1 July 2015

Gérard Guégan: Ascendant Sagittaire: une histoire subjective des années soixante-dix (2001)

The title Ascendant Sagittaire: une histoire subjective des années soixante-dix contains two plays on words: 'Ascendant Sagittaire' (lit. 'Sagittarius in the ascendant') refers here to the relaunch of the French publishing company Sagittaire in the second half of the 1970s; and the word 'subjective' applied to the 1970s refers not only to the subjectivity of the author Gérard Guégan's take on this period but also to Sagittaire's magazine Subjecif, which Guégan saw as a writing 'laboratory' for the book company.

Sagittaire was a well-known and well-respected publisher that had produced (particularly surrealist) books from 1919 to 1951. Publishers Grasset and Fasquelle approached Guégan in the 1970s to mastermind a relaunch of the company, which was unfortunately an experiment that lasted only four years – 1975–79. Guégan worked with a small team: Raphaël Sorin, Olivier Cohen, Alain le Saux, and later Philippe Delaroche. One of their mottos – 'en 1924 le surréalisme EN 1977 LE PUNK' didn't exactly sum up their ethos, and Guégan's boast that Sagittaire published the books that no one else would publish isn't quite true, but Sagittaire was a very bold enterprise that published some startling books. It was also just about as revolutionary as the post-May '68 generation could get while still having to depend on the mainstream for financial survival.

Ascendant Sagittaire is certainly subjective, maybe sometimes too much so: do we really need to have stories of Guégan's love/sex life sandwiched in between the often chaotic nature of this story, which frequently shifts from pre-relaunch days, during relaunch days, and post-launch days? Probably not, but then would we have as much insight into the complex mind of Guégan without them? No, so, er, stet.

This is a far from easy book to read due to the multitude of names, the assumptions the author makes, the politics of a former day, the politics of the publishing industry, the kangaroo nature of the chapters and sections, etc. But it's a book of wonders, a treasure trove of obscure and fascinating books, some of which – infuriatingly – are not only out of print but sometimes completely unavailable. Nevertheless there are a number of copies of Sagittaire's seventy published books available – not just reissued by other publishers, but sometimes in the original copy. Ascendant Sagittaire is also fascinating in that its margins – somewhat on the lines of the 'underground' magazines of the late sixties and early seventies – are frequently filled with photos of the authors and books mentioned, fragments of letters, even – gasp! – the shot of Germaine Greer lifting her legs and showing her vulva to the world in Suck magazine. Below I list just a few of the things that struck me as of particular interest or amusement:

––– BHL's 'real' father seen as Jean-Edern Hallier and his surrogate mother Françoise Verny. (On Googling Verny I discovered that Daniel Pennac represents her as 'la reine Zabo' in his novel La Fée carabine, and that she is also represented in several novels by Jack-Alain Léger).

––– The once forgotten Henri Calet is mentioned a few times, and Guégan states that all the merit in the revival of interest in him is due to Jean-Pierre Martinet. Martinet himself is mentioned several times, particularly towards the end of this book as his monumental (and monumentally neglected) Jérôme (August 1978), his second novel, was one of the last books to be published by Sagittaire: Guégan looked upon him as a successor to Dostoevsky.

––– Alexandre Astruc attributes his failure to win the Interallié prize for his novel Ciel de cendres (Sagittaire, 1975) to the sex scenes in it, which were 'directly inspired' by Victor Margueritte's La Garçonne (1922), of which more in a later post.

––– In 1967 Jean-Jacques Abrahams – whose work interested a number of famous thinkers such as Sartre, Deleuze and Guattari – recorded an interview with his psychiatrist Jean-Louis Van Nypelseer: the interest is that the patient is in control here, and the psychiatrist frightened. Sagittaire published Abraham's L'Homme au magnétophone ('The Man with the Tape Recorder') in 1976. Some of this conversation – more of a monologue – can be heard online.

––– Pascal Bruckner's Monsieur Tac is, according to Guégan (who was the only team member to enthuse about the book), 'the journey of a child in the jungle of a dictionary': the reprint of part of a page in the margins shows how strange this experiment was.

––– The (then of course young) journalist Jérôme Garcin initially couldn't understand what the extreme left-wing staff were doing publishing such books as Le Purgatoire by the royalist Paul Boutang or
Un jeune homme chic by the dandy Alain Pacadis, but he had to admit, on noting the Martinet and Frédéric Falmer books, that Sagittaire was in fact a publisher of an extraordinary mixture of genres.

––– President Giscard d'Estaing published Démocracie française (1976), to which Sagittaire responded with Tout fout le camp ('Everything's Going to Pot') by 'Hasard d'Estin' (Bertrand Poirot-Delpech). Sagittaire's backers were unhappy about that one.

––– Sagittaire published Jean-Pierre Énard's Le Dernier dimanche de Sartre ('Sartre's Last Sunday') two years before the great man died. (And I note that Énard – nine years after Sagittaire closed – published L'Art de la fessée ('The Art of Spanking'): reading a few pages on Amazon.fr and readers' comments, it sounds very interesting!)

––– And how about this for a title, almost the last book published by Sagittaire in February 1979: Jean-François Grunfeld's 'J'emporterais pas ma coquille d'escargot à la pointe de mes souliers ('I won't be wearing my snail shell on the tip of my shoes').

This is a chaotic book which many people would probably feel daunted by – especially as it contains 427 large pages – but no one should allow themselves to be put off tackling this monster gem: in parts it is very funny, but most of the time it is extremely informative, recording as it does a crazy period in publishing history the like of which will no doubt never be repeated. A delight.

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