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Agent Provocateur 

Tosh Berman gets under the French skin

Thursday, Jun 2 2005
There are hundreds of niche markets in the publishing world, and Tosh Berman’s TamTam Books has surely cornered one of them. Describing TamTam’s terrain is challenging: Obscure French fiction? Writings by French cult figures? French writers who are heavily involved with music? TamTam’s stable of writers — which includes Guy Debord, Serge Gainsbourg and Boris Vian — are all that and more.

“The authors I publish are provocateurs,” says Berman of TamTam, an independent L.A. press that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. “French culture is class conscious and conservative, and these authors stick little needles in that structure. The U.S. doesn’t have comparable figures because America is constantly reinventing itself, and money speaks for everything here; no matter where you’re from, if you have money you have access to whatever you want. In Europe being from a good family still counts for something, so these are two vastly different societies. There are bridges that connect American and European culture, however, and I’m interested in those places where cultures intermingle.”

A quick glance at Berman’s biography fails to explain how he arrived at this particular obsession. Born in L.A., in 1954, Berman is the only child of artist Wallace Berman and his wife, Shirley; as such, he was raised in a culturally rich milieu filled with avant-garde literature, music and art. After graduating from Taft High School in 1973, Berman enrolled in beauty school but quickly discovered he didn’t belong there. “They threw me out after a few months because I was terrible,” he recalls with a laugh. “I got everyone wet whenever I gave a shampoo.”

He spent the next few years taking film and writing classes at Pierce Junior College and LACC, then his schooling came to an abrupt halt when Wallace Berman was killed by a drunk driver in 1976. “Everything changed when my father died,” he recalls. “Suddenly I was responsible for dealing with his estate, and that took over my life for the next few years.”

After the dust surrounding his father’s death had settled, Berman got a job at a record store, became involved in the punk scene and pondered his next move. In 1986, at the suggestion of KCRW music programmer Gary Calamar, Berman launched the cable-TV show Tea With Tosh, a mock talk show that ran for two years and featured an eclectic roster of guests that ranged from Philip Glass and Peter Case to Phranc and Bruce Conner.

In 1987 Berman approached literary center Beyond Baroque about programming a film series there, and that project consumed much of his energy for the following year. “At the time nobody was screening silent movies from Europe and Japan, which is mostly what I showed,” Berman says. The film series was so successful that Berman was made director at the center, where he stayed for three years. “My interest in publishing deepened while I was at Beyond Baroque because I was seeing lots of zines and small-press publications. Zine culture was the most interesting aspect of the literary world in the late ’80s, but I wanted to do something more elegant.”

Precisely what that would be began to take shape in 1988 when Berman met and married artist Lun*na Menoh. “Lun*na introduced me to many different worlds, and Japan was one of them,” he says. “We lived there for a year, and during that time I discovered Boris Vian. I was writing short stories at the time, and Lun*na said one of them reminded her of Vian.

“Vian is famous almost everywhere in the world outside of the U.S. and his books are easy to find in Japan,” Berman adds. “The first Vian book I read was I Spit on Your Graves, which was the scandalous work that launched his career. Vian was obsessed with American black culture, specifically black jazz culture, and the book is a sort of potboiler that deals with issues of race. Vian published it using the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, who was supposedly a black American author unable to get this work published in America because it was too racy.

“In the years following the Occupation,” Berman explains, “the French government was touchy about American culture coming to France — they wanted to preserve their own culture — so they went after the book on the grounds that it was pornographic. Because of the controversy the book became a best-seller; then, a prostitute was found murdered next to a copy of the book with all the violent passages underlined. Vian finally had to confess he’d written it, and he wound up paying a considerable fine. Reading I Spit on Your Graves — a book set in America written by someone who’d never been there — was the impetus for TamTam.”



So where does one begin the task of launching a publishing house? Berman bought a book on how to publish books. “My role models were Olympia Press, early Grove, Evergreen — the classic presses that did a lot of European literature during the ’60s, which was an amazing time for publishing,” Berman explains. After three years of study and scratching capital together — TamTam is largely financed with earnings from Berman’s job at Book Soup — he inaugurated his imprint in 1998 with the publication of Serge Gainsbourg’s novel Evguénie Sokolov and Vian’s I Spit on Your Graves.

Vian, who was born in 1920 into a wealthy French family that lost its fortune during the Depression, had a congenital heart defect and was told he wouldn’t live past 40. He certainly shouldn’t have taken up the trumpet, which was a passion from an early age, as was his interest in science fiction and American crime novels. Vian translated works by Raymond Chandler and James Cain into French, and he was also a publisher. He did most of his writing during the ’40s, then devoted himself completely to music beginning in the early ’50s, when his health began to decline. He died in 1959. In all he had produced two plays and seven novels — four as Vian and three as Sullivan. Berman hopes to republish as many of them as possible. “America is the one blind spot when it comes to his work,” he says, “and my job is to change that.”

Each TamTam book takes about three years to do and costs a minimum of $10,000, Berman says. “The print runs range from 3,000 to 5,000 copies, and [designer] Tom Recchion does all the covers. They’ve been extremely helpful in terms of sales, too, because Tom really nails the books down visually.”

Berman published Vian’s Autumn in Peking in January and is currently working on a collection of lyrics by Gainsbourg that will be published in French and English. “It will be a very subjective selection of approximately 100 of his songs,” Berman explains. “The hits will be included, but there will be lots of obscurities too.”

Looking to the future, Berman says that he’d eventually “like to have a branch of TamTam devoted to Japanese writers from the early 20th century. One I hope to investigate is Edagawa Rampo, who was a crime writer who worked in the early ’20s. During the ’20s there was an interesting subculture in Tokyo that embraced decadent Western pop culture; Rampo is one of a handful of writers who explored the tension between old Japanese tradition and Western pop decadence. That’s another of those huge cultural gaps that intrigue me.”


Berman, translator Paul Knobloch and designer Tom Recchion will sign Autumn in Peking at Vroman’s on Saturday, June 25, at 7 p.m.

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