How "Night" was Published in America

August 8, 2016 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOOKS

Elie Wiesel’s Night was first published in Yiddish in 1955, as Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Kept Quiet). The same year, Wiesel, then a journalist, interviewed the great French writer and Nobel laureate François Mauriac, who read a revised version of Wiesel’s elegant and wrenching memoir of his time in the Auschwitz extermination camp and became the first champion of this important work. La Nuit, with a preface by Mauriac, was published in France in 1957 by Editions de Minuit — but the reticence that Wiesel had experienced from French publishers toward his work of témoignage, or testimony, of the horrors of the Holocaust, was only a preface to the level of resistance his book would meet from the U.S. publishing world.

As we remember the great Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-American author, activist and Nobel Peace laureate who died on July 2nd this year at the age of 87, the Book Department had the privilege to speak to Georges Borchardt. Among his many accomplishments over a lifetime in the world of books, Borchardt was Wiesel’s literary agent and close friend for over 50 years; it was he who finally brought Night to the other side of the Atlantic in 1960. Now read by millions around the world, the book has become an essential memoir of the Holocaust and, even in the face of unspeakable horror, a testament to the incredible hope that Wiesel held for humanity.   

How Night was Published in America

by Georges Borchardt

In 1958, I received from Jérôme Lindon (the owner of Editions de Minuit) a first book by Elie Wiesel, called La Nuit, which he had published in France with an introduction by François Mauriac. I am sure I must have realized at the time that it would not be an easy one to get published here, when nobody wanted to hear about concentration camps, and nobody could have predicted that there would someday be such a thing as Holocaust studies. But I was determined to get it published (the submission letter I sent out referred to it as “a book that I feel more strongly about than any other I ever sent you”).

But rejection letters kept coming in. From Simon & Schuster. From Dutton. From Scribner’s. From Braziller. From Ballantine. From Pantheon. From Knopf. None offered much encouragement.

Blanche Knopf made it clear the book was not “going to be for us…  I imagine you will have someone in your office in  New York who may want to deal with it abroad in England, or wherever.”  But where was wherever?

Scribner’s found it “a horrifying and extremely moving document…  However we have certain misgivings about the size of the American market for what remains, despite Mauriac’s brilliant introduction, a document.” I clearly had not realized that the word “document” which I myself was using in presenting the book, was as noxious in publishing circles then as the word “literary” is today.

Even Kurt and Helen Wolff at Pantheon [rejected Night], while giving the book a “careful reading” and more consideration than any other book “in quite some time” (“this was done for the reason that you had spoken with special warmth about the book; that has happened very rarely, since you generally leave it to the publisher to form his own judgment, keeping yourself neutral”). Kurt in his letter of rejection said “the warmth of your recommendation is certainly understandable to us” but then went on to say he would explain over lunch why he and Helen had decided not to publish “books of this kind”. Unfortunately I have no recollection of the explanation (or of the lunch).

In the meantime I had heard from Jérôme Lindon that the author was living in New York, working as a correspondent for an Israeli newspaper. A meeting was arranged, Elie appeared one day at my apartment (which was also my office), limping and carrying a cane. I thought this was the result of his wartime experience, but found out later, when both limp and cane disappeared, that Elie had been hit by a cab and been quite seriously wounded. The meeting went well (I wrote Lindon that I had found Wiesel “en effet très sympathique”), and Elie and I became friends, frequently meeting for dinner at an inexpensive Italian restaurant on West 54th Street. 

And then one day, finally, in the fall of 1959, success: I was able to relay to Jérôme Lindon an offer for US & Canada rights from Hill & Wang (Arthur Wang had made it a condition that there be a British publisher to share translation costs, and one had been found who would commission an inexpensive translation). The offer carried a modest advance of $250.00, payable in two installments, not extraordinary as I pointed out to Jérôme, but because of all the difficulties encountered I added I was delighted to have finally succeeded, and that Elie was delighted (“Elie est ravi!”). I asked Lindon to send me a cable saying “DACCORD WIESEL” so I could proceed with a contract. I did not want to leave time for a change of mind.

Epilogue: Night has become one of this country’s bestselling books, having been read by millions, and selling steadily at a rate of 400,000 to 500,000 copies a year, in a new and much better translation by Marion Wiesel.

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