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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Louveciennes is, for the most part, a quiet little village on the outskirts of Paris. We drove there from Le Mans for a meeting I’d arranged with the renowned children’s book publisher Alain Gründ. Louveciennes was a favourite spot for the Impressionist painters. All told, more than 120 paintings of the place exist, limned by the likes of Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet.
Entrée du village de Voisins by Camille Pissarro, 1872
Anaïs Nin lived here at 2 bis rue de Montbuisson from 1931-1935 with her husband Hugh Guiler. It was here where she first met her lover Henry Miller, where she launched her writing career with the famous Diaries, “There are two ways to keep a diary: live a day and describe it in five minutes, or live five minutes and spend the whole day describing them,” and where, in this “laboratory of the soul,” she entertained Antonin Artaud, Brassaï, Lawrence Durrell and other famed artists and writers. Here’s one of her descriptions of the house: “Every room is painted a different color. As if there were one room for every separate mood: lacquer red for vehemence, pale turquoise for reveries, peach color for gentleness, green for repose, grey for work at the typewriter.” Some visitors in recent years have been lucky enough to catch glimpses of these evocative colours, however, despite various efforts over the decades to turn the house into a writer’s museum, none have met with success. You can read more about Nin in Louveciennes here.
After picnicking in the shade of an old stone church in the village’s centre square I strolled over to this gentleman
to discern directions to Alain’s house. He’s the barber. Has been for 25 years. His customers bring him back exotic combs from all over the world.
Alain’s place was only a five minute drive away, on rue Auguste Renoir. I was greeted at the gate by his wife, Monique. We walked up the garden path and met Alain sitting at that table over there on the patio.
We settled on a bottle of chilled rosé. It was warm outside. I sat down and methodically turned on both microphones, ready to engage in some ripping good conversation. The only thing that ripped however, was the soft, silent air, as a chainsaw burst full-throttle through it, obliterating any hope of a good recording. The noise kept up for much of the next hour and a half. I left the machines on anyway but the results were unusable. I’d have to play stenographer.
Time usually flies when I’m interviewing people. It sure did with Krista Halverson at Shakespeare and Company. Of course with it winging by so quickly I wasn’t attending to the clock, so I was late for my next appointment with Maylis Besserie. Maylis is a well regarded radio documentary producer with France Culture. She’s interviewed loads of authors in her time. I wanted to learn her secrets, to find out why she’s so good at what she does.
We’d agreed to meet at 5.30pm just around the corner from the bookstore behind Notre Dame cathedral in a little treed park. It was now after 6, and she, understandably, wasn’t there.
Luckily the City of Paris provides free WiFi right in the park so I sent off a grovelling, apologetic email. ‘Could we possibly try for later on that evening?’ ‘Yes,’ Maylis graciously responded, despite having waited for me for at least half an hour, ‘that would be possible, near the Strasbourg-Saint Denis Metro stop, line 4, at 8.30pm.’ Whew. I had plenty of time to catch my breath, grab a meal and do a bit more research.
I headed toward the Saint-Michel Metro station, around the cathedral out into the brilliant late afternoon sunshine, to be greeted by this head-on view of the marvelous facade. I wasn’t alone in admiring it.
Over near the river I ran into a couple of bouquinistes plying their trade, just as their namesakes have since the mid-1500s. Apparently the wait time to become one these days is around eight years. But it’s not all gravy. If you’re not open at least four days a week you lose your spot. Today, bouquinistes’ green boxes – 900 in all – are perched on three kilometres’s worth of quayside wall, from the Louvre along past Notre-Dame. It took a while to manoeuvre me, the booksellers, and the cathedral into position, but eventually I got the shot I wanted
I’d read that the 250 Bouquinistes who, combined, operate what’s been dubbed as the “world’s largest open-air bookshop,” were applying to get on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and at the time wondered why. Well, it turns out the mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, isn’t happy about all the plastic Eiffel towers and other tri-coloured touristy trinkets being sold instead of antiquarian books. And of the books that are being sold, many are Les Nul – trash in other words. It’s a privilege to be able to sell books by the Seine, and it looks like some are abusing it.
Not sure how this’ll pan out. A lot, I think, depends on local bibliophiles and book collectors, and yes, literary tourists, stepping up, demanding and buying the genuine article: old, rare books. If they don’t, and the sellers fail to up their game by improving their stock, what has long played an important, charming role in Paris’s biblio-cultural life, will disappear, or deteriorate at least, into just another tawdry tourist trap.
Speaking of the Eiffel Tower: during the time of its construction in the 1880s, three hundred writers and artists signed a petition written in pompous prose condemning this ‘hateful column of sheet metal’; they were certain it would destroy the reputation of French taste. Signatories included J.K. Huysmans, Guy de Mauspassant, Leconte de Lisle and Sully-Prudhomme.
According to the chansonniers of the time, the poets were upset because they couldn’t find a word to rhyme with ‘Eiffel’. Over time, many of the signatories came to admire the tower, but not Maupassant; “I have left Paris,” he wrote, “for the Eiffel Tower was really too boring in the end.”
I sat down outside a pleasant enough restaurant – there were potted trees – near the Strasboug-Saint Denis Metro station not far from the Porte Saint-Denis, a massive arch that,
while not as large or well-known as the Arc de Triomphe, is well worth checking out. It inspired the triumphal arch at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge in New York (1910).
‘Could I have the wee fee (that’s how they pronounce it here) password please?’ ‘Non. There is no Internet’ the waitress informed me. How surprising. I hurried across the street to a slightly less pleasant spot, closer to the traffic. Italian. Spaghetti would be nice. I ordered and asked for the password. ‘Yes, of course, no problem.’ Well, yes. Problem. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect. By now I was getting a bit nervous. I had to email Maylis to establish a meeting place, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be late with it.
McDonald’s! I could see one on the next block. I left the Italian restaurant holding the spaghetti (them not me), and bolted for America’s favourite eatery. If it was anything like at home they’d have password free Internet. And they did. I got the email off. We’d meet out front in 10 minutes.
As I stood waiting, an attractive Asian woman approached me (funny, Besserie didn’t sound Asian). Could this be Maylis? It wasn’t. It was a ‘péripatéticienne’. With a smile, I gently declined her kind invitation, and continued to shuffle around ‘attendant’ Maylis. Minutes later she arrived, caucasian as I’d thought,
and led me across the street to her apartment while I hurredly explained that I never eat at McDonald’s, especially not when I’m in Paris. We tip-toed past her sleeping children’s bedroom, and settled in for our conversation on the art of the author interview. You can listen here: