En Toutes Lettres: Cent Ans de Littérature à La Nouvelle Revue Française.

October 27, 2009By David PlatzerArchive
nouvelle revue francaise, 100th anniversary

The colorful story of La Nouvelle Revue Française is illustrated in an exhibition in an abbey near Caen.

“There are three powers in France: the Banque de France, the Communist Party and the NRF. Start with the NRF,” said Otto Abetz, a former German ambassador to France, when advising the Nazis on

nouvelle revue francaise, 100th anniversary

The colorful story of La Nouvelle Revue Française is illustrated in an exhibition in an abbey near Caen.

“There are three powers in France: the Banque de France, the Communist Party and the NRF. Start with the NRF,” said Otto Abetz, a former German ambassador to France, when advising the Nazis on what to seize first at the beginning of the Occupation in 1940.

The NRF, or the Nouvelle Revue Française, France’s leading literary magazine and the cornerstone on which the great publishing firm of Gallimard was built, is a hundred years old, providing the occasion for an illuminating exhibition, “En Toutes Lettres: Cent Ans de Littérature à La nouvelle Revue Française,” jointly organized by Alban Cerisier, Gallimard’s archivist and the author of a recent history of the magazine (Une Histoire de LA NRF, Gallimard, 2009), and Claire Paulhan, granddaughter of Jean Paulhan, editor of the NRF for many years and herself the publisher of beautifully produced books of historical literary documents. The exhibition, which opened earlier in 2009 at Switzerland’s Martin Bodmer Foundation, is now at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine in the restored 12th-century Abbaye d’Ardenne just outside of Caen.

The NRF provides an ideal starting point for a trip through 20th-century French literary history. Every book published by Gallimard in its famous cream-colored covers with red and black borders bears the famous “nrf” insignia, designed by Jean Schlumberger, one of the magazine’s six co-founders. In a sense, the history of Gallimard is the history of French literature over the last hundred years. The few writers of importance – Proust and Céline most famously – whom the NRF made the mistake of initially refusing eventually ended up on Gallimard’s lists, Proust rapidly, Céline more slowly. From the start, the NRF’s mission has been to embrace all that is most vital and vibrant in literature without bowing to sectarian or political arguments. Except during the tragedy of the Occupation, an instance of force majeure, the magazine’s various editors have remained faithful to this ideal while staying open to changing currents. Banks remain, unfortunately, as omnipresent in these degraded days as they were during the Occupation, but literary magazines, even the NRF, are such minority affairs nowadays that it is hard to imagine that an occupying power would make it a priority to seize one of them.

The NRF grew directly out of an earlier magazine, L’Ermitage, which featured the early work of André Gide, the driving force and the symbol of the young NRF, though never its official editor. L’Ermitage and other magazines that preceded the NRF can be seen in the exhibition’s glass cases, along with the magazine’s two first copies, a false start dated November 1908, and what is now regarded as the real first issue, from February 1909. There are also postcards, letters and photographs, including one showing three of the founders Gide, Schlumberger, and Jacques Copeau whose Theatre du Vieux Colombier, opened in 1913, was an offshoot of the NRF and came to revolutionize the French theater just as the NRF did French literature.

Gaston Gallimard, although not among the initial founders in 1909, emerged very soon after, when it became apparent that the magazine needed someone to handle the financial side. Gaston, as everyone called him even in those more formal days, proved to be perfect for the job, since he had two attributes rarely found together: a business sense and an acute and discriminating literary flair. It was Gaston, together with the young Jacques Rivière, the NRF’s first real editor, who told Gide that he had made a serious misjudgment in refusing Proust’s Du Côté de Chez Swann for the fledgling Editions de la NRF, the book publishing division, which was founded in 1919 and took the name of Librairie Gallimard in 1919. Proust talked too much about duchesses for Gide’s taste, and any book dedicated to the editor of Le Figaro had no place in the NRF’s catalogue as far as Gide was concerned.

Proust, who had hoped to be published by the NRF not least because he found that life would be “simple and charming” with Gaston as his publisher, took the book to Bernard Grasset and paid him to print it. With Rivière’s help, Gaston succeeded in convincing Gide to accept Proust after all. He was then obliged to buy up all of the copies in stock of Du Côté de Chez Swann from Grasset and paste in the NRF’s logo over Grasset’s: a copy of this edition features in the exhibition, as does the very first volume published in 1911 by the Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, Paul Claudel’s L’Otage. Also on display are the magazines layout and design variations before the designers finally arrived at what has ever since been the standard, instantly recognizable Gallimard format, impeccably elegant in its austerity.

Jacques Rivière brought the novel Le Grand Meaulnes, by his brother-in-law Alain Fournier, to the Editions de la NRF. Unfortuntately, Fournier was one of the victims of World War I, a cataclysm that Gaston Gallimard, who had an avant-garde aversion to war at a time when even most intellectuals blindly embraced the colors, went to great lengths to avoid participating in. The much-admired Rivière was open to the currents of the post-1918 period and brought the young Dadaists, notably André Breton and Louis Aragon, into the NRF before himself dying of typhus in 1925. The subtle Jean Paulhan, Rivière’s secretary, succeeded him as editor after his death. Paulhan had been a comrade-in-arms of the Dadaists, who evolved by the early 1920s into Surrealists. Like so many, Paulhan quarreled with André Breton, who challenged him to a duel after the NRF published a review by Paulhan, writing under the pseudonym of Jean Guérin, which displeased the Pope of Surrealism. Postcards, on view here, were exchanged and seconds chosen, but the duel was never fought.

The exhibition includes Paulhan’s famous sketch, in his singular and beautifully legible handwriting, for an NRF prospectus advising readers not to throw away, tear up or burn “the manuscripts, diaries, letters, essays and poems of youth that clutter your attic, but instead send them to the NRF… That political rarity, a “genuine democrat,” as the exhibition calls him, Paulhan was the incarnation of the NRF founders’ nonsectarian spirit. The political climate of the 1980s was marked by sharp political divisions between left and right, but Paulhan remained true to the magazine’s ideal of political neutrality and literary excellence, and had to endure sniping from both sides.

The Nazi sympathizer Drieu la Rochelle was furious that Paulhan agreed to serialize the Communist Louis Aragon’s Voyageurs de l’Impériale in the NRF while refusing his Gilles. After the war, Paulhan, who had been a Resistant from the start, was attacked as a Fascist by Elsa Triolet for supporting on literary grounds the publication of works by writers like Céline and Lucien Rebatet, banned after 1945 for their Nazi sympathies during the War.

The most chilling section of the exhibition concerns the Occupation, the NRF’s darkest hour. Paulhan, who had issued a call to arms against the Nazis in the last number of the magazine to appear before the fall of France in June 1940, was replaced as editor by Drieu la Rochelle. Gallimard, whose sympathies were with the Resistance, decided that the lesser evil would be to let the Germans control the magazine through Drieu while retaining control over the book publishing himself, and even during the Occupation, he was able to publish authors like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Albert Camus, Louis Aragon and Paulhan himself. Paulhan maintained an office next to Drieu’s, from which he edited the Pléiade and engaged in covert Resistance activities. Drieu, who wrote venomous passages against Paulhan and Gallimard in his diaries, nonetheless used his influence to have Paulhan freed in 1941 when he was arrested by the Gestapo.

Drieu would have liked Paulhan to contribute to his NRF, but Paulhan replied that while he longed to write for the NRF again, he could hardly do so while André Suarés and Benjamin Crémieux, whom he had enlisted as contributors during his time as editor, were refused its pages because of their Jewish origins. Paulhan co-founded Les Lettres Françaises, the literary paper of the Resistance, while remaining on friendly terms with the collaborationist Marcel Jouhandeau, whose wife was responsible for denouncing Paulhan to the Gestapo a second time in 1943.

After the war, Gaston Gallimard was exonerated for having continued publishing during the Occupation, but the NRF was banned from publication until 1953. Paulhan returned as co-editor with Marcel Arland, and with Dominique Aury as secretary: a photograph shows the three of them at work, while another, taken in 1965, three years before Paulhan’s death, pictures him, looking strikingly like Luchino Visconti, with Dominique Aury, his mistress since the war and author (under the pseudonym of Pauline Réage) of the erotic classic Histoire d’O.

The NRF, which could once be found for sale in newsstands, is now available only in literary bookshops and appears only four times a year. Under Michel Braudeau’s editorship and Antoine Gallimard’s direction, it remains indispensable reading, open to foreign as well as French literary currents. This exhibition, held in the beautiful setting of the abbey, provides an illuminating tour through this crucial and still very much alive monument to literary history.

David Platzer

IMEC: Abbaye d’Ardenne, La Grange aux Dîmes, 14280 Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, Caen. Tel.: 02 31 29 37 37. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 2pm-6pm. Through December 23. www.imec-archives.com

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