A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cosse
âStill on the subject of greed,â he said, âa sort of degradation of literary morality is under way. It could well be that your project, in itself, simply by the light it will cast on the arena of literature, will show how pathetic this drift is. What Iâm referring to is the way that authors, nowadays, live for rivalry, going so far, I am told, as to write with the sole purpose of crushing their rivals. Literary prizes bear a large part of responsibility in this respect. Writing solely to outdo another writerâwhat a paltry ambition. Cultural creativity is beautiful and special because it offers a place to everyone. And to think there are people who would like to restrict it! Theyâve made a covered market of literature, where a few best sellers take up all the room. By âtheyâ I mean the major publishers, the journalists who act like sheep, the wholesale distributors of culture.â
Review by Guy Savage (AUG 31, 2010)
A few months ago, someone told me heâd just finished one of the most amazing books heâd ever read. He was visibly shaken by the idea that heâd found the book by accident and could so easily have missed the book altogether. âWhat if I went through life without reading this novel,â he mused, and this was followed by another thought, âhow many other novels as good as this am I missing?â From this point, the conversation moved on to the observation that readers are saturated by publicity for some books while others are quietly published and subsequently sink and disappear without a trace. This conversation came back to me when I read A Novel Bookstore, a book written by Laurence CossĂ© and translated by Alison Anderson. On the surface level, this is a mystery, but on a meta-level, A Novel Bookstore is an indictment of the cannibalizing publishing industry, the mass marketing of “taste,” and a subtle examination of fascism. All this in just around 400 pages. A Novel Bookstore plays out just like an excellent French film–great entertainment on a surface level, but yet some deep philosophical statements resonate in the background.
The novel begins with some rather mysterious incidents or “accidents” in which one man is intimidated and two people are almost killed. The connection between these three people gradually becomes clear. They are members of a secret committee of eight writers who select books for the new Paris book shop–The Good Novel. The bookshop is the brainchild of former itinerant bookseller Van and the wealthy, lonely, married Francesca, a woman who âwants to do something worthwhileâ with her life. They meet over books, discuss their mutual passion and their belief in the ability of books to transform lives, and then Francesca offers Van, a man whose life âhas been mainly characterized by mediocrity, drifting, flabbinessâ a job managing the bookshop they will plan together. Both Francesca and Van are frustrated with the publishing industry and the way in which current trashy books are drowning out older titles that are dying in obscurity. They envision an ideal bookshop that will promote books for their merit alone, and this means going against the trend of selling the latest blockbusters. Together they devise a scheme to sell only âgoodâ books, and then they wisely decide that they should have input from various sources to include a range of tastes. This leads them to invite several writers–mostly underappreciated and under-read–to serve on the secret committee. Each committee member must provide a list of six hundred books; these lists are then cross-matched and the book shop is stocked with the books from the final master list.
At first, the bookshop is an incredible success. Avid readers enthusiastically flock to the shop and sales soar, and for a moment it seems entirely possible that the bookshop may influence and alter the way books are presented and sold. But as the bookshop becomes successful, things gradually start to go wrong, and life for Van and Francesca takes a very ugly turnâŠ.
The novel is structured, for the most part, around Van and Francescaâs story which is told to a sympathetic and well-read policeman. Thereâs also a slow-brewing, anemic romance between Van and a young woman called Anis, and this side tale ranges from a distraction to an annoyance. I wanted to dump the smoochy bits and go back and hang out at the bookshop.
The novel dips into readersâ images of an ideal bookshop lined with wonderful titles theyâd never heard of; one of the shopâs slogans is âAll the books no one is talking about,â–a sentence that resonates with every reader whoâs ever wondered how many masterpieces slip away unnoticed. Those of us who donât leave home without at least one book (or two in case of emergencies) will be intrigued with the idea of such a wonderful bookshop, the salvaging of remarkable forgotten titles, and the skullduggery unleashed to destroy this independence. Hereâs one scene from Francescaâs viewpoint that captures the experience of lingering inside this Aladdinâs cave of books:
âEvery time she went by The Good Novel, the bookstore was full, and corresponded almost exactly to the vision she had had in her most confident moments, with its contemplative readers, capable of remaining motionless for an entire half a day , immersed in their reading, next to each other in silence, often standing–out of choice, since everything at The Good Novel had been arranged so that people could sit down, unless they had merely become distracted–and only the touch of madness in their eyes, characteristic of their addiction, betrayed their euphoria when, as it came time to leave, their gaze met that of one of the attendant priests, whether their arms were full of books or their hands quite empty, and they could hardly keep from dancing the moment they went out the door.â
CossĂ©âs entertaining novel skewers the publishing industryâs dictation of taste and control of choice and at the same time taps into the bibliophileâs deepest fears and greatest secret desires. I winced a bit at the idea of Van and Francesca deciding what was and what wasnât “good” (which extrapolates into what is and isnât sold) as I have problems with those who set themselves up as the “guardians” or “gatekeepers” of culture. Thereâs quite enough of that as it is, thank you very much, so I felt relieved when Van and Francesca decided that their tastes and opinions were not enough for stock selection, and so they subsequently and wisely added the secret committee to the mix. I was annoyed when the shelves of the bookshop were stacked with every book ever written by Cormac McCarthy and secretly wondered how many Simenon novels they planned to offer. By this time, you should get the idea that I was swept up in the story, so much so that in many ways it stopped being fiction and became the literary embodiment of all the frustration Iâve felt at having the latest blockbuster shoved down my throat for the umpteenth time on any given day.
Iâll admit that I found the underlying questions about the ethics of the publishing industry, the personalities of the authors on the committee, the statements regarding the difference books made to the lives of the various characters, and the bruised egos of rejected authors even more intriguing than the mystery of just who wanted to destroy the bookshop. I wanted to get back to those bookshelves, and even more importantly, I wanted a copy of that master list! I contented myself, however, with taking notes of every title mentioned. A Novel Bookstore is one of the many gems brought to readers from the small independent publisher, one of my very favourites, Europa Editions.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 22 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Europa Editions; Reprint edition (August 31, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page onÂ Laurence CossĂ©|
|EXTRAS:||The official website forÂ A Novel BookstoreÂ More thoughts from Guy Savage on this book and topic
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another novel about the publishing industry:
More Europa Editions favorites:
Another by Laurence CossĂ©:
Partial Bibliography (translated books only):
- A Corner of the Veil (1996)
- A Novel Bookstore (2009; August 2010 in US)
- An Accident in August (2010; August 2011 in US)
August 31, 2010
Â· Judi Clark Â· One Comment
Tags: 2010 Favorites, 2010 PB Release, Contemporary, Europa Editions, Laurence CossĂ©, murder mystery Â· Posted in: 2010 Top Picks, Award Winning Author, France, Mystery/Suspense, World Literature, Writing Life