The founder of the Age of Man, the largest publishing house in French-speaking Switzerland, passed away a little more than nine years ago – on June 28, 2011. Stupidly, so to speak, since was killed in a traffic accident, driving his white van filled with books he was transporting from Switzerland to France.
I had met him a year earlier and, like many, I fell under his spell. The charm of a passionate man. Vladimir Dimitrijević was passionate, among other things, by “my” culture, my literature, for the dissemination of which he did so much! It was at the time of his disappearance that I discovered, to my great surprise, that there was no trace of him on the Russian-speaking internet, no mention of the name of this man thanks to whom French-speaking readers have. discovered more than 500 works by Russian authors. Not the slightest sign of recognition. The interview I did in 2010, just ten years ago, remains the only one in Russian to this day. But her work remains, thanks to Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, president and founder of Éditions Noir sur Blanc, who bought part of the “Slavica” collection. And so began the new life of the “Library of Dimitri”, as he was called by his friends.
Let’s go back ten years to listen to Vladimir Dimitrijević, Serbian by birth, Swiss by adoption, editor by the grace of God.
Vladimir Dimitrijević, whom his friends call Dimitri, is Serbian by birth, Swiss by a combination of circumstances, citizen of the world by definition. My meeting – unfortunately late – with this exceptional man occurred on the occasion of the publication of a monograph on the Russian philosopher Leon Chestov. The name of this thinker, who exerted a great influence on a whole generation of European philosophers, in particular French, is today in Russia known only to specialists. Dimitrijević discovered it in 1955, when, after reading Shestov’s essay on Pascal, he thought that the author had addressed himself exclusively to him.
But I got to work very quickly, and it is a question of introducing you, even if only a little, to our interlocutor. To learn about the many events that have marked his life, it is best to refer to the notes collected by the famous Swiss essayist Jean-Louis Kuffer, his long-time friend, under the title Displaced person, according to the accounts of Dimitrijević himself. If you know French, I highly recommend this book, which is sure to resonate with anyone who lived through the Soviet era.
So Vladimir Dimitrijević was born in Skopje. His first childhood memories are linked to his father’s watchmaking workshop in the years 1936-1937. Then come: the “first exile” (from Macedonia to Serbia, to Belgrade, in 1939), the impression of being seen for the first time as a “metic” in his new school, the start of the Second World War, the coming to power of the Communists in 1944, the first arrest of his father, followed by his release – but his property was confiscated and he bore a mark of infamy, that of “enemy of the people”. His refusal to participate in the general ideological euphoria, his rejection of any compromise, his loyalty to principles (which Vladimir himself does not consider as merit, limiting himself to explaining: “I am like that, that’s all” ), his keen awareness of the terrible power of the masses against the individual, his instinctive distrust of those who know how to comply … Along with all this, there is his passion for football and, even more, for literature, the discovery of Serbian authors, the poetry of Pushkin and Lermontov…
On March 4, 1954, Vladimir Dimitrijević arrived in Switzerland with a false passport in the name of Belgian national Jacques Booth (“I felt like a character from Simenon”) and 12 dollars in his pocket. A life where one does not always have enough to eat, where one accepts work here and there to survive … Enrollment at the University of Neuchâtel and studying Russian with Professor Stremooukhov, whose books will be published later by his former student … A first job in the neighborhood of literature, that of salesman at the Payot bookstore in Lausanne. And finally, in 1966, the dream came true: the creation of L’Âge d’Homme editions which, in 40 years of existence, have published more than 4,000 titles, including nearly 500 by Russian authors.
Vladimir Dimitrijević and I met in his editions store in Geneva.
Nasha Gazeta: Monsieur Dimitrijevic, what prompted you to found your own publishing house when, according to you, at the time you did not know much about the publishing profession?
VD: When I started working at the Payot bookstore, I realized that there were a number of omissions in the French translations of East European authors, especially Russian authors, that at the time I already knew quite well. I decided to fill these gaps.
Moreover, having fled a totalitarian regime to arrive in Switzerland at the age of 19, without money, without knowing the language, I already believed that people should understand that we, the representatives of Eastern Europe, do not weren’t just the products of a system, that we were the holders of something much bigger – our culture, our literature. I knew I had come with a purpose, to bring together East and West. I wanted to be a witness, a direct witness, eyewitness … Since then, I have learned a lot and this learning has been a long and painful journey …
Is it fair to say that your personal experience influenced the choice of your authors? Indeed, obviously it is above all writers having trouble with their native country that interest you.
That’s right. I am Serbian and I have problems with my country which does not insist enough on its cultural presence in Europe. A disease can only be cured by making the correct diagnosis, otherwise we expose ourselves to the traditional, often superficial, criticism of representatives of Western Europe. I wanted people to stop saying God knows what about us. I wanted to show that Europe has two lungs, which are closely linked. However, as usual, Western Europe continues to be more interested in America than its close neighbors, and we still come across as the “bad” ones to whom any attaché. embassy considers it its duty to learn to live properly.
The subject of emigration must be very close to you.
Of course, I myself am an emigrant. All his life, my father fantasized about America as it is portrayed in Elia Kazan’s film. I still often look at the photo of my grandfather in his bakery in Chicago. This old photo reminds me of the aspirations of those who left to realize themselves elsewhere and not to be joked at home. They left, however strong the ties that united them to their homeland.
In 1967, you launched the “Slavica” collection, in which more than 600 books have been published. The very first was Petersburg by Andreï Biely, translated by Georges Nivat and Jacques Catteau. Why did you choose this book precisely?
Because it’s a great book that French publishers initially ignored. Learning that I was about to publish it anyway, they got annoyed and tried to put obstacles in my way. In general, observing the translated foreign literature, especially in French, allows you to make interesting discoveries. In France, traditionally, publishers were primarily interested in foreign literature which they believed best suited local tastes. So Turgenev was immediately accepted. But for a long time Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gontcharov have been regarded with suspicion.
And didn’t this trend disappear in the XXe century?
No, but she has changed her appearance. New censors have appeared. In France, this role vis-à-vis Russian writers was assumed by Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon. They were staunch Communists – which concerns them – and they obviously knew the generation of authors who were contemporary to them. The problem is that they brutally rejected those who rejected Soviet power, like Mandelstam or Biely. Not to mention those who had left: Zaïtsev, Remizov … I even received a letter from their lawyer, who tried to prohibit the publication of Petersburg, by invoking the copyright that the couple claimed to hold.
You are honored to have published the first edition of Life and fate, the epic novel by Vassili Grossman, seized by the KGB in 1961, miraculously saved by Semion Lipkine, reproduced on microfilm by Andrei Sakharov and transported outside the Soviet borders by Vladimir Voïnovich. How did it go ?
It happened like this: my friend the eminent translator Efim Etkind and I deciphered the microfilms and prepared the Russian and French editions. The novel appeared in 1980, unfortunately after the death of Vasily Grossman.
Today, as business success has become the primary, if not the only, criterion for success in any business, I cannot help but ask you this question: Many books you have published are clearly unprofitable, so would be. -what Shestov. How do you fix it?
You know, just editing a book is not much. We live in a world of immediacy, where everyone wants everything, right away. But I don’t believe in fashions, I believe in structure. The 1960s were a very interesting time. I immediately found myself surrounded by magnificent specialists and genuine enthusiasts. And one of our first authors was Pierre Pascal, who entrusted us with the editing of his Great Currents of Russian thought, a book that I think should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in Russia. If the work is difficult today, it is also because our society is aggressive in the field of information and finance. And the press is not helping us: when it comes to Russia and Eastern Europe, it always prefers darkness, which reinforces it in its eyes.
Regarding unprofitable books, what can be done now? You must either find a sponsor or publish at your own risk, hoping that the income from another more “general public” work will absorb the shortfall. I know perfectly well that Shestov’s book will find, perhaps, 300 buyers – specialists, libraries, etc. But I am very happy with its release.
What do you think of electronic books, these famous e-books that are commonplace?
Nothing. And what should we think of it? No matter what medium you read on, the main thing is to read. Any book is a sesame that allows access to a new world, to understand how lived and what the ancient Greeks thought as well as the zeks of the camps.
Knowing how to read is not only to decipher words of course, and it is not given to everyone. I think only 5% of the population has the gift of reading. Like writers, these readers let themselves be crossed by books. I, for example, know and understand Pierre Bezoukhov better than most of the people I know – we’ve known each other for so many years!
What’s the point of literature ? To train man. I am convinced that if Western journalists knew more about Russian literature, the image of Russia would be quite different. How is Russian literature, which has invaded the world, great? In that it has given us to understand that the essential, what the world is based on, is man. It was through its interest in the ordinary man, the little man, that this literature upset and conquered the world.
What does the vocation of a publisher consist of for you?
We have a great responsibility. We don’t have the right to just wait for time to judge. Every publisher must constantly remember that he is responsible for a living legacy, which is passed down from generation to generation.