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.


2 comments:

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.