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At the Forefront of Change: Paris, 1900-1970. Selections from the Pascal Pia Collection

The Exhibition

The W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies offers this exhibition as a means of providing a glimpse of the rich holdings within the Pascal Pia Collection. At the same time, the exhibition provides an overview of the literary and artistic avant-garde in twentieth-century Paris by means of a selection of examples of rare manuscripts, books, periodicals, and other documents. Above all, these examples demonstrate the role of Paris as a center of experimentation in literature and the arts and the variety of its cultural life.

Pascal Pia (1903-1979)

Pascal Pia was the name adopted by Pierre Durand. After the death of his father in 1915 during WWI, the family was without an income, and Durand’s mother had to go to work. In an act of revolt, Durand left home at the age of 14 and began to fend for himself in Paris, leading a marginal life, doing all sorts of jobs. Precociously bright, with an impressive memory, he was to become an autodidact, admired for his far-ranging and detailed erudition. One story suggests that at the age of 14 Durand went into Adrienne Monnier’s book store and bought copies of the review Vers et prose. Durand frequented anarchist and pacifist circles in these early years and had no reverence for received tradition. Very early on, he exhibited independence, irony, and a kind of nihilism. His literary heroes were to be the great, non-conformist writers, poets like Nerval, Baudelaire, and Laforgue. Durand became part of the circles at reviews and publishing houses of the avant-garde where, for instance, he came to know the gifted André Malraux at Action. The two were almost the same age, and the friendship would endure for a lifetime. Durand was aligned with Max Jacob and other Surrealists such as Aragon, Eluard, and Cocteau, moving between literature and art.

In March of 1921, Durand’s first poem was published under the pseudonym of Pascal Pia in Le Pal, a magazine which René Edme administered. During this period Durand became Pascal Pia and, before his marriage, often lived by “expedients” in order to engage in literary work. He and Malraux shared some of the same characteristics in engaging in marginal, expedient projects. For example, Pia sought out erotic material hidden in the enfer of the Bibliothèque Nationale, which was published somewhat clandestinely, and also did research for individuals. He wrote poems and reviews for a variety of French and Belgian magazines, often becoming an intermediary between the publication and other writers. In 1922, he became the Paris correspondent of the Belgian review Ça ira. At the same time, Pia continued to write and revise his own poetry.

Deeply affected by the death of Edme and then by his own military service, Pia was back on the Paris scene in 1924, still hesitating about the publication of his poetry. According to Jean Paulhan, when Pia brought his poems to La Nouvelle Revue Française and Paulhan told him to correct the proofs, Pia ripped them up and threw them in the wastebasket. During these years Pia became the self-effacing, ironic, enigmatic, mask-wearing figure that he would be for the rest of his life. He published a number of pastiches and forgeries, some supposedly by contemporaries, one of them involving a lawsuit, not against Pia, but against his collaborator René Bonnel for whom Pia served as a character witness! Sometimes Pia wrote prefaces for these works, and he did not limit himself to contemporaries or to obscure writers. His most famous piece of writing was Baudelaire’s Années de Bruxelles, the journal and notes of the nineteenth-century poet; the forgery was so convincing that it was included in the Pléaide edition of Baudelaire in 1931.

After Pia’s marriage to Suzanne Lonneux in 1927, he became a professional journalist, working at a range of newspapers, including the Progrès de Lyon. A turning point came in 1938, when he became the editor of Alger-Républicain in Algeria, a paper with connections to the Popular Front. With very modest financial support, Pia recruited young journalists, among them Albert Camus. Their friendship, born of their working relationship, was to last until 1947. But the Alger-Républican had both financial and political problems as war loomed, and it was shut down by the authorities in February of 1940.

Returning to France, Pia was mobilized and escaped when his unit was isolated in the fiasco of the French defeat. Once in the unoccupied zone, Pia attempted to start a review, but the Vichy government refused to authorize its publication. However, Pia’s involvement with literary circles continued. For example, Camus sent the manuscripts of L’Etranger and Caligula to Pia, whose influential contacts, among them Malraux, facilitated the publication of L’Etranger at Gallimard in 1942.

Pia became an active member of the Resistance as editor of the clandestine paper Combat and later in a variety of roles. At one point, he was arrested and interned near Geneva but somehow escaped and returned to a series of clandestine responsibilities, including working with Camus. Although, with the Liberation, Camus was the public face of Combat, Pia was the “hands-on” editor, looking after the details and its editorial independence. When the paper faced increasing financial problems, Pia resigned in 1947; the friendship between Camus and Pia also ended at about that time, probably brought on by differing views about the paper, although the exact reasons were unclear. Pia maintained his own political independence but, nevertheless, was involved for a time with Gaullist publicity and press activities and later became editor of Carrefour. He then returned to a literary career in the early 1950’s.

Pia became known as one of the most erudite and meticulous editor-scholars in France and also produced an immense work of literary criticism as a weekly contributor to Carrefour from 1955-1977. His notes and corrections, some of which exist in the Vanderbilt Pia Collection, show the degree of seriousness with which he took his work. His reviews and criticism also appeared in places like Le Magazine littéraire and La Quinzaine littéraire. Notable achievements were his books on Baudelaire and Apollinaire, published in 1952 and 1954, which are still available today in updated editions. Pia published editions of Charles Cros and Jules Laforgue, a dictionary of erotica, and a bibliography of the Livres de l’Enfer, in addition to engaging in a voluminous correspondence, writing prefaces, giving advice, correcting manuscripts.

His heroes were the great independent writers of the nineteenth-century, Nerval, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, for instance, and such figures of the avant-garde as Apollinaire. His friends were many of the major writers and artists of twentieth-century France, but he chose to transpose his own literary gifts to a deliberately secondary role and to adopt the self-effacing mask of Pascal Pia.

The Pascal Pia Collection at Vanderbilt University

Pascal Pia himself made the decision to place his library at Vanderbilt University in order to provide for his widow Suzanne. The collection has been the property of the University since 1981. Claude Pichois, Distinguished Professor of French for many years, had known Pia since the 1950’s and often consulted him, but other members of the Department of French and Italian were friends and acquaintances of Pia; these included W.T. Bandy who brought his Baudelaire collection to Vanderbilt, providing the core of what was originally referred to as “the Baudelaire Center;” Raymond Poggenburg, who recruited W.T. Bandy to Vanderbilt and whose idea it was to found such a center; and Jean Leblon, a chair of the Department of French and Italian.

The collection consists of about 20,000 books, periodicals, and pieces of “ephemera.” Among the books are many rare volumes of twentieth-century poetry, including miniatures, as well as magazines and reviews of primary importance for the history of twentieth-century literature and art. Only a portion of Pia’s erotica is in the collection. The ephemera include examples of Pia’s scrupulously careful and learned editorial notes, along with unexpected manuscript treasures and other documents.

Pia’s original library was composed of many books that were given to him by authors, books he reviewed, and “finds” at places like the Eppe librairie on the rue de Provence in Paris. There, in the years following WWII, Pia and others looked for rare items among the masses of items left over from auctions.

A companion collection to that housed in the W.T. Bandy Center is the Fonds Pascal Pia, a donation from his daughter Colette Dominique to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine (IMEC) in France in 1997. These archives include Pia’s research material, personal papers, and correspondence – over 6,400 letters.

The Pascal Pia Collection

A Brief Bibliography

  • Camus, Albert and Pascal Pia. Correspondance. 1939-1947. Ed. Yves Marc Ajchenbaum. Paris : Fayard/Gallimard, 2000.
  • Nadeau, Maurice, et al. Pascal Pia. Paris : Les Lettres Nouvelles, 1981.
  • Pia, Pascal. Apollinaire par lui-même. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1954.
  • ________. Baudelaire par lui-même. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1952.
  • ________. Feuilletons littéraires. Preface by Maurice Nadeau. Vol. 1. 1955-1964. Vol. 2. 1965-1977. Paris: Fayard, 1998, 2000.
  • Pichois, Claude. “La Collection Pascal Pia de l’Université Vanderbilt.” Histoires littéraires, 1 (no 1, 2000), 156-159.