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A Parisian bookstore

October 13, 2010 11 comments

Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé. Translated as A Novel Bookstore.

I discovered Au Bon Roman by reading Guy’s review on his blog His Futile Preoccupations. It is a book about literature and for literature addicts. The plot is simple: two literature lovers, Francesca and Ivan, decide to open a unique book store in which they would only sell “good” novels. Francesca has the money and Ivan is an experienced bookseller. They select eight writers and ask them to give a list of the 600 best books they’ve read. By compiling the eight lists, Francesca and Ivan determine the books they need to buy to start their business. The eight members of the committee work anonymously and do not know each other. Of course, such a project arouses passionate reactions, enthusiasm and rejection. The construction of the novel is classic: after two members of the committee are assaulted, Ivan and Francesca go to the police. Their telling the story of the shop is a way to relate the genesis of the project and events until the attacks. I won’t reveal more about the plot.

Au Bon Roman is more than a French novel, it is a Parisian novel. The name of the shop sounds like Au Bonheur des Dames, a famous novel by Zola, which takes place in a department store. This literary reference is – I believe – absent from the English title, as well as the notion of “good”, by the way. Moreover, the title starting by “Au” like this links the store to the tradition of Parisian retail stores and restaurants. For example, see this a picture of a café in Paris “Au Père Tranquille”.

The reactions to the book store imagined by Laurence Cossé are typical from the French intellectual small world. It is really plausible. The names of newspapers are disguised but easy to recognize: Le Bigaro for Le Figaro,  Le Ponte for Le Monde – “ponte” means “expert” in a pompous word with a background of bourgeois satisfaction. I wonder how the translator dealt with the critic names such as Lancre (TheInk) or Bonlarron (Goodfellow) and if the names were translated as well.

 Au Bon Roman is not flawless. I noted several inconsistencies or mistakes which bothered me, even if they are not vital. They just show Laurence Cossé’s ignorance of business laws and customs. For example, you cannot know who owns a company by looking at an “extrait KBIS” – The ID card of a company obtained through its registration number. Unless editing obtained a special authorization from Brussels, a 90 days term of payment is illegal in the EU. French people usually pay by credit card or checks, 80% of payments in cash at Au Bon Roman is unlikely. And there is no way you can turn a hairdresser into a book store over a night or two, the administrative authorizations needed would take at least 6 months, especially in a city with historical monuments like Paris. Moreover, Ivan can’t be a 1981 IUFM alumnus since this diploma for school teachers was created in 1989. These are not major slips but they irritated me, Laurence Cossé could have checked. I also thought the love triangle was a clumsy mixing of genres, I was not convinced by the relationship between Ivan and Anis, nor by Francesca’s burning inclination for him.

However, Au Bon Roman had me thinking about the concept of such a store. I was uncomfortable with the idea of someone else’s deciding for me which novels are good. Who can determine what is to be read? There is a kind of disturbing highbrow censorship in the idea. Plus, I’ve just read Fahrenheit 451 and anything about imposing what I should or should not read rings the bell of dictatorial behaviours. I really don’t like when someone tries to teach me what to think, be it openly or through pushy marketing. However, if Au Bon Roman existed, I would still be free to go in another bookstore. So after all, why not such a shop?

 At a moment, Francesca or Ivan points out that Au Bon Roman would not be different from other specialized bookstores, such as the ones only selling science-fiction. Except that “good” is not a genre; it’s a judgement. My first move would be to ask “Define good”. 

Generally speaking, I tend to be terribly suspicious about books praised in the media. In France, writers, journalists, publishers and literary prize members have incestuous relationships. Some writers are in the jury of literary prizes. Some journalists write books. Some writers are publishers. They all stick together, I doubt they are objective. Even if we turn down the idea that they shall push books from friends and colleagues, they all live in the same environment. Doesn’t that influence their judgement? Don’t they all have the same definition of “good” which prevents them from noticing a new talent?

 When I say “This is a good book”, do I mean it has literary qualities or that I liked it? Some books are good but I don’t like them, because despite all their literary worth, they don’t speak to me. Some books I like are not good, they are entertaining and that’s fine with me too. 

The other question raised by this novel is “What’s a good bookstore?” Thanks to Guy’s review, I knew I would find a lot of books and writers references throughout the novel. I listed them thoroughly while reading and will publish the list on my reading lists page. Afterwards, I browsed through the list. I was surprised – and I have to admit sheepishly, it hurt my pride a little – that there were so many French writers I had never heard of. So I decided to carry out a little experiment. Last Saturday, I printed my list and headed to La FNAC (VLAM in Laurence Cossé’s novel) which is the oldest national chain store for books. The idea was to check if the books or writers were on the shelves, to see if I was just ignorant of nowadays French literature or if these books were all like Madame Solario, good unjustly forgotten novels.

I expected to have difficulties in finding these books, since they were supposed to be rare and/or ‘non-mainstream’, but quite the opposite happened. Out of 146 references of books or writers alone, 63 were on the shelves, 54 were not but the writer was present through another of this books. For the remaining 29 ones, neither the book nor the writer was present. Not a bad score for a mass market book store. In addition, Thomas Pynchon – quoted in the novel as opposite to the popular Bernard Clavel – has his last book on the display tables of my supermarket, the temple of mass market.

Things are not as simple as they appear.

Thinking about it, where you live is the key point. I live near a big city, within an easy distance of a well stocked bookstore. There are enough of finicky readers to impose a wider breadth of titles. If I lived in a smaller town, I’d order more books online and be frustrated. Shopping online doesn’t have the same charm as slowly walking in a book store, bending my head to read titles and browsing through novels. 

It turns out from my little escapade that I’m ignorant of today’s French literature. I have to admit I purposely don’t read new French books. Any time I’ve tried, I was disappointed by self-centred whimpering narrators or bleak stories. For example, Annie Ernaux is listed by Laurence Cossé. I knew her by name and looked for her on Wikipedia. She wrote books about her abortion, Alzheimer’s disease, the death of her mother and breast cancer. A cheerful woman. There’s an article about Antoine Volodine in Télérama this week. He’s also listed in Au Bon Roman. Here is what the journalist writes about Volodine’s books “The recurring landscape in which Volodine walks is a ruined world, devastated by a martial apocalypse – hysterical intolerance strikes, exterminations and massacres.” Another cheerful guy. That’s exactly the kind of books I don’t want to read. That’s why I read Jim Harrison or Douglas Coupland and not Annie Ernaux, Antoine Volodine or Cormac McCarthy. Their books may have literary qualities but they don’t appeal to me.

Are they good? Past experience with Van Gogh’s paintings and Dumas’s books show us that people of a time are not always the best to judge the talent of their contemporaries. Let time separate the wheat from the chaff. My reading time is limited, I’d rather discover foreign classic books than read average present French literature.

PS : Tom, from A Common Reader also reviewed this book. Find it here

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