Last week was, I'm told, one of the big events of the year in Montpellier, the Comédie du Livre. The odd name only means that the square known as the Comédie because of the opera house that anchors one end of it was filled from one end to the other with a huge fair celebrating publishing.
Taking it from the opera house, there was a large tent in which publishers of magazines and newspapers set up, then a very long tent featuring publishers of BDs, bandes dessinées, which term could loosely and not quite accurately be translated as comic books or graphic novels. BDs are a big thing in France, and most assuredly not only read by kids and the emotionally stunted. I have yet to make much inroad into this scene, but I do have a favorite artist, whose work I'm mesmerized by and who, predictably, is almost totally unknown to BD fans here. I didn't see anything new by him, which was good because I'm beyond broke at the moment. I figure there have to be two or three others similarly good, but I've got to hook up with someone who knows their way around before I go much further.
Down towards the Esplanade were many, many tents. First, a big one over to the side where the star authors sat and autographed copies of their books. The big bookstores sponsor these and sell the books. Further down, in the shade of the huge trees, were stands with local publishers, local specialty bookstores (English-language, travel, music), used bookstores, academic publishers, and places where readings take place.
The thing was jammed the first two days. Long lines snaked in front of particularly popular writers' stands, no doubt provoking in the authors sitting on either side of them more than a little jealousy. Kids were romping around the childrens' book section, and, from the number of them carrying bags, buying. It's really true: the French seem to treat their intellectuals, if not as rock stars, as something close. Some of this has to do with the fact that they appear on television shows, although it doesn't explain why the television shows are themselves so popular. (For a hint of this, etnobofin has a good post on talk shows here) All I knew was, this wouldn't happen in the States, and who knows, if I ever manage to get a book deal past unscrupulous agents and boneheaded publishers, I might be forced to sit out in the sunshine for three afternoons in May myself some day.
Sunday, Marie said she was heading in to see things, and I agreed to meet her so I could maybe get a little more insight into what was happening. She bopped around the various stands, and clearly knew a bunch of the writers. Mind you, I'd never heard of a single one of them, which, I think, shows the degree to which European literature is ignored in the United States. Of course, the French are as publication-happy as the Japanese, so I suspect a lot of this stuff probably wouldn't get translated anyway. But still, it's a bit intimidating seeing all these authors (and walking down the Esplanade with Marie, who occasionally said things like "See that man with the red shirt? He's an author!") and being so utterly ignorant of who they were.
Saturday, I stood in line for a long time to get into a talk on "Histories and stories of the Languedoc" at the Corum, a huge convention-center/concert hall at the end of the Esplanade, only to get shut out at the last minute, and I saw by the program book that I'd missed a Catalonian meal (a "literary and gastronomic voyage to Barcelona") at the House of International Relations on Saturday, but there would be a closing concert of medieval music by the CRDP, whoever they were, on Sunday at 5:15 in the auditorium of the Musée Fabre, so I made very sure I would make that one. Marie and I wound up at the museum early: she had a friend there talking on anarchism, and wanted to catch some of that. Again, though, it was stuffed. "People go even if they don't like it, because it's free," she said.
She went off to talk to more authors, and I sat on the patio in front of the museum sipping a Coke Zero (I have to find this statistic verified, but I read somewhere that it is the most popular beverage in France right now, outselling red or white wine) and waiting out the anarchists. Eventually, I went in, and found a small crowd gathered outside the hall. The anarchists were still talking. Eventually, a woman from the CRDP showed up and asked who among us had filled out questionnaires. Several people raised their hands and she went around to them, finding fault with every one of them. The people got to work correcting them, and she asked a second time who had questionnaires. The same people raised their hands. She collected the now-satisfactory forms. Then she asked for quiet and announced there would be no concert of medieval music.
And that was that. No explanation.
So I walked slowly back to the apartment, enjoying the warm afternoon and the mild breeze cooling things slightly, reflecting that it was nice to live in a place where people got excited by authors.
Each year the Comédie du Livre invites a partner to participate. This year was Spain. Next year, I hear, it will be "North America." Okay, that should be fun.
9 months ago