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Remembering Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens

© Daniel Mordzinski

By Jasmine Bissete

Renowned publisher Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, who founded the publishing house Éditions P.O.L, passed away in a car accident on January 2nd. He was 73 years old. Éditions P.O.L has been home to such authors as Georges Perec, Marguerite Duras, Jean Rolin, Emmanuel Carrère, and Marie Darrieussecq.

Otchakovsky-Laurens was born in Provence to Zelman Otchakovsky, a painter, and Odette Labaume, a professor of languages. After studying law, he began his publishing career as an intern for Christian Bourgois before moving to Flammarion and later Hachette, where he created P.O.L, his own collection. Éditions P.O.L later became independent and published the works of several celebrated authors, and Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens became an equally influential and beloved figure of the French publishing world.

In his documentary Editeur, released just last month in France, Otchakovsky-Laurens recounts how becoming a publisher “saved his life,” enabling him to express himself through the voices of others. He explained in an interview with Le Monde, “It’s the solution I found to keep myself from going mad, to stay in control of what I was doing.” 

Éditions P.O.L is distinguished by Otchakovsky-Laurens’ dedication to progressive literature and his mission to support works that are innovative but resonant, eternal but not fixed in time. In an interview with John O’Brien for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he reflected on his decision to start P.O.L, “I don’t think I entered into publishing with the desire to run a business, with all the constraints that entails. I simply wanted to be free to publish the books that pleased me, disturbed me, moved me… I’ve always endeavored to have neither a vision, nor a precise intention, for fear that these might prevent me from really seeing and welcoming what’s new, work that upsets, that disrupts beliefs as much as it does people’s ways of thinking, their feelings or senses... I am drawn to books that I feel represent something new; I want the books I publish, to the largest possible extent, to contain something 'never heard before,' 'never read before,' the presence of a voice unknown to me up to that point.”

Reflecting on “Paul’s ‘character’” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, author Leslie Kaplan describes “his eternal 'youth': his interest in the new, his openness to every form of newness. His rare capacity for enthusiasm. Hence a sort of precariousness, a feeling that nothing is ever certain, that if something is tried, it might work, or then again not: a book can work or not, an idea can work or not. Hence also the doubt, not about his decisions, but about the future, a concern, but one that has a sense of certainty at its core.”

For those who wish to pay tribute to Otchakovsky-Laurens’ legacy, below is a selection of P.O.L titles available in English and published in the United States:

 

The Patience Stone (Other Press, 2010)

By Atiq Rahimi, Translated by Polly Mclean 

“For far too long, Afghan women have been faceless and voiceless. Until now. With The Patience Stone, Atiq Rahimi gives face and voice to one unforgettable woman–and, one could argue, offers her as a proxy for the grievances of millions…it is a rich read, part allegory, part a tale of retribution, part an exploration of honor, love, sex, marriage, war. It is without doubt an important and courageous book.” from the introduction by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

 

Autoportrait (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

By Edouard Levé, Translated by Lorin Stein 

In this brilliant and sobering self-portrait, Edouard Levé hides nothing from his readers, setting out his entire life, more or less at random, in a string of declarative sentences. Autoportrait is a physical, psychological, sexual, political, and philosophical triumph. Beyond “sincerity,” Levé works toward an objectivity so radical it could pass for crudeness, triviality, even banality: the author has stripped himself bare.

Suite for Barbara Loden (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2016)

By Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon 

Moving contrapuntally between biography and autofiction, film criticism and anecdote, fact and speculation, Suite for Barbara Loden is a stunning meditation on knowledge and self-knowledge, on the surfaces of life and art, and how we come to truth—a kind of truth—not through facts alone but through acts of the imagination.

 

The Kingdom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017)

By Emmanuel Carrère, Translated by John Lambert 

Gripped by the tale of a Messiah whose blood we drink and body we eat, the genre-defying author Emmanuel Carrère revisits the story of the early Church in his latest work. With an idiosyncratic and at times iconoclastic take on the charms and foibles of the Church fathers, Carrère ferries readers through his “doors” into the biblical narrative. Once inside, he follows the ragtag group of early Christians through the tumultuous days of the faith’s founding.

 

Being Here is Everything (Semiotexte, 2017)

By Marie Darrieussecq, Translated by Penny Hueston

Being Here is Everything traces the short, obscure, and prolific life of the German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907). In a brief career, cut short by her death from an embolism at the age of thirty-one, shortly after she gave birth to a child, Modersohn-Becker trained in Germany, traveled often to Paris, developed close friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and became one of her generation’s preeminent artists, helping introduce modernity to the twentieth century alongside such other painters as Picasso and Matisse.

 

Cows (Noémi Press, 2014)

Written by Frédéric Boyer, Translated by Joanna Howard and Nicholas Bredie 

Cows is a lyrical and philosophical meditation on the nature, being, and ultimate slaughter of cows. What begins as a meditation on the pastoral ruminations of the beasts of the field moves inevitably to the acknowledgement of our complicity in their slaughter. In Cows, Frédéric Boyer does not so much attempt to answer for the beasts as to capture the beauty and terror of their silence in the face of their annihilation.

 

Lazy Suzie (Litmus Press, 2014)

Written by Suzanne Doppelt, Translated by Cole Swensen

A work of Poetry, Art, and Photography, Lazy Suzie furthers the project, developed in Suzanne Doppelt's previous three books, of reframing and thus reinterpreting the received knowledge of scientific inquiry. Constructed around the principle of multiple perspectives, Lazy Suzie  implicitly questions what distinguishes the scientific from other forms of inquiry through her textual and photographic engagement with the superstitious to the supernatural to the simply fraudulent.

 

Revenge of the Translator (forthcoming from Deep Vellum, 2018)

Written by Brice Matthieussent, Translated by Emma Ramadan

The work of a masterful novelist and translator collide in this visionary and hilarious debut from acclaimed French writer Brice Matthieussent. Revenge of the Translator follows Trad, who is translating a mysterious author's book, Translator's Revenge, from English to French. The lines between reality and fiction start to blur as Trad's world overlaps with the characters in Translator's Revenge, who seem to grow more and more independent of Trad's increasingly deranged struggle to control the plot.

 

The Rest of the Voyage (Graywolf Press, 2011)

Written by Bernard Noël, Translated by Eléna Rivera 

Eléna Rivera's translation of Bernard Noël's The Rest of the Voyage is at once original and remarkably faithful―indeed, its originality lies in the care and music the translator has brought to her commitment to follow Noël's forms as closely as possible. The succession of poems has a fluency that becomes as mesmerizing as any mode of transport, for Rivera is remarkably adept at varying the lines, landing with emphasis or muting the effect as she follows the speed and light of Noël's themes.

 

The Flirt Formula (La Presse, 2012)

Written by Anne Portugal, Translated by Jean-Jacques Poucel

The poems go two by two across facing pages, where they press against each other, connect, and go forth in a tremulous manifesto. The result is a syntactical vertigo poised above nothingness. The halves meet only in an instant, suggesting that the crux of poetry is the art of not quite touching.

 

 

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