The Noise of Time

I have to thank Daniel Medin for bringing to my attention Cynthia Haven’s post about a small French publisher focused on literature in translation:

Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them. Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side. Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke, Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time. It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses. [. . .]

bq. Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place. The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing. Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown. One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp). The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month. (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009). [. . .]

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review. So how do people hear about books? Often, they don’t, he says.

Le Bruit du Temps’ publications do look really elegant (and really French), and it’s always nice to find out about interesting publishers. Especially ones with a solid, respectable mission ⋅ ⋅ ⋅ that also seems very French, and similar to nobel American presses like Dalkey Archive and New Directions. That bit about the literary journalism and critics being “famous for not reading the books they review” is pretty damn shocking. If the book review culture is janky in France, then the philistines have won.

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