REVIEW: The Tender Hour of Twilight by Richard Seaver

The Tender Hour of Twilight
Richard Seaver
FSG
480 pp / $35

We usually eat up memoirs of public figures, past or present, loved or loathed, because their lives, quite simply, are more interesting than ours. Take George W. Bush’s Decision Points, for example (presently loathed): the 43rd president argues that all the decisions he made in the White House, though largely unpopular with the general public, were all “correct.” Let’s not go there. But even the staunchest liberal reader must concede that they’re interesting decisions regardless.

Occasionally, however, memoirs are indeed written by “regular” people. Richard Seaver, for example, isn’t George W. Bush — he was never even president. But like Bush, Seaver made decisions that affected, and will affect, millions of people. Like his decision to publish Beckett’s short works in Merlin, Seaver’s upstart French avant-garde literary journal, which catapulted the Irishman to the top of the world literature heap. And his decision to push Naked Lunch, Story of O, and Last Exit to Brooklyn, among others, through the ignorant hands of the censors ultimately diminished their sway. And, finally, his decision to record his life in vivid detail (which his wife Jeanette posthumously compiled into The Tender Hour of Twilight Seaver’s vast and intimate memoir), will lead to new insights and new appreciation for the literature that captivated Seaver so very much.

Born in Watertown, Connecticut, Seaver graduated from the University of North Carolina before moving to France in his twenties. In Part 1 of his memoir, entitled “Paris, 1950s,” his adventures and accomplishments as a Parisian abound: starting a quarterly literary journal (the aforementioned Merlin), noted for publishing seminal modern/postmodern authors (Ionesco, Sartre, the list goes on and on…); writing a lengthy dissertation on Joyce’s Ulysses at the Sorbonne as a Fulbright scholar; fending off the drunken impositions of Brendan Behan, eventual esteemed playwright; and, most importantly, falling in love and marrying Jeanette, his steadfast wife and posthumous editor. Not bad for a guy with such unassuming origins in suburban America.

Professionally, Seaver mostly operated behind-the-scenes as editor, translator, and eventual publisher of literary figures once considered crass but now occupying the esteemed halls of academia. In Part 2, entitled “New York, 1960s,” Seaver and company take up court battle after court battle with a quiet, assured glee. Seaver’s perspective is fascinating because he is both aesthete and businessman. Were he not convinced that Tropic of Cancer, for example, was anything less than brilliant, he may not have been able to endure the lengthy court exercise in ensuring its publication. If The Tender Hour of Twilight has one overriding message, it’s that good art often needs to be fought for, and we should thank our lucky stars that people like Seaver are dedicated to the task. It’s a lovely book written by a book lover for book lovers.

Despite publishing such controversial and monumental literature, Seaver is incredibly grounded and writes in a clear yet erudite style that expertly balances conversation, pure wit, and genuine insight. His earnest voice stems from a wealth of varied life experiences; in addition to his “gentlemanly” endeavors in literature, Seaver spent two years as a United States Navy Seal. He was even a high school Greco-Roman wrestling coach! Seaver never comes off as an elitist, though he certainly could have, considering the authors he knew personally. He humanizes these ethereal figures through quirky, humorous anecdotes, including the Mets doubleheader he attended with Beckett, as well as the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago he attended with Genet and Burroughs. These anecdotes work so well because Seaver wasn’t just under their employ — he was their friend.

The Tender Hour of Twilight is ultimately such a success because Seaver comes off as a friend to the reader as well. The long-term success of a memoir is usually predicated on the author’s persona, despite the particulars of his life. Not having read Bush’s memoir, the persona would have to be pretty damn endearing to the staunch liberal reader, its thematic statement on decision-making notwithstanding. The Tender Hour of Twilight gets both right — interesting narrative and genuine voice — despite it being written by a “regular” guy. If you’re a fan of modern/postmodern literature, are interested in the fields of editing and publishing, are trying to figure out if that Master’s thesis on teleology in Beckett is really worth writing, or are trying to make the next great literary statement, make the right decision and pick up this book.

The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age

by Richard Seaver

Powells.com

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— Stephen Spencer lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has an M.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and is currently teaching composition there. He writes creatively in his spare time.

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