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Hearts and minds

A Political Education Coming of Age in Paris and New York Andre Schiffrin Melville House: 282 pp., $24.95

March 25, 2007|Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind's reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

ANDRe SCHIFFRIN'S memoir begins and ends in Paris, neatly encircling a long career as a titan of publishing in New York City, where he managed Pantheon Books for 30 years. An introspective wish to explore his "dual nature" has led him to compose a narrative of fractured halves: of French and American loyalties, of personal history and political opinion and -- perhaps most significant -- of a father and a son gesturing to each other across death's divide.

Schiffrin's father, Jacques, was also an influential publisher in France and New York. He was the son of a Russian longshoreman who made and lost a fortune manufacturing petrochemicals in oil-rich Baku on the Caspian Sea around the turn of the 20th century. After studying law in Geneva during World War I, Jacques traveled across Europe, making friends with just about every notable cultural figure during that brilliant era, including Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and art-world luminaries Bernard Berenson and Peggy Guggenheim.

In the early 1920s, Jacques settled in Paris and launched a publishing house called Editions de la Pleiade, producing an extremely successful series of French classics, which was acquired in 1933 by the grand French publishing firm Gallimard. In 1940, eager to keep his business during the German occupation, Gaston Gallimard fired his Jewish employees, including Jacques, and welcomed Nazi-appointed editors into the firm.

With no illusions about their chances for survival in Paris, the Schiffrins -- Jacques, wife Simone and their only child, Andre, who'd just turned 5 -- were desperate to leave. It was the writer Andre Gide, Jacques' best friend, who orchestrated their dramatic escape. (Well-known for his anti-Semitism, Gide once commented that Jacques was "the only Jew he ever really liked.")

Through the intervention of Gide and American journalist Varian Fry, the Schiffrins boarded a ship originally bound for the United States that stopped in Morocco, leaving them stranded for months in Casablanca. They were rescued again by Gide's financial assistance, and in August 1941 they finally reached New York. Jacques went to work at Pantheon Books, which was founded by the German Jewish exiles Kurt and Helen Wolff. After the war, Jacques suffered too seriously from emphysema to return to his beloved Paris, but before his death in 1950, he published the first works of the French Resistance writers such as Gide, Albert Camus and many others.

Young Andre, who was 15 when his father died, took advantage of the opportunities his adopted country offered him. Through family connections he secured a full scholarship to Yale, where he started a student chapter of the Socialist League for Industrial Democracy, later famously renamed Students for a Democratic Society. After graduation, he attended Clare College at Cambridge University, where he studied history and served as the first American editor of Granta, the university's venerable magazine.

After returning to New York, Schiffrin enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University, simultaneously working full time for the paperback house New American Library, where he dreamed up the idea for soft-cover editions of world literature called Signet Classics. It wasn't until years later that he realized, as he wrote in an earlier memoir, "The Business of Books" (2000), that the Signet series was "an inexpensive version of my father's Pleiade series in France."

Surprisingly, Schiffrin did not at this point envision a life in publishing; he could not imagine himself a worthy enough successor to his prodigious, polyglot father. Nonetheless, in 1962, Schiffrin was invited to work as a junior editor at Pantheon, his father's old firm. Eventually he became its director, producing mostly highbrow books by writers whose leftist politics he admired, including Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, Studs Terkel and Marguerite Duras.

Schiffrin calls this new autobiography a political memoir, although he acknowledges that historians, many of whom he has published, are better equipped to write a political history of the 20th century's second half. His politics have remained unchanged from the moment he declared himself a Socialist at age 13; for every historical episode his book describes -- McCarthyism, the Korean War, the student revolts of the early 1960s, Vietnam, the Reagan revolution -- he offers a thoroughly unsurprising left-liberal response, making his "political education" a scrupulously consistent but far less compelling journey than his personal history.

In fact, of all the divisions in Schiffrin's book, the most interesting is the suspenseful gap between his unshakable political responses to public events and the often painfully emotional private history that hovers fretfully alongside.

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