On May 26, Other Press will publish The Travels of Daniel Ascher, a debut novel by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. Of particular note about its publication: Other Press is marketing the book as a YA crossover, the first time the press has dealt with such a book in its nearly 17-year history.
The novel follows Hélène, a 20-year-old archeology student, whose eccentric uncle has penned dozens of middle-grade novels in a series entitled The Black Insignia, under a pseudonym. When Hélène befriends a boy who is a devoted fan of the novels, she begins to pay closer attention to the strange uncle who always unnerved her as a child, and begins to see the ways in which his secrets, and painful past as a Jewish boy orphaned during WWII, are embedded into the books.
Judith Gurewich, publisher at Other Press, initially discovered the book when author Anka Muhlstein recommended it to her. Gurewich told PW, “I was really impressed” by Lévy-Bertherat’s ability to transmute a “terrible, traumatic past, to use something of it.” Citing the character Daniel’s decision to “survive the trauma to turn it into stories.” Gurewich also felt the coming of age of Hélène in the book rang true. Throughout the course of the novel, Hélène navigates her identity as she starts college, and investigates the trauma her family underwent in the war.
The book features spot illustrations by the publisher’s son, Andreas Gurewich, as well as a redesigned jacket that departs from the French jacket. To Judith Gurewich, the jacket is part of the conception of the book as a potential crossover, as it has a younger feel than its French counterpart.
Gurewich said that Other Press does have plans for at least one more novel with a potential YA crossover, a forthcoming novel translated from the Italian that follows a nine-year-old boy obsessed with how Napoleon solved his problems. For Gurewich, the categories of literature are “complicated, to decide when a book belongs to one category or another. When I find a book that’s quite charming and evocative, and allegorical, I think: why not make it a crossover?”
The Travels of Daniel Ascher was published in France in 2013 by Éditions Payot & Rivages, and has garnered some award attention there, including consideration for Le Prix Litteraire des Grandes Ecoles. Lévy-Bertherat, a professor of comparative literature at École Normale Supérieure, has translated works of Russian literature into French. She spoke with PW via email.
What inspired your book?
This book took me many years to write (more than 10), and the project changed quite a bit in the meantime. I originally wrote a short YA novel about a teenage girl discovering that her bizarre great-uncle writes famous adventure stories under a pseudonym. Besides, I had another project, an adult novel about a Jewish child hidden by a peasant family during World War II, and their complex relationship. Then these two ideas melted into one, and became Daniel Ascher’s story. The YA inspiration remained; it took the form of the Black Insignia series, the adventure novels written by my hero.
The story of a hidden Jewish child was not inspired by one real life but by many. I read many testimonies about Jewish children in France during the Occupation. I discovered how difficult it was for them to tell their stories to their children and grandchildren. It seemed that they were still trapped in their own childhood secrets. All kids play hide-and-seek and invent stories. At some point, to stay alive, these children had had to keep on lying at every moment. If they’d quit the game, they’d been lost.
And what inspired The Black Insignia?
The Travels of Daniel Ascher is a tribute to YA literature and how it shapes our minds and imagination as we grow up. The model for the Black Insignia series is a mixture of several sources: classic adventure books like Treasure Island, where the “black spot” is a sign of curse, or comic books, like Tintin, or the French series Dr. Justice, about a doctor who travels the world to defend the poor against bad guys. The 23 books of the Black Insignia series cover every continent: the hero, Peter Ashley Mill, travels everywhere and saves victims (mainly children) from all kinds of abuse or exploitation. All the young characters in the novels are manifestations of the author’s, Daniel Ascher, self. The message he wants to convey through his series is that his personal tragedy, being the sole survivor in his family, is universal.
There is also a hidden source: Peter Ashley Mill is named after a German tale for children, Chamisso’s Peter Schlemiel, The Man Who Sold His Shadow. Peter Schlemiel sells his shadow to the devil, only to realize that without a shadow he can’t live, he can’t fall in love or get married. He finds a solution in travelling around the world unceasingly, so fast that no one can see him. He becomes a kind of wandering Jew.
What was the impetus for choosing Daniel’s profession as a children’s book author in particular?
Childhood is a wonderful source of inspiration. In my classes, I often teach about childhood and include children’s or YA literature in programs, working with a research group called Afreloce. For Daniel Ascher, writing YA books is a way of refusing to grow up. He is an eternal child, like Guillaume, Hélène’s boyfriend, who is an absolute fan of the Black Insignia series. I believe that, in some way, we all keep a child within our adult selves. But there is more to the 23 Black Insignia stories: they are also a substitute to one impossible book, about Daniel’s real life. That book would be too painful for him to write. Fiction is a way he finds to try to heal his grief. And the result is a wonderful gift he gives to the younger generation. He transforms his own suffering into a whole world of adventures and dreams. Someone else will have to write the 24th book of the series, to tell Daniel’s true story. I’ll let the readers find out who it is.
Were you a devoted reader as a child? Were there any books from your childhood that had a strong influence on you?
I loved reading, but I didn’t see myself as a bookworm. I kept reading the same stories again and again. Among my favorite stories as a small child was Babar. Like Hélène in my book, I couldn’t bear to see the scene where Babar mourns for his mother, killed by a hunter. I would skip the page. But in a way, Babar’s story is linked to Daniel’s: after his mother’s death, the baby elephant runs away from the hunter and comes to the city, where he is rescued by the Old Lady. He is an adopted orphan who must adapt to his new life.
As an older child, I remember refusing to read a novel if there were no children in it. I loved Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking for its almighty little heroine, and Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, where children are smarter than adults (I gave the hero’s name to my oldest son!). I also enjoyed autobiographical childhood accounts, like My Father’s Glory by Marcel Pagnol, The Safety Matches by Robert Sabatier (also an adopted orphan), or A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, a Jewish author who wandered through occupied France as a boy.
Do you consider this book for adults or children?
I believe it is suitable from 12–13 years and up. My youngest son read it at 12, so did his friends, and they understood it perfectly. I like the idea that there are several ways of reading the book: you can follow the plot as a game, a kind of jigsaw puzzle; you can consider the historical side of the story; you can focus on the Black Insignia, etc. It somehow resembles those family movies where there are jokes that young children can grab, and hints intended for older kids, and some for parents.
Who did you envision as the ideal reader?
As I was writing, I tried to put myself in the reader’s position to figure out if the story was clear. Then I proceeded from clarity to emotion, imagining what feelings my writing could convey. I gave the manuscript to several friends and relatives while it was in progress to gather their opinions. They were quite enthusiastic and had a lot to say, which was quite rewarding... but also uncomfortable: how could I follow contradictory advice, like one person saying I should suppress a scene, while another one loved it? At last, I got very helpful professional advice from my friend Suzanne Jamet, and from my editor Émilie Colombani, from Rivages, my French publishing house.
When the book was published, I realized that there are all kinds of ideal readers. I’ve been mostly moved by those who saw their own reflection in the book. Many readers got attached to my characters, and made Daniel’s story (or Hélène’s, Suzanne’s...) their own. Many found an echo of their own life: either their parents had been hidden Jewish children during the Occupation (and had never told me!), or their family had been hiding Jews.... Someone told me: “Aunt Paule is my aunt, never resting, and the way she talks, that’s just her.” That’s what writing is about: your book holds only a part of the story you’ve been imagining, and each reader reconstructs the rest, using their own memory and experience.
Now, I am still waiting for a reader to discover all the clues that are hidden in the book, and especially in the Black Insignia: letter games, puns on names, anagrams... There is still a lot to find.
There was recently a piece published on the compensation of French children’s book authors, suggesting that it was quite small, especially compared to America. Do you think this is a problem for French publishing? Or is the system too different to compare? Are there cultural considerations that may account for it?
Yes, the compensation for French children’s book authors is ridiculously low: it is 4–6% of the book’s price, and children’s books are cheaper than [books for adults]. The copyright’s share for an adult author is double, 8–12%, which is still low, since part of it is kept for Social Security. During the last Paris Book Fair, last March, there was a large protest called “Author’s March.” It is very difficult for French writers, especially children’s book writers, to live on their art. Still, I find the children’s book production in France to be very creative and lively. But recently, as I was looking for YA novels for my nephew’s 12th birthday (he lives in the States and wanted to read in French), I had a hard time finding some that weren’t translated from the English! There probably is a problem for French publishing. The reason could be that, in French culture, writing is not considered a “serious” profession: you’re a writer? OK, great, and besides that, what else do you do? It’s like the Roches, Daniel’s adoptive family in the book: they expect him to learn a true skill, because they think writing YA stories can’t be more than a hobby.
You’ve translated books into French before – how was it working with a translator on your own book?
It’s been a wonderful experience to read my own book in a different language. I had the fortune of being translated by Adriana Hunter, a very talented translator, who has worked on more than 20 novels and has won many awards. Long conversations with her over the phone made me realize that my experience as a translator was very different from hers: the books I had translated were classics (Gogol, Lermontov), and I could not change one word; the only way to offer clarification was to add footnotes. Adriana could modify the text slightly to clarify certain points, like which popular French songs were quoted – a French-speaker recognized them immediately, but not an English-speaker. Adriana is so good that she even found equivalents for the puns. She has a very precise and sensitive understanding of everything, from general structure to details. Her English is superb, and when I read her translation, it felt like rediscovering my own book. I hope that the other translations will be as beautiful.
What has the reception been like for the book in France?
It’s been great. The book was beautifully reviewed, booksellers were very supportive, and it was selected for many lists and awards. I found the reception really rewarding, after such a long time working.... I was particularly pleased by critics who praised my book for being both literary and accessible, and my writing for being non-academic! Being selected by book clubs and high school students was a wonderful experience, as it gave me opportunities to meet eager readers of all ages, who asked very astute questions, sometimes quite surprising. For instance, teenage girls from Nogaro, a small town in the south of France, had a lot to say about the love story between Hélène and Guillaume, and how each of them uses their partner for a certain goal. My own daughter, who was 16 when she read the book, had also reflected about what makes a love story last, like Daniel’s own.
What are you working on next?
My second novel, Les Fiancés, is being published in France this month. It’s a love story that has its roots in childhood and especially in fairy tales – a tribute to Andersen and his Snow Queen (the real girl-saves-boy tale, not its macho Disney inversion!). Next, I am planning a novel that will take place over the course of a single night.
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat. Other Press, $22.95 May ISBN 978-1-59051-707-9