“No,” Monsieur Perdu said again the following morning. “I’d rather not sell you this book.”
Gently he pried Night from the lady’s hand. Of the many novels on his book barge—the vessel moored on the Seine that he had named Literary Apothecary—she had inexplicably chosen the notorious bestseller by Maximilian “Max” Jordan, the earmuff wearer from the third floor in Rue Montagnard.
The customer looked at the bookseller, taken aback. “Why not?”
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit you.”
“Max Jordan doesn’t suit me?”
“That’s right. He’s not your type.”
“My type. Okay. Excuse me, but maybe I should point out to you that I’ve come to your book barge for a book. Not a husband, mon cher Monsieur.”
“With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry, ma chère Madame.”
She looked at him through eyes like slits.
“Give me the book, take my money, and we can both pretend it’s a nice day.”
“It is a nice day, and tomorrow is the start of summer, but you’re not going to get this book. Not from me. May I suggest a few others?”
“Right, and flog me some old classic you’re too lazy to throw overboard where it can poison the fish?” She spoke softly to begin with, but her volume kept increasing.
“Books aren’t eggs, you know. Simply because a book has aged a bit doesn’t mean it’s gone bad.” There was now an edge to Monsieur Perdu’s voice too. “What is wrong with old? Age isn’t a disease. We all grow old, even books. But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?”
“It’s absurd how you’re twisting everything, all because you don’t want me to have that stupid Night book.”
The customer—or rather noncustomer—tossed her purse into her luxury shoulder bag and tugged at the zip, which got stuck.
Perdu felt something welling up inside him, a wild feeling, anger, tension—only it had nothing to do with this woman. He couldn’t hold his tongue, though. He hurried after her as she strode angrily through the belly of the book barge and called out to her in the half-light between the long bookshelves: “It’s your choice, Madame! You can leave and spit on me. Or you can spare yourself thousands of hours of torture starting right now.”
“Thanks, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“Surrender to the treasures of books instead of entering into pointless relationships with men, who neglect you anyway, or going on crazy diets because you’re not thin enough for one man and not stupid enough for the next.”
She stood stock-still by the large bay window that looked out over the Seine, and glared at Perdu. “How dare you!”
“Books keep stupidity at bay. And vain hopes. And vain men. They undress you with love, strength and knowledge. It’s love from within. Make your choice: book or . . .”
Before he could finish his sentence, a Parisian pleasure boat plowed past with a group of Chinese women standing by the railing under umbrellas. They began clicking away with their cameras when they caught sight of Paris’s famous floating Literary Apothecary. The pleasure boat drove brown-green dunes of water against the bank, and the book barge reeled.
The customer teetered on her smart high heels, but instead of offering her his hand, Perdu handed her The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
She made an instinctive grab for the novel and clung to it.
Perdu held on to the book as he spoke to the stranger in a soothing, tender and calm voice.
“You need your own room. Not too bright, with a kitten to keep you company. And this book, which you will please read slowly, so you can take the occasional break. You’ll do a lot of thinking and probably a bit of crying. For yourself. For the years. But you’ll feel better afterward. You’ll know that now you don’t have to die, even if that’s how it feels because the guy didn’t treat you well. And you will like yourself again and won’t find yourself ugly or naïve.”
Only after delivering these instructions did he let go.
The customer stared at him. He knew from her shocked look that he had hit the target and got through to her. Pretty much a bull’s-eye.
Then she dropped the book.
“You’re completely nuts,” she whispered before spinning on her heel and tottering off, head down, through the boat’s book-filled belly and out onto the embankment.
Monsieur Perdu picked up the Hedgehog. The book’s spine had been damaged by the fall. He would have to offer Muriel Barbery’s novel for a euro or two to one of the bouquinistes on the embankment with their boxes of books for people to rummage through.
Then he gazed after the customer. How she fought her way through the strolling crowds. How her shoulders shook in her suit.
She was crying. She was weeping like someone who knows that this small drama is not going to break her, but is nonetheless deeply hurt by the injustice of the here and now. She had already suffered one cruel, deep blow. Wasn’t that enough? Did this nasty bookseller really need to rub salt in her wound?
Monsieur Perdu suspected that on her personal idiot scale of one to ten, she ranked him—the paper tiger idiot on his stupid Literary Apothecary—about a twelve.
He agreed with her. His outburst and his high-handed tone must somehow be related to the previous night and to the room. He was usually more sanguine.
He was generally unperturbed by his customers’ wishes, insults or peculiarities. He divided them into three categories. The first category comprised those for whom books were the only breath of fresh air in their claustrophobic daily lives. His favorite customers. They were confident he would tell them what they needed. Or they confided their vulnerabilities to him, for example: “No novels with mountains, elevators or views in them, please—I’m scared of heights.” Some of them sang Monsieur Perdu children’s tunes, or rather growled them: “Mm-hmm, mmh, dadada—know that one?” in the hope that the great bookseller would remember for them and give them a book featuring the melodies of their childhood. And most of the time he did know a book to match the songs. There had been a time when he sang a lot.
The second category of customers came aboard Lulu, the original name of his book barge in the Port des Champs-Élysées, because they had been lured there by the name of the bookshop: la pharmacie littéraire, the Literary Apothecary.
They came to buy wacky postcards (“Reading kills prejudice” or “People who read don’t lie—at least not at the same time”) or miniature books in brown medicine bottles, or to take photos.
Yet these people were downright entertaining compared with the third kind, who thought they were kings but, unfortunately, lacked the manners of royalty. Without saying “Bon-jour” or so much as looking at him as they handled every book with ngers greasy from the french fries they’d been eating, they asked Perdu in a reproachful tone: “Don’t you have any Band-Aids with poems on them? Or crime-series toilet paper? Why don’t you stock inflatable travel pillows? Now that would be a useful thing for a book pharmacy to have.”
Perdu’s mother, Lirabelle Bernier, formerly Perdu, had urged him to sell rubbing alcohol and compression stockings—women of a certain age got heavy legged when they sat reading.
Some days he sold more stockings than literature.
Why was such an emotionally vulnerable woman so eager to read Night?
All right, it wouldn’t have done her any harm.
Well, not much.
The newspaper Le Monde had feted the novel and Max Jordan as “the new voice of rebellious youth.” The women’s magazines had worked themselves into a frenzy over the “boy with the hungry heart” and had printed photo portraits of the author bigger than the book’s cover. Max Jordan always looked somewhat bemused in these pictures.
Bemused and bruised, thought Perdu.
Jordan’s debut novel was full of men who, out of fear for their individuality, responded to love with nothing but hatred and cynical indifference. One critic had celebrated Night as the “manifesto of a new masculinity.”
Perdu thought it was something a bit less pretentious. It was a rather desperate attempt by a young man who was in love for the first time to take stock of his inner life. The young man cannot understand how he can lose all self-control and start loving and then, just as mystifyingly, stop again. How unsettling it is for him to be unable to decide whom he loves and who loves him, where it begins and where it ends, and all the terribly unpredictable things in between.
Love, the dictator whom men find so terrifying. No wonder that men, being men, generally greet this tyrant by running away. Millions of women read the book to find out why men were so cruel to them. Why they changed the locks, dumped them by text, slept with their best friends. All to thumb their nose at the great dictator: See, you’re not going to get me. No, not me.
But was the book really of any comfort to these women?
Night had been translated into twenty-nine languages. They’d even sold it to Belgium, as Rosalette the concierge had been keen to note. As a Frenchwoman born and raised, she liked to point out that you could never know with the Belgians.
Max Jordan had moved into 27 Rue Montagnard seven weeks ago, opposite the Goldenbergs on the third floor. He hadn’t yet been tracked down by any of the fans who pursued him with love letters, phone calls and lifelong pledges. There was even a Night Wikiforum, where they swapped their news and views about his ex-girlfriends (unknown, the big question being: was Jordan a virgin?), his eccentric habits (wearing earmuffs) and his possible addresses (Paris, Antibes, London).
Perdu had seen his fair share of Night addicts in the Literary Apothecary. They’d come aboard wearing earmuffs and beseeching Monsieur Perdu to arrange a reading by their idol. When Perdu suggested this to his neighbor, the twenty-one-year-old had gone deathly pale. Stage fright, Perdu reckoned.
To him, Jordan was a young man on the run, a child who had been proclaimed a man of letters against his will—and surely, for many, a whistle-blower on men’s emotional turmoil. There were even hate forums on the Web where anonymous posters ripped Jordan’s novel apart, made fun of it and advised the author to do what the despairing character in his novel does when he realizes that he’ll never be able to master love: he throws himself from a Corsican cliff top into the sea below.
The most fascinating things about Night were the author’s descriptions of male frailties: he wrote about the inner life of men more honestly than any man had done before. He trampled on every one of literature’s idealized and familiar images of men: the image of the “he-man,” the “emotional dwarf,” the “demented old man” and the “lone wolf.” A feminist magazine had given its review of Jordan’s debut novel the appropriately mellow headline MEN ARE HUMAN TOO.
Jordan’s daring impressed Perdu. Yet the novel still struck him as a kind of gazpacho that kept sloshing over the edge of the soup bowl. Its author was just as emotionally defenseless and unprotected: he was the positive print of Perdu’s negative.
Perdu wondered how it must feel to experience things so intensely and yet survive.
Author photo: Photo: © Urban Zintel, © Nina George