With thanks to Donald Nicholson-Smith
“Foreign Bodies” is the title of a promising, pioneering series of international crime fiction that never was. It was planned as a series of French Crime Fiction translated into English and published in America. The project had been drafted almost two decades ago by the former member of the Situationist International, Donald Nicholson-Smith, the translator of Debord’s Society of Spectacle, Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday life, Lefebvre’s The Production of space and other key texts. Nicholson-Smith is also the translator of the quintessential French Noir author, Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose situationist trajectory mirrored his. It is not only regrettable but also damaging for the understanding of the international Noir genre in the English speaking world that this series never saw the light of day. The contemporary surge of French Noir in English translation due to publishers such as Pushkin Vertigo, Gallic Books, or NYRB might be seen as an opportunity to revisit Nicholson-Smith’s project.
This is how he described it in an interview with Anne-Sophie Miller (originally published in French in: Le Flahec & Magniont, Manchette et la raison d’écrire, Anacharsis, 2017, pp. 295-310)
“In the mid-to-late nineties, considering how little French crime fiction was being translated into English, I tried to pitch to publishers the idea of a series that would highlight the new writing that had been going in the genre in the aftermath of 1968 – to import, in other words, the néopolar, along with its forerunners and dissidents. It was an idea, sadly, whose time had not yet come, and it died the death. Today things are very different. Let’s come back to this later.
What did result from this otherwise fruitless endeavor of mine was that I began translating Manchette myself. I could not, perhaps, have chosen a more difficult author in the field, but of course, as the inventor of the term néo-polar and the supposed prime mover in this tendency, he was an obvious first choice.
But I had another, more subjective reason for my interest in Manchette. He and I were born within a few days of one another, albeit on opposite sides of the Channel. And while I can hardly be accused of astrological tendencies, I confess that I have always felt an affinity for Manchette that was uncannily reinforced when I read his Journal 1966-1974 and found that we seemed to have been reading the same books and following parallel cultural and political paths. We even discovered the Situationist International at the same time, in 1965, with similar long-term outcomes. So I feel that Manchette is perfectly suited to my ideal goal as a translator: the successful “channeling” of one’s author – the ability, as it were, to get inside their head.
The situation today is night and day as compared with the late nineties when I was shopping around for a publisher willing to start a series of French polars in translation. In those days I was met with blank stares, or, if I was lucky, the answer that such an idea was a commercial nonstarter, and imported crime fiction in general a hopeless cause in the U.S. and U.K. markets. A few years later the phenomenal sales of Stig Larsson’s trilogy precipitated the “Scandi-noir” revolution and little by little thereafter Anglo publishers, new and old, adopted a new attitude altogether.
For a quick (if somewhat discombobulated) bird’s-eye view of the current prospects for French crime writing in English translation, let me direct you to some notes put out in August 2015 by the Book Office of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services in New York City: “Rethinking the Littérature de Gare: Crime Fiction in France and the U.S.”, which may be found online at http://frenchculture.org/books/news/rethinking [etc.]. The authors of this report mention many of the publishers now actively interested. A fuller listing would include Europa, Little, Brown/Mulholland, Pegasus, Akashic, Quercus/MacLehose, Gallic, Bitter Lemon, Toby Press, Melville House, Penguin Random House, Serpent’s Tail, New York Review Books and a good many others. The reporters also achieve the not inconsiderable feat of summarizing the development of the polar in France in recent decades without once mentioning Manchette! A very useful link is given to an ongoing inventory of all French crime novels published in English in the last few years.
Understandably, given its promotional mandate, this quick survey takes a very sanguine tone. Even today, however, it is startling to realize just how much first-rate writing remains untranslated. Before 2000 you could almost count the French-language crime writers in English translation on the fingers of one hand: Simenon, of course – and for the longest time; Japrisot; Boileau and Narcejac; a couple of Daeninckxes published in 1991 and 1994 by Serpent’s Tail; and what else? – it’s hard to say! That situation has since changed, certainly. But consider how few of the following authors from a “wish list” of mine from 1999 have since made it – or made it in any significant way – into English: Bialot, Jonquet, Manchette, Prudon, Ryck, Siniac, Vautrin, Bastid, Picouly, Izzo, Dumal. A.D.G., Mosconi, Syregeol, Amila, Demure, Pouy, Le Corre… And that particular wish list was restricted to Série Noire authors!