Tuesday, June 6, 2017

shamed by French bookstore displays

I was not going to write my usual praise of French bookstores, or, really, my lament about American bookstores, not this time, but near the end of my trip to France I was driven into embarrassment, as we can see on the left.

What we see here is part of the display of the works of Georges Perec, as found in the Decitre bookstore in Lyon – not the giant Decitre but the one at the mall.  The occasion is the release of the Pléiade edition of the works of Perec in two gigantic volumes, a stamp of Official High Status.

Lyon is a big city, but I found similar displays in the windows of two bookstores in Vichy, a town of 25,000, although a spa town that gets thousands of visitors.  But visitors who want to buy expensive editions of fifty-year-old avant-garde novels?  Yes, to some degree, apparently.

The great touch is the cardboard Perec holding a gigantic copy of his Pléiade “album,” or I guess really a tiny cardboard Perec holding a regular sized “album.”  A publisher designed, printed, and sent around this special display.  A bookstore employee punched it out and assembled it.  I saw it in the windows of many bookstores.  There were also posters.  I am trying to compare the marketing effort to that which will accompany, say, the Library of America editions of Don DeLillo, who was born in the same year as Perec.  Heck, the Philip Roth books did not get this kind of promotion.  Again, I remind myself, this particular photo is from the bookstore at the shopping mall.

French bookstores are legally protected in a number of ways, but this is really a difference of culture.  The ban on price discounting does not cause bookstores to give so much space to an author like Perec.  Does it actually sell books?

We, in the United States, do not treat our artists as well as we should.  Not that little cardboard figures are such good treatment in and of themselves.  Still.  To the right is one of Lyon’s many building-sized murals, this one devoted to writers and books and Lyon's history as a center of early modern publishing.  It’s culture, culture, culture.

Disclosure: I have never read a book by Perec.  It is the principle of the thing that galls.


  1. As a lover of Perec I'm impressed, and I think you're right - it *is* a cultural thing and I wish more countries were like this.


  2. Welcome back AR(T)! There are some artists that we treat well. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas' Under the Milk Wood: "we're a musical people". We treat our rock stars like, well, rock stars. Which may explain why our last literature Nobel prize winner was Dylan.

  3. But we don't even treat our rock stars like rock stars anymore. If we did, Stephin Merritt, John Darnielle and Rennie Sparks would be our next Nobelists. Or at least they would sell more records.

    Perec is such a jolly avant-gardist. I should read him someday. Maybe not the book that consists of nothing but crossword puzzles.

  4. Hi Tom
    I love this mural in Lyon.
    I should read La vie mode d'emploi, I'm sure it's great.

    PS new goal: read La disparition in French and compare it to the English translation :-)

  5. The English version of La disparition was widely, lovingly reviewed, when it was published twenty years ago. Reviewers were dazzled, in part simply that the translation existed.

  6. Queneau? Have you read Queneau? So enjoyable, and a delight to teach.

    I hope you are enjoying the Aragon. I am so fond of the Surrealists.

  7. Queaneau - just Zazie, a long time ago. I really just started the Aragon. "I fondle my delirium like a pretty pony."

  8. The only Perec book I've read is Avoid. It was strange, to me, but clever. Probably over my head in many places.

    As for French and culture; my word, they shame America in more places than bookstores and murals! Perfume, for one, and fashion, food, grace and manners.

    Surely I've mentioned the time I was dining on top of the Eiffel Tower in the Jules Vernes restaurant and glanced over to see an American in a Budweiser cap. I still twitch when I think of that representation of America abroad.

  9. Ha ha ha! Hats off at the table, pal!

    A difference between literature and fashion or perfume is that it is not that our best writers are any worse than the best French writers. No, the problem is not with the writers.

  10. Oh, I disagree there. I blame American readers plenty.

  11. I should read La vie mode d'emploi, I'm sure it's great.

    It is, and you should! I wrote a bit about it here.

  12. Well, read some Perec then! He's not always jolly; "W," for example. I should point out that the crossword puzzles are not an experimental gambit, but simply the puzzles he composed for "Le Point," as a sideline. They do apparently have some of his humor, though.

  13. The book of crosswords were just there among the novels and so on. I thought they looked like real crosswords, but I also thought what do I know. I've never read Nabokov's book of chess problems, either.

  14. How about the marketers? How about the trash that I am pitched every day to read and review on my blog? Perhaps they're the ones who cater to the readers, which came first? But, I think the plethora of stuff published today is garbage, and I'm not sure it's the readers' fault.

  15. The marketers, yes, a sad and desperate crew.

    I don't think the issue here is the trash, but the inverse, the lack of interest in what is really valuable. Not what is published but what is valued.

    1. At least you and I and so many of our fellow bloggers/friends are interested in the worthy stuff. It is through blogging that I have grown in my awareness of fine works, as well as my enormous passion for the translated book.

      If we were to talk about what is valued, though, I'm afraid that would lead to a lengthy discussion. For me, it would have to expand beyond books which, I think, is beyond the point of your post and back to my first comment in this thread despairing of so much lost.

  16. Oh don't worry, I would keep shoving the discussion back to art.

  17. Well that's a bracing display! I'm trying to think of having seen anything like it here in Norway, but come up empty. When I bought Broch's "Sleepwalkers" trilogy from an antiquary the proprietor informed me that the translation was made a fairly big deal of here in Norway in 1968, to the extent that the nightly news TV show had a segment about it. But afaict it's not been reprinted since then, so I guess our interest was rather limited.

    Peter Wessel Zapffe's collected works came out in a box set recently. It's ... well, it's a plain cardboard box with a small sticker denoting its contents. Surely the trick would've been to make some "elf on a shelf"-style figures of our man in his mountain climbing gear and send those to all the stores.

    I've read a few of Perec's shorter works and found him to sort of be Oulipo with a friendly face — a pleasure to read even when I have no idea what the mechanics behind the text might be. But I suppose the Oulipo lot were fairly genial as far as literary experimentalists go. I would think he'd be good read-along material. I recently read Harry Mathews' _The Conversions_ by myself, and certainly found myself regretting not having anyone to talk with about it, as I had no idea what half the chapters were about. Some of the pages ended up with more pencil lead than printer's ink on them.

  18. (Readers beware, this message is all about website technicalities. Nothing to do with books.)

    I just noticed that smartphones still get the dreaded "Reply" option.
    This seems to be because it uses a different stylesheet (.css-file) from desktop web browsers. The same solution as you've used there should work on them as well, you probably just have to find a different file to edit.

    The text to add should be the same, i.e.

    a[o="r"] {
    display: none;

    You don't have to test it on a phone, but can direct your computer to http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/?m=1

    Alternatively, I think there's somewhere in the administration menus where you can change the mobile template to match the one for desktop computers. The one you want to use is probably named "Minima".

    Sorry, this isn't very specific, but I don't have a blog, so I cannot tell exactly what you'd be looking at or for.

  19. Ah, that's where the occasional Reply comes from. Thanks for the technical notes. So helpful. Above and beyond the call of commenter duty.

    And thanks for the Norway Diary. Broch on the nightly news! That is extraordinary.

    I read close to everything in English by Calvino without noticing the word "Oulipo," and he has colored my idea of the generally fun-loving, pleasurable nature of the Oulipists.

  20. I'm in Lyon right now! I love that mural. I think this might be the best town for bookstores, both new and used, I've ever seen. Sadly I'm not a fast reader in French, so I have to stick to easy books and ones I've already read in English.

  21. Calvino entered Oulipo mostly by translating Queneau. And "The Castle of Crossed Destinies," of course.

    But here's a brief piece inspired by Perec (I hope you can manage some Italian):


    Nei suoi inquieti amori con Nietzsche, Lou Salome avrebbe ben voluto provocare nell'amico una levitazione non solo spirituale ma anche fisica. Battendosi le mani sulla fronte, il filosofo le rispondeva che solo la sua mente era dotata d'ali per innalzarsi a volo.

    - L'ale li l'ho, Lou!

  22. I see. It's like a shaggy dog story.

    It has seemed to me that the Ouliponess, whatever that might mean, of Calvino is often exaggerated.

    I have shared Katy's sense of dismay about the bookstores of Lyon. I mean, what good do all of these bookstores do me! So I just marvel at them.

  23. Perec wrote a joke like this for every letter of the alphabet. Calvino did the same in Italian; it could be read as a very free translation.

    Calvino seems to have been one of the gang, but most of his work had nothing to do with Oulipo.

  24. One of the gang - yes, a shared temperament, discovered when Calvino moved to Paris. He wrote about that a bit - or maybe it was an interview - in a piece in The Hermit in Paris.