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On Jérôme Lindon, 1926–2001

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 or should be run, knowing little or nothing about publishing, the proud owner of a prestigious name, Les Éditions de Minuit, with terrifying debts to be met and a publishing house to rebuild or, rather, to be built from scratch.” For the next decade, despite an increasingly impressive roster of authors—Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Blanchot—Minuit continued to lose money, its losses covered by loans or investments from both Lindon’s and his wife’s families. A breakthrough came as early as 1950, when a manuscript by an unknown Irishman writing in French landed on his desk: Molloy, by Samuel Beckett, which had already been turned down by several major French publishers. Reminiscing, Lindon once described to me the mounting excitement he had felt as he feverishly turned the pages of the novel. That night, he took it home with him on the Métro and remained so engrossed that he missed his stop.

Suddenly,” he said, “nothing else seemed important. Beckett for me was like a meteor streaking across the sky. I simply could not understand how anyone could not have recognized the man’s brilliance. From that day on, if before I had had any doubts about my chosen profession, my fate was sealed.”

Molloy appeared the following year, to excellent reviews and modest sales. Two other Beckett novels—volumes two and three of the trilogy he had finished—Malone Dies and The Unnamable—were waiting and followed in quick succession. Minuit’s publication of Beckett also quickly gave Lindon the reputation of a publisher of taste and courage, and a number of younger writers began sending him their man-uscripts. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (Erasers) appeared in 1953, about the same time as Beckett’s first play, Waiting for Godot, which opened at the tiny Babylon Theater on the Left Bank—the equivalent of an off- off-Broadway house—to generally puzzled reviews and, for Lindon, again modest sales. Beckett himself, who was twenty years older than Lindon, was the first to worry about and commiserate with his newfound friend and publisher. “He’s such a nice young man, Lindon,” he said to me one afternoon at the Dôme in Montparnasse, where we were working together translating one of his short stories, “La Fin” (“The End”), into English. “And to think that because of me he may well go bankrupt!” (Ironically, it was Beckett who would “save” Minuit, for Lindon owned world rights to most of Beckett’s work, which he would later sell around the world to dozens of countries.)

Despite all those lean years when, in Lindon’s own words, he went on the assumption that he “was living in a state of constant financial crisis,” he never yielded to the temptation to compromise; his intellectual rigor never wavered. The financial turning point for Lindon and Minuit came in 1957, when he published four key titles: Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, Beckett’s Endgame, future Nobel laureate Claude Simon’s Le Vent (The Wind), and Michel Butor’s La Modification (A Change of Heart), the last of which won the Renaudot Prize and sold a phenomenal (for Minuit) 90,000 copies. That year Minuit became profitable, and it has remained so ever since.

Lindon is generally credited with being the force behind the so-called nouveau roman, a loose label that included, in addition to Robbe-Grillet, Butor, and Simon, the novelists Robert Pinget, Claude Ollier, and Marguerite Duras. In fact, that generic term was coined not by Lindon but by the literary critic for Le Monde at the time, Émile Henriot, who was grasping for a label to define, or describe, this new novelistic approach.

I first met Lindon in 1952, a year after he published Molloy, and our link was Beckett. That year, in the Paris-based literary review Merlin, an equally impecunious quarterly headed by a towering, charismatic Scotsman, Alex Trocchi, I had written an article on Beckett, recommending him, with all the authority of my twenty-plus years, “to anyone interested in twentieth-century literature.” Having heard a rumor that Beckett had written, before Molloy—a work that had overwhelmed me as much as it had Lindon—an earlier novel in English entitled Watt, I took a copy of Merlin #2, containing my piece on Beckett, together with a letter to the author, and asked Lindon if he would kindly forward the package to him.

Lindon received me in his austere office on the third floor of a four-story building on the rue Bernard-Palissy, just behind St.-Germain-des-Prés and around the corner from where I was living on the rue du Sabot. Minuit, the most austere and rigorous of publishers, was housed in a former bordello, the front door of which still bore a grille through which the erstwhile customers used to announce their names and bona fides before being admitted. Now, below the Éditions de Minuit sign, sat another, ENTREZ SANS SONNER—come in without ringing—proving to any do-gooder doubters that the business of the place had indeed changed.

I shall never forget our first meeting: dressed impeccably in a dark suit and equally dark tie, Lindon sat behind the same imposing desk where he remained enthroned for the next half-century. Casually dressed, to say the least, I felt not humiliated but certainly humble before this imposing presence, while he listened politely, but slightly impatiently, to my request. Never divining his own strong feelings, I went on at great length about the indelible impression that Beckett had made on me, as if I had to convince him of the man’s importance. Little did I know that my impassioned peroration endeared me to Lindon for life. He promised to forward the material and, as we parted, graced me with a broad smile.

Three months later, having heard nothing from Beckett, I went to see Lindon a second time, essentially, I suspect, to make sure he had indeed kept his word. He assured me he had, but added: “Mr. Beckett is a very private person. And in fact he’s been away from Paris for the past couple of months. I’m sure you’ll hear from him one way or another.”

A few weeks later, on a night that was dark and stormy, Beckett, unlike Godot, did indeed appear at my rue du Sabot digs, bearing the original typescript of Watt, which in due course the hardy Merlin group published. This led eventually to my third encounter with Lindon. Merlin, having expanded its horizon into the even more financially precarious realm of books, wanted to publish Molloy in English, while Lindon wanted to translate Watt into French. This time we were meeting not as acolyte to high priest but (almost) as equal to equal. Negotiating. For the occasion, I put on a tie (borrowed), a freshly laundered shirt, and my only jacket (a present from my father when I had set out for France four years before, and scarcely worn).

Despite all my sartorial efforts, I still had the feeling, as I entered Lindon’s office, that I was at a distinct negotiating disadvantage. He was much older than I (or so I thought), he ran a real publishing house, in contrast to Merlin‘s shoestring operation. I asked him what kind of an advance he expected for Molloy. He barely paused and said, “How about 50,000 francs?” That was more than what Merlin had in the bank—I know, since by then I had become a director—not to mention printers’ debts of triple that amount. “And Watt,” I said, “how much would you be willing to pay for the rights to that?” He looked at me with a straight face. “How about 50,000 francs?” he said. I searched for a smile, the trace of a smile, but found none. But there was an undeniable twinkle in his eye, one that I would observe a thousand times over the next half-century.

On the spot, we struck a deal: the only caveat I raised—no, humbly requested—was that Lindon not cash Merlin‘s check for four days. “Why is that?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “We’re expecting an infusion of capital next week,” I lied. I handed him our check for 50,000 francs, he handed me his for the same amount, which I rushed to deposit, for only when his cleared, I knew, would ours be honored. I thought I had pulled a fast one, but years later, Lindon teased: “That Merlin check,” he said, “I want you to know I waited five days before depositing it.” What I did not know at the time was that Minuit, almost as much as Merlin, was on the financial precipice. Thus Jérôme’s Alphonse-Gaston gesture was far more generous than I had suspected.

Those early meetings cemented our relationship for life—a relationship both personal and professional. In my first job in publishing at George Braziller’s, who was just branching out from his book club base to mainstream publishing, I read in 1957 a recent Minuit succès de scandale, Henri Alleg’s The Question, a book that denounced the torture being inflicted on the Algerians by the French Army during the Algerian war. I told Braziller it would not sell—who in America was interested in a French colonial war?—but added that he should publish it anyway. To my surprise, he did. And to the surprise of us both, the book was soon on the New York Times best-seller list. But in France, Jérôme Lindon, far closer to the fire, was quickly embattled: harassed at work and at home, he saw his books seized, and he was indicted, under various sections and subsections of French law, no fewer than eighteen times.

He whose first and foremost love was literature, and above all the discovery of new talent, was nevertheless political in the purest sense of the term. Following hard on his publication of The Question, Lindon, despite the legal war being waged against him, was nevertheless instrumental in disseminating the “Manifesto of the 121”—121 French writers and artists against the war in Algeria. (At Grove Press where I then worked, we published, as an act of solidarity, the manifesto in Evergreen Review, though I’m sure 90 percent of our readers had no idea what we were protesting.) This retiring, self-effacing, seemingly disengaged man, who proclaimed himself nonpolitical, was unflinching in the face of repression. I once accused him—if that is the permissible term—of being far more engaged than he ever admitted. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s simply that if one is lucky enough to live in a free country, to enjoy the extraordinary privilege of total freedom of expression, you have to speak out when that freedom is threatened.” “In totalitarian countries,” he added, “the first ones to be attacked are always the publishers, of both newspapers and books.”

Over the next forty-nine years I never went to Paris without seeing Jérôme. Inevitably, we met in his office—that same immaculate space I had timorously visited in 1952, the only difference being that in the intervening years the shelves behind him and to his right slowly filled with the impressive results of his foresight and dedica-tion. From there we would go to the Sybarite, a restaurant around the corner on the rue du Sabot, two doors down from where I had lived. It was a typical low-key, rustic Left Bank place, run by the owners, a husband and wife. Jérôme, who had his table, always ordered the same: steak frites, with a salad following, and Badoit water, then coffee. No wine. Ever. “But please,” he would always insist, “you should have some.” We would talk books, to a lesser degree politics, and in the later years, after Beckett had died, always about Beckett. That first lunch after Beckett’s death, we—Lindon, my wife Jeannette, and I—tried to avoid the subject, but to no avail, and as we reminisced, jovially and joyously, tears began streaming down all our faces, to the consternation of the waiter and diners around us, I am sure, but to little or no embarrassment on any of our parts.

Our last lunch was this past October: same fare, same immediate connection as though no time had passed since that first meeting, almost half a century earlier. I remember remarking how little Jérôme had changed over the years. At his office, he did not climb the narrow circular staircase up which we inched gingerly: he bounded, doubtless wondering what was keeping us. At the restaurant, he talked enthusiastically about his latest discovery, whose first work he was about to publish; he worried about an author whose fourth novel he was expecting (would it be good? would it be up to his previous three?); he railed against the attempts to overturn la loi Lang—the law, named after the former minister of culture Jacques Lang, for which he had fought so long and hard, to prevent the discounting of books, which he saw as the death knell of the independent bookstores, on which he knew the fate of new voices depended.

As we left each other at the doorstep of Minuit, we fixed a date for the following month, to pursue a common project we had agreed to work on. When Jeannette wrote in November to confirm our date, we learned that Jérôme was out of the office, for an indeterminate period. He had had an operation, from which he was recovering, we were assured. When in early February my wife talked to Jérôme’s daughter Irène, who was running the company in his absence, the date of his return still remained vague. Arriving in Paris on April 10 of this year, we were received immediately by Irène, who told us that her father was au plus mal—in terrible shape. What she did not tell us—because she could not, without betraying his strict instructions—was that he had died two days before. No notice was to be given of his death, he had mandated, until after his burial, which took place on Thursday the 12th.

True to himself to the end, this great publisher, this mentor to so many, remained in death what he had always been in life: discreet, forever staying out of the limelight, honest and courageous. Despite all his efforts to pass from this world discreetly, he could not prevent the outpouring of homages that filled the newspapers in the following days. He who had supported two generations of writers was eulogized by hundreds, from the president of France, Jacques Chirac, to the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, to writers, publishers, and friends from all corners of Europe. He was buried in the strictest privacy, in the Montparnasse cemetery, not far from his great friend Samuel Beckett.

Bonjour, Sam. Bonjour, Jérôme….

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