Cafés, books and debate are a mainstay of French culture in a uniquely seductive way, so to savour some French flair, head to the Institut français in London this week for the second Beyond Words Festival. Forty writers, translators, actors, musicians and journalists are taking part in talks and live performances, presenting iconic films, and engaging the broader public, not just Francophiles.
How Paris changed the world
Baudelaire looked at what being a bohemian meant and invented the word “modern”; Hemingway made Paris an obligatory destination for aspiring young American writers on their European Grand Tour; the French capital was home to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco; and Nabokov was published there.
May 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of May 1968 when French workers joined student protesters in Paris with a one-day general strike. Although the government was not overthrown, the protests ushered in a cultural revolution.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up? Born in London and grew up in New York until I was sent to a public school in the UK at the age of 13; an unsettling experience.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences? Lots of foreign writers. My mother was Russian and keen for me to read the Russian classics – which I did.
You founded Serpent’s Tail in 1986 and worked as a successful publisher showcasing writers from around the world for many years. How easy was it to transition to being a freelance writer-editor? I was still working at Serpent’s Tail when I completed No Man’s Land, my first anthology which was on First World War writing. The transition was seamless; the anthologies contain many writers who should be republished including writers never before translated into English. I hope they function to encourage readers and publishers to search out the original texts that the extracts are taken from.Continue reading Interview | Pete Ayrton | Author-Editor of the Week
Tell us a little bit about yourself. I was born in Sligo, Ireland and while I was a good student, and a precociously gifted musician, I did very little to maximize my talents. I went to Trinity College Dublin to study English and Philosophy, but as a young gay man just coming out (in a conservative, deeply Catholic country), I feel in love, slipped off the radar and left university without finishing my degree. It was the end of my first real relationship that prompted me to move to Paris (to a country and a city I have never visited, with rudimentary secondary-school French that I had never been called on to speak aloud). From there, a series of curious but fortunate accidents led to me translating bandes dessinées, working as a publishers’ reader and finally, in 1998, embarking on my first literary translation. So, while I am passionate about languages, and cannot imagine anything more fulfilling than literary translation, I can hardly claim that I had a career path, or worked towards it. In fact, it never occurred to me that I would be “allowed” to translate novels, assuming vaguely that such herculean feats were reserved for some rarefied species.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you? From a very early age, I was a voracious reader – not that our house was filled with books or my parents were particularly bookish, but I haunted the local library and read anything and everything I could lay hands on. My early reading tastes were probably no different to any boy of my generation: C.S. Lewis, Emil and the Detectives, Richmal Crompton and later Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. By my teens, I was reading Joyce and Woolf and Dostoevsky (I was idiotically precocious, and my reading of them was through a glass darkly) and marvelling at what words could do, how they could create worlds, affect moods, inspire thoughts, mould dreams. I was determined to be a writer. I wrote my first (truly awful) novel at about fourteen, my second (modernist, sub-Salinger) novel at about sixteen. Thankfully, neither has survived to embarrass me. Books, for me were both a world, and an escape from the world.
Georgia de Chamberet talks to Florent Massot, French publisher of Virginie Despentes, Kurt Cobain, Mike Tyson and Valérie Trierweiler. Baise-moi (Fuck Me), his first hit, published in 1994, sold 50,000 copies for éditions Florent Massot before being released by Grasset and J’ai Lu, nudging up to 200,000 copies.
Why publishing and not music or film?
I started work on my first book age 17 in 1982 about a group called Urban Sax. Why publishing? Because my generation went into music and film, but I’m not competitive, it’s not my way. For 15 years I was the youngest publisher in France and the only one of my generation. Publishers who are 50 now all began their careers 20, not 30, years ago. So for 12-13 years I was alone. My friends were all in music which was great, but I was the only young indie publisher which is why I carried on, since I don’t like having to be combative. I wanted to be the best publisher of my generation and was . . . the worst! . . . there was only me!
I had a go at journalism and published a magazine called Amazone in 1984, then Intox in 1990, but that world moves too fast. I like a slow burn, and am not speedy. In publishing you meet up, the project develops over 1-2 years, it takes time, isn’t fast and furious, all on the surface. A book can really make a difference, go deep, whereas an article is ephemeral.
Publishers are in the game for different reasons: for some it’s a love of words, for others because they want power. What interested me was to meet the movers and shakers. A friend said, “If you go into publishing you’ll meet the people making it happen, who are the zeitgeist.” He often spoke to Cartier Bresson on the phone because of a book he was working on about the great photographers behind photojournalism. I wanted to meet these people. Since then, over the last 32 years, I have met so many people from different walks of life, that publishing has been good to me on that level.
As an object, a book can be a bit fetishistic. For me it is neither the object, nor the words, but the encounters. A book is a meeting place for people and ideas.