I’d been looking forward to Jonathan Galassi’s novel, smacking my lips over the idea of a treat not to mention an escape from the ‘hell in a hand cart’ news we seemed to be drowning in. It’s all about the book world and what could be more comforting than that? Paul Dukach, the misfit in a family of beefy athletes, conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. Galassi is a poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.
Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, who introduces him to Ida’s work, Paul finds his way into the New York publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of Purcell and Stern, one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners. Paul would like nothing more than to publish Ida’s poetry but Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, has an iron grip on the rights to it. Over the years, as Paul gains a reputation as one of New York’s finest editors, he becomes Sterling’s friend, privy to his stories about Ida and fellow poet Arnold Outerbridge, one of her many lovers. Through Sterling, Paul is given an introduction to his idol and after an afternoon spent listening to her stories finds himself presented with an astonishing proposition which pitches him onto the horns of a dilemma. Galassi’s smart, funny novel takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame.
Beginning with a brief biography of Ida Perkins and ending with a bibliography of her work, Muse had me half-believing that I might somehow have managed not to hear about this celebrated poet. Of course, she doesn’t exist – a bit like the theremin playing Lena in The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt and just as cleverly drawn. Nothing like an insider to poke the sharpest fun and there’s a good deal to amuse here – thumbnail (possibly heartfelt) sketches of egotistical, needy authors; a biting description of the Frankfurt book fair that may raise a few blushes in publishing circles – with sharply funny lines peppered throughout. Paul’s moral dilemma is a little too conveniently resolved but that said it’s a brilliant piece of entertainment for anyone who’s interested in the machinations of the book world. Had I been an American there would have been the added spice of working out who was who although when Medusa rears its ugly head you don’t need to be a genius to realise who Galassi has in his sights. Hugely entertaining, then, and a much-needed escape for me. Poets who wince at the line: ‘Who was it who said the reason there’s so much backbiting among poets is because there’s so little at stake’ can take comfort from the knowledge that it was Kissinger and he was talking about academics rather than poets. It’s often quoted in this house.