A few months ago, someone told me he’d just finished one of the most amazing books he’d ever read. He was visibly shaken by the idea that he’d found the book by accident and could so easily have missed the book altogether. “What if I went through life without reading this novel,” he mused, and this was followed by another thought, “how many other novels as good as this am I missing?” 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 Cossé 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 “wants to do something worthwhile” 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 “has been mainly characterized by mediocrity, drifting, flabbiness” 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 “good” 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 turn….
The novel is structured, for the most part, around Van and Francesca’s story which is told to a sympathetic and well-read policeman. There’s 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 readers’ images of an ideal bookshop lined with wonderful titles they’d never heard of; one of the shop’s slogans is “All the books no one is talking about,”–a sentence that resonates with every reader who’s ever wondered how many masterpieces slip away unnoticed. Those of us who don’t 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. Here’s one scene from Francesca’s viewpoint that captures the experience of lingering inside this Aladdin’s cave of books:
“Every 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.”
Cossé’s entertaining novel skewers the publishing industry’s dictation of taste and control of choice and at the same time taps into the bibliophile’s deepest fears and greatest secret desires. I winced a bit at the idea of Van and Francesca deciding what was and what wasn’t “good” (which extrapolates into what is and isn’t sold) as I have problems with those who set themselves up as the “guardians” or “gatekeepers” of culture. There’s 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 I’ve felt at having the latest blockbuster shoved down my throat for the umpteenth time on any given day.
I’ll 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.