Arcade novel is a Goncourt and Medicis prize-winner -- and an amazing rags-to-riches story
It's the stuff of romance -- or maybe of grand opera: the Russian emigre in a drafty Montmartre garret, writing with gloves on until a benefactor lends him an electric heater, scribbling on his lap until an endtable is found for him. Then when Andrei Makine is ready to publish his fourth novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers (Arcade's English translation is out next month), he is put off by publishers and bawled out for his impatience, until late one night, Simone Gallimard phones to say she wants the book for the Gallimard subsidiary Mercure de France for a whopping $2000 advance, and a promised 3000-copy printing.
Then Parisian reviewers get a crack at it. While most of them spend their time singing each other's praises -- it's called "sending the elevator back down" -- they can't ignore this outlander. He's the Russian Proust (or the French Chekhov, since he wrote Dreams in French). Alarmed at rumors that he'd get the Goncourt Prize -- the world's most lucrative in terms of sales -- a competing French publisher too cleverly tries to maneuver things so that Makine wins the prestigious Medicis Prize a week before the Goncourt voting. Irate Goncourt jurors issue an unprecedented warning that no other award will affect theirs -- and Makine winds up, in November 1995, with both the Medicis and the Goncourt -- the first time a non-Frenchman has won the latter prize.
Because it's both a Goncourt winner and a wonderful read, the novel's sales attain a remarkable 520,000 copies in France -- leaving fewer buyers for the paperback (85,000 copies) or club editions (100,000 copies). There can't be many major publishing countries that haven't grabbed the book (among the first to sign up: Hoffmann &Campe in Germany, Tusquets in Spain, Mondadori in Italy). Geoffrey Strachan's English translation is shared by Arcade and London's Sceptre (Hodder &Stoughton).
Makine grew up, as readers of Dreams of My Russian Summers will learn, in the glow of his grandmother Charlotte's Frenchness (in Russia, not Siberia -- as so many blurb writers and reviewers seem to wish it). Arriving in France to study in 1987 (he was then 30), he resolved to stay and began writing in French at once. But in order to find a publisher, he found that he had to say his novels were "translated from Russian," inventing translators' names (once he used the name of his great-grandfather). When a punctilious French editor asked for the original Russian text to check the translation of one of his novels, he spent three sleepless weeks rewriting it in Russian.
After his triumph, publishers of his first three novels quickly went back to press. One of the books, officially o.p., miraculously appeared in a new printing without authorization (or compensation), and the well-known publisher d sn't even answer the author's calls. There's an upside: on the death of Simone Gallimard just before the Goncourt, one option was to close Mercure de France -- the historic imprint of the Symbolists -- or to fold it into parent Gallimard. Thanks to Makine and his royalties, Mercure got a reprieve-and the publisher says it will be particularly attentive to new writing.