Gallimard: 100 years in publishing

A century ago Gaston Gallimard set up the publishing house that brought Camus, Sartre and Gide to the world. An exhibition of its archive celebrates a peculiarly French success story

Once upon a time – or rather, il était une fois – there was a young man of good family, son of a rich amateur art collector, vaguely in search of employment. His father had suggested he take a sinecure in a rural government department, but the young man answered that he would prefer to do nothing, to become a flâneur of Norman countryside and Parisian boulevard. The young man's name was Gaston Gallimard. As fate would have it, close by the family home in Normandy lay the Château de Cuverville, at the heart of which lurked the sulphurous André Gide. Along with some literary friends, Gide was set on founding a literary magazine and a publishing house. Although he and his friends saw in young Gaston a "good match" – the boy had wealth and breeding, taste and contacts – no one quite could have predicted that this dreamy young man would become one of the most famous and successful literary publishers anywhere.

Gaston himself always protested that he had never had any ambition or even vocation to be a publisher. And when in 1910 he was invited to join the "adventure" of the Nouvelle revue française (Nrf), it was an example of what became a rule, letting his friends "guide his life". Modest, somewhat detached, well turned-out and above all, perhaps, "without side", he was to prove a magnet for writers of violently contrasting aesthetic and political allegiances. He had charm, and he had luck. He drew towards him, and elected to that most exalted of circles, the comité de lecture, such arbiters of literary taste and intellectual vigour as Jacques Rivière, Jean Paulhan, André Malraux, Albert Camus and Raymond Queneau.

The exhibition currently on show in Paris, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, celebrating the centenary of the Gallimard publishing house, puts on public show the gems of its archive. Gaston Gallimard and his colleagues were also astute: aware that an archive of such richness would go on acquiring value, early on they invited their authors to contribute to it. There is a note from Jean Paulhan on show, kindly requesting authors to "throw away nothing, tear nothing up, burn nothing". Instead they were to send manuscripts, diaries, letters, essays and poetic juvenilia to the rue Sébastien-Bottin, the elegant hôtel particulier in the seventh arrondissement where Gallimard settled his rapidly growing enterprise in 1929, and where it remains today.

In 1930, Henri Manuel was commissioned to photograph the new quarters: they are austere but chic, and there is a picture of the "authors' room", which, as Gallimard proudly explained to Valery Larbaud, "will be equipped with writing tables, telephones, good armchairs, a bar and a view of the garden". He was as good as his word and, in the images of the comité de lecture in the early years at least, the likes of Camus, Queneau and Paulhan are sunk deep in the brown leather of the fauteuils club. Roger Martin du Gard, whose handwritten plan for his huge family chronicle Les Thibault, looking like a very long menu card, is on show, captured the essence of the place, writing to Gaston in 1939: "it is a kind of family . . . where the bosses are called by their first names; a rather fantastical gathering of cultivated souls." Physical comfort was merely an extension of the moral comfort lavished on authors, once they had been admitted to the august imprint.

Two manuscript letters from Paul Claudel reflect this. The first, responding in 1910 to Gide's overtures, goes directly to the point: "The whole question is to find out if a commercial enterprise can survive, if it restricts itself to publishing only works of excellence, both in form and content . . . What is most in need of organisation is less the editorial side than publicity and distribution." Prophetic words, applicable to any fledgling publishing house "of quality". By the time of the second letter – dated 1946 and addressed to Gallimard, two world wars and a changed world later – Claudel had broken irrevocably with Gide over his sexual orientation (legend has it that the Catholic Claudel once speared a banana fritter and exclaimed, "this is how Gide will burn in hell"). In the letter he deplores Gallimard's attachment to Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and to the new leftwing journal Les Temps Modernes. He complains about having to share stable room with "Messieurs les existentialistes", and urges Gallimard to realise that Paul Claudel would still be read when Gide, Sartre and Camus were forgotten. Yet such was Gallimard's charm and honest pragmatism, that he could mollify even Claudel.

The first room in the exhibition plays havoc with the appetite – the visitor wants to ingest everything, and at once. Here are the manuscripts of Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, Gide's Les faux-monnayeurs, Malraux's La condition humaine, Sartre's La nausée (originally entitled Melancholia), Simone de Beauvoir's Le deuxième sexe. On the wall are Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolours for Le petit prince. This book, published during the war in 1943, is Gallimard's all-time bestselling single volume, followed by Camus's L'Étranger and La Peste. Prévert's Paroles comes fifth, Sartre's Huis clos/Les mouches ninth, Gide's La Symphonie Pastorale 10th. (There is no Claudel anywhere in the first 50.) A video on a loop shows Paul Valéry, looking a little like Charlie Chaplin, in an over-tight black suit and bowler, Gide in his cape and deerstalker and Camus bowing before an array of bejewelled bosoms, receiving his Nobel prize in 1957.

Displayed on a wall at the entrance to the second room are some of the most poignant exhibits in the show – the famous fiches de lecture or readers' reports, filled out on a special parchment-yellow card by members of the comité de lecture. A writer's destiny lay within a small square in the top right-hand corner, where each manuscript under consideration was graded 1, 2 or 3 – grade 1 being a strong recommendation to publish. Here we find, in his bold, round, almost childlike hand, Jean Paulhan's first impressions of Henri Michaux in 1925: "It is not unlikeable, though sometimes obscure. There is tenacity, delicacy, and a host of attractive attempts to renew expression. There are little jokes, too, only vulgar in one sense." Paulhan gave Michaux a grade 1, as he did one of the most momentous manuscripts ever to fill the Gallimard in-tray – Camus's L'Étranger, which arrived in November 1941 at one of the most conflicted times in the firm's history. The lucid Paulhan didn't hesitate: "That a novel whose subject is more or less "M. is executed for going to the cinema the day after his mother's death" should be plausible and, what is more, compelling, is already sufficient. It's a novel of great class, which begins like Sartre and ends like Ponson du Terrail. Publish without hesitation."

The briefest and most sovereign endorsement is probably Malraux's of William Faulkner in 1935, whose novels became a cornerstone of Gallimard's collection du monde entier: "Grade 1, unless anyone has an objection, to each of Faulkner's novels." Paulhan had also voted in favour of the turbulent Antonin Artaud, whose intense and chaotic L'Ombilic des limbes would have put off a more shrinking spirit. He was concerned, though – "won't Artaud withdraw it at the last moment, or pile on even more obscenities? Everything is possible (or else the work is less honest than it seems). In any case, highly recommended." Crucially for Gallimard, Paulhan was a student of language and semantics, and thus open to the experimentations of dada and the surrealists.

Paulhan's predecessor as secrétaire général of the editions was the exquisite-looking and gifted Jacques Rivière. He also had been kind to Artaud, and published his correspondence with the poet. It was Rivière, too, who did much to court Marcel Proust away from the rival publisher Bernard Grasset and back to Gallimard, after the monumental gaffe which Gide considered "the worst error the Nrf ever made": the double rejection (by the review and the publisher) of Du côté de chez Swann. By 1918, however, and just before the armistice, Gallimard was invited by Proust to the Ritz, where he was delighted to feed on a "very tender chicken" and resolve the matter to everyone's satisfaction. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, duly published by Gallimard/Nrf, won the firm their first Prix Goncourt in 1919. Another, and hugely different, big fish to escape was Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Voyage au bout de la nuit was lost to Denoël) before he, too, was scooped back into the net. A memorable 1961 interview with the misanthropic and reclusive Céline, barricaded behind trees in Meudon, can also be seen, along with other footage on Gallimard authors, provided by the Institut national de l'audiovisuel, a joint contributor to this exhibition.

There is a great deal more to Gallimard's history than just the exalted circles of "pure literature" and the almost mystical Pléaide imprint. Also on show, for example, is the celebrated Série noire crime fiction collection, in its black and yellow livery. Gallimard, in his measured riposte to Claudel, had said it had not always been easy "turning himself into a grocer to become a Maecenas". It may come as a surprise to learn that in the 20s he had invested in three tabloid-style journals, including the scabrous and voyeuristic Détective, sales of which went straight into financing the books. Gaston's successor, his son Claude, eventually joined the campaign in the early 80s for a minimum legal price for books, (the so-called "Lang law"), thereby saving independent booksellers from being undercut by corporate chains. Since then other issues have engaged Claude's son Antoine, a Gallimard of the third generation, including digitisation, the Harry Potter phenomenon and guidebooks. But what remains astonishing, and finally moving, about this celebration, is how the volumes published today in the Collection Blanche look in all essentials identical to the very first of them to appear, Claudel's L'Otage, in 1911. The same thin red and black stripes on an ivory ground, with the Nrf sign in the centre. This aesthetic continence, and consistency, remains very much l'exception française, one the French can genuinely be proud of and the rest of the world can rejoice in. In the bookshops of Paris, the latest volumes can wear their scarlet bands, marked with the author's name, and the subscript "Gallimard 1911-2011", with pride. Vivat!

Gallimard, 1911-2011: Un siècle d'édition is at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, galerie François 1er, Paris, until 3 July.

Stephen Romer

The GuardianTramp

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