Our Lady of the Nile translator Melanie Mathner and Archipelago Books won the French Voices Grand Prize (originally published as Notre-Dame du Nil by Scholastique Mukasonga) at a ceremony held last week at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Manhattan. The book portrays 1970s Rwanda, just before the genocide, and was awarded the 2012 Prix Renaudot.
The evening not only celebrated the 12 finalists and winner, but also commemorated the life of André Schiffrin, longtime head of Pantheon Books and founder of the New Press, who died in December. Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry said he was "humbled and inspired" by Schiffrin, who won the Legion of Honour Medal in 2011, and who "believed in the importance of publishing independent voices."
To begin the celebration, Baudry introduced three readings of French writers whom Schiffrin published in the U.S.: an excerpt from La Douleur by Marguerite Duras, read by Robert Harvey (one of the editors of the Pléiade edition of her work); Michel Foucault's Sexuality and Solitude, read by Eric Banks (director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University); and an excerpt from 1914 by Jean Echenoz, read by the book's translator, Linda Coverdale (who also translated Echenoz's Ravel).
(l. to r.) Esther Allen, Georges Borchardt, Ellen Adler and Olivier Cohen.
John McArthur, president and publisher of Harper's Magazine--who referred to an indignant response he'd written to André Schiffrin's obituary in the New York Times by way of introduction to the evening's discussion--moderated a panel of literary lights: Esther Allen, translator, professor at Baruch College and founding member of French Voices; literary agent Georges Borchardt; Ellen Adler, New Press; and Olivier Cohen, founder and director of Éditions de l'Olivier. Adler referred to Schiffrin as "a gloomy person," but added that "all of us doing independent publishing are worried about what's ahead." Still, she gave the heartening example of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010), which had a first printing of 3,000 copies and now has 400,000 copies in print.
Olivier Cohen said that in France, editors serve as "petits patrons"--small operators--who had to "take care of our own business." They align with larger publishers; in Cohen's case, Éditions du Seuil. Cohen added that, in France, there are "many small imprints that survive and remain independent." Agent Georges Borchardt pointed out the irony of Schiffrin being fired by Random House for losing money, yet the agent receives "large checks" from Pantheon for books published under Schiffrin's leadership. He cited Foucault's Sexuality and Solitude, with a half million copies in print.
Borchardt argued that Americans have little interest in what's being written abroad, while Europeans have great interest in what's being done here, and that "Fifth Avenue bookstores are disappearing." Allen countered that among the 82 French Voices titles published (since the program's founding in 2006), a number went on to become bestsellers. From the audience, Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, added, "I was inspired by Schiffrin's example. The number of independent booksellers has grown, so why do we have the impression that things are dire?"
Baudry echoed Reynolds's optimism, and announced the planned summer opening of a French bookshop at 972 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which will offer 15,000 titles in French, as well as French books translated into English. Vive le livre! --Jennifer M. Brown