My Father's Village
Norman Thomas di Giovanni is best known for his work with the great, some would say legendary, Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. For several years at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, the two men worked together on English versions of Borges' entire output of fiction. These were not mere translations, according to Borges, but new works, stories that the two men had created together, using the Spanish-language originals as a starting point. Borges was so impressed by Norman's contribution that he insisted that he receive 50% of all royalties on them, an unprecedented deal for a translator.
But Norman's contribution did not stop there. He championed Borges' stories in English. He brokered a deal with the New Yorker, with the magazine publishing several of the stories across a number of years. He helped set up reading tours of the US, introducing Borges to Diane Arbus – a meeting that led to a famous photoshoot* – and a host of American authors who were just discovering Borges and were both in awe of and inspired by him. He even helped arrange Borges' divorce from his first wife, Elsa.
Norman wrote about this period of his life, and his time with Borges, in the book, Georgie & Elsa, which I published when I was at HarperCollins some years back. It was a frank and candid portrait of the man, some reviewers felt a little too frank, and is, I would argue, essential reading for Borges fans. Interestingly, it has yet to be published in Argentina where the literary establishment are wary of accounts that portray their greatest writer in anything other than a positive light.
When Borges died in 1986, his wife, who being nearly forty years his junior had many years left ahead of her, joined forces with literary agent Andrew 'The Jackal' Wylie and, faced with the fact that all of Borges' stories were, at the author's own request, joint works with Norman, set about arranging a deal for new translations to be published, versions for which a fresh translator would receive considerably less than 50% of the royalties. This new deal superseded the one Norman had with Borges, meaning that those original translations were allowed to fall out of print and, worse still, Norman was forbidden from ever publishing them again. He would occasionally threaten to make them available, and even sneakily published a few on his website, but each time he would receive a stern lawyer's letter from Penguin, owners of the new translations, instructing him to cease and desist.** Something they, of course, had every legal right to do. Morally, however, well... I doubt even they feel like they are standing on firm ground there.
And what of these new translations? You would have to read them alongside the ones Norman was involved with to form your own opinion, but when Susan Sontag was sent the new editions to review she refused, demanding to know why the wonderful Borges/di Giovanni stories had been replaced with inferior versions. And Paul Theroux simply called them 'poor'. For many, me included, the suppression of the original English translations of Borges' stories is nothing short of a tragedy of literature.
Many of the books Norman published during his lifetime were about Borges – The Lesson of the Master is the ideal Borges primer – or translations of other writers' works. His translation of an Argentine classic that was almost unknown to English readers, The Slaughteryard by Esteban Echeverria, being just one example. But for much of his life, behind the scenes and in his spare time, he wrote fiction. At Abandoned Bookshop we have published two of his novels - What About Reb and Tillie and the Tailor - and a short story collection, A Painful Duty. Although these have, to date, sold modestly, they have received some wonderful reviews. Sadly, Norman died in February of 2017 so never saw them published nor the reaction to them.
He also wrote a range of essays – this one about the iconography of the crucifixion is free to read online – as well as many travel articles, often for the Financial Times. One long piece of travel writing he was particularly proud of, and would often mention to me, concerned his return to the village of his ancestors, Sant'Eusanio Forconese in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and how he made an instant and lifelong connection to it. Norman was born in a suburb of Boston to, as his surname suggests, Italian immigrants. He did not visit his ancestral village till he was a grown man but once there set about trying to buy and renovate a property.
Since Norman's death, his partner, Susan Ashe, and other members of the family have been working, in conjunction with Greenbanks Books, to turn this piece of writing, so important to Norman, into a book, and the end result is a thing of beauty.
My Father's Village is a handsome volume containing Norman's long essay about the village in both English and Italian. It features an introduction by Paul Theroux, in which he compares the Borges/di Giovanni collaboration to a pantomime horse, calls Georgie & Elsa 'a small masterpiece' and once again bemoans the murder of the classic translations. And, slipped within the pages of the book, are more than a dozen black and white photographs taken by Ken Griffiths on a visit to the village with Norman. They are loose-leaf pictures that you can remove to inspect and slot back in, or pin on your wall, or whatever. They are stunning little wonders waiting for you every ten pages or so. A delight.
It is a truly magnificent book and I recommend it to you. It can be ordered direct from this website and I can promise you that you will not be disappointed.
*Decades later, when I approached the Arbus estate for permission to use a photo from the session on the cover of Georgie & Elsa, they asked for thousands of dollars in payment and insisted that no text could appear over the image. I pointed out that a) we didn't have that sort of money, b) that it was pretty difficult to create a book cover with no text on the front and, c) Diane Arbus would never have been able to stage the shoot in the first place if Norman hadn't persuaded a reluctant Borges to take part. Needless to say, I never heard back. We ended up doctoring a photo taken at Norman's wedding, removing Norman and his wife and shuffling Borges and Elsa closer together.
**Always the rebel, towards the end of his life Norman had volumes of the original stories privately printed and he made presents of them to friends and relatives. I have one on my bookshelf, a signed copy which I treasure greatly. When he gave it to me I asked him what would happen if Penguin and Wylie found out. The answer was typical of Norman - FUCK 'EM.