Dr Dominic Glynn, lecturer in French studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, remembers Paul Otchakovksy-Laurens, a major figure in the French publishing industry who died in a car crash in the French Antilles.
The death of a publisher, while sad, is rarely front-page news. But that of Paul Otchakovksy-Laurens, founder and director of POL, made the headline of French daily Libération in early January 2018.
In the late 1970s, Otchakovsky-Laurens created a collection at the publishers Hachette, using his initials ‘P.O.L.’ as its title. In this collection, he published Georges Perec’s masterpiece La Vie mode d’emploi [Life a User’s Manual]. He left to make POL an independent publishing house in 1983, and though it has since become part of the Gallimard group, Otchakovsky-Laurens remained at the helm.
For many, the authors published by POL (the man and the publishing house are synonymous) have been what contemporary French literature has been all about. Marguerite Duras published three novels with POL: La Douleur [Pain] (1985), La Pluie d’été [Summer rain] (1990) and Yann Andréa Steiner (1992). As for Marie Darrieussecq, Emmanuel Carrère, Olivier Cadiot: these writers are written about by academics in France, the UK and the USA, and studied by those embarking on courses about contemporary French literature.
When putting together the case for support for our Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Networking Grant on ‘Literature under Constraint (LUC)’, Sébastien Lemerle, the project’s co-investigator, and I put in a line about wanting to investigate whether there’s such a thing as a ‘POL style’.
It seemed impossible to reflect on French literature of the last 30 to 40 years without considering the eclectic choices of a man who read all the manuscripts he received in the post, and personally chose which would be published. What’s more, as Professor Alain Farah from Canada’s McGill University will show at the inaugural study day for the LUC project on 23 March, the catalogue of authors published by POL has influenced the development of a young Montréal-based publishing house, Le Quartanier.
POL will now have to function without POL. The next 30 or 40 years will show whether that’s possible, and what it means with regards to the choice of authors for publication.
Dr Dominic Glynn is a lecturer in French studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study , University of London. He is the principal investigator on the AHRC Literature under Constraint Network, which aims to build a transnational and multi-disciplinary network of researchers and stakeholders that investigates how social, political and cultural constraints have shaped literary production in France from 1980 to the present.