A Publishing Superstar Whose Memoir Shuns Glitz to Explore Private Torment
Kazuo Ishiguro called him “lovely.” Andrew Solomon said he “raises the level of discourse across the country.” Salman Rushdie, who has not been in the habit of giving interviews while recovering from an attack, made an exception, calling him “a warm and deeply emotional human being” whose “cultural span is broad and deep.” He added, “I love him very much.”
The man in question, Luiz Schwarcz, is that most exotic of creatures, a publishing celebrity. He founded Companhia das Letras, the largest publisher in Brazil, but his influence can be felt across the literary world, where he has a reputation as a tastemaker with the power to make an author’s career.
With his wife, the anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Luiz Schwarcz is a central figure of Brazil’s intelligentsia, but also part of a cadre of publishing luminaries who broker deals on a global scale — “a creature of Frankfurt,” according to his longtime friend Jonathan Galassi, executive editor of the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
“There are few people in publishing who really stand for quality and the enduring value of remarkable work,” said the literary agent Andrew Wylie. “Luiz is one of that very small number of people.”
Yet you’ll find none of that in Schwarcz’s memoir, “The Absent Moon,” which will be released in the United States by Penguin Press on Feb. 28. There are no anecdotes about Susan Sontag’s taste in Beethoven recordings or Oliver Sacks’s entertaining quirks. Certainly no litany of international awards or roster of celebrated writers both foreign and domestic.
Indeed, a reader coming to this slim, modest volume with no knowledge of the author would finish it knowing little of his celebrity, or his undeniable success. What they would see, instead, is a man grappling with bipolar disorder.
“I have got many friends, writers; they know that I am quiet, but they never knew what I had, what I have,” Schwarcz said in New York last month, in precise and lightly accented English. Indeed, to those who have known only the courtly, controlled man of letters with the encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, the account may come as a shock.
“I had no idea that he suffered from depression,” says Ishiguro, who has known Schwarcz, his Brazilian publisher, for some 20 years. And while Wylie has been aware of “certain difficulties,” he says, “we have never had a direct conversation about that.”
Here is Schwarcz frankly acknowledging the violence and outbursts occasioned by his bipolar disorder, the suicidal depths of his depression, the lifelong battle to find the right medication and navigate its side effects, the devastating effect of it all on his loved ones. The disease has informed every moment of his life.
Writing the book was perhaps cathartic; it was certainly destabilizing. Schwarcz describes a period of profound desolation following its entry to the world. “There was too much of me,” he said.
The topic is heavy, but — in yet another surprise — this memoir about depression has been a best seller in Brazil, where it was originally published as “O Ar Que Me Falta,” in 2021.
Part of the book’s power comes in the fact that Schwarcz is, by any measure, a success; those who can keep such illness to themselves are rarely inclined to share their struggles with the rest of the world. In part because of this reticence, the image of mental illness, for many, has become associated with the visibly unwell rather than with those who deal successfully — if constantly — with their conditions.
“Here’s somebody who is highly regarded and accomplished and who has suffered, you know, really quite terribly,” said Solomon, one of the friends who was aware of the extent of Schwarcz’s struggles. “And he does not whitewash his experience and he doesn’t turn it around into a happy ending.”
Indeed, Schwarcz manages to convey the sense of being mired in the moment, of lacking past and future, that defines the state. “Those who suffer from depression live only in the moment,” he writes. “The verdict is always in the absolute and in present tense. Are we depressed or not?”
Schwarcz’s illness is a legacy handed down through the generations; trauma and biology combined. Schwarz’s father, a Hungarian Jew, was 19 years old in 1944 when he was loaded onto a cattle car bound for Bergen-Belsen. His own father, riding in the same car, pushed him out with the single word — “Run!” Schwarcz’s father survived; his grandfather did not.
The survivor’s guilt Schwarcz’s father carried to Brazil — combined with underlying mental health issues — and his unhappy and abusive marriage both affected his son deeply.
“My principle inheritance has always been guilt,” writes Schwarcz, who recalls nights of listening to his insomniac father’s heels rhythmically kick the bed’s footboard.
A lonely child, Schwarcz began experiencing anxiety and depression at a young age; he was further distressed by the rendezvous with prostitutes his father arranged for him from the age of 13, and later by the pressures of being a soccer goalie. “People like me who develop an outsized sense of responsibility for others shouldn’t tend goal,” he writes. Camus was a goalie, he noted during his New York visit.
Music became an outlet and a passion. To this day, he regularly takes in classical concerts, and wrote this memoir while listening to Puccini, learning only later that the composer himself suffered from bipolar disorder.
Later came hospitalization, self-harm, periods of mania and desolation. All the while, he maintained a reputation as dignified and introspective, collected the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award, attended the Nobel ceremony with Ishiguro, represented Brazilian letters on the world stage and brought great literature into translation.
“Over the years, my voice has become softer, my words rarer,” he said. “Perhaps as a result I give the impression that I’m a man at peace, free of major internal conflicts. My tone of voice is deceptive.”
Colm Toibin, another friend, said Schwarcz was generous with introductions but very introspective, marked by a “hazardous, heavy reserve.”
Schwarcz did not need to share this personal side of his story; he might have stayed deeply private and allowed the public image to stand unchallenged.
“Why? What are you thinking? Why do you want to do this?” he said his mother demanded when he described the project. He replied: “I think I will help others.” A friend in publishing said he should cut the chapter about violence; another objected to his sharing the sexual side effects of his medication.
While Brazil is a country with a robust psychoanalytic culture — for those who can afford it — as in so many places there remains a stigma surrounding mental illness. Solomon, whose own depression memoir, “Noonday Demon,” prompted a passionate reaction from many Brazilian readers, said there’s a distinction between publishing such a book in Brazil, as a public figure, and in the United States, where “everyone from Brad Pitt on down is talking about how depressed they are all the time.”
There’s a greater reluctance in Brazil to discuss mental health publicly, said Schwarcz, though he believes that is changing. He hears back from readers, who tell him stories of facing prejudice in their own family, or of people refusing to read his book because they don’t accept the idea of mental illness.
The English title — loosely translated, the Portuguese original is “The Air That I Lack” — comes from a novel Schwarcz never finished, and was suggested by his editor in the United States, Scott Moyers. “It captures the same sense of poetic simplicity,” he said. Schwarcz loved that it still conveyed a sense of negative space — or the perception thereof.
Schwarcz was ever conscious, he said, of not burdening the reader with too much drama, respecting what he considers an essentially collaborative relationship. “I try to be tender with the reader,” he said.
And he is intensely aware, too, that each reader will come to the story differently. Indeed, he welcomes the differing approaches.
“The book is a different book for each one,” he said. “The book is an encounter of two silences, and two imaginations. So it’s the silence of the writer, and the silence of the reader.”