France Honors Lorin Stein
On Friday, December 12th, 2014, Lorin Stein was honored with the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters by Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy.
As Editor of The Paris Review and former senior editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, Lorin has consistently been a strong promoter of contemporary French literature in the US. His translations of Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest and Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait have met with critical acclaim, and his leadership of the Paris Review has ushered it into a new period of creativity and growth. In his remarks, Mr. Baudry drew on Lorin’s involvement in the creation of Albertine, the Embassy’s reading room and bookshop. The event, held in the Cultural Services’ ballroom, was attended by Lorin’s friends, family and colleagues, many of whom are important members of New York’s literary world.
Though it has been my privilege to award the Ordre des Arts et Lettres to many remarkable men and women, I can’t think of a decoration which gives me more pride and pleasure than the one I am soon to bestow.
I am delighted to see Mary Lee Stein, Lorin’s mother, and her husband Mark.
I’m so happy you are both here tonight, and to be honest, I am really relieved …since the last time we saw each other, I think I embarrassed myself!
Do you remember our meeting at the bookshop Politics and Prose in Washington? Well, I was so excited that you came to my book event and really wanted to share a connection with you –- so I mentioned your favorite restaurant, which Lorin had told me about. Maybe it was my accent or how I structured my sentence, but it definitely sounded like I was asking to be taken out to dinner.
I think it was coming from my subconscious – because actually, I would love to have dinner with you !
I’m also delighted to see your sister, Anna and of course your brother in law Geoffrey. Anna, after having spoken for only 5 minutes, I realized we share a lot of things – passions, enthusiasms and also a secret fragility that makes both of us, I think, kind of special.
I’m happy to see so many friends. In fact, when I arrived four years ago, and since we were introduced by our mutual friend Violaine Huysmans, Lorin was so generous with me that he shared many of his friends with me and, I now feel part of his tribe.
So, I hope that you will recognize our Lorin in my words tonight.
I’m not so sure though, the exercise is tricky, and here is why: Lorin is so complex, he has so many facets, that I think each one of us here has a different Lorin in mind. It’s a kind of Leibnizian case: each person is a monad, each monad is a being with its own unique perspective on the world – and on Lorin.
And as our most beloved monad says, monad Sadie :
when you know him well, and love him, summing him up becomes nearly impossible. Lorin is complex, of course --the critical eye and the easy tears, the self-knowledge and the self-mockery, the deep intellectual seriousness and the goofiness -- but that's not the only difficulty. There's also the fact that he's too exacting an editor for allow for the superlatives the task demands. One can't explain the depth of his kindness or empathy or intelligence without resorting to the kind of adverbs he'd cut.
And I really agree.
All these monads love you. And have come to show their admiration and support.
Support in this difficult moment… I know it’s not easy for you to stand before a weird French diplomat making your apologies in front of your smart, sophisticated friends.
But I also know you belong here. You’re part of our family. Just behind you, there is a new reading room and bookshop, with 14,000 books in French and in English. It took me and my team 4 years to turn this idea into a true reality. And I want to say it publicly and for everyone here: without you Lorin, and your constant help, advice and support, this wouldn’t have been possible and it would not have been what it is today. And I’m so happy and grateful that you accepted to be a board member of Albertine’s Foundation. It really means a lot for the intellectual soul of this new literary nest.
But even the name of the bookshop -- we brainstormed for weeks. I didn’t pick your favorite, which was Quai Voltaire and was a very good choice. I chose Albertine.
And there are many reasons why I eventually chose this name. The main reason is that Albertine, in Proust’s book, is an unknowable character. You can live with Albertine and be obsessed with her as much as physically possible, but you’ll never know who she really is.
When I think about it, I think that the real reason for my choice was another subconscious decision.
Because Albertine sounds like Lorin. Because, most importantly, you are actually the unknowable person. The most mysterious, unknowable person I’ve ever met. I’ll quote a dear friend of yours – another monad.
(and I’ll let you guess which monad it is).
“I didn't have much experience with people like Lorin, not that there are any really. On the surface he had qualities I had been taught to associate with pretentiousness. He dressed crisply, sleekly. There was something crisp and sleek about the shape of his head even. His name, was that a woman's name? Either a woman's name or an old WASP name, one or the other. He spoke as if someone in his youth had paid attention to the way he made syllables, and that he himself had possibly paid attention to this in subsequent years. His accent and his background were private school and Ivy League. He had neither wife nor girlfriend but lovers. He had a wonderful and very distinctive thing he did with his mouth--not a pursing but a stiffening of the upper lip--when he focused on what he wanted to say. He had finely shaped hands that he gestured with in a precise way. He was funny and a very intense listener, he asked a lot of questions and then he leaned forward for the answers.
Quickly I learned that he was the least pretentious person I'd ever met.”
That was Monad JJ Sullivan speaking.
And I would add, and I’m sure that JJ and everybody would agree : He is also the smartest and the nicest person I’ve ever met.
Which is a unique combination.
What strikes me is your ability to change people’s lives.
Each time I see you, my life seems to take a new turn.
One day you suddenly convinced me do to a film about a story I was just mentioning for fun. And I’m actually in the process of doing it now. Convincing a French producer to take on the project was a breeze. I just had to repeat your exact words.
Another day, you taught me how to understand English sonnets. And that same day, you recited poems by Apollinaire. It was the first time I had ever really heard Apollinaire. Since then, it’s part of my life now. As is gospel music – also thanks to you.
Through you, I have even discovered French authors. And I must say you’re the only American person who made me discover French culture even further. You introduced me to Edouard Levé, for example. And his books have been some of the deepest inspiration for me. Part of that intimate collection that hits at your innermost nerves.
A few months later you introduced me to a person who became one of my very favorite authors. You actually introduced him also to many, many readers. Another time, to someone who became my favorite editor. And another time, to someone who became my most important partner in the design of the Albertine reading room and bookshop.
I shouldn’t, but will, mention that I discovered my favorite restaurant in NY (Otto), my favorite bar (Veloce) and also the Café Loup thanks to you. I guess everyone here has had the opportunity to enjoy the great ambiance and the terrible food of this place.
And I am guessing that everyone here has had similar experiences with you. Meeting you is not a casual occurence in life. There is a before and an after.
As monad JJ puts it, “deep kindness and a cutting wit play around him like particles on a cloud.”
Most importantly, you definitely change the lives of the authors you work with, and the lives of millions of readers.
Over 12 years as an editor at FSG you sharpened the tools of exceptional fiction writers like Jonathan Franzen and Mario Vargas Llosa with your editorial mind and with your sensitive eye
With Lorin by their sides, energizing and inspiring them, Lydia Davis, Sam Lipsyte and Etgar Keret and, to name a few, tripled sales. Denis Johnson and Richard Price, soared to the bestseller lists. And the late Bolaño, whose previously translated books, never sold more than 15,000 copies, have now sold over 150,000 copies of his great work twenty-six-sixty-six (2666). I should add that the book is 900 pages and 30 dollars.
Lorin will surely be humble and say that all he did was motivate from the sidelines. But I would counter that and say he has done far more. He has changed each of these author’s lives and in turn, shaped the American public’s literary consciousness.
(But your eye is sensitive not only to the written word, we know you are also a weeper. Whenever he sees a movie, Lorin cries. Sad scene—cries again. The tears are as available as the literary feelers. I am really putting you in a good light tonight!)
These faculties of feeling have led Lorin to train his dexterous hand and skilled eye with non-fiction writers like James Wood, and Frederick Seidel at FSG. And stupendous achievement took Lorin to the seat of director of the paperback line. If his time at FSG was “kindergarten, grade school, and college,” as Lorin puts it, then it is because someone extraordinary was at the helm. And this is Jonathan Galassi, with us tonight.
Books Lorin edited at FSG have received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Believer Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. I mean, it’s quite impressive for his kindergarten years…
At The Paris Review you took this beautiful pathos to a new level and made it do great things. As monad JJ Sullivan says “When Lorin took over The Paris Review, a light went on in the republic of letters.”
Lorin first received a copy of the Paris Review at age 14, as a Christmas gift.
Years later, as the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin continued a solid legacy laid out by Philip Gourevitch, Brigid Hughes, and, of course, Plimpton himself, who left Lorin an organization rich in talent and new ideas.
In an interview about his series Object Lessons, a new project Lorin started at The Paris Review in which great writers gave their reactions to short stories, the interviewer asked Lorin how to recognize a really great short story, and Lorin said
“A story is short enough that if you don’t make a mistake in the first sentence, you won’t make a mistake all the way through.”
So here are a bunch of first lines to Lorin’s story and I hope I don’t make a mistake.
There’s the purple prose version, “It was a dark and stormy night at Yale”
There is the new age version, “FSG to TPR. La fin.”
There’s the literary confrontation:
Once Lorin was asked to translate Bouillier’s L’invité mystère but tried to turn it down. The agent, who already had doubts about his abilities in French, said : “Oh yeah, I didn’t think you’d get it anyway”.
Back home, Lorin grimaced, his stiff upper lip unmoving. “Don’t think I get it, do you? I’ll show you how to translate The Mystery Guest!”
And over a long and sleepless night, the literary martyr toiled away, ultimately producing what would be an acclaimed translation of the work.”
And then there is the history textbook version, which is that Lorin provoked a French Revolution at The Paris Review. He resurrected dusty French greats like Apollinaire and organized a stunning group translation in the Review. Lorin injected the quintessentially French spirit of Whatever with authors like Michel Houellebecq and mixed media master Valérie Mréjean.
The Paris Review blog is a wide open channel of creation, a cyber space where writers can engage in dialogues on technique. Kind of like The Paris Review office itself, which is actually kind of like the Russian Samovar parties that Lorin used to host at FSG.
This French Revolution rages on at The Paris Review like Marie Antoinette in the Chelsea Hotel at 4am or like Robespierre chilling on the Highline.
Lorin has also managed to digitize the extensive archives, he sent the limitations of paper to the guillotine and opened up a republic founded on literary democracy to all those citizens – or monads – who want in.
And I mean, can you believe that Henry Miller is now being tweeted?
What I really mean is that Lorin made The Paris Review more relevant than ever. By reaching back into the past, he made literature cool again. He made it a cause for a generation. He published new, impassioning, cutting edge writers like Ben Lerner on the same pages as profound, controversial intellectual figures like Frederick Seidel. And many, many others.
Because of Lorin, the American reading landscape has been altered. His work has turned over preconceived notions about what should be presented, what is popular, what will sell. Through his time and dedication at FSG and at The Paris Review, Lorin has challenged what people think will be attractive to Americans. Simply put, he has raised the intellectual bar. In doing so, millions of readers have been touched by his handiwork and brilliance and have access to the deepest and most profound works by contemporary writers.
I think that Lorin is so great and so successful because he is sympathetic to his readers, he is one of them. He is the reader who would rather read something experimental, outrageous, funny and mischieveous. He is the reader who likes stories that bring to bear all a writer’s intellectual resources, such that they strain the conventions of the genre. He is the editor who supports writers when they are willing to sacrifice convention in the service of some passionate argument. He is on both sides of the page, behind the book cover and peering down at the text.
So. Lorin transformed many things and rearranged the pieces of the literary world around him. But did he change ? I’ll call on the words of another monad.
“When I first met Lorin he had lots of hair (on his face), and not much French. We were assistants at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and Lorin had a tiny desk in a dead-end hallway outside Jonathan Galassi’s office. This cul-de-sac was completely dark, even at noon on a sunny day—like a small, manuscript-stuffed cave in which Lorin, with his bushy beard, was the resident troll. But it was a happy cave. Lorin would shout back and forth with Jonathan while typing emails and reading proofs and giving advice to the rest of us, all seemingly at the same time. Now he has big office, no hair at all, and speaks decent French. But in my mind’s eye I see him in that first grotto, surrounded by papers and books, at the center of everything. This has always been and probably always will be my idea of how a New York editor should look and be”.
That was monad Robyn Creswell.
Lorin, whether you are in or out of the grotto, with or without hair or even wearing a fur chapka, you remain a living series of paradoxes.
Nonchalant and serious
Distant and benevolent
Simple and mischievous
Optimistic and desperate
Pessimistic and active
Naïve and curious
Literary and post-literary
Faithful and faithless
Wise and genuine
Old and young
Intuitive and calm
Heroic and human
Imperfect and authentic
Loyal and evasive
Demanding and forgiving
Mysterious and open
Fragile and undeterred
Very American and almost French
One day, I remember speaking about a certain project together. We wanted to establish a selection of important books, and we didn’t want the obvious books, the ones that everybody knows. We could not turn them down officially though. That was a problem. You came up with a brilliant solution, that totally surprised me: you said, “let’s make a rule : no books over 300 pages. It solves the “War and Peace” problem (the pressure to begin with the canon) and the problem of series (A la Recherche), collections (The Poems of John Keats), etc. Plus, people love short books.”
What fascinated me is that this solution has nothing to do with the initial problem ! It does not even totally, mathematically solve it. But it does something even better : it makes the problem so small that it is not a problem anymore. I was amazed : as a good French person, I could never have found this a solution. I know it sounds cliché, but that day I was really impressed as I had the feeling of being in front of the incarnation of American genius.
But you are also really so French. Lorin’s career as a translator began in high school, with a selection of Symbolist poems, and most recently he organized various editors of The Paris Review - Sadie Stein, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Frederick Seidel, and Robyn Creswell - to do a group translation of Apollinaire. His translations of French authors Grégoire Bouiller, Valérie Mréjean and Edouard Levé, as well as his incredible texts about reading French literature in his reviews of translations of Baudelaire (New Republic) and Maupassant (Harper's), prove that he is the composite of many powerful forces of the mind and of the soul.
Lorin, above and beyond, I really want to thank you for what you’ve been doing for French culture in the US. You respond to French initiatives exactly as you act as an editor.
(You know, when you work at the French Embassy, you meet so many people who say everything you do is stupid, but also so many people who say everything you do it great—because they just have no idea.)
By being sincere, careful, and smart, by treating French culture exactly the same way you treat the books you edit, you give us a chance to be better at what we do. I wish all my colleagues in the world could have a Lorin. But there is only one. I’m so privileged I met you.
Medals and awards celebrate achievements. Somehow, they’re about the past. But in this case, I believe even more in your future. I know you’re going to do so many great things in your life. I don’t know what this medal and this awarding mean exactly to you. But I’d just like you to know that my country, and my country’s people, are your biggest fans. We would vote for you as our President. (Well, I don’t want to curse you either. (But who knows)).
For the time being, let’s be reasonable.
Your rare perspective, acute brilliance, compassion and kindness are what gives me the greatest pleasure of bestowing on you the Arts and Letters award.
Lorin Stein, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.