Access & Aesthetics: An Interview with Luis de Miranda, Haute Culture Books

Luis de Miranda

The young and exciting Haute Culture Books has already made a name for itself with its innovative take on the participative publishing model. Governed by the philosophy “digital books should be free, physical books should be sublime,” HCB rewards its “Book Angels” with beautifully crafted art object limited editions that subsidize the wide distribution of free e-book copies. In advance of the hotly anticipated release of their second book, Yuri Mamleyev’s The Sublimes, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, Luis de Miranda, the CEO and Publisher, kindly discussed their latest projects and evolving philosophy with me via E-mail. For those who will be attending the London Book Fair, do not miss the unveiling of this volume on Thursday, April 10 at the Russian Stand.

How did you come to found Haute Culture Books?
I started in the book milieu as a writer. I wrote my first novel, entitled Joie, in French while living in New York City between 1994 to 1996 and it was published by a small French press in 1997. After that, my novels were published either by small or mainstream Parisian presses, and sometimes translated. As I didn’t like being told what to do by editors that didn’t always make the more artistic or brave choices, I decided to apply simple Marxism and master the means of production: I became a publisher and co-ran a small independent press from 2004 to 2012. There I published my most uncompromising work or the work of authors I valued, while also publishing some translations into French, including for example Darcey Steinke’s American novel Milk, which I translated myself. One thing I’ve noticed as a publisher (it is of course a lieu commun) is that sublime novels or essays do not sell at all as easily as formatted ephemeral memoirs about extreme suffering or sexy scandal. As an author I’ve been translated myself, as I said, but only read by a minority. So when I moved to Sweden in 2013, I decided, this time as a CEO, to try a publishing model that would allow only the best translations to come to life in the most widespread way, which today implies free e-books. But my interest for books could not be satisfied with digital publications alone. I wanted to create beautiful rare collection pieces that wouldn’t be ephemeral. Most of all, it’s the geometrical beauty of our bi-polar model that engages me.

“The Sublimes [by Yuri Mamleyev] is the kind of novel that deserves a Nobel Prize, except that it might be too disturbing for the Swedish Academy. Imagine Mo Yan mixed with Dostoyevski and squeezed by fierce zombies!”

You translated Haute Culture’s first book, Gustave Flaubert’s Felicity, the Tale of the Simple Heart. Will you translate future titles for Haute Culture books?
I hope I’ll never have to translate any other book in my entire life! As I said before, I translated an American novel to French a few years ago (Milk, by Darcey Steinke) and it was already very demanding. I had to translate Flaubert as an improvised first project because the other 2 projects, and particularly Tammsaare, were going too slowly in terms of funding. So I started translating Flaubert and asked Jamie Schwarz, our American editor, if she thought it was an interesting translation compared to the existing ones. She encouraged me to continue, and of course she did a great job editing it. Translating these two books has been very painful: I absolutely respect the translator’s job, more than ever. So much work and so much abnegation. I feel much happier when I can hire a great translator, like award-winning Marian Schwartz, who is known for her work on Bulgakhov and Berberova. She did a terrific job with the Mamleyev novel.

Felicity, the Tale of the Simple Heart

Tell me more about the two new titles you are releasing this year: The Sublimes by Yuri Mamleyev, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, and Truth and Justice by Anton Hansen Tammsaare, translated from the Estonian by Inna Feldbach and Alan Trei. Why did you select these two works for publication?
I’d read the Mamleyev novel in French a few years ago and thought it was a mind-blowing experience. Honestly, I expected it to have been translated and published into English before so the day I noticed it was not, I immediately contacted Mamleyev’s agent and the author, who is still alive, and they loved our project. The Sublimes is the kind of novel that deserves a Nobel Prize, except that it might be too disturbing for the Swedish Academy. Imagine Mo Yan mixed with Dostoyevski and squeezed by fierce zombies!

Yuri Mamleyev's The Sublimes

Yuri Mamleyev’s The Sublimes. The presentation packaging will be unveiled at the London Book Fair, April 10.

As for the Estonian masterpiece, I wanted to pay a tribute to the nation that inspired the writing of my French novel Qui a tué le poète?, which was partly written in Tallinn a few years ago. I had another author in mind, but Ilvi Liive from the Estonian Literary Institute told me on a taxi ride about Tammsaare. She said it was a doomed book. One translation was apparently made 50 years ago but the translator died or disappeared with the manuscript in a boat accident. I read the book in its French translation and was convinced it was important, the perfect kind of text for Haute Culture, very singular and yet very universal. Did you know it was actually a best seller in Europe 70 years ago and translated into 8 languages, but never published in English? We’re very happy to bring these two books to the readers in April.

The subscription publishing model has been gaining traction among small presses, and particularly among those focused on translation, but your philosophy is a bit different. How do you reconcile the democratic ideal of making literature accessible to a wide public through free e-books with the exclusivity of the physical, limited edition copies?
First of all, you have to give something back to the people who make a subscription, something that rewards their generosity in an even more generous way. This is the politics of the gift, as Marcel Mauss studied it. Again, I’m not interested in publishing average physical books in industrial quantities. The standard book distribution system, where a book gets lost and invisible in the middle of a bookshop takes too much energy for unsatisfying results. So instead of having one thousand subscribers I’d rather have twenty of them, acting as Mini-Medici for culture, as I’m fascinated with the two extreme shapes a book can take today: digital or rare limited crafted editions. Opposites touch themselves. There is a great abstract and democratic convenience in e-books. And there is a pleasure in craftsmanship that is also a philosophical and economical statement. We only produce physically what people demand. The world is already saturated with objects. Imagine a world where what is produced would be mostly produced on demand, with care and the best quality. That would certainly avoid overproduction, pollution, waste and ugliness. Haute Culture is a slow book press. Of course, for the moment, we are totally non-profit and have to do other jobs on the side. That’s the price and the danger of freedom.hcb_flaubert_7

“I believe translated literature is at the core of our project, because my philosophy, including in my essays or novels, is to try to destandardize the global psyche. Bringing the margins to the center and vice versa can be a form of conceptual translation.”

On the one hand, e-books seem to be the direction in which publishing is heading, while on the other hand, your commitment to rare books made with beautiful materials harkens back to the infancy of bookbinding. Is there a demand for contemporary rare books? What would you say to critics who find your commitment to physical books passé?
I don’t know if there is a huge demand but there is a strong desire. Some experiences can be more mental, like reading an e-book. Some experiences should be more sensual and contemplative, like holding and savoring a luxurious book. The way we deal with the physical book is to see it as an art piece, rather than just bookbinding. We build conceptual and sensual machines that are connected by desire. At the limit, we would like to do just one extremely exclusive physical copy, that would allow the free e-book translation to exist and be spread. So maybe in the future each publication will have only one book angel who will own a very exclusive unique book while being able to say that thousands of free e-books are circulating thanks to him or her. As for the potential criticism of being passé, I’d take it as a compliment. I’m also a citizen of the Grand Siècle and part of my mind lives in 17th century Europe. I can be a bit of a grumpy conservative in regard to culture, while still keeping my eyes open to the unknown, the radical and the future. We want to publish classic or near-classic texts in a form that can be a contemporary classic of physical design. We humbly believe we’ve achieved that timeless purity in the way we published Felicity by Flaubert. And be prepared soon for an aesthetic leap with the next two books, hopefully.

 What is the design process for creating the physical books? Do the e-books incorporate any of their design features?
The e-book layout is the same as the printed book. As for the design process, I work along with Linda Ayres, who is both a designer with some experience in the publishing world and also the mother of my child, the person I live with. So we’re talking all the time about the books, and we read before creating anything, in order for the object to reflect the soul of the text. We have a great dialogue, sometimes smooth, sometimes fiery. I guess I’m more of a steersman and the conceptual organizer, who comes up with the directions and the big picture, and basic ideas like, for example: “Well, this is about Flaubert’s parrot, so why not put the book in a cage?” Or “Let’s put the book inside a see-through 3D printed Russian Doll.” I also have a strong vision of what design should be, as I believe in the marriage of simplicity and some baroque insights, but most of the time I try to let Linda explore. She is extremely gifted for the details, the concretization of artistic ideas, the choice of the materials and the people we work with. For example, she’s spent the month of February and March creating a laced Russian Doll that is being 3D printed, and I can tell you this was extremely difficult. This is really a crazy project for the moment, as it can be economically and logistically complicated, but we’re having a lot of fun, and nothing would be done if we weren’t this very united loving team. We also work along with a Swedish bookbinder, Roger Johansson (who also binds books for the Queen of Sweden and the university of Uppsala). His advice can be precious. It’s a pleasure creating a cultural object without trying to please the market and obey the boring rules of marketing. I sometimes say that our marketing baseline is “F… the marketing!”
Assouline Boutiques

How do you promote the e-books? Do you rely exclusively on the connections of your “book angels” or other institutions for promotion? Do they really go viral?
Our new website that has just opened makes the books more visible. We’ll only know if they go viral once we offer our Russian and Estonian books in April, as they have never been translated before, as opposed to our first publication, the Flaubert tale for which we merely proposed a new translation. But again, what’s important is not to count how many books are downloaded, but that they are available if someone suddenly wants to read them or at least give them a try. Ideally, a reader of a free Estonian novel can one day thank the Estonian book angels by becoming a book angel for a national classic that he or she would like to offer to the world.

“Translating these two books has been very painful: I absolutely respect the translator’s job, more than ever. So much work and so much abnegation.”

As a translator yourself, how do you approach working with translators? How do you find translators for your projects?
Again I was a translator by default. I don’t think I have the patience for that admirable profession. I find the translators the way I find anything valuable, using intuition, luck and the governing idea that we will use the best recognized translators if we can, but we will also give a chance to unknown passionate people to emerge.

Do you plan to focus exclusively on translated literature, or do you foresee the press publishing original English-language, or other language books in the future?
Our concept allows us to publish not only translations, but any text that we believe can be a classic or be rediscovered. Yet I believe translated literature is at the core of our project, because my philosophy, including in my essays or novels, is to try to destandardize the global psyche. Bringing the margins to the center and vice versa can be a form of conceptual translation. Transferring part of the unknown into the actual Lingua Franca. The English language should not only be the global vehicle of business: it can be a meta-idiom that unites different modes of thinking, different views of the world. This is also why as an author I tend to write in English more and more.

What can readers expect from Haute Culture Books in the future?

We promise to continue in the same spirit without compromising, provided that we are able to find enough book angels to help us crealise our visions and the visions of the sublime authors that we promote. People from all over the world can contact us with a project they think they can help pre-finance. We would like to find an investor for the press to develop, but not at any cost. The Russian and the Estonian novels are a way for us to show the world what we can do, and the rest of the story has to be even more of a collective effort and adventure. As Winston Churchill once said: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”

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