Week of the Jackal: Andrew Wylie Devours 3 Giants, One Living

These days, calling Andrew Wylie “the Jackal” is about as lame as calling Bruce Springsteen “the Boss” or Richard Nixon “Tricky Dick.” It’s an ancient fossil of a nickname masquerading as a mischievous inside joke, about as amusing as a Big Johnson t-shirt.

Sometimes, though even tired nicknames are apt. Mr. Wylie certainly lived up to that kitschy little epithet last week when he poached three huge writers—Chinua Achebe, Roberto Bolaño and Vladimir Nabokov—from other literary agents and added them quietly to the client list that is posted triumphantly on his Web site.

Of these three giants, only Mr. Achebe is still alive. And at 77 years old, he is apparently quite frail and unlikely to produce another major work. Rights to the books he has already written, however, including Things Fall Apart, will be in play before too long, and you can be sure that when the time comes, the Wylie Agency will be aggressive about selling them all over the world for maximum return. Mr. Achebe’s previous agent, Emma Sweeney, could not be reached for comment.

Fresh material could still come from Bolaño, however, even though he has been dead since 2003. According to Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who acquired American rights to the Chilean author’s The Savage Detectives and 2666 from the estate’s previous agent, Carmen Balcells, it is possible that Bolaño left behind a substantial amount of work that has not yet seen the light of day. “Apparently, there are other manuscripts,” Mr. Galassi said, “but I don’t know what they are.”

It’s a different story with Nabokov, whose final novel, The Original of Laura, has recently become one of the most famous—even mythic—unpublished works of the 20th century. In April, Nabokov’s 74-year-old son, Dmitri (henceforth, Mr. Nabokov), announced his intention to publish Laura—which is written on 138 index cards—instead of burning it up, as his father had requested just before his death in 1977. The Nabokov estate, as a result, is quite a prize indeed.

Until last week, the honor of placing Laura with a publisher rested with the New Jersey-based agent Nikki Smith, who has been faithfully representing the Nabokov estate since 1986. Ms. Smith had already submitted Laura to Knopf when Mr. Nabokov decided to do the deal through Wylie instead; as of Monday afternoon, when Pub Crawl reached Mr. Nabokov by phone in Palm Beach, he still hadn’t made up his mind about where the book should go. “There are several possibilities,” Mr. Nabokov said. “Many people are interested.”

He is shopping the book not just in America but worldwide—not surprising, given Mr. Wylie’s robust international operation. According to Mr. Nabokov, the French translation of Laura will probably be published by Gallimard; the Italian by Adelphi Edizioni; and the German by Rowohlt. As for the American rights, at press time, Mr. Nabokov said, “There is no news yet. I suggest you call my agent, Andrew Wylie.”

Attempts to contact Mr. Wylie, who was traveling this week, were unsuccessful.

Knopf editor (and Vintage/Anchor publisher) LuAnn Walther, who apparently had been in talks with Ms. Smith before the Nabokov estate was moved to Wylie, did not return calls.

neyfakh@observer.com Week of the Jackal: Andrew Wylie Devours 3 Giants, One Living