This weekend, it’s the Salon du Livre in Paris. I’m not going and I have mixed up feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m dying to go because, wow, lots of books and writers and all. Isn’t that a book blogger’s paradise? On the other hand, the idea of this salon at the Parc des Expositions, a huge venue where they also organize the Salon de l’Automobile and the Salon de l’Agriculture doesn’t suit me. Too much noise, not cozy enough, lots of people. It doesn’t go well with my idea of books and reading. Literature is not suited for a trade fair atmosphere. Yet, it’s a great opportunity to hear about books, literature and reading at the same time, so it’s worth it. Mixed feelings, as I said.
Since there’s this huge book fest, the CNL (Centre National du Livre) ordered and published a survey about books and French people. The aim is to know how many books the French read, which books they favor, where they buy their books, where they read them and what’s their attitude towards books and reading in general. You can find the whole survey here.
I just want to share some results with you because I’m always curious about how books are doing. The survey considers that anything that has pages is a book, except if it’s a magazine. So, this survey includes comics, all genres of non-fiction books (travel guides, books about hobbies, self-help books…), children books and dictionaries. The questions were asked to 1000 people, representative of the French population. Knowing that, 84% of the French consider themselves as readers and 24% as heavy readers. But 91% have read or browsed through (for dictionaries) at least one book in the last 12 months.
In average, the genres the most read are novels (and especially crime fiction), non-fiction books and comics or mangas.
96% of these readers read during their free time and not for work. 49% read every day, at home (95%) or outside, especially while traveling (61%), while commuting (26%) or in other public places. (28%) 42% read before going to bed, 36% have no preferred time. I was surprised that only 10% read during the holidays. I often hear people around me say that they only read during the holidays because they have the time to do it.
The number of books read yearly is interesting. 9% read nothing, 22% read from 1 to 4 books, 41% read from 5 to 19 books and 28% read more than 20 books per year. This survey was also done in 2015. Contrary to what I would have assumed, the number of books read goes from an average of 16 books per reader in 2015 to 20 in 2017. People read more! Paper books still have a big place in the readers’ hands. Their average number per reader increased, going from 14 books in 2015 to 17 books in 2017. And heavy readers increased their number of paper books read from 42 to 52. +10 books in two years, well done! Ebooks only progress by 1 unit in average. They’re not likely to replace paper books anytime soon.
People get their books from different sources: 80% have purchased new books, 77% have received at least one as a gift, 34% bought used books and 32% went to a library. Honestly, I expected the library score to be higher than that. Books are mostly purchased in “cultural stores” (79%), general book stores (65%), on the internet (45%), supermarkets (42%), books stores (27%), second hand book shops & charity shops (55%), fairs and salons (20%). Clearly, people buy books through different distribution channels.
30% of readers never buy their books in bookstores. For 52% of them, it’s because they don’t have an independent book store near their home, 32% think books are more expensive in these little shops and 29% because their local bookstore doesn’t have the book they want in stock. Since the law implementing a unique price for books was voted in 1981, I’m surprised there are still so many people who don’t know that a book will not be cheaper at the supermarket. Apparently, independent bookstores have an ad campaign to organize or signs to put in their shop window.
I find it curious that 82% of readers have chosen the book they were going to buy before going to their store. Books are chosen according to the writer (86%), to the recommendation of a friend or relative (86%) or a literary critic (61%).
77% of them sometimes choose the book in the shop. 97% choose a book because of its topic, 89% after reading the blurb and 79% because they know the writer. I’m surprised that book covers don’t play a more significant role in the book buying decision. After all, the cover is what catches the eye on a display table.
45% of French readers borrow books in libraries. 70% of readers never borrow books from libraries because they’d rather own the books they read (70%) or because the library doesn’t have the book they want (34%) or because they can’t borrow it long enough. Personally, I never borrow books in the library mostly because I can’t manage the deadlines and the need to visit the library in my heavy work schedule.
The survey also asked the interviewees why reading matters. It matters because it brings pleasure (91%), it helps learn new things (95%), it contributes to one’s happiness and life fulfilment (68%) and 65% agree that it boosts their professional life. There’s a strong consensus on the benefits of reading to improve one’s mind (99%), be more openminded (97%), have a good time (97%), escape every day’s life (95%), unwind (96%), pass the time (86%), forget your worries (80%), have a better understanding of the world (85%), share ideas with other readers (75%) and understand oneself better (68%). Wow.
This seems very positive for books but it’s not as positive for literature. This survey is about all kind of books and the genre the most read are “how-to” books. (cooking, gardening, travel guides…) General literature is not among the top reads of the readers. Crime fiction comes first and novels only make the Top 5 of reads for people older than 35. Only the 15/24-year-old have classics in their Top Five, most likely because these books were imposed in school.
Books remain a frequent gift, 85% of the French declare that they buy books for gifts. They choose to give books for the pleasure of it (68%), to share a book they loved (37%), to pass on knowledge (30%) or to make a writer or a topic known (24%) and 19% pick a book because it’s a gift at a reasonable price.
People read less than before or less than they’d like to because they lack time (71%). The Top 5 of activities that the French do on their free time are listening to music (87%), watch TV (83%), go out with friends (81%), read magazines or newspapers (79%) and be on social networks (79%)
63% of the interviewees would like to read more but don’t have enough time. So, guys, here’s my secret: just turn off the TV or the computer once or twice per week and you’ll see how much reading time you’ll gain. For 23%, reading reviews on websites and for 18%, discussing books on social media push them to read more. Fellow book bloggers, we seem to have a role to play here even if for 55% of them, the trigger to read more is discussing books with friends or relatives.
Another very interesting question was: “If you had one more day off per week, what would you do?” 31% would go out with friends, 14% would read and 13% would do a cultural outing. This sounds like New Year good resolutions but I’m pretty sure that if everyone had an additional day-off, it would mean more TV, more social media and not so much more reading or visits to the museum.
That’s all, folks. I hope I didn’t bore you with all these numbers but I found this survey fascinating, surprising and I wanted to share it with fellow book lovers.
Next weekend I’ll go to Quais du Polar, our crime fiction fest in Lyon. Even if you can’t be with us at this incredible celebration of crime fiction books, you can visit their website and replay the conferences.
Kim at Reading Matters has a weekly rendezvous with another book blogger and guess what? This week, it’s me!
In this billet Kim asks a fellow blogger about three books that are special to them. If you want to discover mine, click here!
Thanks Kim, I’m honoured to be part of the Triple Choice Tuesday bloggers.
Reading Bingo is back, according to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. The game is easy : for each square you need to find a corresponding book among this year’s reads. I don’t have much time to do that, to be honest, but I find it fun. It’s also a way to remind you of billets you might have missed about books you might enjoy. I don’t read much compared to other book bloggers but apparently my reading tastes are eclectic because I managed to find a book for almost all the squares. Ready? Let’s play.
To be honest, I don’t read a lot of long books. I don’t have enough reading time and the book stays a long time on my night stand. It took me several weeks to read I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki because I was too tired at night and because my paper copy is in really small print, not eye-friendly after a long day in front of a computer. It was worth the effort, though. I haven’t written my billet about it yet but it’s coming soon. In this Japanese book from 1905, Soseki uses a cat as a narrator. It is a first person narrative and the cat describes his master’s life with a lot of candor and a lot of irony. It was full of comical moments and I was fascinated by the description of life in Japan at the time. It is also amazing to see how Soseki imagined what it is to be a cat.
For this square I choose The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras. Set Indochina in the 1920s, it is based upon the author’s family story. Through the fate of a mother and her two grow-up children, Duras describes the life of poor white people in Indochina. She explains the workings of the colonial administration and how it steals from settlers and lies to them. It also show how a young woman can be tempted to get married just to provide for herself and her family. It is a theme that Duras will also explore later in her famous novel The Lover.
A Book That Became a Movie
Zulu by Caryl Férey is a French crime fiction novel that has been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film and I don’t intend to. It is an excellent crime novel set in South Africa. It was very violent in its descriptions of war between gangs and the use of torture. It was difficult to read and I can’t imagine watching it on screen and that’s why I won’t look for the film. The novel is excellent though, with lots of insight about life and culture in South Africa. The author is French and he researched a lot of information before writing his book.
I usually don’t read books that just come out. I don’t have time for review copies and I tend to wait for the paperback edition of books. This year for the Rentrée Littéraire, I asked a libraire which book he’d pick among the ones that went out in September. He picked Le garçon by Marcus Malte. It’s a French book, so it’s not available in English for now. I guess it will be translated because it won the prestigious Prix Femina. It is the odyssey of a boy from 1908 to 1938 through France, life, war and love… And he doesn’t speak. It’s epic, poetic, well-written and totally unusual. Keep it in mind for when it comes out in English. In France it is published by Zulma and their stylish covers.
I actually read two books with a number in the title and I pick 1974 by David Peace. This was a disquieting and dark book. Peace’s description of Yorkshire in 1974 is not good for tourism. At all. It is about a journalist who investigates the murder of a little girl and finds himself in the cross-fire of corruption and collusion between politicians, journalists and the police. No one is likeable, no one is totally clean and our poor journalist gets into something too big for him to handle with no real chance to escape from it. Powerful but it makes you queasy.
Early this year, I read Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne by John Keats. It is Keats’ correspondence to his lover Fanny. It was an opportunity for me to discover Keats. I read a bit about him, I saw a bit of the lover through his letter and it led me to read his poetry. I bought an bilingual edition of a collection of his poems: the original on the left page and a French translation on the right page. It helps but even if my English is good enough to read novels, I will never be able to grasp the full beauty of English poems.
I could have chosen I Am a Cat for this square but instead, I want to draw your attention to The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. He’s a French Canadian writer and in this first volume of the Plateau Montréal chronicles, one of the characters is a cat. In this wonderful little novel Tremblay takes us around a popular neighbourhood in Montreal. We go from one character to the other, seeing them in their everyday activities, hearing their thoughts, watching their interactions with their family, friends and neighbours. It is a fantastic read. I have already bought the second volume.
I love funny books, it’s one of the great pleasure of reading. Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao is the story of a hitman who grows a conscience and finds a new interest in architecture. He’s getting tired of killing on demand and wants to be left alone to pursue his research in Georgian architecture. The more he wants out, the more botched his jobs become until his employers starts to notice. We follow him on the streets of Paris, London, New York and Barcelona and it’s hilarious.
This book might be OOP in English. I bought it in Budapest in a Hungarian edition. I usually don’t read books in Englis translations but I have a soft spot for Hungarian literature and this one was not available in French. And it was by a female writer of the turning of the 20th century. So Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka is my pick for this square. I didn’t like it as much as I expected, mostly because the main character irritated me. It is still a fascinating picture of Hungary before WWI.
I read a bit of crime fiction and I recently had a great time with A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny. It is an upcoming billet, so I won’t say more about it. I had liked Still Life a lot and this one confirms that it is a series I will follow. I was back in Three Pines, a lovely village of the Eastern Townships in Québec and I was happy to be back despite the terrible murder that happened there. It is still a delight to read Penny’s prose laced with French words to remind you than Anglophones and Francophones coexist in Québec.
I wasn’t sure to have a book for that square but I did! Javotte by Simon Boulerice is a coming-of-age story of a French Canadian teenager. Javotte lost her father in a car accident and doesn’t get along well with her mother and sister. She’s a quirky teen and she has her own way to deal with the cards she has in hands and to cope. It’s not the novel of the century but it’s entertaining. Simon Boulerice is kind with his character and the reader is on Javotte’s side as well.
A Book of Short Stories
I’ve read several this year and my favourite one is The Wine-Dark Sea by Leornardo Sciascia or Sicily from 1957 to 1972. It takes you to this island and its various facettes: its history, its values, its family traditions, its respect for religion, the influence of the mafia, its tighs to immigrants in the USA.
My Free Square is for the Charlie Hardie trilogy by Duane Swierczynski. It’s fast-paced, funny, suspenseful and totally crazy. It’s crime fiction and A LOT of fun. Plus the covers are gorgeous. Isn’t it a great idea for Christmas?
A Book Set on a Different Continent
With Castro’s death, let’s go to Cuba with Daniel Chavarria and his Tango For a Torturer. This is a dark story of revenge loosely based upon The Count of Monte Cristo. Aldo Bianchi is in Cuba for business and pleasure when he realises that the man who tortured him in Argentina during the dictatorship is hiding on the island. He sets a plan in motion to get his revenge. A fantastic novel by Chavarria who manages to sew a great plot and give educational insight on dictatorships in South America. I love this kind of books.
I’m not good with reading non-fiction and this is why I love books like Tango for a Torturer. I learn things but it’s still fiction. I was intrigued by The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. It is a exerpt of Claudel’s correspondance to his minister in France when he was ambassador in Washington from 1927 to 1932. These letters are only about the economic situation of the time. It was fascinating to see how modern the concerns were and how history repeats itself.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
Sorry. Nothing here. But if you want to read Romain Gary’s first book, it’s entitled Education européenne. 🙂
Lots of my reading year could fit in this category as fellow book bloggers are a great source of reading ideas. I’ll choose Three Horses by Erri De Luca. It’s a novella by an Italian writer about an Italian man who’s back in Italy after spending years in Argentina. He was a victim of the violent dictatorship there. It’s a book full of humanity and very reflective. The style is beautiful as well, a short book that makes you want to go to Italy too. I have another of his books on the shelf now.
A Best-selling Book
I don’t read best-selling books. It’s not by principle, it usually happens because the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. So instead of sharing a best-selling book, I want to share a book that deserves to be a best-selling book: The Hands: An Australian pastoral by Stephen Orr. It is the story of a family on an isolated ranch in Australia. Orr describes beautfully the hard life of these ranchers but also their culture. Their parents or grand-parents settled there and work hard, their heir feel indebted to their hard work and not losing the farm is the ultimate goal and worth great sacrifices. Orr created complex and plausible characters. I wanted to know what would become of them.
A Book Based on a True Story
My billet about Don’t Be Afraid If I Hug You by Fulvio Ervas didn’t get a lot of response from readers. It is the story of an Italian father and his autistic son Andrea who go on a road trip. The first part of their journey is from Florida to Los Angeles. Then they go to South America. It was interesting to read about the places they went but also to read about Andrea. It is the story of the love of a father for his son but without angelism. Life with Andrea is tough sometimes.
A Book at the Bottom of you To Be Read Pile
My bilingual edition of The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling says “Noël 1989”. It’d been on the TBR since 1989, I think it wins the title of the oldest book of the TBR. I had to read it twice to enjoy it but I found it better than I expected. And Kipling surprised me.
A Book Your Friend Loves
Hey Guy, I think Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan fits this category. I know you’ve read it several times with delight. I was in stitches when I read this. Shane, the main character in Neilan’s novel is in jail for murder. We go back to the beginning of the story that led him there. The passages where Shane works as a temp in a insurance company are hilarious. Neilan nails the corporate world in a way that only Max Barry surpasses.
A Book That Scares You
I don’t read scary books. However, Zulu by Caryl Ferey and 1974 by David Peace scare me for their dark vision of our societies.
A Book That Is More Than Ten Years Old
I was blown away by Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. I’ve never read anything like this about alcoholism and the description of how addictive alcohol can be. It is the story of two lost sould who find comfort in each other for a while. It is the idea that two sadnesses can help each other even if they can’t save each other. When a prostitute meets an alcoholic in the articial paradise that is Las Vegas, you need a talented writer not to make it sordid. And O’Brien succeeds. Recommended.
The Second Book in a Series
Death Without Company by Craig Johnson is the second Walt Longmire book about this sheriff in Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming. I enjoy Johnson’s style and his set of character. He lives in Wyoming himself and you can feel it in the descriptions of the landscapes and of the climate. This is someone who’s experienced the cold winters he describes. There’s also a lot about the culture of the native Americans of the region. The plot is well done and again, it’s educational.
A Book With a Blue Cover
A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq has the bluest cover. I didn’t like the book much but it fits the bill of A Book with a Blue Cover!
That’s all for my Reading Bingo. I had a lot of fun finding a book for almost each square. I hope you enjoyed playing with me. Have you read any of these books? Which one would tempt you?
PS: I hope the layout is OK on your side. It is on mine but I really had trouble for WP this time.
Petit éloge de la lecture by Pef. (2016)
I’ve been overworked for a few weeks and I also had a lot of family activities going on. Consequences: I’m behind with my writing about the books I read and I have a huge pile of unread reviews in my mail box.
This morning I decided to write a global billet about Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Just for the sake of catching up with billets and decrease the TBW pile. Then I started to read the quotes I had captured while reading Eddie’s World and found out I couldn’t settle for a hodge-podge of a billet just to tackle the TBW pile. I owe nothing to the writers of these three books, two of them are dead anyway and I doubt that my billet will bring anything to Charlie Stella’s life or book sales. Still. I owe it to the books and the pleasure I had reading them.
This brings me to another little book I picked: Petit éloge de la lecture by Pef. The title means Little praise for reading and here’s Pef about readers:
|Victor Hugo se dit « les pieds sur terre et les yeux ailleurs ». Les lecteurs, qu’ils soient debout, assis, recroquevillés ou allongés sont les purs colocataires de cette phrase.||Victor Hugo said of himself that he had « his feet on earth and his eyes elsewhere ». Readers are the real roommates of this sentence whatever their reading position. Standing, sitting, curled up or lying down.|
Pef is a writer of children books. His most famous collection is the one featuring Le Prince de Motordu. (The Prince of Twistedwords) and his adventures start in La belle lisse poire du Prince de Motordu, which can be translated as The beautiful furry tail of the Prince of Twistedwords. This needs to be read out loud and many thanks to Tony from Tony’s Reading List for understanding French perfectly and finding an English equivalent to Pef’s play-on-words. Pef loves playing with the French language and his prose is bubbly and classic at the same time. The quote above wasn’t easy to translate as it manages to encompass several difficulties between the French and the English language: body positions, the locution qu’ils soient, and the string of adjectives. So for once, the English text is longer that the French. Any alternative translation is welcome in the comments, I really struggled with it.
Back to Pef and his praise of reading. I started this with enthusiasm because I always enjoy reading about someone else’s delight with books. His is a collection of memories about reading moments. He pictures memories brought by books, memories of where you were when you read this particular book but also memories of the books themselves. We are inhabited by the characters we met through our reading. This is why recurring characters from crime fiction series seem like distant relatives to me or why I see Charles Bovary in Carl Joseph von Trotta. Pef’s book is 100 pages long and its 26 short chapters show different reading occasions and materials. Train carriages, holidays, school. Postcards, novels, comics. It is full of joyful descriptions in a gourmet style. He conjures up his favorite writers and reveals the breath of his reading and the depth of his addiction. Like most crazy-in-love-with-books readers, he’d read the phone book if it were the last book on earth, just to keep on reading.
Despite all this enthusiasm, I didn’t enjoy his book that much overall. Or perhaps I was too tired to enjoy it. I found it a bit old-fashioned. Pef was born in 1939 and you can feel his age in his pages because his reading memories relate to realities that don’t exist anymore. I would have preferred a praise by a younger writer, one who still has reading for passion despite video games, films, You Tube time, cell phones and all other distractions offered nowadays. Someone who backs up Pef’s statement:
|Nous sommes tous venus au monde pour profiter de cette chance fabuleuse qu’est la lecture, magique, énigmatique dans sa découverte puis dans son apprentissage.||We all came to the world to make the most of this amazing opportunity that is reading. It is magic, enigmatic in its discovery and its learning process.|
And this is why I want to cheer on a decision the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) recently made. It has considered that libraries should be allowed to lend ebooks the way they lend paper books. It’s not an easy question from a technical point of view but it tends to treat ebooks the same way as paper books. Publishers are not in favor of this decision and the debate is not over.
This is in contradiction with another of the CJEU’s decision on VAT. In almost all EU countries, books benefit from a reduced VAT rate. It is 5.5% in France, compared to a 20% regular rate, so it makes a difference for book buyers. There’s a legal debate over ebooks: can they benefit from the reduced VAT rate or not? France has decided that the substance was more important than the form and applies a reduced VAT rate to ebooks. But according to a statement made in September 2016, the CJEU doesn’t see it that way. Ebooks are said to be “electronic services” and not books and thus shall bear a regular VAT rate. As far as I know, discussions are still going on in Brussels and I hope that France’s point of view wins in the end because, as Musset once said
|Qu’importe le flacon pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse.||Never mind the bottle, let’s just drink it.|
I know that #BookshopDay was yesterday but I couldn’t visit a bookstore then.
Today I was wandering in the Vieux Lille when I spotted an original independent bookstore, the Librairie Tirloy. In the shop’s windows the books are presented covered with brown paper. On the paper, the libraire has written the first sentence of the book which is undercover. Each book I’d displayed near the picture of its author.
The caption in the frame says “Laissez-vous séduire dès la première phrase…” (“Give yourself [to the book] from the first sentence”)
I think it’s an interesting initiative. The reader is not influenced by the cover but by the actual words of the writer. What do you think of this idea?
In French, Back to School is Rentrée Scolaire. In France, and a bit in Québec too, it is accompanied by Back to Literature, the Rentrée littéraire. It’s as if we readers had to go back to serious reading after gallivanting around the futile paths of Beach & Public Transport books during the summer. Now publishers and literary critic whistle the end of summer break and herd back their reading flock to more serious reading. 560 novels are released for the 2016 Rentrée littéraire. All published now to be on time for the literary prizes granted later in Autumn.
I tend to stay away from all this literary fuss. Which one to choose? How do you wrap your head around this avalanche of new books? There are too many and it becomes a cacophony of literary reviews. As a reader, it makes me dizzy. Some books are everywhere. Strangely, the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. More often, original reviews will catch my attention or I’ll hear writers’ interviews and I get frustrated because I want to read their new book and I know I don’t have time to read everything I’d want to. It’s like putting a great meal in front of a gourmet who’s on a diet. Torture. So I usually let time sort things out and see which books survive the hype. And by then, they’re available in paperback which is better for my wallet.
This year, I tried something different, I went to an independent bookstore, L’Esprit Livre, and asked the libraire a single question: “Among all the books of the Rentrée littéraire, which one would you recommend?” This is how I came to Le garçon by Marcus Malte. A book I’d never heard of by a new-to-me writer. It’s the perfect blind date set up by a true literature lover. You’ll hear about this unusual novel later when I finish it.
I wonder how writers feel about this whole Rentrée littéraire shebang. Sure it’s a time to talk about literature and the literary scene. It brings a lot of attention to books and one can never complain about too much attention to literature. But isn’t it harder for a book or a new novelist to be noticed? Or do they benefit from the signings and all events organized at this time of year? Doesn’t it increase the pressure? I wish I could ask this question –among others—to Marcus Malte. He will be at L’Esprit Livre on October 8th and unfortunately, I’m out of town this day. I would have loved to meet him. He also wrote polars and won the Quais du Polar award in 2008, so I’m also intrigued by his other books.
PS: For newcomers at Book Around The Corner, a Beach & Public Transport book is a book that can be read in a noisy environment. Good Beach & Public Transport books are precious. Entertaining, light and well-written requires a gifted writer.
Last but not least, let’s go through a bit of French book-related vocabulary since I use French words for notions that don’t have an exact equivalent in English.
A polar is a crime fiction book, usually on the dark side. Agatha Christie didn’t write polars, Chandler did.
The English translation of libraire is bookseller. But in French, a libraire is more than a bookseller, he/she’s a book whisperer. It’s someone who’ll share their coup de coeur with you, will recommend you books according to your tastes and will help you discover new writers.
Coup de Coeur: You’ll see them in French bookstores, books have tags coup de coeur du libraire. In English it would become the book whisperer’s crush. It’s usually accompanied by a little word of the libraire who read the book. In a few words, it will tell you why they loved it.
Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao. (2011) Translation tragedy: it’s not available in French.
Calling Mr King is an quirky little book. We are in the mind of an American hit man who is based in Great Britain. He works for an entity called The Firm. When he receives a phone call for Mr King, he knows it’s time to report to the headquarters and take instructions for his next job. When the book opens, he’s back home in London after a rather messed up contract in Paris. He knows he did a poor job and that he probably raised suspicion in his bosses’ head. The truth is: he’s lost his concentration and his magic touch. Do you think he’s actually growing a conscience? Not at all!
I’d been getting a little tired of the steady work, one job after another. No real chance to rest. Here I was traveling from city to city, country to country, and I never had time just to relax and maybe see a few of the sights. That’s the problem with being too good at your job, too talented—you’re always in demand. And it’s hard to say no. It’s not very professional. And it’s also not very wise. You don’t want to be labeled “difficult” or “unreliable” in this business. No, not in this business. It just isn’t healthy. There weren’t too many challenges anymore. I had to admit it. I had gotten so good at my work that the job was becoming somewhat routine, maybe even a little stale. The targets and locations were different but the job was still the same. And things always ended the same way. They had to. I need a bit of a rest, I thought, I have to slow down. I wonder how they’d feel about a brief vacation.
Sounds like the hit man has a little meltdown and I dare say, he’s a little burnt out. He’d like to rest but while he’s enjoying a few R&R days in London, he’s called to another job. This time, the mark is a man who lives in his country house in Derbyshire. The trip out of town leads our hit man to take an interest in Georgian houses, imagining living in one someday. He gets the work done in Derbyshire but he took risks and The Firm sends him back on vacation in New York, before sending him on a delicate job in Barcelona. We follow him in the cities, we get to know him, his present and his past. He speaks about his job as an ordinary occupation.
But the truth is that a man in my profession can experience crummy working conditions too. He can get fed up with bosses just like anybody else. When you come down to it, all of us, in whatever line of business, have to work with or report to some bastard.
Dear God, you’d think he’s about to go on strike. He knows that what he does as a living is weird but he constantly refers to it because it’s been his quotidian for so long. He kills, that’s all he does. He knows that it messes up with his life and his head. Having this time for himself, time to push the “pause” button on his professional life gives him a chance to think about his choice of career. He knows his life is not normal. His profession prevents him from having a normal life and he’s painfully aware of it. (Jesus, I also thought, what memories I have. Other people remember girlfriends and great dates, promotions, terrific vacations, first love, and all that crap. I remember dead bodies in cities around the world.)
This is unsettling especially because the reader grows rather fond of him. We tend to forget that he’s not a regular Joe, that the hit man is ingrained in him. See how he reacts when he learns that his bosses don’t plan on giving him a weapon during his stay in the Big Apple!
I protested. They couldn’t leave me defenseless. I was always on call. You never knew. “All right, all right,” the boss said. “I suppose they’re like condoms with you people. You don’t know if you’ll use them but it’s best to have one or two just in case.” That wasn’t exactly the way I thought of it, but I agreed with the general idea.
In addition to the insight into his mind, it also gives you an idea of De Fao’s funny style. The phone calls he receives tether him to The Firm. A phone cord as an umbilical cord. And now, he’d like to cut it. But how?
We follow our character in London, New York and Barcelona and through his growing angst. He wonders who he really is, after spending years abroad, after years in thisd business.
I knew that I confused people any way I was. I mean, I wasn’t English, but I wasn’t really American anymore either. I think this dawned upon me one day about a year or so ago when I was buying a Tube ticket. In telling the man in the booth my destination, I suddenly realized I was speaking with an English accent.
The confusion the character feels about his identity shows in the random use of British words like bloody, chap, mate…
Our man’s stay in New York City is also an opportunity for him to go back to his hometown, upstate New York. He realizes everything has changed, that nobody knows him anymore and this sorts of erases his existence. He doesn’t have a real existence in London either, as his profession requires that he remains inconspicuous. His visit to his hometown opens the door to memories of his childhood and his family. His father was a sicko who was a gun fanatic, always shooting at targets, still or alive and his mother was obsessed with housework and “was a real churchgoer. And in her handbag she kept a whole collection of cards that had pictures of Jesus and Mary, something like baseball trading cards for the devout.” As he deadpans his parents were Two strange people, one sicker than the other—a woman who wanted everything clean, and a man who wanted everything dead.
Seen from this perspective, no wonder he’s emotionally challenged and he grew up as well as he could. Now he muses, as he sees a dad playing with his son and a kite:
I wondered how I would have turned out had my old man taken me kite flying instead of animal hunting. I wondered if I would have grown up to be a kite flier instead of a professional killer. Yes, I wondered what I would be like today had my father been a kite-flying dad instead of a gun-happy son of a bitch. Then again, I hadn’t followed in his footsteps completely. I knew my guns, of course, but I really wasn’t a mean bastard at heart. Yes, I thought, except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was really a pretty decent sort.
Well, a decent sort who kills in cold blood. His moral compass is still not wired as ours.
Calling Mr King could be renamed The Blues of the Hit Man. Except that it’s much more than that. The other fantastic aspect of this odd book is the character’s dive into architecture and art. When in London, he started to read books about Georgian houses. On leave in New York, he resumes his study and hangs out in bookstores, public libraries and museums. This leads to hilarious moments, like here when he goes to a book shop and an employee comes to talk to him.
It was another one of those knowledgeable clerks I seemed to be attracting lately. Now that I was growing vaguely intellectual, I was becoming a kind of nerd magnet. Christ. Then again, I tried to sympathize. The world had grown so stupid that people with brains were desperate for brainy company.
He discovers the pleasure of studying, of reading, of finding solace in books. He’s supposed to stay put in his hotel but he can’t. And he starts carrying his books around.
I found it dull to stay in my hotel room and read, so I took my books out with me each day. I took them with me the way I took along my gun. You might say the gun and the books were traveling companions.
Books are becoming equal to his gun, which is a pretty important shift in his mind set. He never goes out without his gun, even if it means he has to wear a jacket thick enough to conceal his holster in the smoldering heat of a New York summer. And now, he can’t go out without his books. He reads in parks, in cafés, in restaurants. New practicalities take precedence over his meal choices.
Now that I had become a reader I usually ordered food I could eat with just a fork, leaving my other hand free to hold a book or turn the pages.
Does that ring a bell to you? It definitely does to me. One of the great joys of the kindle: it remains open on the table. His journey towards culture began with an interest in Georgian houses. One read leading to the other, he visits the Met again and again and the reader is privy to his candid thoughts about paintings.
The paintings were more my cup of tea. Some of them, anyway. They certainly had enough, so you were bound to find at least a few things you liked. I wasn’t big on the Italian stuff, the religious pictures in general, with all these saints and angels flying about. They were usually flying about Jesus Christ, who was usually dying, dead, or coming back from the dead. Who in hell ever dreamed up this hammy character? Christ, give me a break. All I know is if you kill somebody he stays killed. I’d like to see old Jesus survive a few shots from a .45.
Again, we’re brought back to his actual self, a killer. His exploration of Barcelona and his new acquaintance with Gaudi’s architecture brought funny moments and I laughed out loud more than once. (This Gaudí character definitely had a thing for snakes, serpents, and assorted reptiles. And he was, of course, a total nut for tiles.) He’s so funny in his naïve comments about people and sights that I can forgive him for calling us French “frogs” all the time. “Go choke on a snail” is what he’d like to yell at a Parisian taxi driver. His enthusiasm for art is contagious. His newfound thirst for knowledge and culture is endearing. Just when you warm up to him a little too much, he says something that reminds you who he is and what he does for a living. Like here, when he plays tourist in Barcelona:
I approached the Fuster. It was less of a production than the Arabian wedding cake. The guide said that it recalled a Venetian mansion. I myself couldn’t say. I had never been to Venice. I was supposed to go there on a job once, but the mark ended up in Rome instead.
I loved Calling Mr King, it will probably make my end-of-year list. It’s one of those books you’d like to buy for all your friends. It made me laugh and think. I loved the promenades in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. The sense of place is incredible, I felt like I was exploring the cities with the character. It’s well-written, in a witty style with perfect description of the cities, and insights about the hit man. It rang true.
A big thank you to Guy for recommending Calling Mr King. You can find his review here. Sadly, this little gem of a book is not available in French. Hence a billet filled under Translation Tragedy. However, for French readers who enjoyed the ring of Calling Mr King, I’ll recommend Nager sans se mouiller by Carlos Salem. I think it has the same vibe. That’s another Translation Tragedy because it’s not available in English.