I consider Barney Rosset as my teacher and, as I see it, you can’t give anyone that name unless the teacher has caused you to alter your life in more ways than one.
Because of Barney I did two things. One, in 2010, I went to Kunming. God, he talked about that city for years. It’s where he’d been stationed as a combat photographer during World War II, and spent some of the most glorious days of his life, not discounting his years with Grove. And, as I can testify now confidently, Kunming is well worth the trip.
And, two, I learned how to review books. You see, after working with him for about three years, Barney asked me to do reviews for Evergreen. I said, “I’d be more than happy to, but I don’t know anything about reviewing.”
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll teach you.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” I asked.
“I’ll just tell you what I think of a book and you write it down.”
“OK,” I said. You think I’m exaggerating. Let me read to you from a few of my reviews.
I started with paraphrasing. Here from Issue 123, June 2010. Barney had shown me a passage on Bukowski, who labeled himself “a literary outlaw.” Barney questioned Bukowski’s status, comparing writers such as Bukowski and others, all of whom were “considered, at least by the mainstream, as literary bandits of one sort or another, to Genet. Genet spent years in prison, even in a Nazi one, jailed as a thief. When Rosset tried to get him a visa (so he could come to the U.S. and report on the ’68 Democratic Convention), his request was turned down. Genet was banned as a homosexual. The French author promptly smuggled himself across the Canadian border.” As Barney put it, “That’s an outlaw.”
By Issue 125, January 2011, I quoted directly. Reviewing Gilbert Sorrentino’s posthumous novel, I asked Barney to assess Sorrentino’s overall career. Remember, Sorrentino had worked at Grove which published Mulligan’s Stew, his most famous book. “Gil had real talent,” he said, “but he never quite … Theoretically, Gil had enormous talent, yet it never fully flowered.”
“And here’s a curious thing. He was surrounded by people who acted as if — and he had an aura as if — it had flowered. You see, he presented himself as if he had delivered on that promise. Yet he never did. In his whole life, he never did.”
I commented, “You could say that about a lot of contemporary American literature.”
He returned, “That is contemporary American literature.”
That judgment may seem harsh, but not uncharacteristic, for, as he told me in an interview in December 2009, “I was never as close to the writers [as a group] as I was to the painters. …”The painters were very convivial. But also very poor,” at least till they moved to East Hampton. Rosset followed them to the Hamptons, buying a house, but, as he said in a most revealing and capping statement, “I myself was not a painter. I was an outsider.”