He was tall, thin, with a hairline that had so receded that only two white, barely discernible tufts remained above his prominent ears. His dark, flashing eyes fixed on you as if you were the only person in the universe, and his nervous energy, even in the forty-ninth year of our friendship, was so ill-contained that he constantly shifted in his chair behind a disconcertingly clean desk. He was, without question, the most prestigious French publisher of the second half of the twentieth century and, arguably, the most important publisher in the Western world. And yet, since 1948, when he assumed the direction of the fledgling publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit (Midnight Press), Jérôme Lindon brought out no more than fifteen to twenty books a year. In half a century the people on his payroll never exceeded the magic number of ten.
What made Lindon so special? His total integrity. He never published a manuscript he had not read and approved of personally. No committees. No readers’ reports. Until recently, when his daughter Irène began forming her own list of authors within the house, he read every manuscript submitted to Minuit. “I read, and I decide,” he once told me. Most often he would respond the very next day, either to accept the work or summon the author to discuss what he thought needed to be done to make it publishable. In an era of increasingly impersonal publishing, of gluttonous conglomeratization, Lindon remained the consummate personal publisher. To me he was an inspiration throughout my own publishing life.
Les Éditions de Minuit was born in 1941, during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation. A clandestine house founded by two members of the French Resistance, Pierre de Lescure and Jean Bruller, Minuit published a score of underground titles between then and the end of the war, the most famous of which is the now classic Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) by Vercors, which was Jean Bruller’s pseudonym.
Lindon, too young in 1939 to be conscripted, moved with his family—his father, Raymond Lindon, was an eminent lawyer and jurist—to the south of France, the so-called free zone. The end of the war found him in Constance, Germany, as part of General Lattre’s First Army.
In 1946, Lindon, who was then barely twenty, joined Les Éditions de Minuit as an unpaid intern, bearing nonetheless the imposing title of “assistant production manager,” bestowed no doubt because he had a year’s experience working in a printshop. The publishing house was losing money, and young Lindon convinced his family to invest, to help keep it afloat. A year later, with the company still badly in the red, the Lindon family’s further investment gave it the majority share, and Bruller/Vercors promptly left, taking his backlist with him to a rival publishing house, Albin Michel.
“So there I was,” Lindon said to me years later, “a mere kid, completely ignorant of how businesses were …