Cat’s Grin

by François Maspero


New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1986. First English edition. 8vo (22x15cm), brown quarter-cloth in unclipped dust jacket with golden-lettered spine. 295pp. Text in English. Fine.

François Maspero‘s extraordinary life is closely linked to the history of Europe in the second half of the 20th century. During World War II, his parents were arrested by the Gestapo, and Maspero‘s father, a sinologist and professor at the Collège de France, was killed in a concentration camp, where his mother barely survived. His older brother Jean was killed by the Nazis in 1944 while fighting for the Résistance.

After the war, François Maspero abandoned his ethnology studies and opened a bookstore under the name La Joie de lire [the joy of reading] in 1955. Four years later, he published pamphlets of the leading figures of the Algerian liberation movement FLN, after feeling disturbed by the behavior of the French state in the Algerian war. Chris Marker’s documentary Les mots ont un sens (1970) provides a fascinating glimpse into Éditions Maspero customers and staff. At one point, François Maspero says,“the books I publish are so horrible that I get nauseous from them.”

In 1982, François Maspero closed his bookstore and publishing house and began writing novels, working as a literary translator to earn a living. His first novel, Cat’s Grin, originally published in 1984 by Éditions du Seuil, is the story of a thirteen- year-old boy, who is searching for his deported parents and his missing brother during the upheaval of the French Libération after World War II. The relationship between François Maspero and Chris Marker is quite interesting, as Maspero explains in an interview with Verso Books:

“I cannot forget to mention Chris Marker, without whom, quite simply I would not have become what I am. Among others, it was he who shared with me the ideal that was then behind Peuple et Culture, and much besides: a whole vision of the world where dreams were always at the heart of reality; for without dreams (unlike utopia) you can only live life as a vegetable. He, too – even more so – gave me this love for life, this life force, not to give up on what you have committed to doing.”

The book of Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge was published by Éditions Maspero in 1978 and a English version of the film was released in the United States in 2002, under the title A Grin without a Cat.