Edwin Frank is a poet and the founder and editorial director of the NYRB Classics series, a publisher of old books and new translations. Among the writers on its eclectic list are Eve Babitz, Colette, JG Farrell, Mavis Gallant, Tove Jansson, Olivia Manning, Janet Malcolm, Alexander Pushkin, Elizabeth Taylor, and Stefan Zweig. NYRB Classics celebrates its 20th birthday this year, an anniversary it marked last month with the publication of The Red Thread, a selection (edited by Frank) of extracts from some of its books.
When you first mooted the idea of a classics list to Rea Hederman, the owner of the New York Review of Books, did it seem a little preposterous, even to you?
At the time, I don’t think I knew how unlikely an enterprise it was. About six months after we began, I was talking to this very distinguished publisher about Joyce Cary [the Anglo-Irish novelist], and he said: “Oh, yes… how many of his books did we sell last year? Was it 69?” It had never crossed my mind that any book I thought of as interesting would sell as few copies as that.
And yet the list is a success. How do the books reach readers?
I used to say things like: can we pitch this as the old Sex and the City? But I don’t think readers are fooled. They know that the old Sex and the City is not the new Sex and the City. There is a way in which the series sells the series. What I mean is that there is a certain logic in our eclecticism: it has multiple entry points. People might see a book they remember having loved, pick up anew and that might in turn lead them to take a look at books, also published by us, that they’ve never heard of. They’re awakened by the project as a whole.
How important is it to publish voices from elsewhere at a time when the US government is encouraging the country to turn in on itself?
I’m probably deluding myself, but I think it’s very important. Our endeavour, and that of some other small presses, has thrived in this period because people have kicked against first Bush’s and now Trump’s America. They have remembered that there is life elsewhere.
What is it that makes a book last?
I am looking for a book that still has the power to surprise: not just shock effects, but some sense of lived experience that is still palpable. I tend to be interested in books that have some sense of historical horizon and occasion: the notion that, though this was another time, we can see our own time in it as well.
People use the word “relevant” a lot these days. Must a book be relevant?
I’m extremely suspicious of the notion. It seems to me simply to feed people back to themselves. The best art is often powerfully irrelevant. I prefer the idea of currency, which is not quite the same as relevance. A book that has currency puts our present concerns in a different but distinct perspective.
Is it relaxing dealing mostly with dead authors?
Well, you don’t have to deal with authorial vanity! It’s also true that other people have let these books go. We don’t have to bid the entire bank in order to get them.
Can you pick out a few favourite titles?
A High Wind in Jamaica [a 1929 novel about children and pirates by the Welsh writer Richard Hughes] is a deep yarn, almost a kind of fairytale, which I continue to be very attached to [NRYB reissued it in 1999]. I love Sylvia Townsend Warner [the author of, among other novels, Lolly Willowes, which is about a witch]. She is a brilliant writer who always tries with each book to do something a little different; I think that may have conspired against her in her lifetime. We published a book of essays by Simon Leys, the Belgian sinologist, called The Hall of Uselessness. At the time , I thought: we can’t possibly do a 500-page book of essays that have already appeared elsewhere. But then I read it and I realised that we couldn’t not do it. The range. It includes an extraordinary portrait of André Gide: one of the great literary portraits. There’s also a beautiful essay about Chinese aesthetics and a polemic against Christopher Hitchens, which I enjoyed. It made its own case for publication.
You publish several books by Kingsley Amis, a writer who is these days thought rather unfashionable. Why?
Well, he is a provocateur. He’s also extremely funny at his best. Lucky Jim is a period piece, but it has the same rebellious energy as On the Road. The AltAmis has more range than people think, and an interest in genre, which is one of the threads of our series. eration [set in a parallel universe in which the Reformation did not happen] is an alternative history, while The Green Man is a ghost story. He has a way of discomforting the reader that I find impressive.
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Is it harder to find female writers? Do you look out for them?
When you’re dealing with the past, it is a problem: men simply had more strategic access to the world of literature and publishing. But we do Barbara Comyns, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Taylor… I don’t think people have taken her [Taylor’s] proper measure yet. She is so steely.
Is there a book you wish had been more noticed? One you feel a bit sorry for?
Tristana is a novel of 1892 by the Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós. It was made into a film by Luis Buñuel [in 1970]. It’s about women’s rights and it’s set in a cloistered society – so cloistered that it’s almost surreal. It’s very sophisticated about human behaviour.
What titles are coming up in the near future?
We’re publishing Diary of a Foreigner in Paris by Curzio Malaparte [the Italian war correspondent, who died in 1957; best known as the author of Kaputt]. He’s such an unreliable narrator. In this book, he claims that he’s unwelcome wherever he goes; he’s in exile and only friends with the dogs. We’re also going to do a French novel, Malicroix, that was recommended to us by Michael Frayn. It’s by Henri Bosco, from 1948. It’s about a man who inherits a house on an island in a river in the Camargue. But in order to get it, he has to live there alone for three months.
Does your job make you feel hopeful about the future for books and reading?
Yes, and it goes on surprising me: the fact that people love this or that book. It’s kind of wonderful.
• The Red Thread: Twenty Years of NYRB Classics – A Selection is published by New York Review Books (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99