Every industry has its share of hidden gems—those people who are cherished by their colleagues and peers but barely known outside of the business. Book publishing is no exception, which is why the name Georges Borchardt probably doesn't ring a bell unless you've worked with him or are lucky enough to be one of his clients. Relatively unknown outside of publishing circles for more than fifty years, he seems to lack the gene for self-promotion.
Borchardt was born in Berlin in 1928. His early life, spent in Paris, was marked by war and heartbreak: His father died of cancer when he was eleven, and his mother and much of the rest of his family was killed in the concentration camps. As a teenager, Borchardt spent almost two years in hiding at a school in Aix-en-Provence, where his name did not appear on the official roll. "I was a sort of nonperson," he says. After the war he moved to America and found work at a literary agency that specialized in foreign writers. (When he arrived, it had just sold Albert Camus' The Stranger to Knopf for $350.) Borchardt served as the agency's assistant and soon began to look for authors of his own. In 1953 he came across an Irish playwright and novelist who wrote in French and, after selling three of his books to Grove Press, American readers were introduced to the work of Samuel Beckett. Other early authors included Laurent de Brunhoff, Marguerite Duras, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault. In 1959 Borchardt took on the task of finding an American publisher for Elie Wiesel's Night. After numerous rejections, he finally placed the memoir with a small press, Hill and Wang, for an advance of $250. Since then the book has been translated into more than twenty-five languages and sold more than ten million copies in the United States alone.
Over the past half century, Borchardt; his wife, Anne; and their daughter, Valerie (who joined the Borchardt Agency in 1999) have built a staggering list of clients. They include poets John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Rafael Campo, and Philip Schultz; fiction writers T. C. Boyle, Robert Coover, David Guterson, Charles Johnson, Ian McEwan, Claire Messud, and Susan Minot; nonfiction writers Anne Applebaum, Stanley Crouch, Susan Jacoby, Tracy Kidder, and Kate Millett; and the estates of Hannah Arendt, Samuel Beckett, Robert Fagles, John Gardner, Aldous Huxley, and Tennessee Williams.
While Borchardt's credentials are impressive—and go a long way toward explaining why he is considered a luminary within the industry—they pale in comparison with his extraordinary charm and personal magnetism. His laugh, a high staccato that welled up frequently during our conversation, is a particular delight. T. C. Boyle has especially strong feelings about his agent, once describing him as "the most wonderful man who ever lived on this earth." After spending just a little time with him, I can understand why.
Your background is quite different than a lot of people in publishing.
My background is different primarily because most literary agents in America have English as their native language. But I started out without knowing the language. I grew up in Paris. I was in France during the war, so I spent pretty much two years in hiding. My father died early on, when I was eleven, and my mother and most of my family were deported to the concentration camps and died there. But I had two older sisters who survived. I was in hiding in Aix-en-Provence. I was at the lycée there. Through connections, the head of the lycée had allowed me to stay there as a boarder. But I wasn't on any roll. In other words I was a sort of non-person. So as a result I was able to get my two baccalaureates. And when I went back to Paris, my sisters and I actually got our apartment back, but it was emptied of all its furniture and it was rather gloomy to camp in the empty rooms. I went to law school for a year but I was really too young for it—I was seventeen—and too unbalanced by what had happened. I really didn't like it. My sisters had worked in the American field hospital in Aix-en-Provence when France was liberated, where they had met all of these gorgeous American G.I.s who were distributing marvelous goodies like Spam and Wonder Bread, and they dreamed of going to America. We had relatives who had gone to America. So I figured I'd go with them for a year, which would be an honorable way of not continuing with law school.
When was the first time that you were really aware of books? Were you interested in them as a young boy?
Books were a big thing in my family. Today if you give a book to a child for his or her birthday the child feels rather annoyed. It's like a punishment. But when I was a child I had a list of books that I wanted for my birthday. I would sometimes ask if I could have one of my favorite books bound—French books are all softcover—and then it was a matter of going to a shop and selecting the leather and the endpapers and so on. I liked books as objects. I liked to read all the things that boys liked to read then. Alexandre Dumas. James Fenimore Cooper. I remember one novel that I particularly loved called Ivanhoé, which I think in English is called Ivanhoe. So I was interested in books but not any more than anyone else. When I was sixteen or so, like most of the more literate people my age, I was totally in love with André Gide. I remember walking down the street in Aix-en-Provence and sort of reciting as a mantra the opening line of Gide's Les Nourritures Terrestres: "Nathanaël, je t'enseignerai la ferveur." Well, Nathanaël, of course, in English is Nathaniel, but somehow Nathanaël has much more resonance than Nathaniel, which sounds ordinary. Nathanaël sounds like the trumpets in a Handel piece. I don't think I ever really thought about the meaning of the sentence; I just liked the way it resonated.
In France when I was in school, every year you read a play by Molière, a play by Racine, a play by Corneille, and you also had a special subject called "recitation" for which you memorized either poems or parts of these plays. In France you got not only a grade in every subject but you also got ranked. So you could be first in your class or twenty-eighth, or somewhere in between. It was a sort of public humiliation. Being first didn't make you popular but being last made you ridiculous. And in recitation I was practically always first. I was always assigned the major parts in these tragedies, which was usually the female role because in most of the plays, certainly the Racine plays, that was usually the central character. So I think language was always very much a part of what I was interested in. But I certainly never thought of working in publishing and didn't know anything about publishing. I thought I would work in the music industry because my father was the head of a phonograph record firm. So I always had a lot of records at home. It was mostly classical music except that the star of the firm was Édith Piaf, so I had a bit of everything.
What year was it when you came over?
It was '47. I knew some English because I'd had it for six years in school, just as I had Latin for six years, and I knew English pretty much the way I knew Latin. I was very good at both, in school, which meant translating texts from Latin into French and from French into Latin as well as from French into English and from English into French—and maybe memorizing the occasional poem about daffodils. But I didn't speak the language. It wasn't taught that way in French schools at the time. So when I came here, to my great chagrin, I didn't understand a word of what people were saying. It would always take me a long time to get a sentence together in my head. By the time my sentence was ready and polished, the conversation was already miles away from where it had been, and what I was going to say no longer fit it. I would also mispronounce things and, as I'm sure you know from traveling in foreign countries, when you mispronounce something and people start laughing, it's very embarrassing.
How did you get into publishing?
A friend of mine helped me compose two ads that I put in the New York Times. I don't remember exactly what they said but it was something like, "Nineteen-year-old Frenchman blah blah blah," and the other one would have said something similar.
These were ads that people would place when they were looking for work?
Yes. They would say, "This is who I am, and I'm looking for a job." There was a lot of that going on. I'd gone to various employment agencies and they all said, "What is your American experience?" Well, I had no American experience. When I put the ad in the paper I expected a good amount of mail. Still, I figured I could carry it by myself, so I went to Times Square to get it. There were only two letters, one for each ad, but both from the same person. The letterhead said "Authors and Publishers Representative." One said, "If you're interested in the letterhead, come in next Tuesday at ten." The other one said, "If you're interested, call for an appointment." My English was not very good, and it was even worse on the phone, so I decided to go in person. The woman who owned the agency was named Marion Saunders. She was the daughter of a British Foreign officer, so she'd spent a lot of time in Berlin and Paris and all over. She spoke quite a few languages, and she enjoyed speaking them, and our interview was primarily in French so that she could practice her French. She was very pleased with the way it went, and at the end of the interview she said, "I think I'll probably offer you the job, but I wrote to one other person from whom I haven't heard yet." I took out the other letter and said, "I am the other person." So that's how I got into publishing.
What was the agency like?
It was primarily doing foreign rights for other agencies but also representing a French literary agent who controlled most of what was coming out of France because, in France, most authors don't have agents. They give the rights to the publishers. And this agent in Paris, who was represented by my boss in New York, had an arrangement with Gallimard, the main literary house in France, to represent all of its authors. The husband of the Paris agent had been a friend of Hemingway's and various other American authors who had been in Paris at the time and had sold Hemingway, Dos Passos, and practically all of the other major American authors of that period to Gallimard. In exchange, Gallimard was giving her many of its French authors who had come out of World War II, people like Sartre and Camus. When I got there she had just sold a book by Camus called The Stranger to Knopf for, I think, three hundred fifty dollars. I was nineteen and I was amazed that you could get paid to read books. Although I was also a gofer. I did all the dirty work. I did the filing. I did the bookkeeping. I'd go to the post office to get stamps or to the bank to get money because in those days you still used those things. But the main thing I liked was reading the books that came in. And instead of just limiting it to the books that came from the agent in Paris, I started going through the French equivalent of Publishers Weekly to see if there was anything else that might be interesting. I had no idea what we could sell, but when I'd see something that I wanted to read, I would ask for a sample copy. It was a good way to build up a little personal library. You have to remember that books were extremely valuable in France because during the war there was no paper. There were really small printings. So if you owned a book by André Gide, for example, all of your friends would want to borrow it. You owned something really valuable.
So I'd go through these catalogues and if something caught my eye I'd ask for it. At one point I asked for three books by this Irishman who was writing in French called Beckett. I read them and thought, "This is really quite interesting." I started sending them around—they were in French—and I'd get letters saying, you know, "Pale imitator of Joyce" or "Unreadable prose." Finally, one day, a man named Don Allen came to the office. He was working for Grove but on a freelance basis. He was doing the same thing for New Directions. He saw these worn copies of the three Beckett books on my desk and said, "Oh, you have Beckett?" I probably said, "You've heard of him?" He took the books and about a month later Barney [Rosset] called and said he wanted to buy them. He made a very generous offer: a thousand dollars for the three of them. Since everybody knows that novels sell better than plays, we divided it up so it was two hundred dollars for Waiting for Godot and four hundred dollars for each of the novels, which were the first two novels in the trilogy, Molloy and Malone Dies. The third one, The Unnamable, wasn't written yet. And then it took ages for the books to be published because Beckett decided he wanted to translate them himself, which meant rewriting them.
Who were some of the other writers who were important to the early part of your career?
There was Camus. There was Sartre.