Literary Tourist in Paris
She told me to get off at the Monge metro station, her office was nearby. I envisioned traipsing around a bunch of back streets squinting at numbers on buildings, and being late for our rendez-vous. But no. I simply crossed the road, looked up at the street sign – and there it was
3 rue Rollin, rockin’ right in front of me. I’d arrived in plenty of time.
Héloïse d’Ormesson is the founder, with her companion Gilles Cohen Solal, of Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, a small but sturdy publishing house that attentively puts out 20 books a year. It’s now published more than 200. Here’s most of them
They greet you as you enter the office.
Héloïse invited me into her bureau where we talked generally about book publishing in France. Click here if you’d like to listen in:
Specifically, we dove into why so many editors become publishers, the late adoption of illustrated covers in France; are they readers or customers? the lack of good literary agents in France, Fixed Price policy and the importance of booksellers; Heloise’s heart and soul, her famous father Jean, books in the house at an early age, favourite bookstores, the new Jean d’Ormesson Award, every book is unique, hence there’s no set formula for success – and many other things.
Once our interview was finished I strode out onto the rue, but not before Héloïse gave me a charming little
children’s book by her father – about all I can handle in French –
and into a still sunny afternoon despite it being past 5pm. Before heading home I needed to find one of those plugs that converts North American volts into European. There weren’t any department or hardware stores in sight, but there were
several lovely little bookstores along the route,
and all sorts of little specialty shops, including this extraordinarily posh bakery
I felt optimistic, given all these shops, that one would carry what I needed. Next thing I knew I came upon a small computer supply retailer. It had what I wanted. Half a block further along the way I found the Metro.
Next morning I made my way to the Odeon Metro station in St. Germain de Pres, home to a number of famous literary cafés including Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and le Procope. There are also lots of bookstores here. At one point there were lots of publishing houses too, including Hachette and Flammarion, but by 2010 they’d mostly moved out. During the 1940s and 1950s Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the existentialists hung out here. Oscar Wilde spent his last days in the quarter living in a small, run-down hotel called the Hotel d’Alsace at 13 rue des Beaux‑Arts. According to his magnificent biographer Richard Ellmann, Oscar, when he was here, wandered the streets poor and alone in an alcoholic haze much of the time. Here Wikipedia, quoting Ellmann, takes over:
As he wrote to his editor, “This poverty really breaks one’s heart: it is so sale, so utterly depressing, so hopeless. Pray do what you can.” He corrected proofs of his earlier work, but refused to write anything new. “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing”, he told his editor. He kept enough sense of humor to remark: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” He died on 30 November 1900, and was first buried in a small cemetery outside the city, before being reburied in 1909 at Pere Lachaise.
Interestingly, this picture of misery at life’s end has recently been disputed in a book that I’ll have to search for – can’t remember it’s name at the moment; anyhow, it suggests that Oscar enjoyed new freedom to live as he wished, and wasn’t as hard-up as others depict him as having been.
So, all this to say Jean Guy Boin had chosen a most appropriate venue for our meeting. Jean Guy is an economist and was, for 17 years, Director General of BIEF, an organization charged with promoting French books abroad. The back room at the café Le Balto was supposed to be quiet. It wasn’t, as you’ll hear, if you choose to listen to our conversation.
It seemed that as soon as we sat down to quaff our espressos, every scooter and coke truck in Paris decided to drive past the large open window. This often happens – as soon as I turn on the microphones, background noise decides to become foreground.
We parted, and I made my way over to the Companie Bookstore that Jean Guy had recommended I visit. He was right. A ton of books neatly displayed, tightly packed into a very compact space.
As mentioned in our conversation, France is home to a lot of small independent bookstores thanks to its Fixed Book Price policy. As a visitor, I’m not of course obliged to buy any books and pay the higher prices, but I do get to enjoy all of the lovely shops. Despite the policy, and an aggressive anti-Amazon campaign, stores in France are closing – like everywhere else in the world – albeit at a slightly slower pace.
I was early for my next interview, with Daniel Medin, so I decided to relax and enjoy an early lunch at your typical Parisian cafe. I exchanged a few words with the waiter in what I considered to be passable French. He returned with an English menu.
We met in Daniel’s American University of Paris office behind an old Lutheran church. A nice, quiet, shady oasis of calm it seemed.
Perhaps that’s because there were few students around, it being summer and all. After an interesting discussion about judging the International Booker Prize, and the finer points of book translation (stay tune for the Biblio File episode), Daniel gave me some editions from The Cahier Series –
…they are absolutely gorgeous. Beautifully designed and printed. You really need to get your hands on a copy.
Despite running short of time, and the temperature hovering somewhere north of 30 C, I decided to walk along the Seine past these
and the Musee d’Orsey, on to Shakespeare and Company where Krista Halverson awaited, to discuss
Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Stay tuned.