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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