Françoise Verny

Publisher of uncanny foresight
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The Independent Online

To be able to sense, before anyone else, an emerging trend in politics, art, business or literature is an inestimably valuable gift. Few ordinary mortals possess it. But Françoise Verny was one who was born with it and, more importantly, knew how to handle this mysterious prophetic insight in the notoriously unpredictable world of publishing.

Françoise Delthil, literary editor and journalist: born Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 20 November 1924; literary editor, Grasset 1964-82, 1995-2002, Gallimard 1982-86, Flammarion 1986-95; married 1952 Charles Verny (one son); died Paris 13 December 2004.

To be able to sense, before anyone else, an emerging trend in politics, art, business or literature is an inestimably valuable gift. Few ordinary mortals possess it. But Françoise Verny was one who was born with it and, more importantly, knew how to handle this mysterious prophetic insight in the notoriously unpredictable world of publishing.

Yet in appearance and personality she seemed one of the most unlikely transmitters of this weird but always welcome gift. Verny was no romantic revolutionary figurehead, but more like a fairground barker for a chamber of horrors than a voluble, indeed volcanic member of Parisian Left Bank coteries obsessed by literary fashions and rapacious editorial infighting. She was grossly overweight, pug-faced and coarse-tongued. She was a chain-smoking, whisky-swilling gorgon whose uncanny foresights made fortunes for all the leading French publishers, and guided them almost automatically in the annual literary-prize-list gamble, in which the big names - Gallimard, Grasset, Seuil (affectionately known in the trade as "Galligrasseuil") - always walked off with the most prestigious prizes.

Naturally, Verny encountered the usual band of toadies, and a host of vengeful reviewers and social detractors. She was constantly mocked in the press and on television, where her enormous androgynous head with the deformed face of a bulldog chewed up her words into an often incomprehensible jumble of gulps and grunts. She was a Roman Catholic who was constantly mislaying her faith, usually at the bottom of a bottle of whisky.

She was born Françoise Delthil, the daughter of a doctor, at Neuilly-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. At the age of 15, she joined the Communist Party, but after 10 years left it in a storm of excited comment. Under the benign direction of the great philosopher Gaston Bachelard, she took a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne.

In 1952 she married a former resistance fighter, Charles Verny, and they moved to Algiers in 1954, just as war was breaking out. There they met a celebrated resistant and survivor of the Nazi camps, Germaine Tillon, as well as many other literary nonconformists. Françoise started a career in journalism as correspondent for an international Catholic information service (1959), then moved to become the editor of the Echo de la Mode (1959-60) and then to the top of the ladder of journalism at the weekly L'Express (1960) and Le Nouveau Candide (1961-64).

Then came the most momentous change in Françoise Verny's career, when she became literary director for the leading publisher Grasset, a post she held until 1982, when her remarkable services were poached by the rival firm Gallimard. In 1986, she again moved to another big name, Flammarion, with the inflated titles of Director of Editorial Development and Director of the Department of French and Foreign Literature.

Verny was also making a name for herself by adapting novels for television, the best of which was Louis Aragon's Aurélien (1978). She was also co-producer of more substantial works like Malraux ou la Légende du Siècle (1972).

But the literary world was her own creation. As a graduate in philosophy, she felt qualified to launch a new school of younger philosophic writers, " Les Nouveaux Philosophes", which her enemies accused her of having "invented". She swiftly denounced her detractors, and indeed flattened them: "I did not invent anything at all," she said.

I met Bernard-Henri Lévy when he was just a young man . . . with his talent and intelligence he reflected the younger generation's need to rebel against a certain Marxist dogmatism that had kicked out the old Sorbonne scholasticism. I sensed that something new was in the air, just emerging, but that for the moment was beyond my reach . . . One does not create a movement like this - first, one senses it, one encourages it, one takes it under one's editorial wing . . .

This manifesto is a good example of Verny's extraordinary ability to spot trends and fashions and to support them. So a new, but rather ephemeral popular philosophic movement was born. One of its leaders was André Glucksmann, a close friend of Lévy.

Verny's guiding hand in the world of new novelists became evident with her handling of Françoise Sagan's career and with discoveries like Lucien Bodard, Françoise Mallet-Joris, Yann Queffelec (who won the Prix Goncourt 1985 for Les Noces barbares: "Barbarian Weddings") and Alexandre Jardin - all middle-of-the-road "popular" authors. When critics complained about such choices, Verny struck out: "It's the grandmothers who buy novels these days!"

In an interview with the critic Bernard Pivot in 1998, Verny discussed her latest memoir, in which she described frankly the inadequacies of religion. Its title was Pourquoi m'as-tu abandonnée? ("Why Have You Forsaken Me?") addressed directly to God the Father himself. She speaks to Him as a former intimate friend, but now:

God has thrown me over completely. He hasn't a single good word for me. I went to visit the relics of St Teresa, but they had no effect on me whatsoever. He didn't have one single word for me. It made me feel absolutely disgusted with Him. I have to confess that holy relics have never appealed to me!

She tries to drown her loss in drink:

I drank knowing fully that God existed! I did not drink to forget Him. I've never considered it reasonable to believe that God makes drink impossible.

Such intentionally comic confessions, touchingly pathetic, led to her becoming known as " La Papesse" or "The Female Pope".

Pivot suggested to Verny that perhaps God was her final editorial scoop. She loftily agreed: "Today I had horrible pain in my back. So I said to Him: 'Will you give over now! Are you starting on me again?' " Then: "I don't pray to Him - I tell Him off!" But she ended on a surprisingly humble note: "I'm perhaps paying the price for having drunk so much - and not loved enough."

James Kirkup

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