I wonder if Europa Editions chose to publish Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore based on the success of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It almost has to have been so. (Same translator, anyway.) And by the same token, what bothered me about The Elegance… is striking in A Novel Bookstore. Once again, we have a polemic thinly disguised as fiction. This time, however, the author’s underlying rant targets the mediocrity of contemporary book publishing.
The novel opens with three violent, mysterious attacks carried out on widely different characters in geographically separated areas of France. It appears, in the first pages, that this is a quirky thriller. What do these three have in common? The thriller framework, though, is quickly abandoned as the narrator turns to the story of a bookstore in Paris called “A Good Novel.” (In France the book shares the title of the shop: Au Bon Roman.) The concept is that the store will only carry the Very Best in Literature.
Well, that makes me pretty uneasy. There’s a key passage where two of the characters come to recognize each other’s magnificent literary taste: “She only bought novels that were out of the ordinary, rarely recent publications and if, exceptionally, she did buy something that had just come out, it was the only one of that year’s batch that Van had found worth reading.” Van, the bookseller, goes on a little bit later to “congratulate” another customer on her taste and this is all getting a little bit self-satisfied. Then we have other characters who are permitted to make statements like, “I have never dreamt of either success or money. I don’t think about it. It is elegance that interests me.”
Basically, Van and his patroness Francesca put together the perfect bookstore for literary types. Francesca is rich, so they can rent nice quarters and don’t have to worry much about the bottom line. There is a great deal in the book that reads like a nuts-and-bolts treatise on the French publishing trade and it’s only moderately interesting. Worse yet is a certain mean-spirited pedantry: “his poor use of language cheered me up,” says one character. “I always find it entertaining when people are redundant.” Well, I don’t find it entertaining when people are smug.
Naturally the bookstore A Good Novel has enemies among the hacks of the publishing trade, and they conspire to bring it down. That’s basically the plot. There are many references to what I assume are real (good) novels. I can’t help wondering if the author would have included this volume in the store’s stock.