May 18, 2016

The Lady with the Borzoi

A book that combines a biography with literary history is almost definitely my cup of tea, so I put this new one on reserve at the library as soon as I heard about it.

It was new and very interesting to read about a publisher (rather than an author), especially an unconventional, path-setting woman.  Blanche Wolf and Alfred A. Knopf were both bookish, socially awkward children who launched their publishing firm in 1915, a year before their marriage. The book's focus is on their quarrelsome, often unhappy but long marriage {and their difficult relationship with their son} as much as on their success and long (and often acrimonious) partnership as publishers {the borzoi is the dog in the Knopf colophon}. In Laura Claridge's portrait, Blanche is an astute judge of books, a nurturing friend to her often difficult and needy authors, chic and dramatic, famous for her parties and her eggnog, promiscuous but still loyal to her husband, and Alfred is self-centered and unlikable {there's a wonderful about his rudeness at a dinner party for Julia and Paul Child), less significant in the firm's success but determined to dismiss his wife's contributions. I enjoyed the glimpses of the authors she collected and nurtured, from Willa Cather, Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir to John Hershey, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, and many others. {I remember being surprised to read that Elizabeth Bowen was a mentor and friend to Eudora Welty; she seems to have had a gift or friendship, and now I'm longing to read more about her.}

The trouble is that I'm spoiled ... I've read so many biographies written by gifted storytellers that I really miss that quality when it isn't quite there. I stumbled over some random references and other details and anecdotes that seemed a little like filler. {And this is a quibble, but I couldn't help noticing a sentence telling us how Blanche, in the 1930s, had a wall knocked down to join two 'condos' -- a word that wouldn't have been in use then, just something out of place,} Still, this book offered me a fascinating, if not especially uplifting, look at a woman who created, for herself, an important place in publishing, someone I'm glad to know more about.


Lisa said...

Her story sounds so fascinating, and I'm glad that she is finally getting some of the credit that she's due. The other reviews I read have also mentioned though the quality of the writing, that the subject deserved better.

JoAnn said...

This does sounds like the perfect book for you, but I know what you mean about growing used to wonderful storytelling in biographies.