Partisan politics and The Irreal Reader: A note regarding the title of our anthology

[by Greg]

The title “The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal” — and to an extent the anthology itself — was inspired by a 1946 anthology I found in a library several years ago. I was drawn to the anthology in question, “The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, 1934-1944,” because of a particular, and peculiar, connection I had with the Partisan Review that dated back to 2002 and 2003. At that time I was actively translating work by the Czech author Arnošt Lustig, and among the works I’d translated was a lengthy story of some 16,000 words titled “Enzo – A Jewish Story.” It was a compelling piece, in which the story’s narrator, a Czech Jew who’d been sent first to Terezín and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau (like Arnost himself) and an Italian Jew, Enzo, who’d been active in the anti-fascist resistance, compare their war-time experiences while eating an ironically sumptuous meal prepared by Enzo’s wife, Concetta, in the couple’s Rome apartment. But it was also a piece in which the protagonists discussed politics at length, and for this reason it was difficult to place the story in the mainstream American literary press. At the time there was, however, a notable exception to this tendency toward the apolitical in American letters: the Partisan Review. As I’d hoped, they accepted the story with great enthusiasm. But, to Arnošt’s and my chagrin, this exception, in spite of its long and distinguished history, wasn’t long for the world.

The dominant American literary magazine of the 1940s and 1950s, the traditionally left-leaning Partisan Review was now a part of Boston University which, around that time, was headed by a president who was moving (from what I understand) in a neo-conservative direction. This president, John Silbr, took advantage of the death of the PR’s cofounder William Phillips in September of 2002 to move against the publication, and announced that its funding would cease at the end of 2003. Since my translation was scheduled to be published in the next issue, this needn’t have affected Arnošt’s and my contribution. However the editor, Edith Kurzweil, the one who had accepted “Enzo,” decided to terminate the publication after one final issue that was to be dedicated to the memory of Phillips. Her concern was that that there might be an attempt by the neo-conservatives to take over the good name of the PR and use it for their own purposes, so she felt that by ending it then and there this would both be less likely to happen and there would, in any case, be a distinct break between the old publication and any new use of the title that might be attempted.

And so that was that: due to a complicated play of politics, Arnošt and I were wouldn’t be getting our story published in one of America’s most venerable and prestigious publications, not to mention being out of a few thousand dollars. (Instead we got a $100 kill fee from the university.)

But this (I hope) interesting story of literary and political intrigue begs the question as to why, having been drawn to the anthology, we went ahead and modeled The Irreal Reader after this rather ancient anthology of a deceased publication. First off, the title had a certain attraction, as the concept of a “reader” seemed a bit eye catching and unusual and the word itself goes well with “irreal.” Just as important, however, was the overtly intellectual quality of the anthology. Instead of just collecting the stories together, as most literary anthologies culled from publications do, it featured a lengthy introduction by Lional Trilling and a “Retrospect” by the editors, Phillips and Philip Rahv. Together these pieces vigorously described the publication’s goals and helped to situate it historically. Though our preface and afterward are not nearly as ambitious as those which Trilling, Phillips and Rahv undertook, they serve something of the same purpose. In addition, the Partisan anthology also gave us a precedent (there are others, though they too are more from the middle of last century, and are from Europe at that) for mixing fiction and literary theory in a collection such as the The Irreal Reader.

So at least, then, some good came out of my Partisan Review experience beyond that small kill fee. Sad to say, however, “Enzo—A Jewish Story” never did find another home and remains, to this day, unpublished in English.

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