I translated Ingrid Astier’s essay which honors Aurélien Masson, the editor at Gallimard’s la Série Noire imprint. While the translation was intended to appear in the proceeds from NOIRCON 2016, space and printing costs excluded it. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference.
“Beware in this treacherous word: To be.” — Paul Valéry.
When I think of Aurélien Masson, the first word that comes to mind is stomatopoda.
I grant you that it’s not a common word and I’ll wager it means nothing to you. Thus, the role of the writer: introductions.
Between you and the unknown, words, beings, the distant.
So, I am going to bridge that gap. The stomatopoda or the mantis shrimp is a shellfish. It is thin and tough – like Aurélien Masson, who proves that strength and sensitivity mesh with the crime novel. It has a thick shell and it is true that to approach Aurélien Masson is something you earn. The crustacean is reclusive; it likes to live hidden, just out of sight. I remember when Aurélien mentioned ‘the cellar,’ the very first home for Série Noire at Gallimard. “Collections are conceived in places; they’re not hydroponic plants,” he said in his signature style that is simultaneously biting and playful. And he’s right: places and the spirit of the series function in unison. Today, Série Noire is under one roof. But for Aurélien, “the cellar is in the head.” Image from Ingrid Astier
Like the stomatopoda, Aurélien Masson draws from the depths of shadow. He makes the night his hunting ground. Like this shellfish, he is cryptic: in black dressed, blended in lines such that he can’t be made out there. And I imagine this somber silhouette bent over universes that, over the course of pages, give the sun a polishing.
Black on black. Camouflage. Truth can tremble and that is the end of the clarity.
Nevertheless, no animal distinguishes so many colors. One reads: “Each eye of the stomatopoda possesses at least a dozen photopigments [compared to three in the human eye and four in birds”]. Aurélien Masson has publishing in the blood. He knows the nuances of noir inside out. A collection is for him a family with a thousand faces, not mere clones.
From carbon to coal, including anthracite on up to jet-black, his vision can tell everything apart. A walker of abysses, he knows the flip-side of the world without judging it. The first time I met him I thought it was a teenager arriving in a provocative T-shirt, a smooth-talker, and this rock and roll side of him that could be nothing more than a cover. Hands riveted to the manuscript, he spoke.
Then he was incomparably old like the granite rocks of Mount Rushmore.
A publisher is not a reader; he sees not the line but the horizon. We fought over Quai des enfers. This was my first novel. When I refused to throw more light on my character, the killer, Aurélien had replied with these gems: “I’m okay with grey areas but not black holes.”
After this brilliant insight, there was nothing left to do but work.
Because that is the road.
The stomatopoda enjoys three-hundred-sixty-degree of vision and I often thought that Aurélien Masson did too, though a slower version of it. He reads in writers the invisible strata of the palimpsest. Again, I think of our shellfish, which can “triangulate an object, know exactly its distance and depth.” With this vision, born of desire and audacity. Aurélien Masson likes growing with his writers.
He’s not complacent. He doesn’t like to sugarcoat. And I believe him when I hear his dry speech, without the honey and without the frills. But he does that, always, for the good of the text. For a surge to take place. A darling in the draft is often scratched out.
It is necessary to feel chosen to have been taken into the captivating legs of this predator. And do not forget that stomatopoda’s legs are “furnished with sharp spurs to impale the soft body of its prey.” Aurélien Masson abhors softness. He is a textual obsessive. He wants to feel some heat, some bone under the tooth.
The strength of the stomatopoda’s blow is such that it can break the glass of an aquarium. Its strike “delivers the equivalent power of 100 kilograms [220 pounds] in two-thousands of a second on a small surface, equivalent to the acceleration of a bullet from a pistol.”
Aurélien Masson is that bullet against the wind. He was never afraid of blasting prejudices into smithereens. Detective literature for him stems from faith.
Image: Bibliothèque Médicis
And if he carries around a lantern in broad daylight, he does it is to reveal to each his own night.
For, by spending time in one’s subterranean depths, one touches the heart, the human being.
© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan