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A Guided Tour of P.O.L's Editorial Offices.

Getting there isn't complicated, if you're facing the Saint-Michel fountain with the river behind you (the river is very close by, a few dozen meters away; its humidity when you cross the bridge toward the Ile de la Cite and then the Place du Chatelet with its two theaters and its cafes), you have to head along the right-hand side. You cross almost immediately and dive into rue SaintAndre-des-Arts with its crowd heading upriver, whose tide you fight through after having passed the red awning of the sandwich shop on your right, then the tobacconist's (I sometimes stop there to buy a packet of yellow or blue American Spirits), and, on your left, the terrace of a cafe, this morning covered in a thick, translucent tarpaulin through which you must appear slightly distorted to those sitting behind it.

Next, here's a kebab shop, suggestive color photos, simultaneously bright and worn, a creperie, a Chinese cateter, hup, watch out, you step up onto the sidewalk to get out of the way of the van coming toward you, there you go (a passing glance through the shop window at the spring rolls and beef noodle soups waiting in their bowls under films of cellophane). Now you're there on that tiny strip of pavement, tying yourself in knots so as not to bump into the passersby with your bag, you gather your coattails so as to take up the least possible amount of space dancing your way through every manner of evasive maneuver. Another creperie, with a blue facade (opposite is a bar-restaurant where I like to have dinner, noisy and dark, bur pleasant, I'm not sure why), a souvenir shop from whose hangers dangle T-shirts depicting the sights of Paris, and you almost bump into a tower of Borsalinos waiting for you to take one and try it on (on the other side of the street, the Saint-Andre-des-Arts cinema--art and experimental films, I recommend it); and it's there, almost opposite Chochotte (an erotic theatre with a brass sign and a red and gray fresco), just after the decorations shop: you check the white and blue plaque for confirmation, "Editions P.O.L," and you push open the heavy green carriage door with the finely wrought handle (stepping up to avoid the low crosspiece).

You're now in the cobblestone courtyard, under the archway at first, then open sky, with the trees in pots (box trees, frail olive trees, oranges perhaps, and some species whose names I don't know). You're careful not to twist your ankle on the historic, uneven ground and, at the last moment, you raise your head, which you were keeping down, your eyes fixed on the ground to avoid the little canyons running between the loose cobblestones, you false it toward the floor-to-ceiling windows on the right, behind which you can make out Jean-Paul, to whom you wave.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, you press the button on intercom, and at the quiet hum of the lock opening, you push open the glass door (opposite you is a staircase with a finely wrought banister whose steps have been carrying people's feet for centuries). Then you turn the handle of the little door to the right, also green, and you come across Marie and Marie.

Marie and Marie, they're the interns you might have caught a glimpse of, if you were lucky, through the frame of the window where, as in a Truffaut film, where they often appeared, at least one of them in a short dress and boots, perched on a ladder, busy shelving the books that the other was handing her in piles.

These past few weeks (reality is very resourceful), both interns have the same name. This morning, one of them is at reception, behind the desk, beside the telephone, you greet her (you can imagine the other one at the end of the hall, busy putting stamps on whatever outgoing publicity materials won't be sent out by special messenger, then putting these into the big burlap mail sack whose limp opening is far from ideal, whoops, well, there you go). Behind Marie number one is a wall of cathedral glass whose translucent but thick panes hide Antonie from us.

She's definitely there though, in a thin, white, polo-neck sweater and gray dress, hair tied up, hand on her computer's mouse.

As she gets up to kiss you hello, your eyes sweep the wall that's papered with red, yellow, blue, and green files. You see a poster as well as loose pages tacked to the wall, covered in starry post-its whose yellow rectangular edges curl inward in the heat from the radiator. Two interior windows open high up over the angled corridor. The slender base of a halogen lamp, a printer.

Antonie Delebecque has worked full-time at P.O.L since 2003 and has become the editorial assistant. She had started by interning at P.O.L at the very start of the 2000s, in particular for the review Trafic. Antonie told me that she did her first publishing internship during the summer of 2000 at Balland, whose offices at the time were next door to P.O.L's: she happened to pass by to borrow the paper cutter. One thing led to another ...

Though she likes the varied nature of her position, at the moment she's focusing her attention on the digital side of things. In particular, the P.O.L website is currently being updated ...

Should we let her finish what she's doing?

Her little, gray, felt, man's hat must be around somewhere, so she can put it on to go and have lunch.

You leave Antonie's office and a few steps farther on--watch out for the box of books in your path--you reach Thierry's office, where he's sitting on a rotating armchair that he swivels toward the new arrival with a little squeak. Draped on the back of the armchair is his navy jacket flanked with red anchors (I've got into the habit of calling it his Captain Haddock jacket). Under the vertical light of a ceiling made of cathedral glass (the same thick panes as those separating Antonie's office from the reception), which cross, orthogonally, the mass of photons surging almost as brazenly through the window that's open onto the small back street (in the evening, you can close its iron shutter simply by pressing a button; Thierry would be delighted to show you how it works), he's working in front of his big screen doing the layout of new books.

Garamond and Plantin hold no mysteries for him, he calculates in sixteenpage signatures, will do you from twenty-eight to thirty-two lines per page.

Thierry Fourreau began working at P.O.L in 1989, and he calls himself (laughing and affecting a quavering voice) the press's oldest employee.

He gives the texts you entrust to him a readable form.

Thierry is also one of the press's authors, since in 2004 he published a story of love and grief with P.O.L: Perfecto.

Thank you, Thierry. The next office belongs to Vibeke.

Vibeke isn't here that day; she's accompanying Atiq Rahimi on a publicity trip to Sweden. I cast an eye over her office through the open door all the same (sorry, Vibeke), in order to be able to describe to you, well, the shelves on the left (barred by a chrome ladder), where files float, suspended from their rail, and where copies of P.O.L authors' books translated into every language are arranged, the most recent ones facing out toward the visitor with their illustrated covers and their titles that are sometimes identifiable and sometimes an absolute mystery.

On her desk, three P.O.L titles that have just been published are propped on display stands with their publicity covers wrapped around them, to the right of the back of her computer screen, huge and black against the light from the tripartite window (double windows surmounted by an upper, rectangular pane), through which can be made out, at the ground level, huge wire-covered windows and, on the second floor, an apartment with empty window boxes.

Vibeke Madsen started at P.O.L in 1998. She looks after foreign rights. Whichever author you'd like to translate, you'll have to pass through her first. You can also meet her at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and here and there when she's accompanying authors on tours. She's also the intermediary with Folio, which puts out the pocket editions of the texts first published at P.O.L. She'll send you the articles that appear about your translated books by mail, will share your delight and encourage you.

Back along the hall, there's the photocopier, the coffee machine, the fax machine, a printer, you notice a small poster of Vincent Lindon's face in Emmanuel Carrere's film, La Moustache, on the wall, or a telegram from Olivier Cadiot.

Before entering the next office on the left, which belongs to Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, let's go and say hello to Jean-Paul, whom we caught sight of through the large window in the courtyard.

You carry on down the hall. You pass a Formica table to your left where a switched-off computer lies idle beside a likewise dormant telephone, which a call suddenly brings back to ringing life. Just above, left on a shelf, a dried fish that Jean-Paul brought back (I'm told) from a flea market seems the emblem of some obscure and mysterious message. You pass by other shelves, filled with the most recent P.O.L publications (ahead of you a coatrack rises up, bearing--as though arranged here entirely for decorative purposes--various gray and red fabrics), as well as the table where you would be stationed to autograph the copies of your books to be dedicated on signing days. To your right sits the postage meter, on the counter where the interns prepare the outgoing packages (but no, the second Marie isn't here).

You take a few more steps (to the left are the sinks and the bathroom should you wish to freshen up), it's on the right, the door covered with a wooden veneer (under which you'd find, no doubt, some bee's nest: the doors, in present-day renovations, still have composite souls), its handle chromiumplated--let's knock.

Jean-Paul is very happy for us to stop by. On the walls, a wedding photo, very old, a back page of a Jean-Luc Godard cover, a paragraph of Valere Novarina's, a phrase of Dominique Fourcade's, a Marie Darrieussecq text (these are handwritten and framed); an African painting given as a gift by Jacques Jouet (it depicts a field of sugar cane, I believe); the cover of La Douleur by Duras, stuck onto a foam board; on the desk, along with trinkets given as gifts, such as pebbles and miniature Parisian monuments, are a series of slates knotted together (a Kounellis installation, Jean-Paul explains to me).

A miniature world.

Apparently, underneath all the files, there's a packet of stickers hanging around too, stickers in the shape of dinosaurs--its label reading Sticker House, Made in Taiwan--which I bought at the Natural History Museum in London and gave to Jean-Paul on the publication of my novel L'Origine de l'homme (The Origin of Man).

I love the view over the courtyard, the wrought iron of the balcony opposite, the geraniums in the foreground (they are very effective mosquito repellents, I take the liberty of reminding Jean-Paul).

Jean-Paul Hirsch began working at P.O.L in March 1991. His title is "sales manager," but he doesn't like either of those words. "Press attache" would be more accurate. He's therefore in constant contact with journalists and booksellers. He speaks to them about your books over the telephone, in his office, or in a cafe, and in this way you'll sometimes bump into him with a journalist outside a cafe when you weren't expecting it.

It's also Jean-Paul who takes you in a taxi to any radio or television studios, travels with you to book fairs. Always punctual, reassuring, ready to listen. Soft voice and lovely way of speaking. And, occasionally, he takes out his digital camera to film you, collecting images that are sometimes projected for everyone to see (at P.O.L's twenty-fifth birthday party for example). At these times, you stammer a bit, you ineffectively wave your hand in front of your face, or you boldly fire a short sentence at the lens in response to a question he asks you, or regarding the situation in which you find yourself, or else about the fact that you're sorry for your terrible morning appearance, the rings under your eyes, the neon light under which you've been caught.

But then Paul Otchakovsky comes to find you and you follow him to his office.

The important thing, on entering Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens's office, is not to stumble over the small, unexpected, hidden step down--which, unlike what happened when you entered the other offices, where you stepped onto a floor level with the floor out in the hallway every time you crossed a threshold, so that, confident, good-natured, you assume you can now repeat the same movements with impunity--this step marking a very slight disparity in altitude, a subsidence underfoot; I don't know what happened with the architecture that led to this office being built just a little lower than all the others. Because, imagine it: your foot, not immediately finding the floor it expected to step onto, drops heavily, and you twist your ankle slightly, while your other foot has already started to move forward as well, so that, destabilized, you perform a live action pratfall, ker-splat, and there you are embracing, after a fashion, the ground, whose abrasive seagrass matting grazes your hands on contact; breathless and flushed, vaguely ashamed, with the wounds in the hollows of your palms tingling, the skin bristling with small, soft, translucent flakes, a little blood--very little--that starts to run (you excuse yourself to go and rinse off your hands, you know where the sinks are, you go there, clumsy and confused), no, all that is really not desirable.

But you rewind and start again, because you're not going to miss that step: with an attention that never flags--not only in the case of each new visitor, but for every single caller, visit after visit, tirelessly, and however many years you've been coming to the press--Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens will point out (or remind you of, depending on the circumstances) the existence of this step down; and not only will that little phrase, seemingly neutral, "Watch out for the step when you're coming in," certainly save you from an unpleasant experience, visit after visit, the warning will carry with it the memory of all your previous visits, humming something attentive and familiar to your ear, making one conscious of all those gentle and comforting layers of time that serve to solidify relationships.

And among all those times--now indistinct--which form the light weight of this lovely shared past, there is also the first time, of course, the initial encounter, the unforgettable, the intimidating time Paul Otchakovsky telephoned you to tell you he wanted to speak to you about your manuscript--a scene I won't go over here since I've already had the occasion to write about it in one of the Petits dejeuners avec quelques ecrivains celebres (Breakfasts with a Few Famous Writers, 2008).

I'd give you a hundred to one (as they used to say in nineteenth-century French novels) that every P.O.L author thinks about that first time on crossing the threshold of that office again, whether consciously or otherwise. I'd give you a hundred to one that the first time is lodged there, in the recesses of the mind, stirred up by his little phrase, waiting deep below the surface, waiting, unsleeping.

Now that you've overcome the step challenge successfully, you can quickly look over the bookshelves to your left before coming to the framed photograph of Duras at Trouville (leaning on a low wall, all smiles, a penetrating and carefree black and white), surrounded by several lithographs. You note the large picture window and its double blind that falls to the floor behind the desk (computer, lamp, papers ...); your gaze continues along over another shelf dotted with ornaments, or books standing with their covers facing out (an issue of Trafic, for example), then to a wall with a large print of a photograph of Edouard Leve and, in the half-oval of the light projected by the halogen lamp, several overexposed clip-frames containing drawings whose nature escapes you. Your eye, having accomplished its tour, returns to the door through which you arrived, with its little step, next to a table supporting mountains of files, manuscripts, or finished books, itself pressed up against a canvas intending something like a railway landscape, engulfed beneath a camaieu of blues and browns.

Under this table is a wastepaper basket, if you want the inventory to be complete, and you see three armchairs (a swiveling one behind the desk, two fixed ones in front of it, black leather with chrome-plated metal bases), shall we sit for a bit? Just long enough for me to confide something to you.

Perhaps you've already felt it during this visit--that a great sensitivity reigns at P.O.L. A kind of gentleness.

Everyone is sitting at his or her desk with his or her story and personality, but all of them have this gentleness in common, very precious and very unusual.

You come to this place as you would to a house, and that's certainly the feeling those who work here have and will tell you about when you ask them--the feeling of helping, of being involved in a collective effort--and too this feeling of its being a house, a "publishing house," as they say, but here the word takes on its full meaning. Each of the people here, without conferring, will tell you that the office is their second home.

And the seagrass matting that covers the floor, the geraniums flowering in the windows, each fleetingly reinforce in your mind that feeling each of them carries within.

Which is the feeling you have also.

Because this sensitivity shown by everyone here helps each author find his or her own way.

You arrive, you say hello to everyone, you are hesitant, the stories are fermenting inside you without your being sure of the form they'll take, and this sensitivity and this gentleness allow your inventions the leisure of blossoming gently, at their own pace, as they will.

Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens founded the press in 1983, and it was located at Villa d'Alesia for a long time, in offices I never saw.

Perec is the genius loci of this publishing house, since the logo of the press is inspired by the game go, in tribute to he whose Life A User's Manual Paul Otchakovsky published in the collection he was in charge of at Hachette at the time.

Paul Otchakovsky has this gentleness and this sensitivity I was speaking of, and he shares them with every member of this press; but I must also reveal to you that there is a photograph of him with Perec in which he has Mick Jagger's smile.

Paul also often tells this story, which to some extent serves as a founding myth:

When his job was still just to read manuscripts, he had to report on a submission that seemed marvelous to him, except for a chapter that he felt needed to be cut. He conveyed this to the committee, but in the meantime the manuscript was published elsewhere. When the book came out, Paul Otchakovsky reread it, and it dawned on him that the best part of the book was the chapter he had proposed cutting out.

Thanks to this story, Paul Otchakovsky generally remains very cautious in his demands for changes, very noninterventionist. However, you can ask him to work with you on a text. You sit on these very armchairs, side by side, on this side of his desk (his own big armchair empty on the other side), and you can go through your manuscript page by page, and ask questions at the points where you're uncertain.

It's one thing I never leave without doing.

An editor is someone who justifies the hours you spend sitting down, the (considerable amount of) time you spend writing.

The most intimate, most secret, most solitary thing you do, this gesture of sitting down at a table to begin writing, which you've done since childhood and which has become utterly integral to you, your editor gives this meaning.

That's why the editor changes everything, down to the very foundations of your existence.

It's difficult to say to what degree he returns to you what you have lost.

Your hours are no longer just the frame in which you produce sentences by way of this gesture transforming experience into language, to which you have always applied yourself; they are now also turned toward the book, toward the possibility of a reader.

The worlds you invent, and the rhythm of the sentences in which you work to make them function, and where it's necessarily your own relationship to the world that you're exposing (the places you know, which also allow you to forge the ones you imagine; the people you love; everything whose slightest trace you want so badly to hold onto, and the memories of which, simultaneously powerful and subdued, you mix in with the completely metamorphosed universes where you pay them homage), your editor tells you that all this can find an echo in another being. And in this way he transforms your writing into a space for communication.

The hours that you tear from the world, the editor gives them back to the world.

What is most intimate, he knows how to make public; what is most solitary, he opens up to collectivity. And another strange thing happens too--just because you have distilled all those lonely hours writing, you begin to go on journeys that you wouldn't have gone on otherwise (invitations to book fairs, writing residencies ...), to meet people that you wouldn't have met. So your editor is also someone who, by the single gesture of publishing you, reopens an array of possibilities, and of adventures.

Though it's hardly that writing isn't part of this world. Writing, contrary to the rumor still running around at times, has a definite place in the world. On the one hand because, during those moments you are writing, your body is interacting with the exterior world (as are your thoughts): with light, with sounds, with the objects around you, the view you have, with the temperature of the room, the sweater you did or didn't put on. And because, in the universes that you construct, that your sentences tap into, it's precisely your connection to the world which is being ceaselessly reworked. But your editor allows your writing to reach a new level of openness to the world.

And he also gives that which was purely labile or invisible a tangible trace; he transforms it into an object.

Writing is no longer the same vague moment, necessary but incomplete, that it was previously; it remains uncertain and fragile, yes, but it also becomes books, produced things, transformed time. It leaves a trace, with which you're always dissatisfied, however, and so you continue to chase after that perfect book that you'd like to write and of which every book is nothing but a very distant reflection. This distance, this remoteness from the book you'd like to have written, is painful, but also the basic principle, perhaps, behind carrying on; behind trying each time to get a little bit closer to it.

You understand then that the very singular way that Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens has of being available and of listening to you without imposing anything on you, in an attentive gesture of accompaniment, is absolutely priceless; and everyone--Antonie, Vibeke, Thierry, Jean-Paul--offers you a little of the same whenever you visit the press.

This day, when I make a tour through the offices (with, I can certainly admit to you, my little video camera in hand, in order to gather a little serious material to be able to describe everything to you), Paul Otchakovsky and I have arranged to have lunch together. I'm sick with tracheitis, and it's at the height of its powers, so we choose a quiet restaurant so that my grating wisp of a voice might actually be slightly audible.

At the end of the meal, Paul Otchakovsky points out to me that my voice has almost returned. Whether due to my exercising my vocal chords, as necessitated by our conversation, or to a natural progression toward recovery, what happens during that lunch is the perfect metaphor for what my entry into the P.O.L list represented; and, on either side of the tablecloth over which we are finishing our coffee, we mutually recall that that's just what I said in my inscription to Paul, handwritten in my first novel published with P.O.L: that he was the one who gave me my voice back.

Translated by Ursula Meany Scott
COPYRIGHT 2010 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Title Annotation:Editions P.O.L.
Author:Montalbetti, Christine
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Previous Article:On Literature as Readymade.
Next Article:Reading P.O.L.

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