Hubert Nyssen and Actes Sud
Nyssen, an expatriate Belgian, founded Actes Sud (an acronym for Atelier de Cartographie Thematique et Statistique) in 1973 in Arles. He had made one career in the commercial side of theater in Brussels, but as he told me in a 2006 interview “it was not that satisfying. I felt there was a bigger world to see, and so many good books!”92 The counterculture and events of 1968 touched his world, and he threw over his job, wife, and family to live in the south of France with Christine Le Breuf, an illustrator at Hachette whom he married in 1967. They established themselves in a converted stable in the village of Paradou, near Les Baux. Then they traveled the hippie road for a year, to Ceylon, the USSR, and China. His first book in 1972 was an homage to cartography, Le nom de l’arbre [The Name of the Tree], actually printed and distributed by Grasset. He recalls Martin and Messerli in this respect: “I loved old maps, the feel of them, the history, and I thought there must be other people who felt the same way.” The pair became French citizens the next year and he expanded his offerings, specializing in regional topics about the Camargue, Marseille, and Provence, as well as Italian history. His books became known for elegant typography and exquisite paper. “I design books for the hand—everything, the size, the margins, the typeface is designed to make you love reading it. A book must open perfectly in the hand, it must sit there calmly if you need to stir your coffee.” Le Breuf managed the design and illustration, and in 1979 Hubert’s daughter from his first marriage, Fran^oise, who was a creative business mind, became active in the company.
Actes Sud branched out into poetry and fiction in the early 1980s. Broadened by their travels, Nyssen and Le Breuf were looking for foreign writers that French readers might be interested in. Hubert said he wanted to “help French readers to discover or rediscover foreign literature, not classics, but the writing of today. It seems to me that nowadays the public and young writers are more aware of what is being written elsewhere.”93 Le Breuf, their scout of Anglophone literature, first tried her hand at translation in 1986.
According to friends, Le Breuf read The Invention of Solitude when it appeared from Sun & Moon and carried an artistic torch for Auster. But friends say that when she first brought Auster’s City of Glass to Nyssen, he declined it, arguing that there was no translator available.94 Le Breuf took up the task herself, pointing out that Auster’s credentials in France, followed by success in the United States, would redound upon them all in publishing the trilogy. Nyssen subsequently claimed credit for discovering Auster, but as we’ve seen, if anyone was entitled to credit (beyond Auster himself, who persevered through difficulty), it would be Messerli. Even the New York Times had reviewed The Invention of Solitude before it appeared in France. The French took him up as an “important author” more quickly than Americans did, however, and appearing in Actes Sud’s gorgeous editions suggested his quality. But he would not have been as successful in France if he had not been successful in the United States—in refraction, reputation is amplified.
Actes Sud first brought out Cite de Verre [City of Glass] in 1987, translated by Pierre Furlan, who was on contract, but Le Breuf apparently did not like it. The press published Le Breuf’s version in French in 1988, the first of twenty- two of Auster’s books that she would translate. She did many other authors as well—Siri Husveldt, Auster’s second wife, and Jack London. “I only translate books I feel a connection with,” she told me. “With Paul, it was instant. Because his manner of thinking is somewhat French, his sentences seem to translate directly.” She sometimes telephoned him directly to ask questions, “but I try to group my questions into working sessions. That’s cheaper.”
By 2008 Actes Sud had 200 employees, a backlist of 3,000 books, and published 260 new titles a year—producing annual revenues of over $16 million.95 A French government diplomatic website claims that it “brought the American, Paul Auster, out of the shadows, his success in France having led to his success in Europe and only then in the United States.”96 That’s not entirely right, but it catches the importance of refraction. Actes Sud deserves credit: it helped to make Auster a huge success, its books have won numerous prizes, including the Grand Prix of the Academie Fran^aise, and Nyssen was prescient in anticipating the way a strong backlist could anchor a small publisher of World Literature, in addition to spurring sales in the author’s country. He ensured that Auster, like Bukowski, made as much money overseas as at home.
But Spain also adopted Auster very early. The Invention of Solitude appeared in 1988, as did Auster’s next book, Ghosts (both translated by Jorge de Lorbar, for Jucar). That was the same year as Furlan’s translation for Actes Sud. So Auster’s popularity in France was not strictly a case of superior French taste, but more likely of Nyssen’s superior publicity. Then Spain’s Ediciones Jucar brought out La Habitacion Cerrada in 1989. After this Auster’s Spanish publications alternated between Edhasa, which had published Garcia Marquez, and Editorial Anagrama. In 1987 and 1988 Auster’s work began to appear in Germany (Rowohlt), Italy (Rizzoli), The Netherlands (Arbeiderspers), Norway (Norsk Samlaget), Portugal (Editorial Presen^a), and Sweden (Hammerstrom & Aberg).97 The Invention of Solitude appeared in German in 1987, translated by Joachim Frank for Hoffmann und Campe. Passage through France was obviously an important validation for other European publishers, as Casanova would argue, but Auster’s career began with Sun & Moon in Los Angeles.