SAVKAR ALTINEL | early 1970s

[Fiction Staff, 1972-3]

When I arrived in Chicago from my native Turkey in 1972 I was nineteen, had literary aspirations and intended to major in English. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the fiction staff of the Chicago Review.

Office technology of the time was still at the stage where IBM “golf ball” typewriters were considered state of the art. Needless to say, there wasn’t one of these in the two-room Review office (although there may have been a typewriter of some description tucked away in a corner). The spartan furnishings consisted mainly of a pair of battered wooden tables, a few similarly decrepit chairs, some book shelves groaning under the weight of tomes sent in for review and a heavily scratched metal filing cabinet.

More or less every afternoon I let myself in, using the key issued to me for this purpose, extracted a pile of manila envelopes from the “Submissions” drawer of the aformentioned filing cabinet and dutifuuly read through the typescripts they contained. Anything I didn’t like went straight into a large cardboard box marked “Rejections.” If I came across something that was to my taste, however, I scribbled a brief note underlining its merits on the back of the envelope and placed in in another box marked “To Be Considered,” so that it could be read by other staff members and discussed at the monthly editorial meeting. It wasn’t exactly a high-tech system, but it worked.

I had imagined that as an English-speaking Turk I might be a somewhat exotic addition to the staff, but such illusions were soon dispelled. The Editor was a stateless Russian named Alexander “Sasha” Besher whose parents had managed to defect to Japan after being sent to China as advisors in the days before the great Sino-Soviet rift. I can’t remember now if Sasha actually spoke Japanese, but he was certainly extremely interested in Japan and in regular contact with various writers over there.

In his own way, the Fiction Editor Ed Rosen was no less striking. A small, bearded man who had been in the Navy and was in the throes of writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the works of Ray Bradbury, Ed had the habit of addressing me as “Sir” in a manner which I found slightly alarming. But then to be slightly alarming was Ed’s way. Some years after I first met him, he joined Billings Hospital as an orderly. Occasionally, going to class early in the morning, I would run into him coming off the night shift and he would tell me all about the blood and gore of the previous eight hours or so, shaking his head and muttering, “Some heavy stuff in there, some heavy stuff!”

My fellow staff members included Steve, who was a New York socialist (there were still a few of them around in those days), Nancy, who had recently got divorced and a long-haired man named Simon who went about in a military greatcoat, looking like a deserter from the Civil War. The latter was rather on the fringes of the magazine and indeed of the University. From time to time he would turn up in one of my classes and sit quietly for a while before suddenly raising his hand to ask a question like, “But how can you be sure that the world isn’t resting on the back of a turtle? I mean, how can you be sure?”

There were also individuals who were not on the editorial staff but paid employees of the magazine on the managerial side. Of these, Doug Unger, a slim, blonde young man, struck me as impressive because he had been to South America and written a novel—achievements I was hoping to emulate myself. (When another of Unger’s novels, Leaving the Land, was published years later, I was able to review it for the TLS. I don’t know if he received a cutting.).

The monthly editorial meetings were held in Ed’s Hyde Park apartment and at times debate grew fierce. On one occasion Ed and Sasha had the temerity to suggest that there was such a thing as editorial prerogative and an editor’s opinion was more important than that of an ordinary staff member when it came to deciding what should be included in the magazine. Nancy opposed this bitterly, others backed her and the matter was discussed for hours, with voices being raised and the atmosphere becoming increasingly tense.

A cynical Old Worlder unwilling to believe democracy was really possible, I refused to get involved in this thoroughly American attempt to set up an egalitarian editorial system; but there were times when I provoked debate myself. Once I wrote on the back of an envelope, relying on a recent reading of King Lear for an introductory level humanities cours, “If this story is not accepted, I will do such things—what they are, yet I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Alas, I have forgotten both the title of the story (which was accepted) and the name of the man who wrote it, although I seem to remember that the author, an American living in London, later wrote a history of left-wing movements in the United States called The Radical Soap Opera.

There were also a few other literary discoveries during my time with the Review. Ed was rather fond of the stories of Arias-Misson, another expatriate American, this time living in Brussels, and I believe we used one or two of these. Sasha, on the other hand, was enthusiastic aboutTransformations, a long narrative full of allusions to Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, produced by a man named John Mella who worked for the post office in Chicago. Several chunks of this, too, appeared in the magazine and there was even some talk of setting up a Chicago Review Press to publish it in book form. This, incidentally, wasn’t a case of “editorial prerogative,” since most of us were as taken with Mella’s work as Sasha.

Staff members often claimed that working for the magazine was a form of therapy. “Poor X,” we would say behind poor X’s back, “without the magazine he’d really fall apart.” I don’t know if this was really true of X (or Y or Z), but it certainly was true of me to some extent. Reading for the magazine for a few hours every day and attending the editorial meetings kept the demons of adolescence at bay. Or at least they did so for a while, although after about two years the demons finally broke through. I became unhappy in my private life, and as unhappiness is time-consuming even (or perhaps especially) if one has all the energy of youth, I turned in my office key and left the magazine to concentrate on my misery. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago; now I live thousands of miles away in England, and my youthful misery has long been replaced by the bewilderment of middle age, a condition which, while even more dreadful, is somehow also more manageable and can be relied on to remain in the background while one get’s on with one’s life. If I were to return to Chicago one of these days, therefore, perhaps I could call at the office and sit and read for an hour or two as I used to. In any case, regardless of whether I ever return, many happy returns to the Review itself.