Obituary: Marc Barbezat

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The Independent Culture
IN 1997, the leading French publisher Gallimard bought the entire stock of literary copyrights of a "little press" called L'Arbalete, founded in 1940 by a 27-year-old demobilised soldier, Marc Barbezat. To save his sanity in the noisy boredom of war, he had started a unique literary magazine bearing the same name, which means "crossbow" - deliberately archaic, almost pacifist.

Among the great names published by this amateur with an extraordinary "nose" for literary originality was that of Jean Genet, a petty crook imprisoned at Fresnes, where a forger of rationing tickets printed his first poem, "Le Condamne a mort" ("The Condemned Man"). Barbezat's fiancee Olga, later to become his wife, managed to get hold of a copy of this passionately subversive erotic poem and sent it to Barbezat, who wrote to Genet asking permission to publish it. Genet replied with a request for 100 francs to buy tobacco in jail.

It was the beginning of a strange, violent, yet rewarding relationship between writer and editor, the sort that every writer dreams of, but that now no longer exists in the soulless megaliths of publishing conglomerates. Barbezat was Genet's discoverer, but also one of his rare faithful friends; Barbezat's "micro press" created a major 20th- century writer.

He had started his press from scratch at a very difficult time in France, 1940, the year of defeat, humiliation and Nazi occupation. He gives a brief account of his first steps in publishing in "Comment je suis devenu l'editeur de Jean Genet", the postface to Lettres a Olga et Marc Barbezat de Jean Genet (1988). The first issue of his magazine was roneoed in an army office. When he returned home, demobilised, to Lyons in 1940, he bought a presse a epreuves (proof press) and Garamond type, a character for which he had a passion.

Barbezat taught himself the crafts of printer and compositor and worked alone, pulling his sheets on the hand press. Thus were printed the early issues of his magazine and his first books, including Les Barricades mysterieuses (1946) by a little- known poet, Olivier Larronde, whom he revered as the equal of Genet. Barbezat reprinted Larronde's works in 1990, but this fine poet still remains virtually unknown.

This first period ended when Barbezat turned to Lino and Monotype on the machines of a Lyons firm. But already he had published many great names: Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Albert Camus, Paul Eluard, Marcel Jouhandeau, Violette Leduc, Louis-Rene des Forets, Raymond Queneau, Jean- Paul Sartre and Boris Vian, as well as Genet. He also printed translations of Lorca, Kafka and Heidegger, and was the first editor of Rimbaud's Album Zutique (1942).

It took great courage and foresight to start a magazine and a press during the Occupation with its German censorship laws. His publication of Album Zutique attracted widespread interest, and the Occupation authorities sent French police to check this unlicensed publisher. Barbezat relates how the police chief (probably a resister) was required to impose official seals intended to immobilise the press, but asked to be shown the best places to affix them so that the press could continue operating. When the Liberation came, Barbezat proudly left the seals on, telling visitors: "My press is still under seal by the orders of the German occupation."

It is notoriously difficult for independent translators to obtain permission to publish poetry from foreign (especially French) editors. So I consider myself lucky to have received encouragement and consent from Barbezat to print my first translations of Genet's works, among them "Le Condamne a mort" and "Un Chant d'amour". I explained that these were for "little magazines" with no payment. He said don't worry, just go ahead and print. I explained how difficult it was to publish Genet in post-war, prudish Britain. There were similar difficulties in France. In 1947, Gallimard had to publish Pompes funebres anonymously, and Journal du voleur ("Thief's Diary") was published anonymously by Albert Skira in Geneva in 1948.

Barbezat himself boldly went ahead with his own editions of Genet's works like Chants secrets (1945) and Miracle de la rose (1946). All the plays, except the one-acter Les Bonnes (Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1954) were issued by L'Arbalete, and, as Genet was constantly retouching his texts, Barbezat possessed all the differing versions of both novels and plays.

Barbezat showed his faith in Genet right from the beginning, when Jean Cocteau, another great friend of the writer, asked Barbezat to stand warrant for Genet before the Paris prefect of police in a concerted plea for his liberation. By this time (1943) Barbezat was a successful pharmacist: he was to become managing director of a large chemicals and pharmaceuticals manufacturing firm at Decines, near Lyons, so he signed his appeal with all the weight of respectability - "Marc Barbezat, Pharmacien".

On Genet's first visit to the Barbezat home at Decines, Barbezat's mother was the only one to greet him, and telephoned to the factory: "Who is this character you've sent us? He's threatening to come back with his mates and burgle the premises!" Genet got on better with Olga Barbezat, tell-ing her: "You are the only woman I could have married, because we'd have fought like cats."

In March this year, the Paris auction house of Drouet held a sale of Barbezat's correspondence with all the great figures of contemporary French letters. Among the most fascinating were those from Artaud, Cocteau and Genet, who writes in one of them: "As you are not a homosexual, how can you like my books?" To this naive query, Barbezat replies: "It is because I am not a homosexual that I love them." There were many rare signed and hand-corrected items, and the various versions of novels and plays. The sale brought in over five million francs. Not bad for a "little press".

James Kirkup

Marc Barbezat, editor, publisher and pharmacist: born Lyons, France 26 November 1913; married Olga Kechelievich; died Lyons 26 April 1999.