Before Georges Borchardt could become a New York literary agent, he had to become a New Yorker. And learn English.
Though he now represents Elie Wiesel and Ian McEwan as well as the estates of Hannah Arendt and Samuel Beckett, Borchardt was born in Berlin in 1928 and spent his childhood in Paris. His mother was killed in Auschwitz, and many other family members died in concentration camps. To survive, Borchardt went into hiding at a school in Aix-en-Provence, while his sisters worked at an American field hospital there.
The three came to the U.S. in 1947, and Borchardt learned English during his stint in the Korean War.
He began in the publishing industry as an assistant and helped with French acquisitions, starting his own firm, Georges Borchardt, Inc., in 1967 with his wife Anne.
Last week, Borchardt, who holds dual French and American citizenship, was honored with France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor. At a reception at the French Embassy he received a medal and a certificate signed by President Nicholas Sarkozy in honor of his life’s work: his contribution to literature — particularly from France — and its promotion in America.
Q: Were books an important part of your childhood?
A: Yes. This was the age before television, and books were sought after as birthday presents. I remember reading Sir Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper (in French), Dickens and Alexandre Dumas. Later, when I was about 16, I’d read Gide and Valery, and Aragon and Eluard.
Are there any Jewish or Israeli writers you particularly admire?
We represent Benny Morris, who wrote a remarkable history of the 1948 war; we represent a number of Jewish writers, including Robert Alter (biblical studies), Saul Friedlander (Holocaust studies), etc…
What do you look for in a writer you might represent?
A sense of style and language. For nonfiction, a subject I am interested in and the conviction the writer is tops in his field. For fiction, I just want to fall in love.
Do you still work full time?
Yes, even on Sundays.
How did you and Elie Wiesel meet?
When his French publisher sent me his first book, “Night,” asking me to find a U.S. publisher for it (this was quite a challenge), I found out Wiesel was actually living in New York, working as a journalist. I met him, we became good friends, have been friends ever since. After the French publisher turned down his next book, I found a new French publisher for it and have been his agent ever since, i.e. for over 50 years.
What does it mean to you to be awarded the French Legion of Honor?
I feel … honored. I believe I am the first literary agent to be awarded this distinction, and that pleases me. Also, I feel it is a kind of vindication of choices I made long ago, when I introduced writers such as Beckett, Barthes, Foucault, Schwarz-Bart, Robbe-Grillet, Wiesel, etc. … to American readers.
Have any of your authors been honored with the Legion of Honor?
Yes, I can think of at least three: Elie Wiesel, George Steiner and Annie Cohen-Solal.
How will you celebrate?
The French Embassy will take care of that (French champagne is still the best). After that, my son-in-law will take me to dinner, along with my wife, our daughter, one of my sisters and our two granddaughters.