Where is Europe? Edmond Charlot, L’Arche and a Mediterranean Europe

Where is Europe? In trying to think about the different ways translation transformed ideas of Europe in the post-war period, we also seem to often face questions around the physical and historical location of Europe. How far north, south, east and west does it expand itself and from where does it begin? Who is in and who is out? Unpacking these questions can be particularly useful in differentiating visions of Europe. One particularly instructive example that I am currently pursuing is the case of Edmond Charlot, the publisher of L’Arche (1944 – 1948). Charlot and L’Arche can help demonstrate the prominence of a Mediterranean inflection of Europe during this period, as well as the important and often neglected influence of publishers.

Charlot was a major figure on the French cultural landscape throughout much of the 20th century. Born in Algeria in 1915, he would his first success in the 1930s there when he began to publish the work of Albert Camus and established an important bookshop in Algiers, ‘Les Vraies Richesses’ (Charlot and the bookshop are the basis for Kaouther Adimi’s 2017 novel, Our Riches). During WWII he was briefly imprisoned by Vichy France, seemingly after being praised on the radio by Gertrude Stein, as résistant. He would become a widely regarded Francophone editor, throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Translation had a central position in his view of publishing and in the 1940s he began a series under the title of ‘The Five Continents’, which as the name suggests published translations of major authors from around the world (such as Jane Austen, Henry Miller, Manuel Galvez). In 1961, his entire bookshop and archive in Algeria was destroyed by the French, far-right paramilitary organisation, the OAS. As well as running a publishing house – with several important series of books – he also ran book shops throughout his life, contributed frequently to radio programs, and later in his life worked for the French state in promoting French culture in Algeria, Turkey and Morocco.

Charlot can point to the importance of Algeria, and perhaps North Africa more generally, when thinking about Francophone periodicals and literature during this period. Indeed, Algiers served as something of a de facto cultural capital from 1942 until the end of the war. Several major Francophone literary figures lived there at some stage during the period, including André Gide, Pierre Mendès France, Edgar Faure, Lucie Faure, Robert Aron, and Jean Amrouche. Though it is important to differentiate some of these individuals – Amrouche and Charlot, notably, were from Algeria – we still see a brief and important milieu of intellectuals in North Africa all seeking to ‘re-establish’ French culture after WWII (an explicit goal of L’Arche).

This immediately raises an important question about how we theorise French and more broadly European culture during this period. Though it appears to have received limited attention, the role that colonised Algeria (as well as Tunisia) played as a location for relaunching ‘French’ literature is notable. This, of course, means that any effort to think about Europe during this period has to wrestle with this obvious colonial context. Indeed, it is no surprise then that two of our periodicals were founded and first published not in Paris, but in Algeria: L’Archeand La Nouvelle équipefrançaise. What Charlot can help bring forward is not simply the general connection between French culture and colonialism during this period, but the striking relationship between French periodicals and colonialism during and immediately after WWII.

But this is not the only way that Charlot’s biography can help us think about Europe and its boundaries during this period. For Charlot is not interested in an idea of Europe per se, but instead seems more inspired by the Mediterranean. This is clear from Charlot’s first book series, ‘Mediterraneans’, which included Camus and Francisco García Lorca and sought to establish something of a contemporary canon of the Mediterranean. The promotion of a specifically Mediterranean culture appears to have been a lifelong commitment for Charlot, which he saw as ‘the basis of civilization’ (la base de la civilisation’). Indeed, 50 years after he established this series, Charlot spoke on French radio of his regret at not having been able to establish a book series that would publish the classics of Mediterranean culture (interview here). With this particular emphasis on the Mediterranean comes a certain history of Europe – one of Ancient Greece and Rome – but also a particular view about the proximity of certain cultures and countries to one another, notably linking the Romance-language cultures, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. 

At this stage, it is difficult to draw comprehensive conclusions about the influence of this perspective on L’Arche, not least because Charlot was far from the only significant personality involved in editorial decisions there. Yet the choice of material translated in L’Archeis suggestive. Though there is some translation of German, Russian and Anglophone material, texts from the ‘Mediterranean’ appear to win out. This includes translation of Italian (Croce, Terracini, Ungaretti, Silone, Moravia), of Spanish (Garcia Lorca, Machado) and of Greek (Élytis, Demetrios Capentanakis), as well as a curious translation of the 13th-century Turkish folk poet, Yunus Emré. Though we would need to more comprehensively investigate the background to these editorial decisions, we can already see a strong Mediterranean inflection to the texts translated in L’Arche. Charlot thus helps us reflect on the importance of the publisher in thinking about our periodicals, but also the different perspectives on and from Europe’s shores.

Cillian Ó Fathaigh

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