A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (translated from the original French by Alison Anderson)

Biblio-porn is a category of books specifically targeting bibliophiles – the true reading fanatics. It caters to the fetishists among us by focusing on all things literary:  books, bookshops,  readers, etc. Biblio-porn revels in the written word. 

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé and translated by Alison Anderson is undoubtedly biblio-porn.

An heiress offers a bookshop manager the opportunity to join her in opening the shop of their (and our) dreams.  It will contain only good novels… the very finest novels ever written.  And to ensure that this is so a committee of eight anonymous authors will provide the list of titles which the shop will stock.  Every year the committee members will add to their lists – with the proprietors of The Good Novel determining and filling in any omissions.

We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

The shop is located on the rue Dupuytren, Paris and it’s an immediate success.  Like the eerie, disembodied voice tells us:  “Build it and they will come”.  Discriminating readers hail the shop as a temple of literature.  Others, though, attack it as elitist.  Of course the bibliophile immediately understands the critics are among those Philistines who make their living from the proliferation of less than great literature.  A war of taste is waged…. until the stakes are raised when three members of the secret committee are physically assaulted by a shadowy enemy.

Cossé fills page after page with cerebral discussions of novels, literature and publishing.  Along with scenes of people reading and buying books.  A Novel Bookstore is conversational in its tone, but it is a conversation containing multiple participants.  Voices weave in and out, interrupting and interjecting, dissecting events and creating a seamless, rhythmic narrative. The translator has done an excellent job in capturing the author’s spirit. By the book’s end you’ll have a list of must-read authors – as well as an almost spiritual yearning to visit this amazing bookshop and interact with the characters who congregate there.

“By the way,” asked Ivan, “have you come up with your pen name?”

Tailleberne gave a childlike smile.

“The Red,” he said.

“I see,” said Francesca.  “The name of your ancestor Erik.”

Van mentioned Ada, whose characters have coded names, in the spirit of the one chosen by Tailleberne, a sort of schoolboy reference to historical figures or the heroes of novels.  Tailleberne seemed delighted: “On my list, you find every novel by Nabokov.”

“You see!” said Francesca.  “When you agreed to be on the committee, I reread all your novels.  They made me think of a certain tone, a certain author, and I couldn’t remember who.  Of course, Nabokov.  It’s the way you write that has echoes of his style, the sad, cruel irony, the virtuosity, the charm.”

Tailleberne was bright red:  “You have made me very happy saying that.”

Two hours later, the three of them were still talking.

I can’t imagine A Novel Bookstore being set anywhere other than in Paris.  If it is nothing else, this book is very French.  What do I mean?  Take, for example, the two main protagonists: Francesca and Ivan.  Francesca is tall, elegant and tragic. Her eyes are, of course, sad and magnificent.

Her eyes were full of tears – her magnificent blue eyes, which were so fascinating that you could only look away after she had revealed herself to you, and then, when you thought of her, that is what you saw – her extraordinarily brilliant eyes, like the sapphires used for irises on certain statues.

Ivan is middle-aged, charming, handsome in that slightly rumpled and approachable way (think Gerard Depardieu or Jean Dujardin) characteristic of Frenchmen.  These two communicate to each other in earnest, philosophical tangents.  They are soul mates.  They secretly suffer, but even their suffering is attractive.

A Novel Bookstore is brilliant, smart and fun; beautifully written and impossible to put down. Interestingly, the mystery never really takes off.  Even the author seems to lose interest in it three-quarters of the way through.  This is not a thriller – and I’m not sure why it pretends to be.  The true subject of A Novel Bookstore is the love of literature and the physical manifestation of that love:  the bookstore called The Good Novel. The question of who is mounting the attacks is just a ruse – a hook – to draw us in.  It works, but it is not the reason we keep reading.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933 37282 2

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