Christian Bourgois, probably the most intelligent, eclectic, elegant and adventurous independent French publisher of the post-war period died in Paris yesterday. After working for René Julliard, he started his own publishing house, Editions Christian Bourgois, in 1966, where over the years, besides a range of innovative French writers, he would publish a dazzling array of foreign authors. The catalogue is breathtaking: Ezra Pound, Pierre Boulez, Jean-Luc Nancy, John Fante, Salman Rushdie (CB published The Satanic Verses in 1989 when no one else wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole), Paul Bowles, Antonio Tabucchi, Toni Morrison, Boris Vian, Richard Brautigan, Tolkien, William T. Vollman, Ernst Jünger, Georges Perec, Tolkien, Friedrich Dürrenmat, Jean-Pierre Duprey, Jim Harrison, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Glenn Gould, Fernando Pessoa, Borges, Fernando Arrabal, Chu T’ien Wen, William Carlos Williams, Hölderlin, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Chu Hsi-Ning, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Pierre Alféri, among many others. Together with Dominique De Roux (founder of the Cahiers de l’Herne) he created and directed the superb 10/18 paperback series from 1968 until 1982.
But maybe his most persistent interest was for the writers of the Beat generation (and especially William Burroughs – who has 18 books listed in the catalogue.) And this is where my own association with CB began in 1969, after I met Claude Pélieu, the French poet & his wife Mary Beach at the Chelsea Hotel. Christian had never been a great reader of American or English literature in the original, and relied on a small network of readers whom he trusted. Pélieu was one of these, and it is due to Claude’s suggestion that CB decided, enthusiastically, to publish the Beat writers. Claude & Mary were already at work on Burroughs, Ginsberg and Sanders – after translating Bob Kaufman for l’Herne & 10/18 – and they offered me to join them in the labor of translating the Beat Generation. The advance for the translation of Carl Solomon’s Mishaps Perhaps & More Mishaps allowed me to leave New York and settle in London, where over the next few years, I translated the poetry of Julian Beck (Chants de la révolution, a 10/18 original), a Selected Poems of Gregory Corso, and Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for CB. (The Corso and the Kerouac are still in print today.) But CB also took some weird decisions: in 1975 he bought the rights of the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson sight unseen at the Frankfurt book fair and sent me the translation contract. I finished the first volume relatively quickly in a hotel in Algiers, sent it off & was ready to start on the second. But then came a letter from CB informing me that now that he had read the book he was appalled at the illiterate trash he had bought, and that he was shelving the project indefinitely. (He did not ask for the money back he had paid me, to his credit).
In the early eighties, Christian accepted my proposal for a series I called Sixpack, after my recently defunct poetry magazine. The first books we brought out under that imprint were Sam Shepard’s prose narratives, Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon, followed by Pete Townsend’s Horse’s Head. More were projected – but I moved back to the States and decided to stop translating into French. Despite the usual series of minor squabbles and mishaps (perhaps), Christian and I staid on friendly terms over the years. Last spring over dinner in Paris with William Vollman, whom CB had also published, and his translator, I discovered that Christian had been very sick with cancer for some time already. I left messages but to no avail.
This is sad news indeed, especially ominous at a time when most publishing houses, in France as well as here, are run by financial managers rather than by men or women passionate about literature and ready to put good writing before the dollar or euro bottom line. As Bourgois kept repeating: “To be a publisher means to publish books that most people don’t feel like reading.” Or will come to only years later, when they will be thankful that someone had the vision and took the risk to publish those authors.