Hans Koning was one of the foremost writers living in the United States, having written thirteen novels as well as numerous works of nonfiction on topics as varied as China, Che Guevara, Russia, and so much more.
If you’re a well-read American, it’s likely you’ve seen Koning’s work many times in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. He was a “reporter-at-large” for The New Yorker and his work was published to great critical acclaim. George Plimpton said, “One of America’s most accomplished writers.” All told, Hans Koning wrote more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. He died on April 13, 2007, at his home in Easton, Connecticut, from melanoma. He was eighty-five years old.
I had the great honor and pleasure of not only being an editor to Hans at one point, but most importantly, being a good friend, and that to me means everything. A card bore news of his death, and it read: “I want to set up a whispering in the Universe” (America Made Me, 1979).
He is missed. He will always be missed.
A gift from Hans
Especially I remember what Hans wrote in the frontispiece of a book I published:
Dear Sadi: I haven’t gone mad, sending you this book from Truro to Boston. I would hope that this copy stays with you, part of your library, because it isn’t my book, but our book; and without you this story might still be wandering like a ghost through the publishing scene and anyway, not look as beautiful as it does now. Hence, here’s to you, protectrix of this and all novels now threatened by the money changers. Wth love, Hans Koning (signed with his signature star), Truro, September 29 (no year given) at 5:00 a.m.
Tucked inside the book is another card from Hans that wishes me “all the best happiness, or as close to it as one can get in this world, and all the strength needed to stay on top of things – with much love, Hans K., May 1st (again, no year given, this time, no time either).
Never the year
That card is one of many cards I received over the years that I knew Hans, and I have saved every last one of them; each bears his signature “Hans K” along with his signature star after his name and sometimes, the time, but never the year. Hans was fond or recording the time of day, as am I. Perhaps he too was all too aware of how fleeting time is and knowing then that all things must pass. I hate that. Perhaps it’s why I don’t like to sleep.
I don’t know if Hans too was an insomniac who worked well into the night, but I know that I am, and as a fellow writer, I find sleep a waste of time. Why sleep, I think, when I could be up writing. That I may be tired the next day simply does not occur as a reasonable thought. If Hans were here, this fuzzy logic would make sense to him, I think.
Of absurdities and ashtrays
I remember Hans and me in the East Village at the Noho Star, where, after visiting his agent, we went to have some coffee. I used to smoke then (sometimes I still do—shhhh) and I lit a cigarette (this was before it was banned everywhere). The instant I did, a young man came over and asked me to put it out.
Hans looked at him with a mix of shock and disdain and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Please bring us an ashtray.”
The man explained that smoking was not allowed.
Hans would have none of this “absurdity.” He insisted the man bring an ashtray.
“We don’t have any.”
“A saucer then,” Hans said.
“No smoking allowed.”
“I’ll put it out,” I said.
“No you won’t,” Hans said, and so it was that I practically chain-smoked per order of Hans at the Noho Star. I think it amused him to defy such “absurdities” as he called them and I think, too, that Hans liked to break the rules simply for the sake of breaking the rules.
The time after that I was to meet Hans at the Met for lunch. So I waited for him and he arrived and Hans always made such an arrival—RayBans on, all cool and hip. “My car is on the street,” he said.
“Your car?” I said, incredulous, thinking, where the hell do you park around there?
Hans took me to said car and proudly displayed his “press credentials,” which, real or fake, landed us the parking spot of a lifetime without being towed away. He said something about immunity. I still don’t know what he meant, but then, it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that it worked and had that Koning cool.
I remember Hans arriving at my office at Lumen one day sans Ray Bans and I was shocked to see the whites of his eyes.
“What happened to your sunglasses?” I said. See, I too wear RayBans – the exact same kind that Hans wore as a matter of fact. I, like Hans, have never worn any other kind.
“I lost them,” he said wearily.
The trademarked sunglasses
“That’s aawwwwfullllll,” I said. I simply couldn’t imagine being without one’s trademarked sunglasses, especially Hans. I mean, he even had them on in his author photo for the book I was publishing of his at the time—Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History. It was just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So, without hesitation, I reached into my bag and handed him my sunglasses. They were exactly the same. Black, RayBan, Wayfarers, even the same size.
“No, I can’t really,” he said in that lilting accent.
“Yes, you can really,” I said, and so it was that he took the glasses because I wouldn’t let him put up much of a fuss, and besides which, I told him he wasn’t as cool without them, which must’ve struck a nerve because he took them after that, right away.
Cool by default
I didn’t tell him I didn’t replace my own for about a year. I was not cool for a time—I don’t know that I ever was cool, or ever will be except of course when in the presence of Hans, because when in Hans’s presence, one was almost cool by default. That je ne sais quoi. You were like something out of a Jean Luc Goddard film or something by Truffault perhaps. Just cool. Maybe this is why he always signed his letters “Keep cool, love Hans” and that star. Hey, maybe I was sorta cool afterward. Note, he said keep cool.
I remember commiserating with Hans about the state of publishing in the U.S. many times—countless letters and cards passed back and forth between us—as one foreigner to another. And yet we both lived here, and we both loved it here enough, that didn’t stop us from loving our home, from loving Europe, from missing home.
Neither of us loved conglomerate publishing in the States or elsewhere. Hans was never going to be “huge” in this country because he was labeled “too European”—the kiss of death. Why that should be the kiss of death is beyond me. I don’t even know really what “too European” means really. I go to the fnac in Paris and see books from all over the world and wonder if in Paris they say of a book, “It’s too United States.” Short of a novel about cowboys and Indians, I don’t know what that really means; but I do know that Hans felt that industry seemed more and more to be ran by cowboys and didn’t like it. We essentially agreed, and the last time we really spoke was when he interviewed me for a radio program he hosted about the state of publishing in the United States, and I spoke as someone who has ran a successful small press that published one of his books. It was a passionate conversation. I remember Hans opened the show with Getz and Gilberto, Desafinado, which I didn’t know until the show aired, and which just so happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music as well.
I remember Hans and me going over every single page of Pursuit of a Woman one afternoon in my office. Hans carefully checked the layout for the edits and any typos or anything he disagreed with. I remember thinking, Gaawwd, this is painful. I remember thinking, this is every editor’s nightmare, but I remember thinking, too, how lovely Hans was and how he made everything okay. That he offered to share his Lorazepam with me didn’t hurt either and certainly sweetened the deal. I remember that Hans was generous. I remember that Hans was kind. I remember that Hans was handsome. I remember that only Hans had that unmistakable voice and that there will be none other like it, soft and self-assured at the same time. I remember that Hans had great taste. I remember that Hans could talk me into anything because he had that charm. What I remember most is that Hans was my friend. What I want to remember and what I ask you to remember is his legacy, his books, his family, because I know that above all, this is how Hans wants to be remembered. Turn then now to what he would want to be remembered for, and don’t forget him.
Keep cool, Hans. I’ll try to do the same.
Moderator’s note: Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti is a former publicity director and editor for David R. Godine, Publisher, and has worked at Conde Nast Publications, The Atlantic Monthly and others. She has been widely published and now writes for several publications including the famous Cleveland Blogcritics, Geek2Geek, Boston Globe Arts Section, and she has also written for Publisher’s Weekly, Independent Publisher and others. Visit her Web site.
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