Unbound devotion to the ‘good book’
On 13 December 2003 Angèle Manteau (1911) was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and Arts (Gouden Penning van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten). This is a prestigious distinction for individuals who have made an important contribution in the area of science and art. On the list of honour figure the names of international celebrities such as the director of UNAIDS Peter Piot, the conductor Philippe Herreweghe and former European Commissioner Karel van Miert. Angèle Manteau received the Gold Medal because, in the Academy’s opinion, she was “the most important Flemish literary publisher of the 20th century” and because she has “indisputably set her stamp on Flemish literary history”. An argument which cannot be gainsaid.
The foundation of the Flemish literary publishing house A. Manteau in April 1938 was a remarkable event in at least two respects. In the first place the firm was under the leadership of a woman, Angèle Manteau, who was at that moment hardly 27 years old. At that time, this was considered to be highly unusual (in Belgium women only received the right to vote in 1948). Furthermore, the publisher’s mother tongue was French; Angèle Manteau was the daughter of a successful French textile manufacturer and grew up in the Walloon provincial town of Dinant. That of all people a French speaker from a well-off family should dedicate herself to the diffusion of Dutch-language literature caused quite a sensation in Flemish literary circles. Angèle Manteau quickly gained the trust of authors and booksellers in Flanders, not least because she spoke impeccable Dutch and knew how to run a business.
Angèle Manteau strove for independence in religious and political matters, and this differentiated her from her Flemish colleagues who often associated themselves with a political outlook and/or served the interests of Flemish emancipation. The young publisher wanted to devote herself to producing ‘good books’ and summed up her publishing policy in the motto: “Literary quality is the only standard”.
The Manteau publishing company had its first hey-day during the German occupation. At that time Flanders experienced a tremendous hunger for reading and furthermore, the competition from the Netherlands declined. Top authors such as Gerard Walschap and Willem Elschot lost contact with their Dutch publishers and temporarily entrusted their work to Manteau. The large profits that were recorded during these years made the company manager’s ambitions even greater. Under the imprint Les Editions Lumière, a publishing firm that she took over in 1943, Manteau also wanted to supply the market with French literature and, in a later phase, translations of her ’own’ Flemish authors as well. From 1944 Manteau published some books by celebrated French writers such as Colette, François Mauriac and Paul Eluard. Also during the war Manteau began the publication of the Collected Works of the renowned poet Karel Van de Woestijne, a long-term project for which she received much admiration. She later produced the Collected Works of August Vermeylen and Herman Teirlinck, two other prominent figures in Flemish literature.
Young talent too
Manteau did not restrict herself to the publishing of established writers, but also gave opportunities to the young and talented. During the war, Louis Paul Boon, later to be nominated for the Nobel Prize, and Johan Daisne among others, began to work at the publishing firm. These were authors who later occupied leading positions in the ’canon’. In 1950 Manteau launched yet another promising writer: Hugo Claus. His first novel, ‘De Metsiers’ [‘Sister of Earth’], received laudatory reviews, and soon the young writer was acclaimed as a ’literary wunderkind’. At that moment, five years after the Second World War, the future looked less rosy for Manteau. The Flemish book market had pretty much collapsed, and Manteau’s spectacular profits of the years 1941-1945 evaporated in no time. By publishing school books for Wallonia and pictorial books about Belgium, Manteau succeeded in avoiding bankruptcy. The work of two top-ranking foreign writers also helped the ailing firm to survive the crisis. Manteau had ‘Kaputt’ and ‘La Pelle’ [‘The Skin’] by the Italian author Curzio Malaparte translated in 1948 and 1951 respectively. These books produced, just as in the rest of Europe, a positive commotion and, more important, gave Manteau sorely needed sales success. In 1955 that success was surpassed by the Dutch translation of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, Francois Sagan’s shocking novel. In the next few years Manteau had the book re-printed as many as fifteen times.
Bestsellers and missed chances
In the 1950s the publishing house launched a further two homegrown writers who were important economic trump cards for the firm: Ward Ruyslinck and Jos Vandeloo. Above all ‘Wierook en tranen’ [‘No writing or tears’] by Ruyslinck (1958) and ‘Het gevaar’ [‘The Danger’] by Vandeloo (1960) grew into unrelenting best sellers and sold well in schools. They also attracted a reading public in translation abroad. In addition to Manteau’s successes we should also note a number of missed opportunities. There was a parting of the ways with both Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus, partly because of the difficult financial circumstances experienced by the publishing house about 1950, and as a result, the works of these two very important post-war Flemish authors fell into the hands of Dutch competitors. In addition, the Manteau publishing house realised the importance of the paperback extremely late. In the early 1950s, the paperback had already started a craze in Britain and the United States. Manteau only began its own paperback series in 1962, but by then the market was already almost saturated.
From 1965 the Manteau publishing house became part of the Dutch publishing group Van Goor. The management of this concern undertook several attempts to make the small publishing firm more profitable, and this was not entirely to the liking of Angèle Manteau, who strongly insisted on the need for autonomy in formulating her publishing policy.
Even so Manteau attempted to give her company new impetus with Vijfde Meridiaan, a paperback series to which young, innovative authors were attracted. The editorial control was entrusted to Julien Weverbergh, a much feared polemicist at that time, who selected, among others, Walter Van den Broeck, Daniël Robberechts and the Dutchman Jeroen Brouwers from a wide range of high-quality work.
After some years Angèle Manteau came into conflict with the management of Van Goor and in December 1970 she left the company that she had herself set up and led for more than thirty years. Her dismissal was much discussed in the press (later Manteau would be the subject more than once of controversy in the literary world). From 1971 the experienced publisher went to work for the Elsevier publishing house in Amsterdam, where she published, among others, the popular Dutch author Godfried Bomans and the German Nobel Prize Winner Heinrich Böll.
The Gold Medal is not the only distinction that has come the way of Angèle Manteau who has meanwhile reached the age of ninety-three. Before, in 1986 she was elevated to the peerage by the Belgian king.
Since 2000 the history of the Manteau publishing house has been systematically studied by an inter-university team of literary researchers under the leadership of Dr. K. Humbeeck (University of Antwerp), and the research has been consecutively supported by the Max Wildiers Fund and the Fund for Scientific Research - Flanders FWO (Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Vlaanderen). In the framework of this research project, meanwhile, a complete Manteau archive was set up by the museum for Flemish culture in Antwerp (AMVC-Letterenhuis - Archief en Museum voor het Vlaamse Cultuurleven). The first stage of the research that covers the history of the Manteau publishing house from 1938 until 1953, has been comprehensively reported in numerous publications, both magazines and in book form in recent years. The complete research into the Manteau publishing house (1938-1971) will be finished at the end of 2007. The conclusions will be brought together in book form, which has been announced to be published by Meulenhoff-Manteau.
Kevin Absillis, researcher in the Department of Literature at the University of Antwerp.