will edit books?” I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with cybernetics. In that field, they talk about “the payoff.” Now the payoff is in the wrong place: I think that’s 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? It’s not for doing the grubby work late at night with a pencil. Not only that you don’t get rewarded: people are absolutely not rewarded, they’re told they’re 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). I’ve performed small acts of the dread deed, yes.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And are those available to be read?


I did do a lot of translating; my translations paid for my travel. Oxford I paid for with Simenon, believe it or not. And I’ve 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. She’s 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 doesn’t work in English, and so I called the book HEROD’S CHILDREN. She’s 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. It’s 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 here’s a book I did that was great fun to do.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Oh, this is marvelous. [BESTIARE D’AMOUR, 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. That’s not bad.


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 don’t have them in the house. He wasn’t 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.


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