Norman

A Letter to Norman

On the bookcase by my front door sits a letter addressed to Norman Thomas di Giovanni. I put it there last Tuesday night to make sure I remembered to post it the next day. It contains printouts of nine ebook cover designs, three sets of three covers in three different styles. We are publishing three books by Norman, two novels and one story collection, during 2017 and I needed him to choose which style he wanted for the covers. Ordinarily I would have just emailed them to him but he was in hospital and didn't have access to his computer.

On Wednesday morning I awoke to an email from Norman's partner, Susan Ashe, to tell me that he had died the previous night. He was 83 years old.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni was born and raised in north Boston, Massachusetts. His parents named him after Norman Thomas, the then leader of the American Socialist Party. He studied at Antioch College, Ohio and graduated in 1955.

He is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. They first met when Borges was a visiting professor at Harvard. The two struck up a tentative friendship — somewhat hindered by Borges' erratic wife, Elsa — which led to a collaboration on a volume of poetry. Norman organised a number of translators and poets, including John Updike, to translate Borges' work, some of which appeared in the New Yorker before being published in book form.

A year later, di Giovanni followed Borges to Buenos Aires where, for the next few years, they worked together on translations of Borges' short stories. Again, several of these appeared in the New Yorker and then in print collections. Borges was so pleased with their collaborations that he insisted di Giovanni receive an equal share of the royalties. While in Argentina, Norman helped Borges divorce Elsa when the marriage broke down. He later wrote about this period in the book Georgie & Elsa, Georgie being Borges' nickname.

After Borges' death in 1986, the author's estate fell into the hands of his second wife and, together with the agent Andrew Wylie, she sold rights for new translations, thereby terminating the arrangement with di Giovanni. His translations, the ones Borges himself rated so highly, were allowed to fall out of print. When, in recent years, Norman published some of the stories on his website he received a legal notice to take them down. He then had them secretly and privately printed and given to friends and relatives. He was not interested in the royalties, he just wanted their collaborations to be read once more.

Although he will be remembered for his work with Borges, despite its subsequent suppression, he had a varied career outside of that. His journalism, especially his travel writing, was widely published. He edited collections of essays and stories by Argentine writers. He wrote the novel 1900, based on the Bernardo Bertolucci film starring Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu. He co-authored a travel and cookery book about his beloved Abruzzo region of Italy. And he continued to translate, most recently a new English version of a little-known Argentine classic, The Slaughteryard by Esteban Echeverria.

In 1991, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of May by the government of Argentina, one of their highest honours.

In his later years, di Giovanni felt drawn back, creatively speaking, to north Boston and the land of his youth, writing two novels and a collection of stories set in and around the Italian-American community there during the 1950s. All three are set to be published in 2017 by Abandoned Bookshop.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni died on 15th February, 2017. He had lived in the UK for many years, having settled in Keyhaven on the south coast, and became a naturalised British citizen in 1992. He is survived by his partner, collaborator and fellow translator, Susan Ashe, his sons from his first marriage, Tom and Derek, and three grandchildren.

That's the sort of official obituary-type stuff, which I offer here for those of you unfamiliar with his work, but Norman was also a good friend of mine and I want to tell you more about him than the formal words above.

I first met Norman via the author Warwick Collins. I had republished Warwick's unsung classic (I am always republishing unsung classics, it seems) Gents and we were chatting about a series of mini-novels he had written. One of them was a fictionalised account of Norman's travails with the Borges estate, a story I found fascinating, and he arranged an introduction. As I recall, the three of us met over a pub lunch. Anyway, we got on well and we stayed in touch.

[As an aside, I didn't end up publishing Warwick's mini-novels. He chose to self-publish them, with terrible covers (but don't let that put you off). Icon is the Borges one and is well worth a read. I also recommend the wonderful The Jeweller's Wife.]

A few years later, Norman came to me with something he was working on, it was the new translation of The Slaughteryard mentioned above, which was a collaboration with Susie, and I agreed to publish it. Our edition had their translation alongside the original Spanish text and a bucketload of fascinating extras. It was, as is so often the case, completely ignored by the newspaper review pages but garnered some positive online reviews and sold a modest amount.

This project brought about the first of my many visits to Norman and Susie at their home in Keyhaven. These all followed pretty much the same pattern. I would get the train to Brockenhurst where Norman would meet me, give me a big hug and then drive me back to his place for lunch.

Driving with Norman was quite an experience. He shot through the Hampshire country lanes at speed and drove as if there were no other cars on the road. That in itself was not a problem. The problem was that there were other cars on the road. Lots of them. I have never been a nervous passenger but I more than once found myself clinging to the door handle and hitting a ghost brake with my foot. Not that either did any good. The thing is, Norman wasn't a bad driver, he was just impatient to get to work.

And that summed him up really. There was lots he wanted to do and he just wanted to get it done.

We'd arrive at Pear Tree Cottage where Susie would say a brief hello before Norman would drag me away to his study to talk business. Over the years we discussed translations he was working on, reissues of some of his earlier books, the Borges book he wanted to write, and which became Georgie & Elsa, and the fiction he was writing. Our meetings would rarely last more than an hour and then we'd emerge into the kitchen where Susie would feed us and once the dishes were put away I'd usually head back to the station, white knuckle fashion.

We would also talk a lot on the phone, which was an adventure in itself as Norman was pretty deaf. On more than one occasion I'd be walking through crowded streets yelling 'A HARDBACK!' or something similar into the mouthpiece in an attempt to make myself heard, all the while people staring, assuming I was having a heated book-related argument. At the end of every phone call he'd always ask the same three questions. Tell me, how are you? How is your lovely family? Are you making enough money from this publishing business? Then he'd sign off with 'big hugs' and hang up.

He was hugely supportive of the work of others, most notably that of Susie, and would champion books, stories and poems he admired, even sharing some of them on his website. The same website where he had cheekily shared some of his original Borges translations until the lawyers sent him a cease and desist notice.

He was passionate about writing and translation. He was an advocate of Borges and his work despite his shoddy treatment by the Borges estate. He was a perfectionist. He was impatient. He was a cantankerous bastard. He cared, really truly cared about literature and people. He was a storyteller. He was my friend.

I last saw Norman in the middle of last year. He was back home after a spell in hospital so I was picked up by Susie. Norman was frail but his passion was still there. A few days before he had attended the wedding of one of his sons and was emotional when telling me about it. He had doubted that he'd be well enough to go and it clearly meant so much to him that he had made it. We spoke about his forthcoming books and I went away with a plan of action which I followed up with calls and emails.

One of the books is a novel called What About Reb. In our final email exchange, in January, I asked him why the title didn't have a question mark. He responded:

Do not tamper with ? mark. Wll explain when I
am well enough.
Xxx, N. 

On the bookcase by my front door sits a letter addressed to Norman Thomas di Giovanni. I cannot quite bring myself to move it. Not yet.


Scott Pack
Publisher and Co-Founder
Abandoned Bookshop