Guardian on Jean-Pierre Ohl
We just got Ohl’s Mr Dick or The Tenth Book in for review, and after reading this piece in The Guardian I’m pretty sure we’ll be covering it in the near future.
Monsieur Dick, Ohl’s first novel, came out in France four years ago and has won three literary prizes. The English translation has just been published by Dedalus as Mr Dick. “How do you think that title will be received in Britain?” the author asks me, understanding all too well the potential snigger factor. Mr Dick is a character from David Copperfield and Ohl’s book is in many ways a homage to Dickens. It is the story of two young Frenchmen whose lives are consumed by their obsession with Dickens’s life and books and in particular his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s a playful and highly literary detective story, like a Gallic mélange of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and AS Byatt’s Possession. [. . .]
The one aspect of British life that Ohl doesn’t appreciate, however, is the current state of the nation’s bookshops. “Things are bad in France,” he admits. “It’s difficult for independent booksellers here. But in Britain, the situation is catastrophic.”
Before lunch, I visit the bookshop where Ohl works, Librairie Georges, in Talence, near Bordeaux. It is not, as I expected, an old-fashioned, cave-like place, with books stacked in high, random piles all over the floor; indeed, it looks superficially like many modern bookshops. It is large, well lit and has a cafe at the front. Dig a little deeper, though, and the differences are obvious.
For a start, Ohl, who runs the literature section, has a considerable influence over which books (and how many copies of each) his shop buys in and displays. He chooses them not on the basis of how much the publishers pay him for shelf space (as is the case with certain UK chains) but by actually reading them.
Throughout the shop, you can see books labelled with paper of three different colours: green for “recommended”, orange for “highly recommended” and purple for “coup de coeur” – the books that have most thrilled or moved or made the bookshop’s workers laugh. Ohl and his four assistants also give regular “literary breakfasts”, where readers come to drink coffee and eat croissants and listen while the booksellers tell them about the best books they have read in the past few months. The morning I was there, 30 people turned up – male and female, young and old – and listened for two hours, many asking questions and taking notes. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you’re likely to see in Waterstone’s or Borders these days.
Or in many U.S. bookstores . . . A literary brunch at an indie store (or public library) where readers could get staff recommendations and talk about new books would be frickin’ fantastic . . .