Lorin Stein, the newly installed editor of the Paris Review, discovered Jean-Christophe Valtat while wandering around in the Gallimard bookstore in Paris back in 2008. Mr. Stein, then an editor at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, had been having lunch with a French publisher and the book critic for the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Afterward he asked the critic to take him to a bookstore and tell him what to read. “She showed me some books but I’d heard of them,” Mr. Stein said by phone on Friday. “Then she went to work, and I was by myself. I was just killing time and I saw a book called Exes. I thought that was a good title so I pulled it down.”
The author of Exes was Mr. Valtat, whom Mr. Stein had never heard of and who was not particularly well-known in France. There was another book of his on the shelf, this one considerably shorter and enigmatically titled 03. Mr. Stein bought them both and packed them for New York.
The editor tracked down a third book while he was in Paris as well, this one a French bestseller by Tristan Garcia called La Meilleure Part Des Hommes. One of Mr. Stein’s colleagues at FSG, Mitzi Angel, had heard good things and asked him to get her a copy.
When he got back to New York, Mr. Stein presented Ms. Angel, who runs her own imprint at FSG, with both 03 and La meilleure part des hommes. She loved both, and not long after, an agreement was struck; she would translate the Valtat volume into English for him, and he would translate the Garcia for her.
“I only later realized just how crazily difficult it was,” Ms. Angel said in an email. “But it was fun: we ended up editing each other, which was interesting, and not usually something that happens in a publishing house.”
“We would go into each other’s offices and we would show each other a hard sentence and then we would both start riffing — just coming up with different solutions,” Mr. Stein said, adding that at a certain point in the process he approached FSG’s French-speaking foreign rights director Marion Duvert for help, and enlisted her as a co-translator.
The two books are radically different in style and plot. Valtat’s 03, which was published last month by FSG as a paperback original, takes the form of a hypnotically tense internal monologue delivered by a young man who has become infatuated with a mentally ill girl who lives near in his neighborhood; La meilleure part, according to Ms. Angel, which will be published through her Faber & Faber imprint of FSG in September as Hate: A Romance, is “about the end of politics in the ’80s and ’90s and what that means for a bunch of intellectuals and their sex lives.”
“Both books are set in the ’80s and share some preoccupations: the synthetic feel of that decade; the lack of commitment or engagement or sense of purpose; the sense that something might have been irretrievably lost,” Ms. Angel said.
Look for a side by side look at both books here next week.