Open Air Bookfairs, Gay Archives, National Libraries & Michel Tremblay

Literary Tourist in Montreal

I don’t like identity politics. And I especially don’t like it when it intrudes on literature. I don’t care what colour or gender or sexual orientation or shape or size an author is, so long as his/her/their writing is good. That said, I think everybody should have the opportunity to tell their story, and that there should be plenty of places available for these stories to be told, read, discovered. Finally, while I think that readers and publishers should look all over the place for the best writing they can find, quality – a loaded term I realize – should be at the root of all decisions about what to read or who to publish – more so than content, or who or what the author is or isn’t. If the content or story is about the gay or trans or African-American or ‘dis’abled experience, and it’s well told – namely that it impels me to keep reading and helps me to better understand that experience – I’m good.

With this in mind, I went to the LGBT Open Air Bookfair recently on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. What a happy time it was. I chatted with these folks at

at FIERTE, learned that there’s a gay archive in Montreal

which is home to hundreds of photographs and posters and community newsletters that document the history and struggles of homosexuals in the city, and I saw these books, produced by a gay publishing house

The army was here.

Everyone seemed to be in a grand mood. Some were in really good shape,

others strutted

their stuff.

These guys really got dressed up for the occasion.

But, despite being billed as a ‘book fair,’ there weren’t, to be honest, that many books on display at the event. I wanted to see more. So, after a slow stroll up and down the booth-line boulevard, I decided, since it was only a block or two away, to drop in on the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec.

I asked one of the librarians to name me some of Quebec’s best known authors and publishers. Michel Tremblay of course, and Dany Laferrière. I’d heard of them. Nicholas Dickner? No. But his novel Nikolski did ring a bell. It won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English translation, and the 2010 edition of Canada Reads. I’d seen the cover before quite often.

,

There was Roland Giguere, the poet/publisher of Erta Books. The librarian also named Boreal, L’homme and Lémeac as some of the better known Quebec book publishers. So plenty of potential Biblio File interview topics and candidates here in Montreal (in fact, I’ve already interviewed Michel Tremblay, so please stay tuned).

Not that I haven’t already done some groundwork. Several years ago I interviewed Simon Dardick about his venerable Montreal-based English language Vehicule Press. You can listen here

and more recently, Ashley Obscura, co-founder of the nascent Metatron Press. She’d just moved into new office space when I met her.

Now that we’re on the topic of Montreal and libraries, I should mention the McGill Rare Books Library where I’ve been spending some pleasant hours recently, reading Robert Reid’s five volume memoir.

Robert Reid Memoir

I always feel good after spending time with Robert, so full of life he is. Still printing in his nineties out in Vancouver. And yes, I interviewed him once too. Listen here

Another draw of the McGill Library is that each week several doors down the folks working on the annual McGill Book Fair, put out several boxes of old books that they figure aren’t good enough to sell. You’d be surprised at what you can pick up here…for free.

Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster

Literary Tourist in Bordeaux, France

After strolling around Montaigne’s chateau

Montaigne wife tower, chateau, bordeaux
His wife apparently lived in the tower at the end, a long way from Montaigne’s study.

and eating royally on the run in St. Emilion,

we headed for Bordeaux. Since we were staying on the outskirts, I took the bus downtown. The first thing I spotted was this giant column, supported by a spectacular chariot

guarded by this arrogant rooster.


If his name isn’t Napoleon it should be.

I started walking in the direction of the Mollat Bookstore that publisher Heloise D’Ormesson had recommended I visit (at 15 rue Vital-Carles). It’s the oldest independent bookstore in France, and one of the biggest. It’s been in business, in the same family, since the 1890s and it’s located on the site of the last house that philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu lived in. I found it easily enough. When I arrived I figured I’d try to meet the owner, Denis Mollat. Turned out he was due to show up in 45 minutes, so I asked where all the charming little dying-to-be photographed ‘libraries’ were at,  and was told to visit a nearby side street. Here’s what I found:


This is no longer a bookshop, but the old sign’s still here so it counts. I love the lettering, and the colour of the paint.


The owner here wouldn’t let me take his photograph, but he did give me his latest catalogue.

After reaching the end of the rue I found myself à côté de Continue reading “Mollat, Montesquieu, Mauriac and an Arrogant Little Rooster”

Apricot Pie, Michel de Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, St. Emilion and gourmet to go

Literary Tourist near Bordeaux, France

Did you know that Transat flies Bordeaux – Montreal direct? We did, and so decided to avoid the Paris crush by driving from Le Mans, where we were staying, through Chateauroux where my wife’s uncle and aunt live, along to Angoulême, host, every January, to the world’s third largest comic book convention; from here we scooted over to Michel de Montaigne’s Chateau, and finally, into Bordeaux where I visited the oldest, and arguably biggest, independent bookshop in France.

***

It was some hot. How hot? Let’s just say we didn’t see any escargot sunning themselves on the sidewalks. It would have been lethal. Luckily Robert had rigged up a garden hose shower in the back yard


Caroline et Robert

and in the shade of some nearby trees it was possible to enjoy, in relative comfort, his chilled red wine, a selection of his choice barbequed meats, and his wife Martine’s delicious apricot pie-like, clafoutis-type desert.

It cooled off a bit over night (the outside temperature that is) so the drive to Angoulême wasn’t as stifling as the one to Chatalroux had been the day before (the a/c in our Enterprise rental car was on the fritz). We arrived in time for a late lunch. Just in time, in fact, for the hostess at the first restaurant on the square where we’d parked, to tell us there was no more food, we’d have to try next door. Yes, they could accommodate us, but we were lucky. The last ones fed.

Most French restaurants outside of Paris stop serving lunch at around 2pm. Despite the inconvenience I kind of like this practice; says something about the quality of the food. Good that it’s not available around the clock like it is in North America. Judging from the glee with which ours delivered her dispiriting news, it’s clear that at least some waiters over here do get a perverse pleasure in telling people, especially Americans, to get lost. But I’m being too harsh. Generally speaking the demeanor of French hospitality toward English speaking tourists has improved markedly over the past ten years.

I wanted to see Angoulême’s comic strip museum, ground-zero for the International Comics Festival that has taken place here every year since 1974. More than 200,000 attend annually; venues are spread out around the city. The Festival is known for the important prizes that it hands out. Unfortunately the place was closed (on Mondays). I did however get a photo

and along the way found evidence of Angoulême’s commitment to comics. Its street-names are displayed in cartoon speech bubbles

There’s also a 4,5 meter high obelisk that’s been erected in front of the train station in honour of Astérix scriptwriter René Goscinny. On it you’ll find memorable lines from the comic strip including “Strange guys, those Romans!”

From Angoulême we went Bergerac, which, I figured, had to have something to do with Cyrano. Turns out it didn’t. Seems like neither the real guy, nor the fictional guy ever stepped foot in Bergerac. The only connection is this opportunistic statue

Cyrano, statue

Still, it offered the opportunity to think about Edmond Rostand and his play, published in 1897. It describes Cyrano’s love for the beautiful Roxanne, whom he woos on behalf of his handsomer, less articulate friend Christian. Cyrano was first performed at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris in 1897, and in English in the United States in 1898. Its translation that year introduced the word “panache” into the English language. Anthony Burgess, among others, also translated the play. There have been numerous adaptations of Cyrano, among the best-known are the 1950 American film starring José Ferrer and the 1990 French-Hungarian film starring Gérard Depardieu.

From Bergerac, with its half timbered houses, we went to our hotel which looked, for a heart-stopping hour, like it might not be able to offer internet service. Luckily it kicked in after we got back from a run to the supermarché. The following morning we headed out to famed essayist Michel de Montaigne’s Château. It’s beautifully situated.


Surrounded by Continue reading “Apricot Pie, Michel de Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, St. Emilion and gourmet to go”

Of French Book Towns, Experimental Presses and Pouilly-Fumé

Literary Tourist near Paris

After a brief look at publisher Alain Gründ’s library, and some delightful Edition Gründ kid’s books

we headed off for La Charité-sur-Loire, about two and a half hours south of Paris, where I was to interview John Crombie on his famed Kickshaws Press. Along the way we stopped at Caroline’s cousin’s place and stayed the night. I arose early the next morning and went out into the garden to find this

Sarah Crown, books editor at The Guardian back when I used to contribute, had tweeted out a beautiful flower photo a few days earlier; I fancied a little war of the roses. Didn’t last too long – only amounted to a friendly skirmish. Nonetheless, I figure there’s always room for flowers on Twitter, it being such a bilious platform and all.

After gingerly navigating our way out of the narrow driveway, we hit the road for Charité.

Charite sur loire, france, books, booktown

It’s still known as a “book town,” despite the fact that there don’t seem to be many bookshops around. We only saw a handful. A lot seem to have gone out of business. Words were more evident. We saw quotes all over the place, written on windows and walls. I picked up a program (62 pages long!) from the Festival du Mot that had just taken place in June. Quite a lineup of writers. Impressive for a small town. There’s also an antiquarian book and ephemera fair that takes place in July, a “book night” in August, and a book market on the third Sunday of each month between October and March. So, despite a rather unsanguine appraisal from John, the town does at least seem to be trying to uphold it’s claim to be bookish. Downsizing from the book to the word, in difficult circumstances, seems to me to have been a pretty smooth move.

We had time to grab Continue reading “Of French Book Towns, Experimental Presses and Pouilly-Fumé”