(Paris) It was an unpretentious story, written by a modest journalist, on the mysteries of the eel, an elusive species of fish that is now threatened. It has become a success in many countries which illustrates the globalization of books.
The gospel of the eels by Patrik Svensson, cultural reporter for the Malmö regional newspaper in Sweden, Sydsvenskan, was released in France on January 7. The publisher, Le Seuil, writes on the cover: “International bestseller”, after good sales in other countries.
“He was an unlikely candidate for such success,” according to its Franco-Swedish translator Anna Gibson.
Pierre Demarty, publisher of foreign literature who bought the rights for Éditions du Seuil, describes “an unexpected mix, around a perfectly mysterious subject: this little-known animal. It opens up to considerations far from this starting point. And the story works, with great harmony ”.
The author was in his forties, in 2017, when he embarked on this first book, which had matured for a long time in him. He devoted less than six months to it, which is very little for a book that sweeps over 23 centuries of zoology, from Aristotle to the present day.
“A little dark book”
“The idea comes from my childhood, from those times when I was fishing with my father, at night […] I have kept this fascination for the eel. And I had the ambition to write a popular science book, which evokes the traditions, the myths “around this animal, he recalls, interviewed by AFP.
“It was also a way of remembering my father” who died of cancer in 2008. “I went fast enough to write most of the book. I disciplined myself, I was passionate about this work ”.
The story does not only speak of this fish which does not have an excellent reputation, and whose life cycle conceals many mysteries: it evokes the relationship between a proletarian father and a son who reaches an intellectual profession.
Patrik Svensson forwards the manuscript to the country’s most prestigious publisher, Albert Bonniers, who is enthusiastic. He works at length with the author to refine the text: “For me it was really a collective work”, he believes.
The book was published in July 2019 and word of mouth started working right away. The crowning achievement comes in November with the August Essay Prize, the highest literary award in Sweden for a book of this type. “I have to admit that it was a surprise. I thought I had written a little obscure, niche book ”.
Patrik Svensson was able to count on the persuasive force of Albert Bonniers, who had it translated into English even before it was published in Swedish, and presented it to his counterparts at the London Book Fair in April 2019.
This is where Pierre Demarty, from Seuil, receives him: “They tell me: ‘I’m sending you this, but it’s not really for you, it’s not a novel. […]”. There was nothing to really hook me on. I found the title odd. I read large extracts, very quickly, and I am taken, harpooned by the subject, by the odd tone of the book ”.
“The moment I knew I would publish it was when it tells of Freud’s beginnings in science, where he dissects hundreds of eels in Trieste,” adds the French publisher. He wins the auction.
Others of his counterparts have told him the same story, now that The gospel of the eels has appeared in 30 countries, from Japanese to Portuguese, including Finnish and Czech. For example, he has the luxury of two translations into English, with two different titles, one for North America, the other for Great Britain.
The magazine Time made it one of his 100 books to read in 2020. The Guardian wrote a lengthy review in May.
“When you write your first book, you can’t imagine that. It remains a book about my father, an ordinary man, with a peaceful family life, who never thought that a book would be written about him, ”says Patrik Svensson.
Anna Gibson, the translator, is also surprised that a “very Swedish” book speaks to so many readers. “It also tells a part of the history of Sweden, this social journey of a child of proletarians, with a marvelous art of expressing a contained emotion. And this fluidity, this naturalness, was not easy to restore ”.