A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.

 

Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet

I love this book.

I’m not sure what it’s about.

But I do  have five theories.

Theory #1:  A murder has taken place.  The narrator describes the crime scene like a detective who does not know which bit of evidence will prove relevant.  So the detective/narrator writes everything down without filtering his senses or his thoughts.  The result appears random the way notes often do.   The detective/narrator continues to record details moving outwards from the scene of the crime to the neighboring area, eventually throughout the entire city itself.

Nothing moves much.  What movement there is resembles the movement in a still photograph.  We can tell that this person was walking when the photograph was taken, though he is motionless in the photograph itself.  The novel becomes a series of crime scene photographs which we are  supposed to assemble to determine what happened.

Theory #2:  A group of young women, prisoners in the city jail, are playing with a deck of Tarot cards.  The narration moves from the real city into the phantom one depicted in the illustrations on the Tarot cards.  The subsequent  murders take place in an imagined world inside the imagined world of the novel.  Are the girls imagining the crimes–their own or ones they were the victims of–or is the narrator at work through them.  The crimes take on the mythic properties associated with Tarot cards.

Theory #3:  The murderer is a photographer.  He lures his victims to his studio where they pose for him, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  He reviews the photographs afterwards.  These become the book itself, a series of photographs presented to the reader by the killer/photographer/narrator who took them.  Like an artist would, the narrator shows us only what he wants us to see.  We must fill in the missing details, infer his true intentions, his motives, his character.

Theory #4:  There has been only one murder.  The variations presented to the reader are each ways to interpret the evidence the detective/narrator has gathered.  The crime could have happened this way, or this way, or this way.  The novel is an obsessive examination of the same event from many possible angles.  A search for truth that has no ending.  This is similar to the structure Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy which I reviewed here.

Theory #5:  The reader is the killer.  The detective presents us the still pictures of the novel which make little sense because our own psychology has become too disturbed to understand our own actions any longer.  We’ve no memory of committing any of the crimes depicted.  We’ve nothing left to help us make sense of our world except a series of images with no clear connection to each other.   How could we have done it if we don’t remember it?  How can we make sense of the evidence the narrator shows us if he does nothing but wait for us to explain it all, to confess?

Of these five, I think theory #2 is least likely to hold up under cross examination.  I suspect theory #3 is closest to the author’s intention.  But I’m starting to like theory #5 the most.

Whichever interpretation is right or best, the fact remains that Topology of a Phantom City is a mystery novel about interpretation. There is no solution.  Just evidence readers can use to come up with their own theories about what happened and about who done it.

I loved it.

 

It’s been over five years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I admit it, I have no memory of this book except for this review.  Based on this review, it sounds like a book I would love.  I went through a brief Alain Robbe-Grillet phase that year, read quite a few, loved them all, understood very little.  I’ve saved them to re-read in retirement when I’ll have more time to figure them or. Or I just may be wondering what the heck is going on at age 62, like I did when I was 47. 

The Vagabond by Collete

Colette’s The Vagabond tells a story of backstage life in the music halls of turn of the century Paris.  The narrator/heroine has left a failed marriage and career as a novelist to earn a living performing two shows a night as an actress in French pantomime.

The Vagabond works as a backstage novel and as a source of insight into the its author, Colette.  Because the narrator’s biography shares so much with Colette’s, it’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the temptation of committing the biographical fallacy.  Since their back stories match, it’s easy to conclude that the novel must be the story of Colette.

With this in mind, I found The Vagabond ultimately disappointing.  Collete is known for dealing with issues of love and sexuality, especially female sexuality, with a frankness that Americans see as French.  It’s a cliche in the U.S. to see the French, especially French artists like Colette, as more in-tune with an adult sensibility around sex than we are.  I found Colette’s novel Cheri  to be a good example of this adult sexuality even though the title character is a teenager.  So I was surprised to find much of The Vagabond  adolescent:


Love, if you can; no doubt this will be granted you, so that at the summit of your poor happiness you may again remember that nothing counts, in love, except the first love, and endure at every moment the punishment of remembering, and the horror of comparing.

I was 22 when my first love came to an end. At that time I would have agreed with Colette whole-heartedly.  25 years later, it’s tempting to roll my eyes a little in exasperation.  Colette was 37 when she wrote The Vagabond.  While the passage above is well written, I don’t buy it.  The love that lasts is the love that counts.   Spend a decade or more with the one you love and you’ll look back on that first love, remembering and comparing with no horror or punishment at all.  Except maybe a moment or two spent wondering, “What was I thinking?”

While I had more problems with The Vagabond than the one outlined here, there is enough that’s good in the novel to make it a worthwhile read.  The peek at theatrical life, Colette’s beautiful writing, the hints at autobiography all succeed in entertaining the reader.  Those lucky enough to read it while in the throes of first love or in recovery from it will find a kindred spirit in Colette’s The Vagabond.

 

I feel like I just read this book, but this is a review from 2011 first published on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  I guess it says sometime positive about Colette that I feel like I just read her book a few months ago.  If you’ve never read her, this is as good a place as any to start. I think she’s terrific.

 

Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau Translated by Rosamond Lehmann

I confess.  I didn’t get it. If you want some kind of reasonable analysis of Jean Cocteau’s classic 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles you’ll have to look elsewhere.  I’m sure you’ll be able to find lots of intelligent commentary out there, but you’ll find none here.

I read the whole thing, which I thought would be a quicker read at just over 130 pages. But it took days. Days of wondering lost through the streets of Paris with little idea what was going on. I pretty sure it was snowing.

There are four main characters in Les Enfants Terribles.  The novel centers on Paul and Elizabeth who are siblings, close siblings. Too close.  From their early teenage years when the novel begins they play this game, a very complicated game that I couldn’t follow or make sense of.  They lure this woman Agathe and a young man Gerard into their game with deadly consequences.  At one point Gerard wants to marry Elizabeth and Agathe falls in love with Paul.  Elizabeth will have none of this so she manipulates everyone to convince Gerard to marry Agathe which means she’ll continue to have her brother to herself.  This may have been part of the game.  I’m not really sure.

Because of the siblings and the game Les Enfants Terribles reminded me a little of the movie House of Yes which is a huge, crazy mess, but funny and easy to follow.  And it stars a young Parker Posie, so what’s not to like.

So, I’m afraid when it comes to Mr. Cocteau, I can be of no help. You’re own your own.

Good luck.image

I did like the drawings he did for the book.  They’re very basic line drawings, not much to look at, but the way he reduced the characters and scene down to a few simple strokes inspires me.  I could do that, with some practice. To illustrate this post/book I copied part of one.  Mr. Cocteau’s hands are better than mine.  Everyone’s are. Hands are hard to draw.

For the record, I am collecting Vintage Classic paperbacks so I’ll be keeping Les Enfants Terribles on my to be re-read shelves.  Someday, I’ll give it another go.  How knows.  It may make sense to me when I’m 60.

Jealously by Alain Robbe-Grillet

A man suspects his wife is having an affair with his neighbor.  He searches  for proof, for clues, playing the same sequence of events over and over in his mind looking for signs.  When did it begin?  Do they suspect he knows?  How far will the affair go?

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short novel, Jealousy, covers familiar territory– a married woman’s indiscretion with her married neighbor.  But Mr. Robbe-Grillet breaks new ground, or I should say broke new ground when he wrote Jealousy in 1957.  Where have the French been hiding him since?

Jealousy is a third-person first-person narrative.  All but one of the scenes feature the husband and wife entertaining the neighbor who spends time at their house while his own wife stays home sick.  But the husband is almost invisible.  The third person narrator never mentions him.  Instead, the narrator obsessively reviews what look like unimportant events in a stream of consciousness style that perplexes as much as it enlightens. Try as he might, the narrator cannot find proof of the wife’s infidelity.  Glances over dinner, pauses in the conversation, even a night spent together in a hotel do not prove anything.  There seems to be no grounds for jealousy.  But suspiscion lingers.

The reader understands that the wife and the neighbor must be up to something.  Why keep going over the same set of events if they’re not?  Soon the reader becomes aware that the third person narrator is the husband–that the third person  is really a first person narration.  Obsessed with his wife’s infidelity, the husband has written himself out of the novel as he jealously examines and re-examines how his wife and his neighbor behave.

One night, the neighbor kills a centipede as it crawls up the wall during an uneventful dinner.  This event is observed in such detail and so many times from so many angles that the reader soon  believes it must mean something.  But what?  The neighbor and the wife drive into town, a drive of several hours from the banana plantations where they live, and fail to return until the next day claiming bad road conditions prevented night travel.  This also must mean something, but again what are we to make of it?

By the end, the experience of reading Jealously becomes the experience of jealousy itself.  There is no resolution, no linear plot, not much in the way of character either. Instead, the novel takes the reader into the emotion.  Jealousy is the novel’s main character in the end.  It serves no purpose, it is not resolved, it has no single cause nor anything to support its existence except itself.  Jealousy gives birth to itself and feeds itself as it grows.

 Jealousy knocked my socks off.  It’s the best book I’ve read in a very long time.  I’m thrilled to find something so fresh, even if it is 50 years old.  I know it’s only January, but this one is sure to make my best reads of 2011 list.   Alain Robbe-Grillet, where have you been all my life?

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011 as you can see from the above paragraph.  You may be pleased to know that it did make my list of best reads that year.  Since then, I have read other books by Mr. Robbe-Grillet but this one remains my favorite. Maybe because t was my first, maybe because it’s the best.

Cheri by Colette

While there is no one to like in Colette’s novel Cheri, there is much to like.

Cheri, a young man in his early 20’s, is the spoiled child of wealth.  He has spent the last six years as the kept pet of Lea, the much older lifelong friend of his mother.  Before Cheri was old enough to have affairs, Lea went through a series of young lovers, all beautiful men she kept for entertainment purposes– enjoyed but never loved.  Now, after six years with Cheri, she suspects they may have real feelings for each other.  But their age difference and the scandal it could cause force Cheri to bend to his mother’s will and marry a girl his own age.

It doesn’t really work out.

Cheri is a spoiled brat who desperately needs a father capable of giving him a good 19th century thrashing.  His mother is a snobbish, overbearing busybody.  His young wife is a prig.  His lover Lea is ruthlessly cold-hearted in spite of her sexual passion. None of them work for a living.  None of them do anything interesting with the unlimited free time their wealth brings them.  So why bother with any of them?  Because just as you’re about to set the whole thing aside in disgust you come across a passage like this one.

‘It serves me right. At my age, one can’t afford to keep a lover six years.  Six years!  He has ruined all that was left of me.  Those six years might have given me two or three quite pleasant little happinesses, instead of one profound regret.  A liaison of six years is like following your husband out to the colonies: when you get back again nobody recognizes you and you’ve forgotten how to dress.’

Okay, that’s pretty good.  I’ll stick around a chapter or two more.

And I ended up not only sticking around until the end, but enjoying the book as well.  I’m surprised to admit this, but Cheri may end up in contention for my favorite reads of 2010 list.  While I wouldn’t want to spend any time with any of the characters in Cheri, I enjoyed reading about them and I’m looking forward to reading the sequal, The Last of Cheri.  I kind of hope he dies in it.  That would be a very satisfying ending.

 

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that in the five years since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have not gotten around to reading The Last of Cheri.  I think I still have a copy of it around the house somewhere, so reading it would not violate the rules of the TBR Triple Dog Dare…