Sunday, May 29, 2011

All for love of a 'good' novel (Books - A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé)

I used to be good about writing down where I heard about a book so that when I wrote about it here, I could give credit where credit was due. Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore never made it to the list, ah well, thank you whomever it was - I enjoyed it!

A Novel Bookstore - the title alone would win over this booklover's heart. Set in France and concerns the passionate founding of a bookstore in Paris which only sells 'Good Novels.' These are selected by a panel of eight writers, all given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. It is underwritten by Francesca, a wealthy lover of good writing, and Ivan, a wandering unambitious soul, who has worked most of his adult life in bookshops. They open to considerable fanfare and develop a strong following, and then, mysteriously, attacks begin in the newspapers. 'Elitism,' they cry. 'Don't read what's good for you, read for pleasure!' (As if those two must be mutually exclusive.) When that doesn't ruin them, the eight committee members begin to be physically attacked - nearly murdered. So Francesca engages her nephew, Heffner, in the police force, to investigate the crimes discreetly.

Cossé's creation is, therefore, partly a mystery, but she weaves in a delicate love story, and much of the novel is devoted to an appreciation of 'good' French writing. But while A Novel Bookstore shows the world a facade of lite literary entertainment, and it is entertaining, I read the book as a comment on anti-elitism. Certain political factions use this rhetoric to create a frenzy in a sector of the public that takes refuge in being one of the pack. And the business world loves such homogeneity, because they can better predict the behavior of buyers, however, it is sheer hypocrisy, this anti-elitism, when it comes out of the mouth of, say, Yale graduates or people spending six figures on PR campaigns for themselves as, say, political candidates. These same people who claim to be so very salt-of-the-earth want the very 'best' person to run the armed forces. They want the very 'best' surgeon to operate on their children when they're in need of care. And they are completely elitist when it comes to the players they prize in sports that they enjoy. Dont' tell me all these famous anti-elitists refuse to watch the Olympics.

In any event, anti-elitism versus equal representation for all (good, common-place, and mediocre) is the subject of A Novel Bookstore. Cossé delivers her argument with delight for good reading and writerly skill at setting the stage and driving the reader's interest.
One could hardly say that Paul Néon's disappearance caused a stir in the canton of Biot, where he had apparently settled for good, nor in Les Crets, the scrawny village where he inhabited the very last house.

Paul collapsed on a thick bed of rotting leaves below the forestry road, along which he must have been staggering for some time already (ten days later, young Jules Reveriaz would find his scarf at the edge of the path, fifty feet from the place where he had fallen). Two or three dead branches cracked beneath his weight. When silence returned, there was a a brief moment of vibration...
Cossé creates that same atmosphere Hitchcock does, one that has you listening into the silence, sure something will pop out at any second. Cossé made one unfortunate choice in having much of the narrative presented as the events leading up to the crimes are verbally related to Heffner. This conceit is not followed through in the style of the writing, that is to say, it feels like writing not speech, so whenever she returns our attention to the fact that this is a dialogue with Heffner (mostly monologue, in fact) I found it jarring. Aside from this conceit, the book was engaging and it made me curious enough about many of the beloved authors of Francesca, Ivan, and their committee that I have ordered a few. Cossé also creates a sense of verisimilitude. Her plot is so plausible that I was sure that the the writers on the committee and the shop on the rue d'Odéon actually existed. Given that I'll be in Paris this summer, maybe I'll check it out, just to be sure.


Unknown said...

This sounds like fun to me. I love it when one book mentions another that sounds so good I have to read it. And in heaven I'll be running a bookstore in Paris like this one.

Did my new favorite author Alian Robbe-Grillet make it into their store? He's French?

Ted said...

I'm pretty sure Robbe-Grillet was in there. There were so many writers I had never heard of - it was great fun to make a list.