Friday, December 11, 2009

A Tour of European Bookshops

We are back from a whirlwind and pocketbook denting two week sojourn to Paris, London, Venice and Rome.I am sad to report, though it should come as no surprise that there is a dearth of book stores in Italy selling English-language product. We were tickled though to run into Mark di Martino at the Anglo- American bookstore in the shadow of the Spanish steps in Roma;Mark recognized us as former patrons of the now defunct Gotham BookMart on 47th St, where he used to be employed before becoming an expat. And there is a charming bookshop in Venice on one of those impossible to immediately locate, but ultimately findable side streets called the Marco Polo Bookshop, specializing( much like Idlewild in NY and Daunt's in London)in fiction and travel organized by country.There you can browse some uniquely available Italian fiction not likely to have found its way across the Atlantic or if it did, to have remained in print here- such as Gadda's and Pavese's work, as well as that of Lalla Romano. The owner is terrifically helpful as well.

Paris is a somewhat different matter. Its version of Brentano's, which was a not particularly good bookshop in the vicinity of L'Opera, recently closed, but it was not much of a loss. Most Americanos are familiar with Shakespeare's bookshop, in the shadow of Notre Dame and the Seine, which trades off its in name only relationship to the original bookshop of the 1920's habituated by James Joyce and the American literary expat community.It's a grand place to pick up an ingenue for those willing to stoop to such nefarious actions.(speaking from observation only here)And it's open every might until midnight.

Then there's also a branch of the pedestrian W H Smith British chain, but the names don't get exciting until you reach Galignani and Village Voice. Galignani, the ultimate Paris upscale tradebook store and on the continent since 1808, as it brags in its video, sells both French and English language books - with the English language titles from the US and Uk- It's a carriage trade Scribner's store,if one remembers that grand outpost on 5th and 48th St in Manhatttan, where publishing heir Charlie Scribner himself could occasionally be seen pretending to work on the second floor and where Ms Patti Smith, I believe, sold me three copies of Gravity's Rainbow(the little known book club first) before she became famous. She was a lovely sales clerk by the way.And,in its strategic location on the Rue du Rivoli next to Angelina's , (originally Rumpelmeyer's) with its exquisite African hot chocolate sipped by 60 year old aristocratic French women and their 25 yr old boytoys.
Lots of good titles, an excellent world fiction department,good lit crit, art and photography and always something no one else has in stock.

The true gem of the area of course is Odile Hellier's wondrous Village Voice Bookstore on the Rue Princesse in the 6th arondissement.This classic two floor shop stocks a great selection of titles in all areas in English, and always has the latest serious fiction and nonfiction titles published in the US and UK. The staff is particularly helpful, and witty I might add, and you can meet some rather interesting expats if you hang around enough. They also have frequent readings- Michael Chabon, Gary Snyder , Mavis Gallant, et al. The problem is that the decline of the dollar has made it somewhat more difficult to be an expat living off a pension in France, but it looks like they will weather the storm with the help of the tourist trade as they are the best game in town.

There is one shop that draws me back to Paris every year-it does not specialize in English language titles, but instead in a small, cramped space on the Rue Git le Coeur-just off the St Andre des Artes-and opposite what used to be the flea-ridden Beat Hotel, where William Burroughs wrote and Ginsberg edited piles of manuscript pages of Naked Lunch strewn on the floor back in the 1950's--
There, at Un Regard Moderne, in an incredibly crowded store where books fall off piles and shelves every three minutes,the incredibly knowledgeable Msr Jacques Noel presides over a collection of graphic artist's books, erotica, art, photography, books on film, off beat volumes and limited edition silkscreens, and where aspiring graphic artists ,collectors and those touched by his and the store's eclectic brilliance ,come from around the world to shop.Jacques will have the newest Art Spiegelman and R Crumb books as fast as they arrive in the US,plus titles from Spain , Germany, Japan, and France and elsewhere-Only he can find them, but they're always there-An amazing experience- I have found the most unusual stuff there- and I always go back three or four times on any trip- My favorite bookstore in the world- and several hundred other mesmerized bookaholics can equally testify.

On this trip to Paris I picked up and read a stunning novel published by Harper Collins India- The Story of My Assassins, by Tarun J.Tejpal, the Indian journalist and author of one previous novel. Under the guise of a description of the protagonist investigative journalist's being protected by the authorities from assassination by some unknown force,the author tells the tale of various members of the underclass, who coalesce to form the arrested group here. His is a slightly overmuscular prose but the story-telling is bewitching and full of telling details which burn their way in to your brain and make you realize how hard the lives of millions on the planet are and how difficult it is to survive as a refugee in the ctiies of India.Very compelling even with the violence described as murderers make "brain curry" of their victims.

I also had the good fortune to acquire a lovely illustrated volume- based on a gallery exhibit- entitled Maisons Closes- a history of the elegant closed house bordellos in Paris,which functioned until made illegal by the authorities just after World War II. At that time, and perhaps unwisely, women were pushed back into the street and the Rue Sainte Denis ,Les Halles, and the notorious Pigalle to conduct their trade,often into the arms of and under the control of pimps. A stunning collection of photos, art, and drawings and the exhibit itself is on a block once known for such tempting establishments.

Then there was the major literary discovery of the trip, a piece of erotica written by one of our most famous popular authors scribed at the very outset of his career. More on that and London, as well as a review of the brilliant "Baba Yaga Laid an Egg" by acclaimed Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic-This is a title in Canongate's myth and literature series, which has inspired modern retelling of myths and fairy tales.
Ugresic crafts her volume as a triptych of memoir, novella and detailed post modern scholarship on the myth of the famous witch figure of eastern Europe. Her 20 years of teaching the theory of literature make for an unusual resonance of scholarship and story telling beautifully woven together-Delicious indeed,and another feather in the cap of a writer who seems far more qualified for the Nobel than some of the most recent recipients.

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