- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

When the not quite 24-year-old Robert Lucien Denoel arrived in Paris in October 1926, the city was at the peak of its literary, artistic and across-the-board wildness between the wars. Almost everyone who mattered culturally or socially was there, or had recently come and gone. Louise Staman names many of them, most too well known to need mentioning. She does not speak of Nathalie Barney, the American heiress of whom I wrote a few weeks ago, but Denoel was unlikely to have been invited to la Barney's Friday salons, at least at that time.
Born near Brussels and moved to the industrial city of Liege (Georges Simenon's hometown) at age six, Denoel turned up in the City of Light with no social connections or money, merely the ambition to become the greatest among French publishers, who included the towering Bernard Grasset and Gaston Gallimard.
A bright, energetic and generally appealing fellow, Denoel landed a job in the bookshop of a young friend from home, Georges Houyoux. (It was the first of a number of relations he would have with other Belgians in Paris over the years, and in that regard he never became an insider there.) The job with Houyoux led to Denoel's being befriended by Irene Champigny, owner of an art gallery across the street and soon, to his youthful amazement, he found himself standing in the same rooms as the likes of Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau.
Irene Champigny introduced him to Anne-Marie Blanche, who also took a liking to Denoel and made him a partner (she put up most of the money) at Chez Mitson, her recently acquired antique business.
The ravages of World War I had left most of the major French publishers in difficulties, but with printing and other costs low there were niches into which small operatives might squeeze. Publishing was what Denoel had come to Paris to do, and his first venture in the field with money scraped together from here and there was a fine art book by the already famous Jean de Bosschere.
Denoel's enterprise and willingness to offer authors contracts promptly, where larger houses took so long, began to result in his picking up writers that included Eugene Dabit, then beginning his literary career; and with the acquisition of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, he was on his way. A young American, Bernard Steele (supported by hs mother, Beatrice Hirshon), bought in, and in 1930 Les Editions Denoel et Steele was born.
Money would often be a problem for Denoel, but during the troubled '30s he did prodigiously well. He knew himself to be in a tough business and did his share of financial and other maneuvering (such as stealing authors) to counter the competition's parallel games. Among names still current today, writers who owed their start to Denoel included Celine, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Rhys, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Genet and Elsa Triolet. Others in whose careers he figured prominently were Antonin Artaud, Lucien Rebatet and Louis Aragon.
Aragon had been among the young Denoel's heroes back in Liege while writing short stories and editing a review Creer (To Believe) with a couple of his pals. Aragon and Elsa Triolet had married, and the wife's relationship with Denoel says something about what the difficult Celine meant in accusing his publisher of being a "zebra."
Aragon and Triolet had broken with Andre Breton and the Surrealists, and gone over to the communists. During the World War II German occupation, Triolet was fiercely critical of Denoel for publishing writers favorable to the Nazis, such as Celine, the equally anti-Semitic Rebatet, and even Adolf Hitler (his speeches). But at the same time, Denoel published anti-Nazi texts including the communist Triolet's "Le Premier Accroc coute de cent francs" with which, in 1944, he finally won the Prix Goncourt that had eluded him ever since Celine's "Voyage au bout de la nuit" was robbed of the award through literary politics 12 years earlier.
When Aragon and Triolet found themselves on the run from the Gestapo, Denoel gave them refuge, as he had done for others, in his own home. His courage in this regard and, less dramatically, in largely ignoring the Nazi-Vichy rules applicable to his publishing ventures, was never in question.
Life for French publishers during the Occupation was very, very complicated. They had as had Denoel's father, a university professor in Liege during the earlier war a choice between being shut down and losing their livelihood or, as the dreadful term had it, "collaborating" with the invader. Otto Abetz, German ambassador to France, was an ardent francophile and able to get Denoel back into business after the Nazis shut him down, seized about a third of his stock and all in all cost him some 1.7 million francs. The deal was to be allowed to publish his own books, subject to the German censor, in return for issuing titles the occupiers wanted distributed.
As one wag had it, the German position was: Give me your watch, and I'll tell you the time. But even in these conditions Denoel was able to prosper, in part aided with investment and a loan from a German publisher, Wilhelm Andermann, and 1943 was a great business year for him. After the defeat at Stalingrad, however, German prestige in Paris started to decline, and people like Denoel began to be denounced and harassed by hate phone calls to their homes at night.
Following the city's liberation in August, 1944, retributive justice, such as it was, was not long in getting underway. The Denoels, Grassets and Gallimards looked for ways to redeem themselves in the eyes of the new authorities, who were in many instances merely the old authorities working from new rule books and as much creatures of their mutually protective networks as before.
Denoel, with help from influential friends, was pronounced innocent at his first trial but did not live to undergo his second one. Early in the evening of Dec. 2, 1945, he stopped the car in which he was riding with a woman companion on a deserted stretch of the boulevard des Invalides, near the intersection of rue de Grenelle, and minutes later was shot dead.
Astonishingly, in the crime's aftermath there was no police investigation. Ms. Staman, another ardent francophile, sets out in her book to solve the mystery: Who did it, and why, starting with who was the woman with Denoel in the elegant Peugeot 302 that rainy night?
Her book leaves mixed impressions, aggravating in the early pages but getting better as one goes along. Edmund Morris irritated readers of his "biography" of Ronald Reagan by inserting himself as a character in the story. Ms. Staman makes herself a sort of fly on the wall and is forever trying to slip through doorways before they are closed on her, to witness unknown conversations and more. When she attempts dialogue in these settings, it tends to be simple and trite in a way one never would expect of the socially polished characters about whom she is writing.
On the other hand, Ms. Staman has done a vast amount of research in Paris newspapers of the period, of participants' correspondence and other sources that include a large metal box of documents released only comparatively recently by the French authorities. She read some of the youthful Denoel's short fiction.
The mystery unfolds in two story lines, that of Denoel, of whom I have said something, and that of the mystery woman, of whom I have said nothing, but fancy having come across briefly in accounts of Nathalie Barney's patrician circle. In these passages, one also reads about a little recorded but important chapter in the later life of Paul Valery, who went to his grave at 73 still believing that Work and Love are the only things that matter in life.
The two threads of the story are intertwined, not quite seamlessly but without awkwardness. Ms. Staman's oustanding achievement in her book are the late pages that show what it was like for people of influence publishers, lawyers and judges, government officials, writers and artists living through the German occupation and the years that followed it extending into the 1950s and beyond. Among the scapegoats, some writers, most prominently Robert Brasillach, were shot and five percent of France's judges were weeded out.
Now you will say, five percent doesn't sound like a lot, and that is the whole point. What Robert Denoel, and his widow Cecile (she aided by a resolute and brave attorney, Armand Rozelaar) collided with and what Louise Staman has discovered and now explicates so effectively is a handful of people in France who, having navigated the shoals of the 1930s and '40s, emerged to find themselves a class entirely above the law. They could get away with just about anything, and they did.

By A. Louise Staman
Thos. Dunne/St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 354 pages, illus.

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