A Parisian bookstore

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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

  1. October 13, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    The romance between Ivan and Anis annoyed the hell out of me. I too cringed at the idea of people deciding just which were the best books ever, but after the committee was created, I mellowed a bit. Then became more annoyed at some of the names. Well these things happen when people start drawing up lists.

    I got the name “Christian Gailly” (just one of many) from the list of best-books-ever. I’d never heard the name before, but the novels sound promising.

    I liked how you did a bit of sleuthing on real bookshelves.

    BTW, there’s a wonderful silent version of Au Bonheur des Dames if you’re interested.

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    • October 13, 2010 at 9:17 pm

      Hi, thanks for reading this.

      Which names annoyed you ? There weren’t many Anglophone writers.

      I had never heard of Christian Gailly either. He is published by Les Editions de Minuit “specialized” in publishing “experimental literature”. They publish Duras, Becket, Nathalie Sarraute, Butor, Marie Ndiaye, Robe-Grillet. So I’m not sure I’ll like him. I’ll be interested in your review.
      Since I intend to publish the list of books/authors, I’m doing some research about the writers. Echenoz, Volodine, Gailly, Oster, Chevillard, Deville, Laurrent are all published by Les Editions de Minuit.
      With an exception for the foreign novels, I tend to think Laurence Cossé has a thing for experimental, difficult writers who are tempted by painful subjects (death, illness, despair, ageing…) I’m surprised Angot was not quoted. I expected more dead writers, actually. It left me with the impression that she was pushing some friends.

      Do you mind answering some questions about the translation ?

      PS : I honestly don’t know where I could find the silent version of Au Bonheur des Dames.

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  2. October 14, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Cormac McCarthy leaps to mind. I know this author is popular but they decided to stock ALL the novels.
    And where was my beloved Simenon?
    Ask away…

    I’ve read a few Echenoz and rather liked them. One title I wasn’t so keen on. Kevin from Canada is a fan.

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  3. October 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

    You have written a very useful review here and you seem to share some of my opinions on the book but it is very helpful to read the views of a French reader on this book. Yes, it is flawed in the detail, but overall I think its worth reading. Thanks for the link. Reading is a very personal thing and your review shows the diversity of tastes very well

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    • October 14, 2010 at 7:40 am

      I find is hard to cover a book after an Anglophone reviewed it because it clearly shows how limited my language is. I’m currently reading “Skylark” which has already been beautifully reviewed by Guy and Max and I really wonder if I can write anything about it after that. I seems the better justice I can give to this book is a two lines post and appropriate links to their reviews.
      Anyway, as far as Au Bon Roman is concerned, and since most of the people who read my blog are Anglophones, I chose to shed light on things only a French could tell. I’m glad you liked it.

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  4. October 14, 2010 at 7:28 am

    Echenoz is one I may read one of these days.
    I purchased “Roman avec cocaïne” by M Aguéev but I’m not sure it has been translated in English. It is published by 10/18, a publisher I really like. They cover a lot of crime fiction and foreign literature. Aguéev is compared to Proust on the cover, so I’m interested.
    I also bought “La Grande Beune” by Pierre Michon.

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  5. October 15, 2010 at 11:48 am

    I have some Echenoz at home to try.

    A nice review, I like how you spiral out to cover a broader topic.

    It sounds a little pleased with itself, which would be my reservation. Also, small errors can get in the way (as in Ghostwritten, where the fact Mitchell got the difference between bankers and finance lawyers wrong dented my confidence). A lot of them suggests a lack of care, which doesn’t dissuade from the idea it may be pleased with itself.

    Sam Jordison for a while was blogging all the past Booker winners over at the Guardian. There were some that he’d never heard of, not the book or the author, but that were superb. It is strange how these things pass, but equally even in the poorest bookshops it’s not unusual to find something interesting if one looks around. In large bookshops in the UK a lot of quite obscure literary fiction tends to be on the shelves, among much more popular stuff.

    The UK literary scene is not so different to the French one. Reviews have to be taken carefully, reviewers are often friends, sometimes even spouses or in-laws, or from the same publishing house. It’s at its worst with end of year lists, where everyone boosts each others books under the pretence of reviewing them.

    Anyway, scattered thoughts from me but a nice piece from you. Thanks.

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    • October 15, 2010 at 12:14 pm

      The lack of care is what irritated me because these details could have been easily checked. I’m not discussing some obscure detail only known by 10 specialists in the world.

      Something else “In large bookshops in the UK a lot of quite obscure literary fiction tends to be on the shelves, among much more popular stuff.” That’s what bothers me in the idea of Au Bon Roman. You don’t let the chance for people who read popular stuff to come around and have a skilled bookseller propose something else to them.

      Although I love reading and literature in general, I’m not at all interested in all the fuss made around prizes lists and so on. I often hear radio programs about literature and I don’t remember buying a book after listening one of them. I still listen to them because they give me a background which helps me chosing books in bookstores afterwards. Perhaps it’s also because I’m coming from a lower social class than all these reviewers. They seem far from “real life” in their little intellectual world.

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  6. January 15, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I’m not sure I would like this book but I liked your review and your thoughts on what is a good book… Guess the German market is totally different from the French one. I heard from quite a few French authors that they paid for their first publication and that you need to know this person and that person. Mafia. I worked for one of the biggest editors in Germany so I got quite a good view into the process… Interesting review but as said, the book seems to have quite a few annoying elements and isn’t always realistic.

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    • January 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      You worked for a publisher ? How interesting! How is the German market different from the French one? (Besides the translations of translations we talked about a while ago)
      I didn’t use the word ‘mafia’ for the French literary world but I had it in mind.

      PS : Do you have 9 lives like cats? Because if you only have one like me, you make me think I’m not making the best of it.

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  7. January 16, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    No worries, I had many consecutive lives… and parallel lives. It is true, I have done a lot of things. I’m at a boring intersection at the moment (since 4 years) though… Hopefully not forever.
    I had a feeling the German market wasn’t as deadly serious if that makes sense. I worked for one of the huge editors so obviously money was important. What can be sold, what will be bought. I turned down Houellebecq’s Les particlues élémentaires. I had to read foreign language books (basically French, Spanish, Italian) and give advice if they should/could be translated. It was exciting but always forced reading. Then they closed down the Swiss branch and I didn’t feel like going to Frankfurt… I thought that the German market was one of the biggest. They buy huge amounts of books. Often English books will be published in the German translation before the English is out. Could go on…

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