Punk and politics: the Série Noire in 2016

 

The Gallimard publishing house is a French cultural institution. Its historic Left Bank building, surrounded by Parisian pavement cafés, serves as a shrine for aficionados of high literary culture. For over a century, it has been a centrepiece of the literary establishment, welcoming names as renowned as Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Proust and Albert Camus into the canon, by publishing them in its iconic ‘Blanche’ collection. Appearing under the famous white cover is a mark of acceptance by the bookish elite.

Gallimard, however, also has a darker side. While the famous blanche cover suggests a certain conservatism, finesse, and avant-garde purity, its Série Noire crime collection, known for its deathly black colour-scheme, stands for a world of transgression, corruption, and immorality. In a hunched office, lost in the labyrinth of the Gallimard HQ toils Aurélien Masson, director of the Série Noire since 2005. Here, Masson sits making the final edits to a manuscript, drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette. As you might expect, the walls are piled high with books. Rather than the traditional Gallimard icons, Charles Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lemmy from Motörhead gaze down from the walls. As a young, metal band t-shirt wearing, tattoo-sporting longhair, Masson is the black sheep of a publishing house known for its focus on belles lettres, but his publishing savvy, confidence, and passion for crime fiction has revitalised the collection, making him a valuable commodity within both Gallimard and the broader world of noir.

 

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Photograph – via Libération

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The Série Noire, of course, has its own long and illustrious history. Set up by its first director Marcel Duhamel in the wake of the end of the second World War, it was created to host translations of the biggest names of English language crime fiction into French. Chandler, Cheyney, and James Hadley Chase were published in the first couple of years. Goodis translations, starting with Le Cassse (The Burglar), became a staple of the collection from the 1950s onwards. As demobbed Yankee soldiers brought black American jazz to the nightclubs of St-Germain-des-Près, the Série Noire too became synonymous with a post Liberation trend for the English speaking world. Duhamel was a jazz fan, as was the Chandler translator, writer (of the notorious I Spit on Your Graves, no less), and jazz trumpeter Boris Vian. The early years of the collection were soundtracked by both bebop and the hammering of typewriters converting hip English prose into French.

Little by little, throughout the 1950s, home-grown French writers began to make their mark in the collection, though Serge Arcouët and Jean Meckert originally made their débuts under English-sounding noms-de-plume: Terry Steward and John Amila respectively. Albert Simonin became a cult figure and his stylish use of underworld street slang caught the ear of the French cinema industry with his Touchez Pas au Grisbi! (Don’t Touch the Loot!) adapted for the screen in 1954. As a result of increased competition for the reader’s attention, the 1960s and 1970s were a fallow period for the Série Noire, but the attempted student revolutions of May 1968 in Paris, and the subsequent political radicalization of a generation saw a sharpening of the collection’s political focus. Some element of social critique has, as Ernest Mandel demonstrates in A Social History of the Crime Story, has always played a role in crime fiction; but writers such as Manchette and Didier Daeninckx, Thierry Jonquet, and Frédéric H. Fajardie who followed in his slipstream were particularly nourished by a diet of classic crime and whispered tales of police battles and nights on Left Bank barricades.

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The world, of course, has changed several times since the inception of the Série Noire which marked its 70th birthday in 2015. As well as 1968, the collection has witnessed Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin wall, two Gulf Wars, intervention in Afghanistan, not to mention the changing cultural logic ushered in by the televisual revolution, the Internet, and the change of reading habits forced through by e-books and Kindles: people are watching more, but reading less.

Despite this, the Série Noire persists. As well the strong cultural legacy of the collection, this is in no small part testament to Masson’s involvement. He is, however, quick to distance himself from such quick praise: “I’m suspicious of editors who say, looking back, that they had such and such a vision, wanted to achieve such and such a project”. He tells me, through a cloud of smoke, “I don’t think I’ve brought a great deal of preconceived ideas to the table, but what I have been able to do is stay true to the fantasies I had about the Série Noire growing up as a voracious reader in the 1990s: I want to keep the collection both socially relevant and bad-ass”.

Pausing for a second, he takes another drag; “In some ways I’ve been lucky that there is an interesting generation of French crime writers who have been inspired by the novels of James Ellroy and the films of Martin Scorsese. If I’ve brought anything to the Série Noire, it’s a taste for taking risks. I don’t want the collection to rest on its laurels and be only concerned with translating popular English language psychological thrillers or ‘Nordic Noir’, I want to go on adventures with writers who will take me in different directions, whether they are DOA, who writes 500-page novels about the Afghan war, Antoine Chainas’ hyper-sexual novels or Caryl Férey’s epic adventures. I see the Série Noire as a collection of diverse individuals, all of whom care very much about their writing, all cohabiting in a shared orbit”.

In its first 1950s and 1960s heydays the Série Noire was known for the almost industrial levels of its production, with up to 60 titles published a month. Duhamel even found it necessary, on occasion, to apologize to his readers for the inconsistencies in the quality of the novels he issued. A distinct politique d’auteur, a policy that puts the authors first and avoids such production-line publishing, has been at the heart of Masson’s curatorial approach. Early on in his directorship, the collection abandoned the policy of numbering each new novel on its spine, with Masson preferring to focus on author names. “I’m into spending time with writers, developing their careers and producing great books, that’s where I add value as an editor. I’m also into the long game; I don’t necessarily expect writers to completely flourish with their first book – the first Rolling Stones album, or the first Beatles album wasn’t their best, for example. I like the idea of a body of work; you used to wait for the new David Bowie album because it was a Bowie album. Sometimes you were disappointed, but you recognised that all the records formed part of his oeuvre. I see the Série Noire as a space where the writers have the freedom to produce great work”.

How does Masson reconcile the Série Noire of 2016 with the collection’s political and radical past? The editor does, after all, have a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital prominently on his desk and, in media interviews, talks passionately about his love of the punk mindset. “I’m certainly not insensitive to the punk way of doing things”, he grins, “but I’m certainly not an anti-market idealist, either. As an editor, I know I’ve got to find the right balance between books that are more commercial, and more experimental crime fiction by the likes of Frédéric Jaccaud. I do, however, have the audacity to believe that the value of a book doesn’t just depend on the number of readers it has”.

As well as politics, the Série Noire has a complex relationship with the US. While it was established as a channel for the publication of translations from America, many of its later writers, such as Manchette, have been critical of rampant Americanism. Masson is determined to keep the French focus in the collection: “The heart of the Série Noire certainly does still beat in France. If I have a criticism to make of the contemporary American crime novel it is that it is less concerned with social critique that in the days of Chandler and Hammett. The writers I work with all, to some extent, criticise a certain part of contemporary France experience, whether that is Benoit Minville’s focus on rural France or Jerome Leroy’s book exploring mainstream politics. At the Série Noire, we don’t make novels to help people relax. They are certainly entertaining, but they also have depth”.

If there is a political line to the Série Noire today, it encourages readers to reflect, rather than telling them what to think. We are a long way from the red flag-waving days of the 70s and 80s. “Before working in publishing I was trained as a sociologist. I think that a good social critique, good sociological practice, is based on asking questions, but then giving readers the space to drawn their own conclusions, rather than dictating answers. The Série Noire encourages its readers to think about the chaotic status of the world today and make up their own minds”.

As the collection’s politics have evolved, so too has its soundtrack but, despite its director’s own rock and roll stylings, the overall mood is apparently more inclusive. In contrast to Vian and Duhamel’s jazz leanings, Masson’s taste, as the images of Lemmy and Ozzy suggest, is more doom metaller than ‘50s hepcat. “Writers come to me and say: ‘I’m sorry, Aurélien, I’m not rock and roll enough for the Série Noire, I’m not into tattoos’. Of course, that’s not important, there is also room in the collection for hippies for, people who listen to jazz, whatever, what counts above all is that people MAKE SOME NOISE’. Whilst the nature of its noise has changed since 1945, the Série Noire looks set to continue making a discordant racket throughout Gallimard’s hallowed halls and its perpetual place at the heart of noir culture looks assured.

[This piece was originally written for to coincide with Masson’s appearance at the 2016 NoirCon crime literature convention, and appeared in the event programme]

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Translating Houellebecq, a panel discussion

Almost two years ago, Michel Houellebecq published his sixth novel, Soumission (Flammarion). This novel, a piece of speculative fiction which imagines a near future where France elects an Islamic government, is a provocative work. This is as a result of how the novel taps into many of the tensions and concerns that animate both contemporary France and the broader Western world. The novel will be remembered, I suspect, for the circumstances of its publication as much as for its literary value: it was published concurrently with the Islamist attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher super market. Houellebecq was, coincidentally, on that week’s cover of Charlie, too.

There is clearly a great deal to say about Soumission: I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement (February 15, 2015). With the support of the American University of Paris where I work, in particular its Center for Writers and Translators, I organized a panel discussion, Translating Houellebecq, to discuss the reception of the novel and some of the critical challenges posed by Houellebecq’s work. I chaired the event in March 2016 which featured the participation of Lorin Stein (editor, The Paris Review, and translator of Soumission into English) and Nelly Kaprièlian (literary editor, Les Inrockuptibles).Full details can be found at the following link: https://www.aup.edu/news-events/events/2016-03-15/translating-houellebecq

I’m very happy that both Lorin and Nelly have agreed for me to share the recording of the discussion which can be found at the link below.

The rentrée littéraire 2014 and “l’effet Trierweiler”

Below is a piece I wrote for an international newspaper about the 2014 French literary season back in September last year. Here it is in its full, unadulterated form. Many thanks to the kind contributors.

When memories of lazy, sunny summer afternoons sipping pastis by the pool start to fade, the Paris literati braces itself and plunges headlong into the yearly rentrée littéraire. This is the season where the French publishing world kicks back into life in earnest and sees publishers large and small issue a cornucopia of new titles in what amounts to a three-month long nationwide book festival. This year’s jamboree has been part-rocked, part-electrified from an unexpected source: Valérie Trierweiler. The ex-partner of beleaguered French president François Hollande has published Merci Pour ce moment [Thank You for This Moment], her insider account of life with the head of state. Café terrace gossip is naturally Trierweiler related, but there is also a concern that her publication, inevitably taking up much of the time and space reserved for book discussion in the media, will occlude the “really” literary in what actually amounts to a promising 2014 crop of new writing.

Source: Nouvel Observateur

Source: Nouvel Observateur

This year’s rentrée littéraire sees 607 novels – new and in translation – published in France between late August and early November. The season, a uniquely Gallic phenomenon, which has gradually emerged since the 1950s, generally expects some kind of headline-grabbing scandal. In recent years, these have reliably been instigated by the notoriously provocative writer Michel Houellebecq, variously accused of defamation, plagiarism and Islamophobia. Houellebecq isn’t publishing this rentrée, his latest novel is planned for release in January, but no one anticipated that France’s ex-first lady was going to take his place and dominate press coverage. Her launch was a stage-managed publishing coup that effectively kept her book a secret until two days before it hit the shelves to ensure maximum press impact and, with a reported 200,000 copies printed, her team undoubtedly hopes for maximum sales too.

When I sat discussing la rentrée with Natacha de la Simone, manager of the Atelier bookstore in Paris’ edgily fashionable Belleville district, she was dismissive: “Trierweiler has absolutely nothing to do with it, her book is just a political document, not real literature. The problem is, it might wipe out any intelligent discussion of the other, more interesting, books”. Despite Trierweiler’s media maneuvering there is a real sense of optimism around the 2014 book season. This is vital for independent bookstores such as the Atelier which traditionally does 60% of its yearly business in the run-up to Christmas, making la rentrée a crucial showcase for literary talent. The optimism is perhaps surprising in an industry that is still recoiling from French publishing group Hachette’s ongoing dispute with Amazon. The French government has recently also taken steps to protect independent bookstores, such as reinforcing the 1981 Loi Lang, which already bans retailers from discounting books by more than 5%, by forbidding online sellers from also offering free delivery on their book sales. De la Simone, however, isn’t impressed by the legislation: “it’s a complete joke. Independent bookstores aren’t protected at all by the government”.

Leaving aside the politicking, the optimism in literary circles comes very much from the feeling that the crop of new novels could mark 2014 as a vintage year. Nelly Kaprièlian, literary editor for the influential culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles, herself publishing her debut novel this rentrée, Le Manteau de Greta Garbo [Greta Garbo’s Overcoat], told me she regards the wealth of new texts as a “sign of life” from French writing, “the literary season is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on literature. France is the only country in the world to give as much attention to new writing as it does and I’m proud of that”, she added. Buzzed about writers this year include Emmanuel Carrère, whose Le Royaume [The Kingdom] explores the early days of Christianity, Éric Reinhardt, whose L’Amour et les forêts [Love and Forests] is a stylish novel about a woman in an abusive relationship and Frédéric Beigbeder’s fictionalised young romantic life of J.D. Salinger, Oona & Salinger. This year also sees volumes from Thomas Pynchon, David Peace and Haruki Murakami published in translation.

This spotlight alluded to by Kaprièlian takes the form of literary prizes, such as the coveted Prix Goncourt, but also an unprecedented breadth of newspaper column inches and even mainstream TV and radio exposure. There is, however, a literary hierarchy that tends to dictate affairs, as writer Aurélien Bellanger, publishing his second novel, L’Aménagement du territoire [Regional planning] confides, “out of the hundreds of authors publishing, it’s only a select ten who feel the full glare of attention. This turns the rentrée into a bizarre game where a competitive spirit dominates, but to which no one dares admit. Such hypocrisy can be tiring, but hating each other without admitting it is a French national pastime”, he adds, playfully.

Aside from Trierweiler, who might get the sales, but is unlikely to win any prizes, the chosen few who jockey for the Goncourt and the prime coverage, traditionally do so with the support and behind-the-scenes lobbying from the heavyweight Parisian publishers: Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil. Kaprelièan doesn’t necessarily agree that such influence always prevails: “I found L’Amour et les forêts magnificent, much better than many other novels published for the rentrée and that’s why we put Reinhardt on the cover of our magazine. The size of his publishing house [Gallimard] didn’t come into it”. Carrère’s novel, published by the smaller P.O.L house was, according to the trade magazine Livres Hebdo, leading the sales charts in early September, at least before Trierweiler’s book hit the shelves.

Reinhardt, one of the forerunners for the Goncourt, is relishing the literary season, which he describes as “une fête nationale de la littérature”. Reinhardt is a seasoned campaigner, having attracted a great deal of media attention for his 2007 novel Cendrillon [Cinderella]. He is highly conscious of the possible benefits and pitfalls of the season: “Cendrillon was the most talked about novel of the season in the media and I became known as a writer almost overnight”. Reinhardt is also frank about the risk the rentrée poses for a writer: “It is a gamble. Publishing during the rentrée littéraire can make you a star, but if you aren’t one of the chosen few, if your book isn’t discussed by critics and enjoyed by bookshops, then it’s very simple: your book is still-born, it doesn’t exist; you are invisible”. Bellanger shares a similar, if more philosophical, view about the unforgiving literary machine: “because of its inherent cruelty, there is something almost sacrificial about the literary system. But publishing a book remains a very honourable sacrifice, all the same!”.

The centrepiece of the season is the announcement of the Goncourt, which takes place on November 5, at the Drouant restaurant in central Paris. After then, Paris will take a deep breath, start daydreaming about next year’s long summer break and begin to assess the impact of l’effet Trierweiler on this year’s season.