Interview: David R. Godine and Nebraska Press, US Publishers of Modiano

October 28, 2014 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOOKS
Jean-Marie Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano

US Publishers David R. Godine and Nebraska Press acquired the rights for books written by both Patrick Modiano and Jean-Marie Le Clézio long before they became the Nobel prize-winning authors they are today. Other major French writers published by Godine and Nebraska include Georges Perec and Sylvie Germain (David R. Godine), as well as Marie NDiaye and Annie Ernaux (Nebraska Press).

Both David R. Godine and Nebraska Press kindly agreed to answer to a few questions for the Book Department about their discoveries of Modiano and Le Clézio.

Interview with David R. Godine

Book Department: How did you come across J.M. Le Clézio and P. Modiano?

David R. Godine: I came across the names of Le Clézio and Modiano first at Frankfurt. Poking around the booths of the best publishers from a number of countries, it was obvious that here were two major writers in France who had been translated into multiple languages but never - or rarely - in English. After the Fair in 1992, I travelled by train to Paris where I visited a number of publishers with whom we had relations. Among them, of course, was Gallimard. I asked Claude Gallimard which writers he considered the very best on their list whose work was unknown or little known in the US. He chose Le Clézio, whose first book, The Prospector, we published on the same list as Patrick Modiano's Honeymoon and Sylvie Germain's Book of Nights. We went on to publish second books by all three writers as well as Modiano's immortal Catherine Certitude, illustrated by Sempé. It's a very simple technique and has served me well. Just ask "Who's the best" (as opposed to "Who sells the best") and you usually get an honest answer.

BK: Which books did you chose to launch Le Clézio and Modiano into the market, and why?

DRG: I think in the case of all the three writers we bought from Gallimard, it was Gallimard who suggested the titles. I just read the books in French to make sure I liked them and followed along. And you shouldn't forget that for nine years I also had Mark Polizzotti on board at Godine as my primary editor, and he spoke perfect French and is even translating the new Modiano appearing from Yale. It's a small world.

BK: What appealed to you in their writing?

DRG: Well, obviously, different things. In the case of Le Clézio, it was really this almost mythical and magical childhood that he had left behind, a world of "primitive" customs, habits and people that somehow made the modern world seem raucous and uncouth by comparison. Also, his very obvious concerns about the destruction of the natural habitats. In a sense, how he transformed a wish to return to innocence into literature. In the case of Modiano, there was this brooding and quite subtle attempt to come to terms with the Second World War and the part France had played in it. And the thinly disguised grimey underbelly of Paris. Also, that the characters are never quite what they seem; they are almost always doubles. For example, in Catherine Certitude, the father, who is in the "Import-export business" is almost certainly involved in a smuggling ring. The daughter, a real charmer, desperately wants to become a ballet dancer, but it's a patently impossible ambition as she is so short-sighted she can barely make out her ballet slippers. And the mother —well, she has completely disappeared for mysterious reasons to New York. People come and go in his novels, and there is often no explanation and no apologies. In the case of Germain, the family was so bizarre and dysfunctional that it was like reading an Anne Rice novel in French. We had Donoso's great novel The Obscene Bird of Night also on our list, and she really reminded me of him. 

BK: Do you think there is something particularly French about these writers?

DRG: Sure! There is a wonderful grasp of the language, displaying it at once at its most expressive and most elemental. None of these writers are literary show offs or exhibitionists; they all let the characters tell the story. But I doubt of anyone could read any one of them, even in English translation, and not know they are French. The writing is French and the characters are French, although in Le Clézio's case quite cosmopolitan because he was born in Mauritius, spent his childhood in Africa and southern France and has, I believe, considerably more broadly travelled than Modiano.

BK: According to the Swedish Nobel Committee, Modiano’s work evokes “the most ungraspable human destinies and allows us to discover Paris under the Nazi Occupation”. Would you agree with this statement?

DRG: I can no more understand the language of the Nobel Prize Committee than I can fathom the rationale behind the authors to whom they give the awards. It always sounds like a committee wrote the citations.

BK: Was it difficult to acquire the rights? How did you chose the translators? How did you promote the books?

DRG: No! Gallimard could not have been more helpful or reasonable. It has changed now with their new rights director who seems to think that the world owes France (and more particularly Gallimard) every award it bestows. But in those days they were thrilled that any publisher, even one as small as we were, was taking any interest in their authors. Much less would take the time to come visit them at their old address on the Rue Sébastien Bottin. I think there was a certain sympathy there as well, because Gallimard was then a closely held family institution, and Godine, was, if nothing else, a small independent publisher with somewhat similar ambitions.

BK: Have they found their audience in the US, and do you think the Nobel Prize is of help?

DRG: No and yes. The sad fact is that even after some years, we still had copies of both Le Clézio's Prospector and all three Modiano titles sitting idly on our warehouse shelves. Fortunately, we own our own warehouse or the pressure, and the temptation, to have abandoned the titles entirely would probably have been insuperable. But there we were with about 350 copies of Honeymoon, 140 copies of Missing Person and 370 of Catherine Certitude. Sure, the Nobel cleaned these out in about two hours and we'll reprint a minimum of 10,000 copies of each, but without the Nobel they would still be languishing on the shelves. And in five months no one will any longer remember who won the award, much less who published the books.

BK: Can you tell us about the other French writers on your list you are particularly proud to publish?

DRG: Yes! Here are three favorites. We won the American Book Award for Richard Howard's translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. A bilingual edition, it is still in print and still one of the two or three best ever done. A lovely book. Second, we were the first to publish in English the bizarre and thoroughly lovely Georges Perec, all but one (A Void, which we never thought anyone would, or could, translate ) translated by David Bellos. We started with Life; A User's Manual and now have a total of six of his books in print, the latest being I Remember, which we brought out this Spring. Finally, I happen to love our little edition off Apollinaire's Bestiary; The Parade of Orpheus with the woodcuts by Dufy. It has both the original French quatrains and a translation of them by Pepe Karmel. Small, elegant, and very French.

BK: In French, we have a saying “jamais deux sans trois” (“never two without three”): do you think you have the next French Nobel prize in your catalogue? And who do you think it is going to be?

DRG: Well, if fate follows form it will be Sylvie German, who was, after all the third writer that Gallimard recommended. But the point here is not that we favor the French (although we do, because I read it) but that we were trying, in a modest way, to put together a list of translated classics from all languages: in the same list we have Musil's Five Women, Buzatti's The Tartar Steppe, Werfel's Forty Days at Musagh Dach, Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939, Donoso's Obscene Bird of Night, Dagerman's Sleet. etc. It's our Verba Mundi list and we faithfully add one or two books to it every season (this season it's J. Rudolfo Wilcock's The Temple of Iconoclasts, translated from the Italian).

I don't expect you to remember the great run the Brooklyn Dodgers had under their controversial manager Branch Rickey. By, I think, 1953 he had won the National League pennant three times and some jejune cub reporter came up to him after the last game and said, "Gee, Mr Rickey, three times in a row! You're pretty lucky." Rickey looked down at him and replied ""Luck, son, is the residue of design."

Winning a Nobel is in large part a matter of luck, but having the luck is the result of the grand design, the series itself, and the effort, over some decades now, to present America with what we think is the best in world literature.

Interview with Nebraska Press

(Based on Donna Shear’s testimony, University of Nebraska Press’ Director)

Book Department: How did you come across J.M. Le Clézio and P. Modiano?

Donna Shear: Nebraska has always had a tradition of publishing literature in translation. The Modiano, as well as the first two Le Clézio's were acquired before my time, but I do know that our acquiring editors always keep an eye out for who is making a splash in other countries, who has won literary awards, who is considered an “up and comer” whose works will have enduring value.

BK: Which books did you chose to launch the writers into the market, and why?

DS: Our first Le Clézio book was Onitsha, I believe. I can’t speak to why it was the first, but it is obviously a very significant piece of literature. We followed with acquiring the translation rights to The Round and then, following the announcement of him winning the Nobel Prize, we were fortunate to get Mondo and Other Stories. Out of the Dark is our only Modiano title. Again, our editors look for authors who are gaining reputations in their own countries and whose themes reach beyond the French speaking world.

BK: Do you think they have something specifically French?

DS: Yes. I think French writers are less plot-driven and more interested in tackling universal and difficult themes. They are more self-critical (of their own country, of themselves) and write in a more allegorical way. They take more stylistic risks and aren’t afraid to challenge their readers.

BK: According to the Swedish Nobel Committee, Modiano’s work evokes “the most ungraspable human destinies and makes discover Paris under the Nazi Occupation”. Would you agree with this statement?

DS: Very much so!

BK: Was it difficult to acquire the rights? How did you chose the translators? How did you promote the books?

DS: We have had a long-standing excellent relationship with French literary agencies and with the French Pubishers’ Agency. We don’t find it difficult to acquire rights unless another American publisher beats us to something, which has happened once or twice! Over the years, we have developed a stable of translators. Sometimes a translator brings a book to our attention; sometimes we see that a translator has translated that author for a different publisher; and sometimes we reach out to translators we have confidence in. Of course, Jordan Stump is one of the best and is right here at the university.

Our translations receive prominence in our seasonal catalogs, are presented at sales conferences, are taken to appropriate conferences, and are advertised. We also try to promote these books for course adoption. Onitsha has done very well in the course adoption market.

BK: Have they found their audience in the US, and do you think the Nobel Prize is of help?

DS: Our literary translations have a hard time finding an audience in the U.S. Once a book does, though—usually through course adoption on the university level—they can do a steady but respectable amount of sales. There is no doubt that interest climbs with the Nobel Prize!

BK: Can you tell us about the other French writers on your list you are particularly proud to publish?

DS: There are so many! Laurent Mauvignierr, Paule Constant, Henri Alleg (one of our most successful), so many! Others include Abdourahman Waberi and Malika Mokeddem.

BK: In French, we have a saying “jamais deux sans trois” (“never two without three”): do you think you have the next French Nobel prize in your catalogue? And who do you think it is going to be?

DS: I won’t say a specific name, but I do think some of the contemporary female writers from Algeria are prime candidates. But one never knows with the Nobel Prize! It’s always a surprise, and when it’s one of our authors, a very pleasant surprise!

Works of Jean-Marie Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano published by David R. Godine and Nebraska Press:

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, The Prospector. Boston : David R. Godine, 1993.

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, Onitsha. Lincoln: Nebraska Press, 1997.

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts. Lincoln: Nebraska Press, 2002.

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, Desert. Boston : David R. Godine, 2009.

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, Mondo and Other Stories. Lincoln: Nebraska Press, 2011.

-Le Clézio, Jean-Marie, The African. Boston : David R. Godine, 2013.

-Modiano, Patrick, Honeymoon. Boston: David R. Godine, 1990.

-Modiano, Patrick, Out of the Dark. Lincoln: Nebraska Press, 1998.

-Modiano, Patrick, Catherine Certitude. Boston: David R. Godine, 2001.

-Modiano, Patrick, Missing Person. Boston: David R. Godine, 2004.

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