Happy Banned Books week! There have been a lot of really great articles and features on the internet this week to celebrate. I’m really into the social and political dimensions of literary culture, so seeing op-eds about dissident literature and timelines of the history of censorship and resistance, like this cool interactive one from PEN America are like candy to me.
Of course, there’s also been the recent brush-up involving the ban of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man by a school board in North Carolina, which accentuates all of the issues this week is about. Happily, the situation was met with the better tendencies of the publishing industry, which stood up against the ban. Vintage, which publishes a nice edition of Ellison’s book, donated a large number of copies to be freely given away to high schoolers in the area, and after enormous public outcry, the ban was lifted yesterday.
To contribute to the festivities, I wanted to share the story of one of my favorite publishing houses, Les Editions de Minuit (page in French). They’re a fantastic press. They have a very high publishing quality: the covers for most of their paperback catalogue are non-glossy and feel like a slightly-thicker sheet of paper, and have a consistent design largely unchanged from the 1940s, featuring a minimalist arrangement of just author, title, and a small logo on a plain white background with a small border. They’ve also published the French editions of some texts I used a lot in undergrad: from a number of French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s early books to Marguerite Duras’ novels.
But the story of their founding is a critical moment in French publishing history, and one of the finest examples of sacrifice in defense of literature in the modern age (a lot of this information can be found on their history page, again in French.) Les Editions de Minuit was founded by two French writers, Jean Bruller and Pierre de Lescure, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of France. Strict censorship laws severely restricted the scope of French publishing at the time, putting writers and printers at constant risk. So, Bruller and de Lescure started to clandestinely print books on friendly presses in the middle of the night, the source of the “Midnight” in their name, and release works under pseudonym.
Their first book was a novel by Bruller himself, entitled La silence de la mer [The Silence of the Sea], which depicts a father and daughter resisting a German officer who had occupied their house. They printed some amazing work during the war period, including works by French literary giants like André Gide and Paul Eluard, and printed the first French translation of John Steinbeck’s book The Moon is Down. This was risky business–––by willingly circumventing censorship law, if caught, Bruller, de Lescure, and the printers who allowed them to use their presses faced deporation, imprisonment, or being sent to a concentration camp for eventual execution. But in spite of the risk, they persevered, and made it through the war to become a major publishing force in France today. The Pont des Arts, the bridge in Paris famous for the adorable tradition of couples covering its grates with locks, is dedicated to Bruller and Minuit. The press faced censorship again in 1958, this time by the French government, for printing accounts of the torture by the French Army during the Algerian War.
Stories like this are important because they demonstrate literature’s immense seriousness: not only to help people “learn how to be human,” as many recent articles written to justify the humanities claim, but also as a testament of a culture and a mark of social resistance. Oppressive regimes and dissidents alike, especially in the 20th Century, have treated literature and ideas as a crucial battleground for the soul of society. Bruller and de Lescure, and their willingness to face death to ensure the continued dissemination of free ideas, are models to which all people who enjoy and respect the written word can aspire: to spur the imagination of what a society can truly be, and to help make those potential worlds real.