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The Pleasures of Farewell : ANTAEUS 75/76: Final Issue, Fall, 1994, Edited by Daniel Halpern (Ecco: $17; 396 pp.)

October 02, 1994|Jim Krusoe | Jim Krusoe is the editor of the Santa Monica Review

For some months now, rumors have been slithering quietly along the floor of the literary world that Antaeus, one of the most important magazines of the last 50 years, would be publishing its last issue. And here it is at last, "the distinguished thing," as Henry James once said on the occasion of another death, and it's actually a double issue, numbers 75 and 76 together.

Why should a magazine that most people haven't heard of, let alone read, whose circulation was, at tops, about 10,000, be so mourned? To put it simply, Antaeus reminded us how good writing could be. It provided a measure of greatness, not only for writers, but for other magazines.

The magazine's editor, Daniel Halpern, published its first issue in the fall of 1970, and since then has been the single judge of what each issue will include. Halpern, raised in Los Angeles, had originally met Paul Bowles while that legendary writer was teaching at Cal State Northridge; then accepted Bowles' invitation to spend some time with him in Morocco. It was Bowles' offer of $900 as a stake, and his introductions to other writers (including John Fowles, Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams), that convinced Halpern to begin the publication. Then, and throughout Antaeus' 25 years of life, its goal was to "mix the well known and the unknown," the American and international, the works of the canon with unusual. Always a centrist publication, Antaeus was never one of those magazines (also valuable) established to promote a single literary point of view.

Now this last issue, as if we needed one, is a reminder of the stature of all that went before. The table of contents of those contributing fiction alone is a Who's Who of contemporary writers, including Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Ann Beattie, Paul Bowles, Sandra Cisneros, Don Delillo, Richard Ford (the definitive motel inspector story), Nadine Gordimer, Stephen King (!), R. K. Narayan, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, William Trevor and Tobias Wolff. And whether by coincidence or design, the subjects of the fiction in this last issue cover murder, death, kidnaping, disappearances, theft, lost causes, lost sight, lost homes, lost souls, lost children, lost love and lost birds--a long wave of goodby from its contributors over the years.

The poetry is equally accomplished, though more varied in tone, and the section called "Documents," which reprints some material from previous issues, offers us essays by Calvino and Gass, the notebooks of Bill Clinton (before he was elected President, and amazing in their impersonality--as if already they are meant to be delivered from a public podium), some previously unpublished poems of Hart Crane and what used to be the first two chapters of "The Sun Also Rises," before they were cut, partly it seems, on the very good advice of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

What a feast this whole issue is, and if some of the pieces, as inevitable in a tribute of this kind, seem a bit brief, they are tasty, and as before any trek across a barren country, readers would do well to stock up. Fortunately, Antaeus' offshoot and now its bereaved parent, Ecco Press, will continue, for as unimaginable as it is to mark the end of the magazine, to lose Ecco, one of the nation's most indispensable presses, would be unthinkable.

"The best magazines are done," Halpern says, not by professionals, but by "people starting out who feel strongly." So other magazines will appear in time, and perhaps one of them will come to assume the importance of Antaeus, and then eventually its editor, if he or she is wise, will also step down, "not wanting to repeat myself."

Nonetheless, the loss of Antaeus will be felt deeply, and perhaps the most fitting elegy of its passing is to be found within its own pages--the Greek poet, Cavafy, writing of the great poems (or magazines) as if they were sailing ships: "During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if--as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence--if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind's hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, exquisite ships would go by on their way--who knows where."

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