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Christian Bourgois, ‘Publishing Tolkien in France

Christian Bourgois (1933-2007) founded the publishing house Christian Bourgois éditeur in 1966. In doing so, he helped his readers discover many foreign authors, including William S. Burroughs, Toni Morrison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez … and J.R.R. Tolkien, having published all of his work currently translated into French. His wife, Dominique Bourgois, continued to run the publishing house after his death.

Christian Bourgois stated in November 2005 that in his view, ‘Tolkien was a great novelist’ and The Lord of the Rings ‘a novel of great charm, in the medieval, fairytale sense of the word’. This statement might surprise some of Bourgois’ readers, wondering how Tolkien came to feature in the publisher’s catalogue when the French translation of The Lord of the Rings first appeared in 1972-1973.

The following are extracts from a conversation with Vincent Ferré recorded in 2003, when Tolkien’s work was once again in the news as a ‘cultural phenomenon’, and first published in Tolkien: Thirty Years On (Bourgois, 2004).

Christian Bourgois, how did you come to publish the work of J.R.R. Tolkien in French?

I founded the Bourgois imprint in 1966 within the Presses de la Cité group, where at that time I was running Éditions Julliard. I had more or less invented the publisher on paper with Dominique de Roux: we kept for Bourgois some titles which we initially intended publishing with Julliard in a collection which Dominique de Roux managed. The first books published by Bourgois were mainly by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and after that other authors followed, including Fernando Arrabel.

One day Jacques Bergier, a very charming, convincing, well-read person, came to see me to offer a book to me, warning me that I was the only publisher to whom he could propose a work which was all about authors who were little known, or unknown, in France. After publishing his ‘Admirations’, I asked him which authors he would recommend to me among those he had featured in his book. Tolkien was not the first he mentioned: he mentioned John Buchan, whom I knew already, having read his Thirty-Nine Steps when it appeared in French; Robert E. Howard (the Conan books); Abraham Merritt and J.R.R. Tolkien. So I tried to identify the publishers and the rights-holders. But the rights had already been sold, or I got no reply – except for The Lord of the Rings.

Pierre Belfond told me that I had beaten him by a matter of hours! I offered Allen & Unwin the princely sum of £200 per volume [that’s to say, a little more than €6,000 in today’s money for the whole of The Lord of the Rings] and I signed a contract, one of those fortunate contracts of the time (in 1970, when Tolkien was still alive) in which one acquired the rights for the whole of the copyright term. I then looked up the address of Francis Ledoux, whom I didn’t know but who I had heard had translated The Hobbit, which I hadn’t read, and whose work was at that time confined to children’s literature.

So I published Tolkien without having read him: this is true of a large number of works I publish, because for the most part these are translations. I take on authors on the advice of friends, translators, readers, like Gérard-Georges Lemaire, Brice Mathieussent, André Gabastou, etc., and – for many years now – my wife, Dominique, who reads Italian and English and has played an essential role in the publication of the works of Toni Morrison, Hanif Kureishi, Michael Collins, Susan Sontag, Martin Suter… I say often that a publisher of my type listens more than he reads – it’s for my advisers, friends, colleagues to convince me.

The publication of The Lord of the Rings (1972-1973)

This work has taken on such importance both within our publishing house and outside it – and I have to say with honesty that when I published Tolkien I had no expectation that this would be the reaction. I remember that two publisher friends of mine, Jean-Jacques Pauvert and Régine Desforges, were very enthusiastic: Régine wrote to me after reading the first volume to ask me when the next one was coming out. They were like the readers of serials in the nineteenth century, wanting to know what happened next. The publication took place in stages over two years (1972-1973).

The book played a crucial role. I was a publisher in a crisis with his employer and shareholder, Sven Nielsen, at Presses de la Cité. He had told me at the beginning of 1972 that he wanted me to stop the Christian Bourgois imprint and concentrate on 10/18. It is difficult to publish books secretly within a large publishing group but I had managed it craftily and succeeded in publishing a few titles during 1972. I still had the chance of publishing a further title in the autumn without knowing when I would be able to start publishing on my own again. I hesitated between The Lord of the Rings and a book by Ernst Jünger, Approaches: drink and drugs. The choice was between the latter, who had never been a greatly popular writer in France, but who enjoyed real notoriety – I knew there would be considerable press interest, and there was always a hard-core of several thousand readers – and the unknown writer. And I had the good idea of publishing Tolkien rather that a new book by Jünger.

And so the first volume of The Lord of the Rings appeared. I won the prize for Best Foreign Language Work in 1973. I then said to Nielsen that, having won this prize, there was no way I couldn’t publish the later volumes – all the more so because the critics had written so enthusiastically: at last, The Lord of the Rings is published in France! The principal advocate of Tolkien was Jean-Louis Curtis, a professor of English, who wrote a review in Le Figaro; Christopher Franck published a fantastically positive article in Le Point; there was an article in Le Monde and Jean-René Major sent me the last line of his article quoted in Le Magazine Littéraire: ‘Hats off to you, Mr Bourgois!’

I had a very good relationship with Allen & Unwin: they were a charming publishing house, old-school, right near the British Museum. I had met Mr Unwin at the Frankfurt Book Fair once, but my contact over the years was with Alina Dadlez, a very precise Englishwoman – she never gave any free copies to the press; she was a bit like you would imagine a female English novelist. And as The Lord of the Rings became more and more successful, not that I sold huge quantities of it, I told myself that I had to publish The Silmarillion, which came out in English in 1977. This time Ledoux didn’t want to translate Tolkien; then he died, so I called on a very good translator, Pierre Alien, who had translated a lot for me and for Grasset, for Albin Michel, for Plon, etc. He translated The Silmarillion with great care, but it wasn’t his world. Then I published the fourth volume of The Lord of the Rings, the Appendices. Francis Ledoux had refused to translate the last part of the novel, saying that it was especially difficult and that he could see no interest in it for the French reader – it is true that at the time, no one was demanding it. But I told myself that it wasn’t on not to publish The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. And by then I had begun to build up a relationship with Christopher Tolkien. I had met Tina Jolas who was a very good translator; she was looking for translation work, I offered her this, which Ledoux had said was impossible. At the outset, she regretted having taken on the project, so difficult was it; and she wasn’t particularly familiar with Tolkien’s work.

I sold several thousand copies of The Lord of the Rings, on a regular basis. At the time, Pauvert, who was a fan, had spoken in its favour at Hachette: and I granted the rights to Hachette very readily in 1974, for ten years, because it is normal for the paperback to take over. Generally, when a book goes into paperback, the hardback stops selling; paradoxically, I was right about this but at the same time I lacked commercial flair. The Lord of the Rings was a completely atypical case: the sales of the hardback in its four volumes only grew at the same time as the paperback sales did likewise.

In the early years, there was success in terms of publishing and sales, thanks to the readers of Tolkien, who are good readers, passionate about his work, and who give the impression of being a sort of secret society. They had been so for some time, then with role-playing, a whole new audience arrived, which explains how the sales of Tolkien took off in the 1980s. Finally, there was an extraordinary resurgence in sales with the announcement of the film [being the trilogy of films adapted from The Lord of the Rings, released in 2001-2003].

I realise that they are a part of the audience, those who return the cards contained in the books: schoolchildren in lycées and collèges, rather more often boys but also girls; the adult readers are of very variable ages (though tending to be younger) and of very variable professions: firemen, factory-workers, nurses. They are not the usual Christian Bourgois readers, and they are different to the Tolkien readers we had before the film.

I did not (in the worst sense of the word) exploit the works, but from the moment that Christopher Tolkien took on the considerable work of editing his father’s manuscripts, I followed the rhythm of Allen & Unwin’s publishing then that of HarperCollins. If I was late in picking up The History of Middle-earth, it is because Christopher Tolkien wrote to me telling me that he thought it untranslatable. Happily, I met Christopher’s son and Tolkien’s grandson, Adam, who – like Tina Jolas – was looking for work as a translator; I asked him if he couldn’t, under the supervision of his father, begin the translation of this series.  He didn’t have the same reaction as Tina Jolas, because he already knew the work of Tolkien, but he found the translation incredibly difficult and thankless.

Tolkien’s place within the Bourgois publishing house

Tolkien has taken on more and more importance in my publishing house, unusually for a dead author. I never met him because he passed away in September 1973 just as I was beginning to publish him. Boris Vian is another example of an author who has been very important in my life, both at Bourgois and in the collection 10/18.

I have to say that I like dead writers: in the 10/18 collection, for example, I republished all the great authors of the nineteenth century and many authors of the twentieth: Jack London (fifty-one volumes), Robert Louis Stevenson (about twenty volumes), and also Octave, Mirbeau, Marcel Schwob, whom people are rediscovering at the moment – at the time when I first read Schwob and Mirbeau, I said to myself, ‘I am the only person in Paris reading this forgotten book’. It didn’t bother me to be publishing dead authors – for me, being a re-publisher is the same as being a publisher.

I think I always made coherent, though diverse, choices; and when I decide to publish an author, I like to publish him in a systematic manner. For example, I published almost all the writers of the Beat Generation because I was interested in Burroughs, I was interested in Ginsberg whose book, Howl, had been published by Denoël, but the publishing climate was very different back then: there wasn’t this permanent curiosity, the huge competition as there is now in regard to foreign literature. It may seem paradoxical, but no one was interested in Ginsberg and Burroughs at the end of the sixties. That’s how I published Ferlinghetti, Brautigan, Corso … also because in the US the categories of writing were not so clear-cut as in France.

Tolkien was not at all part of my world: if he had only been an author of fantasy, I would not have published him, because that domain does not interest me. But I found that The Lord of the Rings was a great novel and that this man was a great novelist. I am much more interested in the characters than in their world – at the present time, the world is what captivates and the film has only reinforced this. I read Tolkien as an English novelist who had invented some beautiful characters, I read The Lord of the Rings as an initiatory adventure of characters passing along roads, I read him like I read Stevenson – only later did I discover the religious dimension of Tolkien, which is foreign to me. Moreover, I like the female characters in The Lord of the Rings, even if they are little more than apparitions. I am, moreover, imbued with Pre-Raphaelite painting: there is a presence of the Middle Ages in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites which is also in the work of Tolkien. That is the reason I took great pleasure in reading the translations, because bit by bit they brought me the Tolkien I didn’t know. When I speak of Stevenson, I think of one of my favourite novels, Kidnapped, the story of a young boy who sets off on a journey. What I liked in Tolkien was the Stevenson-like quality of the adventure and at the same time, if I’m not mistaken, his Borgesian side. I had published the Essays on Ancient Germanic Literature as well as Njal’s Saga in the 10/18 collection. I don’t know if Borges had read Tolkien: in any case, they had cultures and interests in common, even if Borges’ curiosity was more wide-ranging. It was under his influence that I read The Lord of the Rings as a Borgesian epic.