Photo credit: © Fred Kihn
Since first meeting him ten years ago, little to nothing has changed. Always with the allure of a gutter cat, dry and nervous, he wears black from head to toe, in jeans, a rock T-shirt (The Stooges this time) under a leather jacket. Aurélien Masson keeps – he’ll be forty soon – a post-adolescent pace, jacked up by a machine-gun-like flow, theatrical movements, a carnivorous smile, and fervor of worldliness. In his Paris Headquarters, a bar just a step away from the Lyon Station, he looks the mantra “Love.” Nevertheless, Masson does not work at Harlequin, but at Gallimard’s Série Noire, the den of national thrillers previously embodied by Marcel Duhamel, Robert Soulat and Patrick Raynal – not exactly sissies. And Masson doesn’t dress up the seventy-old Dame Gallimard. In one decade, the reckless dandy injected some new blood – especially, French — some adrenaline; some gambles from poker and reinvigorated Gallimard in an already hypercompetitive and swollen market. Ballsy, yes — but in his own way. “Ah yes, I call him the Feisty Horse,” smiles Caryl Férey (Mapuche), the gatekeeper and gondolier of Série Noire, according to Masson.
For love of the author. We find him bent over a manuscript – Help! A caricature. But his authors affirm in unison, Masson is obsessed with texts, ‘You can’t find anyone more involved in them.’ (Férey). The deep-sea diver, they say, is coupled with a patient, precise and loyal publisher. DOA, the acronymic pseudonym of a Série Noire author, which comes from the 1950 Rudolph Maté noir film, Dead On Arrival, was a 2015 sensation with his novel Pukhtu, the first in a series: “He is curious, open, and under his rock-and-roll restlessness and vibe, very cultivated. His idea is not so much to publish texts as it is to publish good texts […] in which authors and he himself find themselves.” Dominque Manotti (or Noir [Gold Medal series]), mistress of the sociopolitical thriller: “Aurélien is hyper-attentive and hard-working. With him, you feel that your publisher is there every moment.” Elsa Marpeau, a sounder of psychological depths: “He’s with you deep inside [the work], but distant enough to point out what is missing.”
The Oulipian [‘Oulipe’ is a school of critical literary theory in which the text does not have any inherent authority] Jean-Bernard Pouy: “He reads well and beyond his zombie demeanor, he has maintained a line, one of socio-political criticism.” The man of the hour speaks for his part as a paradoxical gang leader, a mothering type: “I need to make them happy, I tell them, ‘You’re right,’ all the while making suggestions; I do that so that they are treated better, so that there are no cuts, so that they make out better in the end. I also tell them to be ambitious, even if this kind of talk is frowned upon in the circles of the Polar [crime-thriller genre]. For my part, I am not in the aesthetics of sabotage.”
For love of love. Does Aurélien Masson owe his name to the emperor or to [Louis] Aragon, whose eponymous novel was published by Gallimard? We did not ask him. But if the second proposition were true, it would be a premonition. The admirer of Huysmans, Bukowksi, Céline, Ferrara, and other big lights, exudes the need for the absolute, for hardcore feelings [XXL is a television channel for erotica], ‘too much’ possibly embarrassing for the upholders of dignity but not deprived of panache in this era of thinking small where the social network takes the place of the public meeting places, of the I’ll-just-keep-myself-hidden-behind-my-keyboard kind.’ Masson says candidly that he ‘adored’ the meeting, and then sends a text-message, which he closes with childish ‘kisses’ says that if he loves a text. “I’m going to love the author, otherwise, it doesn’t last.” Caryl Férey: “He always has a kind word, of the type, ‘Oh, you were beautiful today,’ not exactly the kind of thing guys say to each other.” The affection takes a viral turn, causing the warship DOA to say, “I love him. However improbable it might seem, work and life made us friends.” At the same time, there’s a boomerang effect; Masson goes through roller coaster periods of great highs and great lows. It is just as well as he had the means right from the start to be moody. The son of a good Parisian family, with a doctor father who was a star of homeopathy and a mother mainly in advertising then a psychoanalyst, grew up in the posh 5th district. He had and always has had for a friend Raphaël (a singer today), and did not last long at the Lycée Henri-IV, “a factory of champions obsessed with exams.” In sum, the child Aurélien, a fan of McEnroe, Connors, and Lendl, dreams first of being a tennis player but a proclivity for tendinitis and anti-competitiveness torpedoes his whims for sports. He is succeeded by an adolescent Aurélien who just didn’t have it together, “hyper-shy,” glued to video games, who would “not know girls before twenty years old,” but who discovered “rock, joints, and the literature of thrillers from the bios of serial killers.” The third is still the same today (“I shall never be under the influence of cocaine or ecstasy, these capitalist drugs for traders; me, I need slowness”). His entrance into Série Noire, as a reader of English-language texts under Patrick Raynal, takes place after going to school for history and sociology and a road-trip of one year in Asia, mostly in an opium haze.
For love of life and death. Aurélien Masson is a father, for two years now. Named Iggy, in tribute to “the Iguana” and ex–Stooges, but Joey had its chance, in honor of The Ramones. Iggy’s mother, his Brazilian partner, is a legal specialist in copyrights. It seems that the affair sometimes takes rock-n-roll turns, with, on Masson’s side, “moments of absolute depression.” But there is good resolution in the air: “I try to find a happy medium, between joy and self-destruction.” To be consumed without burning too deeply: a tall order for a guy under Nirvana’s grunge influence, who loves the dark and even the sticky and is said to be obsessed with death, and defends “laborious texts,” and losers, and “guys who missed the train.” France moreover delights him, in its tensions and its depression: “France becomes more and more interesting as matrix of the crime novel, we’re witnessing a fallen world.” Hence his interest in “the guys who shit” — Marc-Edouard Nabe, Pierre Carles, Emmanuel Todd – arises from the coherence. Masson likes when things scrape, slip, disturb. Masson defends obstinately Antoine Chainas, author of baroque, claustrophobic, poisonous thrillers, not the usual easy-sell publisher drug. Masson recently even considered publishing the text of an obscure policeman, in alexandrines; he is still buzzing about it. A paper kamikaze? The quivering soul does not lay any claim to heroism, nor to sacrifice, points to the benefit: “It is through books that I find again the flame that we have in youth, this capacity to feel emotions crazily.” It is a question of remaining alive, in the end.
19 September 1975 Born in Paris.
1989 Discovers rock.
2000 Arrives at Gallimard, as a reader.
2005 Succeeds Patrick Raynal at Série Noire and meets Diana, his companion.
2013 Birth of Iggy.
2015 70 years of Série Noire.
© Sabrina Champenois for Libération
— 1 July 2015 at 6:06 pm
Translation: Gabriel Valjan