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Small Press Gatekeeper: Douglas Messerli

With this boost, more of Auster’s work began to appear, but not from Living Hand. He seems to have realized that self-publishing could only take him so far, not to mention the drain on his energy and funds. In 1980, he published the minimalist White Spaces with Station Hill Press (Barrytown, NY: 1980), in a run of 1,000 copies. Then came The Art of Hunger and Other Essays (London: Menard Press, 1982), a book that he would recast and republish three times over the following decade. But the most important volume was The Invention of Solitude (New York: Sun & Moon Press, 1982).

Auster claims that he collected seventeen rejection slips before small publisher Douglas Messerli accepted his book. This was an extraordinary meeting of coevals, right at the divide between the gatekeeping of authorship and that of production. Born in 1947 like Auster, Messerli had started Sun & Moon Press in 1976 in his apartment in College Park, Maryland. It was like Auster and Davis’ press, like the presses that published Bukowski, only much more successful. Messerli had the discrepant awareness and entrepreneurial skills of Carl Weissner. But he and his partner Howard Fox had a cohort and were friends with lots of painters and writers, whom they published in chapbooks and two magazines, SUN & MOON, and a mimeographed broadsheet called La-bas. At first Messerli had published his magazines from the graduate student “bull pen” in the English Department of the University of Maryland, using its paper and mimeograph machine on weekends: “I was afraid they would come in and find me, but I cared so much about getting this writing out.” His first mailing list was 500 names, many of which he took from a pile of mimeo magazines he found in the basement of the Library of Congress. “I hand-typed the address on the labels myself. I was a fast typist.”84

Messerli had long been interested in translating foreign writers, especially from Scandinavia. He credits Marjorie Perloff for introducing him to modernism and its more experimental edges. Until he finished his PhD, Messerli edited, produced, publicized, and even designed the covers for his books. When he began to teach, he found interns to do some of this, while he wrote grants. He wrote one for Merce Cunningham, which was funded by the Contemporary Arts Education. It expanded his circle to include Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Bernard Meyers. Soon he was publishing Charles Bernstein, Russell Banks, Ritchie Harry, David Antin, Djuna Barnes, Walter Abish, and Gertrude Stein—and those were just his American authors. La-bas published until 1978, SUN & MOON magazine until 1981. The press ran until 2004, when Messerli and Fox started a new one named Green Integer.

In 1983 Messerli and Fox moved to Southern California. By 1998 the press had 350 titles in print. According to the Los Angeles Times, the press was at that time “the largest publisher [of 70] in Los Angeles.”85 Messerli would eventually launch not only Paul Auster’s Solitude, but also The Art of Hunger, City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1987). In a 2012 interview with me, Messerli said that his models were the kinds of small presses that launched Bukowski, Ginsberg, and others: “Grove Press and New Directions were extremely important to me. They woke me up. It was the ’60s.”86

Messerli had grown up in Iowa. After three years at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he moved to New York, finding work as “Assistant Head of Protocol” at Columbia University. On campus at the same time as Auster, he said, “I marched, but I was not an SDS type.” The two never met. The student movement troubled him in a different way: “I was fearful that all the innovative writing was going to be lost. We were becoming so xenophobic, so I read all the foreign literature I could because I thought nobody would publish it.”

Messerli started La-bas as a graduate student, getting a lift “when [Gilbert] Sorrentino sent me two poems.” Like Bryan and di Prima, Messerli switched to Compugraphic typesetting when its price fell around 1970. “My gift was that I knew how to do it cheaper,” he said. “I was not paying myself ... but the constant running after grants became very frustrating.” His correspondence archived at the University of California-San Diego shows that Messerli was a frugal publisher, using non-union printers in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan that served the Bible/religious trade. “I also had to learn accounting,” he said. He made smallish orders (each of the three City of Glass novels had an initial print run of 1,000 copies). He composed his own cover art and advertising presswork, and he did his own distribution. He could contact book reviewers directly, because “there was a more open publishing scene back then.”

It was John Bernard Meyers who talked up Auster to Messerli, and he probably gave Auster Messerli’s name. “I had heard that Paul was going to do the big Random House anthology,” Messerli said, but he was surprised when Auster sent him, unsolicited, The Invention of Solitude and then all three volumes of the City of Glass trilogy. Messerli liked the books and wrote back that he wanted to publish them. “But I did not know he had an agent,” said Messerli.

Like Garcia Marquez, Auster had contacted an agent, Carol Mann, in case he got an acceptance, and like Garcia Marquez, their relationship was mostly hypothetical. He had nothing to sell yet. “You must deal with Paul, he’s forceful. And Carol Mann,” Messerli pauses, “has made a lot of money with Paul.” The Auster novels took Messerli to new places: he became a regular at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he met more authors and new overseas distributors. He even met Carmen Balcells: “To me she was the sweetest, nicest person that I met at Frankfurt. She was happy that I was doing Jose Donoso. She didn’t want a big advance for him. She spoke English. I loved her because I knew what she represented.”

Auster, on the other hand, tells us that The Invention of Solitude (1982) was made possible by the 1978 inheritance from his father. That money probably did pay his living expenses. But the statement is more likely an affirmation of his hard-won artistic persona, of the double denial. This is the book that brings together his themes of fatherlessness, isolation, and Judaism through the discovery of a skeleton in the family closet. The first half of the book is a relatively straightforward autobiographical/i nvestigatory account of his remote father, which Auster has dated to 1979. The second section, “The Book of Memory,” explains how Auster came to understand him, marshaling Kafka, Holderlin, Defoe, and Mallarme to find parallels and counterpoints in his own life. He listens to Billie Holliday, he broods over baseball, he stands before canvases by Van Gogh and Maurice Denis, he contemplates Tolstoy, Freud, and Scheherazade. This is attractively mid-brow, not Jabes. He is serious but unassuming, a Europeanized post-modernist at just the moment the United States needs one. He brings the severity of his Dupin period to bear on his personal darkness, but with that flash of Miro’s deadpan humor. This was in the second year of the Reagan administration. On Golden Pond had swept the Oscars. Depth and introspection seemed in short supply.

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