Barney Rosset in Conversation with Michael March


Barney Rosset & Michael March

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 122 in March, 2010.

New York, June 1998

Michael March: You were invited to Prague—to Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Barnet Rosset: I was invited to Prague to show a documentary motion picture I produced called Strange Victory—about racism in the United States. I was invited because it was a very left-wing film for its day—of course, criticized in the United States because the thesis of the film—which incidentally included a great deal of Czech footage—was that while we had won the war against Germany—nothing much had been accomplished at home—women’s rights, racism—etc.

I arrived in Prague—with my wife-to-be, the painter Joan Mitchell—just before Christmas. And we stayed at the Koruna Hotel. It was very nice—perhaps the best hotel in town at that time—but it didn’t have much inside. Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring a bottle of French cognac and a jar of Nescafe—for company. But the city was so somber—so sad. And we were assigned a woman guide—who couldn’t walk very well, and it was freezing outside. She toured Prague with us—but we had to walk very slowly. One of the first things that turned me off the regime—were her constant questions—“Is so-and-so Jewish?”—things I didn’t know—like singers—or some Hollywood directors.

MM: Frank Sinatra?

BR: Yes, Frank Sinatra too, [laughing] and I began to get really annoyed. Anyway, we were there, and at night it was terrible. There was nowhere to go. Wherever you went—you felt the customers were terrified of being watched. Then suddenly we thought—oh no—we’re going home now—we’re not spending Christmas here.

MM: How long were you in Prague?

BR: About a week—for the press. Much later—I sent some people from Grove to Prague to buy films—just before the crackdown in August 1968—and I still have some of these marvelous films—including The Joke based on Milan Kundera’s novel. During this period—the FBI in New York broke into the apartment of a woman who worked for us—spying on what they thought was this nefarious trip to Prague. I had to go to whoever represented Czechoslovakia in Washington. In the end—we got the films—despite the FBI and the Czechs—we got the films. One was a silent film of a student immolating himself—in Prague—in the main square.

MM: Jan Palach?

BR: Yes—it was the funeral of Jan Palach. And I remember we got messages from Prague: return that film. So we showed it wherever possible. We even started an international film festival—showing films from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France and Germany.

MM: You published an assortment of writers from Central and Eastern Europe—such as Bertolt Brecht, Witold Gombrowicz and Milan Kundera.

BR: And Škvorecký—and Havel. We published one of Havel’s first plays. When he became president of Czechoslovakia—my attorney in New York, Martin Garbus—brought him a copy of Beckett’s play Catastrophe—dedicated to him and signed by Beckett and myself. And then—Garbus helped write the new Czech constitution. Of course, Havel signed a copy of Catastrophe—and sent it back to me—so there was always a connection with Prague. Grove Press published the works of many Czech authors and books—such as Bohumil Hrabal and his Closely Watched Trains.

MM: Prague seems to have changed your life.

BR: Right then and there—on the spot—in 1948---I shed what had become the not too sturdy political fabric of the Chicago thirties.

MM: Continuing with Grove Press—and Evergreen Review—as a revolutionary publisher.

BR: I never went outside the structure of the system. Whenever I got into trouble—I got out. I always believed in the First Amendment—that through the First Amendment—we would win all our battles against censorship. Grove Press fought very deliberately, methodically, from the beginning. First—I chose to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley—then Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer—finally, climactically, Naked Lunch. We fought and won the trials—which almost ended the censorship of literature here.

MM: When I asked John Calder—who published Beckett in England—which writer he considered the most important American writer this century— I was expecting to hear William Burroughs—not Henry Miller.

BR: Henry Miller was a vital precursor of Burroughs.

MM: I’ll rephrase the question—in terms of influencing other writers?

BR: Henry Miller. For example, he influenced Kerouac tremendously, and Allen Ginsberg, and that entire group. Looking at my notes today—I realized that Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac formed their own holy trinity. Allen was the father—the shepherd—who kept the three of them together. They worked together—perfect timing. They certainly came from Miller. They also liked Beckett very much—but Beckett didn’t understand them. When Beckett spoke to Burroughs about the cut-ups method in Naked Lunch—Beckett said—“That’s not writing—that’s plumbing.”

BR: I brought Henry Miller and Beckett together for lunch. They had known each other slightly, in the thirties. Both were known to be very difficult people. And I brought them together for lunch—and at the restaurant each of them said to me separately—“You know, he’s gotten a lot better.” It couldn’t have been nicer.

MM: What were your feelings about Kerouac—?

BR: He was fantastic. We published a lot of his books. I don’t think that this exposure—that his success was his ruin. The same thing would have happened no matter whatever he did. He lived a strange life—living with his mama most of the time—so when Mama died he was in big trouble. He married another woman just like Mama. Terrible. When he drank—he used to call me—ranting and raving about the Jews. He was incredibly anti-Semitic—even claiming that they (the Jews) wouldn’t publish his books. That was hardly true--neither Allen, who received the same tirades, nor I took it seriously. But it was sad.

MM: What about Jean Genet in America—?

BR: Well, it was another incredible—political thing. The first time I heard of Genet having arrived was when somebody, a total stranger to me rang on the phone and said—“Do you know a guy named John Genet? I just brought him here from Canada. He wants to see you.” Genet had been refused a visa to come here—because—at that time—homosexuals were denied visas by the State Department. So Genet went to Canada—illegally crossed the USA border—and attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. The Evergreen Review Reader cover has a photo of Genet, Ginsberg and Burroughs marching together—three gay writers marching on Chicago. Three tough guys, you better believe.

MM: Publishing is a crazy business—.

BR: It’s not an easy way to make money—certainly—but it determines the players. You must be deeply committed. But we did it, we did it—and finally—got credit for it.