4.21.2011

Review: A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossè

"For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror, grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well-known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.
But those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to think that they have the power to radiate all by themselves. …
We want necessary books, books we can read the day after a funeral, when we have no tears left from all our crying, when we can hardly stand for the pain; books that will be there like loved ones when we have tidied a dead child’s room and copied out her secret notes to have them with us, always, and breathed in her clothes hanging in the wardrobe a thousand times, and there is nothing left to do; books for those nights when no matter how exhausted we are we cannot sleep, and all we want is to tear ourselves away from obsessive visions; books that have heft and do not let us down …
We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.
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.
We want books that leave nothing out; neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs
And even if there is only one such book per decade, even if there is only one … every ten years, that would be enough. We want nothing else."
This is the message, the moral and the mantra of Laurence Cossé's ninth missive, A Novel Bookstore, published as an English translation by Alison Anderson in 2010 by Europa Editions (originally in France by Èditions Gallimard, Paris as Au bon roman in 2009). The message is true - we crave good books, good literature. On occasion a book with a decorative cover might catch our eye, but it's not the covers we read, or read for: it, as with most things, is what's inside that really counts - not to discount beautifully 
crafted editions of good books - they're most welcome.

Like most good books, this one has a little bit of everything - romance, heartache (those two, however, are not always mutually inclusive), mystery, drama... But not in an austere fashion. The premise has an ounce of literary swagger, but it is also humble. Its narrative style is splendid but simple, its prose is satisfying, even in its somewhat clumsy English (I wish I knew French... I'm sure it's divine in French.) And it aspires to be only what it is - un bon roman, rich in character and poise.

It's the story of some idyllic owners of an idyllic bookstore - one that aspires to only sell good books. The selection is made by a committee of anonymous (though not to the reader, nor to the bookstore owners) authors who are each asked to make a list of 600 good novels. Their lists are integrated to make one master list, the contents of which are then stocked and shelved. This isn't Borders or Barnes and Noble or Gibert Joseph. This is not lollipops and digital art. This is honey, soft snowy peaks and green moss - as close to perfection as you can get. And, like honey will, it attracts the flies - novelists,  journalists, bibliophiles. Hell, I would shop there. But it also attracts a lot of negative energy.

Like Jane Eyre or Harry Potter, the book store is the titular hero of its story - it embodies goodness. In labeling itself as "The Good Novel" bookstore, one assumes that it sells what it presumes to be good novels, and everything else must be... well... not good. And like those other heroes and heroines, the store (its owners, employees and committee) come under the attack of an unseen antagonist - a villain with an endless supply of vitriol and ill-humor, driven by jealousy, pride and conceit.

There is a thriller at the core, but it's so much more than that. To borrow a bias from the novel, this is not a Dan Brown blockbuster thriller mega fun time extravaganza. Le Figaro Magazine called it "A hymn to fine literature"; I call it a veritable love song to the written word in 3-part harmony with 3-dimensional lyrics, the kind of fairytale that can only exist in reality.

It is purely, simply, without inhibition, without being violent or explicit, a good novel... a pleasurable novel, an excellent novel. The kind of book that, when one gets to the end, it feels heavier, thicker, as if you've left part of yourself behind, between the leaves, among the darkly printed words, curled up beneath the narrow sweep of an italicized comma.

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