Roberto Calasso, who has worked at the Milan house Adelphi Edizioni since 1962, is a noted publisher and author. He has written 12 books and his latest, “The Art of the Publisher,” translated by Richard Dixon, just came out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
“The climate of publishing is bad, but it’s always bad,” Calasso says. “It’s not particularly bad today. It’s not a particularly new character. Times are always difficult, but I think they can go on.”
Calasso, 74, recently bought back 58 percent of Adelphi from Rizzoli, which had owned its stake some time but was planning to sell it to Mondadori, the largest publisher in Italy. But Calasso had the right of first refusal.
The publisher-writer, who is from an aristocratic Italian clan, was brought into the business by Roberto Bazlen, founder of Adelphi Edizioni, who was, he says, “sort of a family friend. A very good friend of my parents was a cousin of his, a painter. He always talked about a rather wonderful cousin called Bobby. I had heard about him since I was a child. “
Bazlen was an important influence on Calasso, who has referred to him as “a great Taoist master,” noting that it was Bazlen who, among other things, steered Adelphi into publishing pre-Anschluss Austrian writers, among them Joseph Roth, Alfred Kubin, Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos and Stefan Zweig.
“In my family are two strands – one academic, the other in publishing ,” explains Calasso, whose father Francesco was an historian of law and whose maternal grandfather, Ernesto Codignola, also an academic, founded the house La Nuovo Italia, which still exists. “I avoided the academic line; I preferred to be a publisher.”
One of the colleagues he admires is his old friend Lord George Weidenfeld, whom he calls, “one of the most brilliant publishers around, rather unique in the fact that he comes from Vienna and had a sort of intense Mittel-European background, which was not so common among publishers in England. And he became totally English, too.” He describes Weidenfeld as a “a brilliant impresario of all kinds of things.”
It’s a mutual admiration society. One of the enterprises the British baron initiated was the Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford, which Calasso delivered one year and then turned into a 2002 book, “Literature and the Gods.”
In “The Art of the Publisher,” Calasso writes that he likes the Frankfurt Book Fair. “A publisher is made in good part by people talking or, if possible, having a drink together, and looking at each other,” he says. “It’s not so bad. It’s a chaotic place, but if everybody still goes there, there are some good motives to do that. Complaining is easy.”
Although he is careful to state that there are many different ways of pursuing his chosen profession, in his new book he describes several publishers whose catalogues and manner of turning out books he admires. Among them are Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, Vladimir Dimitrijevic, Luciano Foa, Kurt Wolff and Giulio Einaudi.
Calasso also writes about the Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius, who published what many bibliophiles consider the most beautiful book in history, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” which means “The Strife of Love in a Dream,” in 1499. It is written in what he calls “a sort of imaginary language” and is detailed with woodcuts. Manutius also created the italic type face and the “parva forma,” small format, or pocket book, in a 1502 edition of Sophocles.
The publisher/author considers a number of his books to form part of an unnamed series on the subject of modernity. They include “The Run of Kasch,” his surprise international bestseller “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” “Ka,” “K.,” “Tiepolo Pink,” “La Folie Baudelaire,” and “Ardor.” What will be the eighth? He declines to say, citing a personal superstition about discussing work in progress.
Calasso is known for his seemingly effortless erudition and his mastery of many languages, among them all the Romance languages, English, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. But he also has a mordant wit, which is much in evidence in his writing. In “La Folie Baudelaire,” published in 2008, he emphasizes the importance of Charles Baudelaire’s critical writing. Baudelaire is best known to the reading public as the author of the volume of poetry “Les Fleurs du Mal,” or “The Flowers of Evil.” However, the centerpiece of the book is a famous dream the poet had, in which a museum is combined with a bordello.
One of the funniest passages comes from a piece of art criticism Baudelaire wrote. Calasso writes, “One day Baudelaire observed two soldiers who were visiting the Salon. They were in ‘puzzled contemplation of a view of a kitchen: ‘So where’s Napoleon?’ said one (the catalogue [of the painting] contained an error, and the kitchen [painting] was listed under the number that ought to have corresponded to a famous battle). “Idiot!” said the other, “can’t you see that they’re making the soup for his return?” And off they went, pleased with the painter and pleased with themselves.’”