Monday, September 28, 2009

Xavier Folch, Chance and Training

Interview with the founder and first publisher of Empúries, on its 25th anniversary

It has been 25 years since Empúries Publishing House, a hallmark of Catalan publishing, was born. We interview Xavier Folch, head of the company that housed Vicent Andrés Estellés, Miquel Bauçà, Enric Casasses, Narcís Comadira, Josep Maria Fonalleras, Biel Mesquida, Josep Palàcios, Albert Roig, Joan Vinyoli, and that offered many books about language and one of the best collections of poetry.

In addition to the interview, we offer a speech from Josep Benet, at the introduction of Empúries, in 1984, and the text from Xavier Folch on the occasion of the 25th anniversary, both of which are included in the commemorative catalog that has just been published.

On April 4, 1984, at the palace of the Generalitat de Catalunya [Catalonia's Autonomous Government building], an event of cultural significance was held: the introduction of Empúries Publishing House. The importance of the event was evidenced by the presence of Jordi Pujol, then president of the Generalitat, and Mayor Pasqual Maragall, who shared the presidential table, despite the fact that their relationship was so tenuous that they were not on speaking terms. The historian, Josep Benet, an important name and consensus builder in Catalan cultural circles, gave a stirring speech, that maintains its significance to this day, to the 400 guests present. Heribert Barrera, president of the Parliament and Xavier Folch, Empúries' publisher, rounded out the presidential table.

The introduction of the publishing house was a very institutional act. Why?

For us, that inaugural act was something very normal, what any European house like Gallimard or Einaudi, who were our role models, might have done. Of course, Empúries didn't have the same resources, but yes some particular characteristics (for many years we published more books about language than all the other Catalan houses combined since language is a central issue to Catalan culture).

Empúries was founded by the owner of Nenuco, Miquel Horta, the filmmaker Pere Portabella, the publisher Enric Folch, and you. And later you were joined by the painter, Antoni Tàpies. Empúries, then, was born in the bosom of PSUC [Communist Party of Catalonia].

I was a member and Pere Portabella was there as an independent. Miquel Horta was more a sympathizer of a branch that broke off from PSUC. Enric Folch, however, stayed away from politics. Folch, who is no relation to me, helped us very much at the beginning. He was the head of Paidós and he rented us two rooms before we had our own offices.

Tell us about the role that Miquel Horta, Pere Portabella and Antoni Tàpies had at Empúries

Miquel Horta is one of the best and most generous people I have ever met. And being rich and generous at the same time is quite rare. During the first years, we were always trying to make ends meet and he covered us (thanks to the success of El món de Sofia [Sophie's World] by Jostein Gaarder that paid all the debts). After Miquel Horta, it was Pere Portabella who most helped us. Because, beyond investments, he had a huge network of contacts. And Antoni Tàpies in other ways, he donated covers and other things for us. Really, the founders gave us moral support, but they didn't intervene in the day-to-day dealings of the publishing house. Maybe Miquel did that the most, because he had more time and because he also had many good ideas: thanks to him we published 'El Bulli. Els sabors del Mediterrani' [El Bulli Restaurant. The Tastes of the Mediterranean] by Ferran Adrià and also 'Barcelonés' [Barcelonian] by Manolo Vázquez Montalbán.

Empúries began without a collection of fiction, publishing only poetry and essays

That's because my publishing experience was with non-fiction. And because I had two original collections of magnificent poetry, one by Joan Vinyoli and the other a translation by Xavier Benguerel of "El cementiri marí' by Paul Valéry. Poetry has been the crown jewel of Catalan literature. Without poetry we would have second-rate literature. And it's clear that we have good story tellers, but they are few. Throughout history, we find Llull and El Tirant, and then we get to Pla, Rodoreda, Sales, Villalonga, part of Sagarra...

What would you like to highlight in the catalog?

If I wrote a history of Catalan literature, between 1984 and 2009 we would see that some authors have gotten a lot more play than others: Joan Vinyoli has gotten much more attention now than he did 25 years ago; and also Miquel Bauçà. And some that are alive: Fonalleras, Mesquida, Casasses... There are also names that we discovered, like Fonalleras, Casasses (who was surrounded by legend), Albert Roig...

You have published special editions of five books out of the entire catalog on the occasion of your 25th anniversary: 'Carrer Marsala' [Marsala Street] by Miquel Bauçà; 'Domini màgic' and 'Passeig d'aniversari' de Joan Vinyoli (in a single volume); 'Nou contes' [Nine Stories] by J. D. Salinger; 'El desert dels Tàrtars' [The Tartar Steppe] de Dino Buzzati; i 'Memòries' de Vicent Andrés Estellés, que inclou 'Tractat de les maduixes' i 'La parra boja'. How did you make that choice?

We thought, no-one has noticed, but we have published some very important books: 'Carrer Marsala' by Miquel Bauçà was a sleeper when we published it, because Bauçà had put out, while he was at the university, 'Una bella història' [A beautiful story] but then he had gotten sidelined. And 'El desert dels Tàrtars' [The Tartar Steppe] by Dino Buzzati, we published because Calders told me it was his favorite novel. And in addition to the Buzzati, we also offer the first Salinger that we ever published, 'Nou contes' [Nine Stories], that was translated by Quim Monzó. I've got a great story about that book: With Monzó we decided that the book had a very dry title, and we thought we'd change it, choosing one of the titles of the stories, 'Just abans de la guerra amb els esquimals' ["Just Before the War with the Eskimos"]. But when Salinger arrived (he used to control everything and he probably still does), and saw what we had done, he told us that we weren't complying with the contract, which said that we had to translate the original title literally. With 'The Catcher in the Rye', Benguerel had translated the title as "L'ingenu seductor" [The Naive Seductor] but when we published it, with a translation by Fonalleras, we returned to the original title, which was not easy to find, but I think we got it just right: 'El vigilant en el camp de sègol' [The Guardian of the Rye Field]. Now, in October, the fifth special edition will arrive, the prose of Vicent Andrés Estellés, an author who perhaps is not well enough recognized but whom I greatly admire.

The choice you've made covers all the linguistic territory.

Yes, that's true, it's worked out well, but we were looking for the authors and not where they came from. As it turns out, we have published a lot of Mallorcan authors, and very few Valencian ones. Even though we published one of the best, 'AlfaBet' by Josep Palàcios.

25 years ago, Josep Bonet described founding a Catalan publishing house as a 'beautiful and daring adventure'. Is it still?

Yes, it still is. Because, on the one hand, there is this apparent normality: much is published and it works just fine. It's clear that these 25 years have been the best years in the history of publishing in the Catalan language. Without a doubt. Looking at the entire 20th century, the era of the Republic was good for publishing, but it didn't last very long. Then we have to look at the work done by Selecta, who published the works of Pla and of others (Cruzet, the publisher, paid attention to the advice that Pla gave him and published Carner, for example, but also young authors, because there had to be continuity). Then came Edicions 62, the first modern Catalan publishing house, the first that translated great literature from all over so that we could read it in Catalan. And then after that came Quaderns Crema, Columna, Magrana, Empúries... And in that way the plurality of voices and points of view were heard and there was a richness in publishing that had never before been achieved. But, on the other hand, there are many obstacles. They tell us that we have the same problems as the Swedes and the Danes, but that's not true. Because we have to compete with Spanish. Here the majority of books that are sold are in Spanish, in a proportion of 5 to 1.

And why does that situation persist?

One of Empúries' bets for the future was that since Catalan had begun to be the language used in school, that would bring more readers. But that hasn't quite worked out. Why? Among other things, because the entire spectrum of the world of communication and publishing is in Spanish, and we still haven't gotten over the prohibition of the public use of Catalan and the required teaching of Spanish.

Why do you give so much importance to chance in the text that you wrote on the occasion of your 25th anniversary? Is it because the years have backed you up and so you can allow yourself that luxury?

Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize winner of Medicine in 1965, wrote "Chance and Necessity', a book that affected me a great deal and which speaks about how both influence genetics. Chance is important and I explain it already in the catalog. Now, beyond chance, there is training: you have to have the antennae properly adjusted and you have to see where the good books are. I am also of those that believe that luck favors those who deserve it.

Has luck favored you?

Me and Empúries, yes, luck has favored us.

Montserrat Serra

Originally published in Vilaweb on 28/sep/09 at 06:00h

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