Literary Tourist in Paris
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: