Barney Rosset died in New York City on Tuesday 21 February 2012. I received an email from Barney’s son, Peter, this morning. A couple of days ago I sent Astrid and Barney an email. I told them that I loved them. Which I do. But I didn’t get a real chance to say goodbye. That is one of those regrets that stays with a person. This is my way of saying goodbye, Barney.
I lost someone who was a mentor, a father figure, and a friend. Our friendship started around the time my dad had died in the early 1990s. Barney’s death came within ten days of the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death. In many ways, Barney became my substitute father. Barney came to Bangkok to see me and I traveled to New York to see him and his wife, Astrid.
One year Barney brought along his son Peter to Bangkok.
We had a family dinner at Pan Pan on Soi 33 Sukhumvit and Peter and Barney swapped stories about personalities inside left-wing movements in Latin America and Cuba. On another trip he brought his daughter Chantal and again we had dinner, same restaurant, same menu. Barney ordered the pasta. He didn’t eat anything that night. I rarely saw him eat anything in Bangkok or New York in all of the years that I knew him. He always took the (it is hard to call them leftovers) home for the next day. Astrid reported that he ate the meal the next day.
Barney loved Bangkok and Pattaya. He’d always find a place with a good pool table. He also played tennis. I have the video footage.
You can read his obit in the New York Times for all of the public accomplishments and they were many covering a long span of time. If you love reading novels, then light a candle in memory of Barney because without the determination, resources and bull-headed sense that you should be able to choose what you want to read, what you’d have to read would be much poorer, filled with lies and distortions.
That’s Barney’s legacy for me. Freedom of expression matters. Criminalization expression is the way authorities imprison and murder thoughts and ideas they don’t like. In Barney’s world, thought and ideas and their expression should always be free from oppression. He believed that to the core of his soul. While a lot of people believe in freedom, very few would have sacrificed their wealth in its service. In a world that Barney leaves behind a man’s worth is assessed by the amount of wealth he accumulated. On that measurement, Barney’s passing wouldn’t have been noticed. The fact the New York Times devoted three pages to Barney is a testament that there are other measures beyond wealth and money. Barney will long be remembered after the super rich are dust and forgotten. No one who cares about literature can ignore the debt owed to this one man.
I have so many Barney stories. I flew to New York in 2008 and was at his personal table when the National Book Award gave him a special award in recognition of his importance to literature. Barney had asked me to read his speech in advance. I made a couple of suggestions. Barney used one or two of them. Two years, Barney and Astrid, along with Galen Williams and Harvey Shapiro, the bard of New York, dined at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. There was a band that night. Barney and Astrid danced and danced. The band wanted to go home. Barney didn’t. I saw him eat an entire bowl of ice cream that night. Galen is my witness. Barney was 87 the night he forced the Harvard Club to pay the band overtime because it was a night to dance.
I spent countless hours in his loft apartment on the Lower East Side. Going through the old photographs, the memories, and his plans. He held a big party for my wife and me five or six years ago and invited editors, agents, and reviewers. That was Barney, the father figure, always trying to find a way to get someone in New York interested in my work. When finally Grove/Atlantic contracted to bring out four of the Calvino novels, he was the first to congratulate me.
Barney was a natural storyteller. Being half Jewish, and half Irish he inherited the story telling genes from both of his parents. I have hours of Barney on video telling stories. I want to go back and watch Barney again, and again, weaving tales of the great names in publishing in Paris, Havana, and London.
He told me over the years many stories about Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. One of Barney’s Henry Miller stories is included in a story I wrote called “The Star of Love” and is part of a book called Chairs. I wrote the occasional essay and short story for Evergreen Review. For many years I was the Review’s Correspondent from Thailand. We were always hatching plans for Barney and Astrid to return to Thailand for one more round of pool.
There is one Barney story that comes to mind on this very sad day. When he was a child of 8 or 9, Barney set out in the company of his parents for what in those days would have been a journey of high adventure. They left Chicago and traveled to California where they board a ship that took them to Hawaii. Barney, the boy, had the full run of the ship, exploring the cabins, engine room, captain’s quarters and the decks. It was his first time at sea. It was his first real journey. In World War II, Barney was a young officer in the army and he was assigned to a film crew in China. He filmed and photographed the war from the area in Yunnan Province, around Kunming . At Barney’s loft, I’ve spent hours over the years studying the photographs of war in China. Together we look silently at the dead soldiers on dirt paths, their sandals still on their feet. I listened to his stories of traveling through the bombed out villages.
After the war ended, Barney found himself on a ship sailing home. He was a young man, but a war veteran. He’d seen war up close and photographed the brutality that war brings. The ship was packed with other veterans who were also returning home. Not long into the voyage, Barney discovered the name of the ship. He found a place where some child had written under a hand railing: BR. It was the same ship that Barney had taken as a kid. The ship was delivering him back home for a second time.
Somewhere out in that great beyond, Barney’s back on that ship, sailing the open seas, carving his initials into the hand railing. And for those of us who love literature, take a moment to remember that the boy who set out on that journey is the man who returned so that truth could be spoken and those in power had no force to sink the ship that Barney captained.