Jonathan Galassi is an American publisher, poet and translator. In his debut novel Muse, his passion for the ‘good old days’ of the publishing industry is palpable: a time when
books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell … their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose, were liquor, perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees.
The halcyon days of print publishing were not, in fact, so very long ago, with the first e-reader going on sale only in 2004 and Amazon’s Kindle in 2007; it is astonishing that the digital revolution has taken only a decade to change the publishing landscape dramatically enough to inspire a novel so thick with nostalgia. Galassi energetically resuscitates this world, where manuscripts were packaged in ‘neat gray or powder-blue boxes … or in battered manila envelopes if they were coming from writers without representation’, and celebrates its lunches, personalities, gossip, glamour, excitement and — ‘carnivorousness at its most rapacious’ — Frankfurt Book Fair.
Matching the author’s passion for the heyday of publishing is his protagonist’s obsession with a poet. Paul Dukach begins his bookish career with a Saturday job in a bookshop, where he is introduced to the poetry of Ida Perkins (who is Galassi’s invention) and becomes expert on her work. After college he lands a job as an editor at a New York publishing house and cultivates a friendship with the head of a rival press, Ida’s publisher, who invites Paul to study the notebooks of Ida’s former lover. Not unlike in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, Paul’s investigations take him to Venice, where he meets Ida and makes a surprising discovery.
Towards the end of Muse, Paul acquires a lover, Rufus, a content editor at an e-tailer called ‘Medusa’, which was
wreaking havoc in the publishing business, underselling publishers’ wares to steal business away from bookstores and achieve a virtual online monopoly in both print and e-books in the process.