I translated this essay from Frédéric Jaccaud, who wrote it in honor of Aurélien Masson the editor of Série Noire at Gallimard and the recipient of the David Goodis Award at NOIRCON 2016. Space and cost prevented its inclusion in the conference proceedings. In [brackets] I have placed allusions to French culture and literature. Jaccaud pulled out all the stops to honor Masson. This ‘shout out’ essay is a tour de force of the French essai genre littéraire; it is the most difficult and challenging essay I have ever translated. Link to Part II.
He asks her to tell him what the penis looked like of the man made of masses of stone. She says that it looked as if it were an object from the beginning of the world, unrefined and ugly, that it was the petrified state of desire, always full, hard and painful as a wound.
-Marguerite Duras, Blue Eyes, Black Hair
For ten years, Aurélien Masson has presided as head of Série Noire. Is it necessary to pass judgment on this decade of publications while the interested party is still in his Paris office? It’s a loaded question to pay tribute to a man still alive; even more so when it’s your own publisher you’re talking about. There is just something suspicious about it all. However, Aurélien accepts his celebrity status – kind of like a nervous, tireless and exuberant nephew of Rameau [Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, or the Second Satire]. He’ll appreciate the grotesque situation – the cynicism, the bombast, the irony carrying him on self-sufficient pretentiousness. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)
Short of lingering over the bibliographical and anecdotal elements, I think that it is more appropriate to look at this old Série Noire and the Aurélien-hyped double-duty as publisher and editor. In fact, the shift of this collection where “the spirit is rarely conformist” towards shady territories, forces us to deal with contemporary literature, the trendy crime novel.
When he defines his personal vision of the literature, Aurélien often uses a martial vocabulary. We see him as a general (routed, to respect a romanticism of the bastards or traitor, at the very least) reviewing his bookcase of fights. This lexical posture explains brutally the daily urgency to develop a furious literary landscape, to breathe into Série Noire this breath of rotted teeth, which becomes him so well.
So that we don’t make a mistake here: Série Noire is not at war against the world…it reveals it in the prism of darkness.
There is in the crime novel no battle to wage and he sides with nobody, but rages like a mercenary, living off plundering and robberies. Any risk of dying on the field of honor – in this fake battle, we drag ourselves through mud, the only feat of arms where fear and small size are more common than heroism and glory. A posture of revolt and resistance matters little as long as the libertarian creed is respected.
It is while exploring this martial metaphor to the point of wearing it out that we notice that the regular armies in publishing favor the collective shots that are aimed at the heart of the hypothetical target, the successive circles of which – infernal, mediocre territories – represent more or less significant sectors of the public; that is, more or less massive commercial success. This generalized tactic, the historic Série Noire, almost in spite of itself, applies it with a roguish irony. Old Dame Gallimard gives herself permission to throw her assassin darts off-mark. This voluntary shift characterizes the atavistic arrogance of the collection. (Natalie Toro as Madame DeFarge)
The constitution of Série Noire entails a deviation on the part of the editors, the writers, the artists and others involved in this tangential adventure. From then on, it bears with joy the stigmas attached to its birth by eyeing relentlessly the eccentric, in the double sense of the word.
- In the geographical sense, Série Noire pilfers works and disreputable authors who venture into forbidden territories. So, it shifts away from the traditional center of literary interests by putting on as a rallying symbol a visual identity that runs contrary to the tradition. His black body screams its philosophy explicitly: it abandons the exploration of the fringes of a genre already reduced and reducing in the absolute of literature.
- In the genetic sense, it tends towards more subtle, even dangerous regions, what we could consider psychiatric. It is a question of rubbing against perversion as Sade or Georges Bataille understood it. Of perversion born from the gutter, the dirty inmost depths of man’s mental aberrations à la Artaud’s Héliogabale. [Surrealists author Antonin Artaud wrote a life of the Roman emperor Elagabalus.]
If there is around the corpse of Héliogabale, dead without a grave, his throat slit by the police in the palace sewers, an intense traffic of blood and excrement, there is around his cradle an intense circulation of sperm.
Here is found the essence of Série Noire à la Masson that attaches to and detaches from genres, from labels, from the codes and the rules of the crime novel: from any fictional element that would be defining and thus discriminating. The collection represents at best the idea of a hesitating genre, which it does not stop paradoxically from manhandling through time. This clashing attitude towards the genre, to which it gives overwhelming support, attests to the vitality of Série Noire. It shows for all to see a torn coat-of-arms.
In this period of remembrance, while Série Noire inherits the benevolent surname of “old Dame,” we cannot refrain from imagining that under this old leathery meat hides the bold young person, the loose woman, the cynical madam, masking under her reddened lips a row of suspicious teeth. This narcotic euphemism cannot change this creature, which will always prefer the role of a whore to that of a mom, for such is its genetic fingerprint.
Unlike the exegetes and the nostalgic, Aurélien avoids the misleading trap of The Story. The former English-language and French-language masters of the Série Noire built the strong image of the collection, maybe the genre itself, what we call “crime thriller” in France in the absence of crime novel. This respect inherited retroactively must not lead us to forget that the authors of yesteryear built a literature anchored in their time. They worked synchronically (in France with the understandable delay due to translations) without ever dreaming of paving the way or drawing unbridgeable limits. We cannot hold on to this unctuous and reassuring attitude of observer of the venerable ones.
The Chandlers, the Hammetts, the McBains, or the Goodises didn’t ask for anything of the sort, no more than the French New Wave or the magnificent eccentrics, Manchette and A.D.G. [Alain Dreux Gallou] in front, on to Daniel Pennac and Maurice G. Dantec. They have in common the irreverence, the formal savagery, and especially the will to create a literature engaged with reality.
So the longevity of Série Noire does not condemn it to sink into the archive of nostalgia and to the reduplication of the seminal works. Aurélien positions himself as synchronic publisher and editor who works on and in the modernity of the literature. He welcomes the work of those who had come before without fear. The strong personality of the collection asserts itself in the diachronic understanding of works published to date. At this stage, it is not a question of respecting limits, but of starting up again and pursuing a path into the unknown.
For the nearsighted, the current Série Noire looks like a confused collection of genres in fiction that includes the crime thriller, police procedural, war, thrillers, vice, some espionage, fantasy, Norwegian, etc. As such, these editorial choices are petty; a spot check, or an economic, marketing cheap shot lost within an indefinite sea of lesser fictions, which reveals the whims of an egotistical publisher. That’s not the case, naturally. It is to forget the substance of the Série Noire, of which Aurélien, in following his plan, happens to be a consistent smuggler. In this context, bad taste, commercial failures, and unclassifiable works cheerfully manhandle a desperate literary environment that tries to reestablish contact with the world.
Link to Part II
© Frédéric Jaccaud. Titles at Gallimard.
© Translation from the French by Gabriel Valjan
Photo Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard