This review begins with a confession. After committing to working my way through my most recent book acquisitions before making further purchases, I caved. One bookshop trip later, a number of ongoing reads have been cast aside, usurped by new books of demanding presence. This is, I think, both the peril and pleasure of the bookstore. Yet it certainly proves the principle upon which my A Book Buyer’s Guide post was based. Because, without the bookstore, discovery of hidden gems and accidental finds would be a near impossibility. So while the bookshop may present a magnificent threat to your pile of current reads, it is also a place of endless potential – where every trip brings the real possibility of stumbling upon your new favourite novel. With a coincidence of chance and purpose, my most recent bookstore visit has left me in that very situation. Browsing through the shelves, I spotted A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, translated from French and published by the small company, Europa Editions. That this book was on sale in Waterstones was a surprise – contemporary, unknown French literature published by small publishers is not exactly their forté. But proving that bookshops are a place for fortuitous finds, here it was. And I am so glad that I happened to be looking in the right place, at the right time. I am also thankful that my wages had just gone into the bank, but that’s another issue.
A Novel Bookstore is a story for lovers of literature. Opening with three seemingly independent attacks on individuals in France, it transpires that the three are members of a committee connected to the Parisian bookstore, The Good Novel. Once the bookstore’s founders, Ivan and Francesca, learn of the attacks, they decide to approach an investigator. To this investigator, the two relate the story of The Good Novel and its founding. The Good Novel is a product of belief in good literature. After Ivan and Francesca meet for the first time, a shared love for contemporary and classic novels that are good, leads to the decision to establish a bookshop – a bookshop that sells only fine literature. To make the selection, Francesca and Ivan put together a secret committee of eight authors, with the request that each submit a list of 600 titles to be stocked at The Good Novel. In order to protect the committee members and ensure their independence, it is decided that the composition of the committee will be known to no one but Francesca and Ivan. The Good Novel is opened to acclaim, providing a refuge for those exhausted by the onslaught of cheap, for-thrills fiction. Yet, before long, opinion turns. Beginning with a newspaper article that attacks The Good Novel as a totalitarian conception, dissent mounts. It is, however, only when committee members are subjected to apparent murder attempts that the extent of the offensive becomes clear. For Francesca and Ivan, the question becomes one of the price worth paying for the realisation of their vision.
Given that I knew nothing of this book before purchasing, I was guided entirely by the blurb and my short scan through the book’s opening pages. With A Novel Bookstore sold as something of a cross between mystery and literary homage, I was entirely surprised by how completely I fell in love with this novel. I had expected an enjoyable trip into the cultural realms of France combined with allusion to some fictional masterpieces. What I got was a fantastically multidimensional narrative, offering an exploration of the intersection between lives and literature.
“We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the ‘Go on, I need it for July, and in September we’ll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it’s in the bag’ variety. 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.”
On the most superficial level, this book offers a compelling narrative and some wonderfully enjoyable characters. At its heart, however, A Novel Bookstore gives the reader an opportunity to reflect upon the process and purpose of reading. As you read this novel, you become part of The Good Novel’s clientele – following Francesca and Ivan through the shop’s establishment and feeling both the elation of their success and the pain of their victimisation. This is, I think, the most important stylistic tool that Laurence Cossé brings to bear. Through tying the reader to the bookshop’s fate, Cossé initiates a process of self-reflection, inviting you to question what it is about literature that keeps you turning the pages.
“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 Vies miniscules every ten years, that would be enough. We want nothing else.”
For me, reading A Novel Bookstore could not have come at a better time. Running this blog has inevitably thrown up questions I have never thought to pose. I have done little to adapt my reading habits, believing that an honest reflection of the type and number of books I read is best. This is something I still maintain. Yet, The Book Habit has inevitably forced me to consider my literary habit more deeply. Reading is something we take for granted – for me, it is as natural as breathing. A Novel Bookstore is a novel that throws much-needed light back onto the importance of literature. Because what this blog has taught me to-date is that we often celebrate the impact of literature on human history and culture, at the expense of forgetting its impact on the human soul. Perhaps that is a grand claim but it is, in my experience, an accurate one. As The Good Novel grows in size and reputation, the centrality of reading as a means to overcome pain and celebrate joy becomes clear. Francesca’s use of literature to deal with the suicide of her daughter is perhaps the most poignant example.
A Novel Bookstore reads as a love poem to literature. That Cossé packages this within a tightly constructed and immaculately developed plot simply adds to the novel’s compelling nature. While my literary fire requires no stoking, I closed A Novel Bookstore having been reminded of exactly why it is that I turn to reading.
“My grandfather left me a great deal more – a passion for literature, and something additional, fundamental: the conviction that literature is important. He talked about it often. Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare and inexhaustible joys in life, but it’s not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality. Everything is there. That is why I never use the word fiction. Every subtlety in life is material for a book…Novels don’t contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done? It ‘s a question you have to ask yourself. Listen carefully: it is a way to learn to live. There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”