A home of Nobel literary laureates

Tiny Fitzcarraldo Editions in Britain has published three recent recipients

By Alex Marshall

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From left: Rosie Brown, Tamara Sampey-Jawad, Jacques Testard and Joely Day in Fitzcarraldo’s one-room office in London. — (Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times)
From left: Rosie Brown, Tamara Sampey-Jawad, Jacques Testard and Joely Day in Fitzcarraldo’s one-room office in London. — (Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times)

Published: Wed 19 Oct 2022, 9:42 PM

When Jacques Testard started his own publishing company in 2014, he wanted a name that suggested a crazy endeavour. Testard called the imprint Fitzcarraldo Editions, a reference to the 1982 Werner Herzog movie in which a rubber baron tries to haul a 320-ton steamboat over a hill in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

“It was not a very subtle metaphor on the stupidity of setting up a publishing house,” Testard, 37, recalled recently. Publishing often “feels like you’re just digging a hole in the ground and chucking money into it,” he added.

Eight years later, Fitzcarraldo Editions seems far from a madman’s folly. It is one of Britain’s most talked-about publishing houses, with a reputation as the English-language imprint of choice for Nobel laureates. When French writer Annie Ernaux was awarded the 2022 literature prize October 6, she became Fitzcarraldo’s third author to gain the honor since the house’s founding, after Olga Tokarczuk, of Poland, in 2019, and Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and writer, in 2015. Fitzcarraldo Editions is also the British publisher for Jon Fosse, a Norwegian author and playwright, who is regularly among bookmakers’ favorites for the award. (It has also published one book by Elfriede Jelinek, although she received the Nobel in 2004, a decade before Fitzcarraldo began.)

And Fitzcarraldo is making waves outside the Nobel. Since 2017, a dozen of the house’s books, including Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season” and Maria Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory,” have been nominated for the International Booker Prize, one of the highest-profile awards for translated fiction. In 2018, Tokarczuk’s “Flights” won that one, too.

The day after the Ernaux announcement, Testard said that he had ordered the reprinting of 65,000 copies of her books to keep pace with demand, a huge number for Fitzcarraldo, given that it sold around 135,000 books across all its titles in 2021.

Sitting in the company’s one-room office in South London on October 7, Testard said he would think it “very silly” if people called Fitzcarraldo the home of the Nobel. “It’s not like we have a strategy to try and win,” he said. His taste just happened to align with “a bunch of older bourgeois Swedish people” who decide the Nobel each year, he added.

Yet, British literary insiders say the imprint’s success cannot be explained by luck alone. Paul Keegan, a former editor at Penguin Classics who gave Testard his first publishing job in 2012 at an imprint called Notting Hill Editions, said much of the British publishing industry was “baffled” by Fitzcarraldo’s success. But, Keegan noted, the fact that Testard reads fiction in French and Spanish, as well as in English, made him able to spot authors whom other editors in Britain’s “monoglot, insular” publishing world might miss.

Testard, born in France but educated in England and Ireland, said he had taken a roundabout route to publishing. As a student at Oxford University, he was on track to study for a doctorate in history until he sat through a seminar on “the memorial bells and fountains of Oxfordshire from 1847 to 1857” and realized he needed to change path. “It felt a bit futile,” he said.

Instead, he worked at The Sunday Times of London for a few months, then secured internships at publishers in France, Britain and the United States. At one of those, in New York in 2010, he was struck by the number of vibrant literary magazines that were being published in the United States, including N+1 and Bomb. With a friend, Ben Eastham, he decided to start his own version in Britain. Called The White Review, it has since become well known for publishing work by future literary heavyweights, including Sally Rooney and Joshua Cohen, the American author who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Yet, Testard had bigger ambitions. He began Fitzcarraldo Editions in February 2014, having borrowed enough money from a family member to pay his rent for two years and publish at least 10 books. He had a vision from the outset, he said, including that half of its catalog would be books in translation and that all of its titles would be at “the more radical end of contemporary writing,” pushing “the boundaries of form” and mixing genres such as memoir and fiction.

Fitzcarraldo’s first book, Mathias Énard’s “Zone,” was a mission statement of sorts, Testard said. That 521-page novel, a stream of consciousness told in a single sentence, was “intensely gripping” despite its challenging appearance, Testard said.

Testard said each accolade for the company had led to a much-needed leap in revenue. After Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel, Testard said he had sold the US rights for “Second-Hand Time” to Random House for a six-figure sum, allowing him to take on his first employee. Fitzcarraldo now has a full-time staff of six and is scheduled to publish 24 books next year, including “Porn: An Oral History” by British writer Polly Barton, a debut novel about motherhood from translator Kate Briggs, and “Owlish,” a twisted fairy tale by Hong Kong author Dorothy Tse. The imprint’s plan — which includes the introduction of a classics line with titles such as Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death” — was outlined in a series of Post-it notes stuck to the office wall.

Many of the planned titles were new books by authors that Fitzcarraldo had already published (it has eight Ernaux titles in its catalog). Testard said the commitment to follow authors no matter what they produced was another way his imprint stood out in a British publishing industry that tended to focus on success. He was adamant that this approach was the right one.

“Risk-taking and having a commitment to authors over time,” he said, “really does work.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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