On the avenue Franklin Roosevelt, not far from the Champs-Elysées, is an unusual bookshop. The name, Livre Sterling, is a peculiarly anglophile pun on the fact that the word “livre” in French can mean either “pound” (₤) or “book” and “Sterling” denotes either money or quality.
When we stopped by in spring 2011, the bookshop sported a handmade banner with the words “Un libraire en colère” (bookseller in a rage). Was this a protest against illiteracy and e-books? Only partly. It was a publicity campaign for the owner of Livre Sterling, Emmanuel Delhomme, who had written a book with that title, about the joys and perils of bookselling in a non-literate age.
We made several visits to the bookshop, a delightful cavern filled not only with books, but with toys and odd objects on upper shelves and hanging from the ceiling. There was a resident dog, and inviting displays of books old and new on big tables.
On a shelf, I spotted a photograph of Raymond Queneau. He is probably best known as the author of Zazie dans le Métro (1959), a novel that was made into a film by Louis Malle the following year. It’s the story of a little girl with very odd relatives who visits Paris and explores the city during a metro strike.
The novel apparently caused quite a stir at the time because of its use of informal language. Well, thank heaven for Raymond Queneau. Because of him, I can read modern novels that dispense with hyperformal grammar (the passé simple and the dreaded conditionnel deuxième forme) and tell stories in the kind of language one learns in French conversation class.
My own introduction to Queneau was actually through a translated version of his 1947 book, Exercises in Style. This is a series of short riffs on the same story (a minor incident on a Paris bus), told repeatedly using every conceivable variation on style: forwards, backwards, using metaphors or repetition, as a sonnet or Q&A, in the style of an official letter or a book blurb…99 variations in all. It’s a tour de force that should be studied by any aspiring writer.
Foraging among the volumes at Livre Sterling, I found another book by Queneau, titled, Connaissez-vous Paris? (Do you know Paris?) This 2011 Folio edition is a reprint of a 1955 book that contains a series of questions and answers about Paris lore and trivia, originally published in the pages of the newspaper L’Intransigeant, at the rate of three a day, between November 1936 and October 1938. The book contains about a quarter of the original 2,012 questions and answers. After all, a lot has changed since the 1930s.
Thanks to Gallica, the online library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, I was able to see the very first appearance of this feature in the newspaper, on November 23, 1936, page 2. One of the three questions remains on the first page of the 2011 paperback: Qui était le Père Lachaise? (Who was Pere Lachaise? Answer: He was the personal confessor of Louis XIV, who lived in a house situated where the cemetery is now.)
In his introduction to the compilation of questions that was published in 1955, Queneau explains how he chose his questions. They couldn’t be too banal, and they couldn’t be too obscure. So no questions about the location of the Eiffel Tower or the name of the restaurant owned by the father of someone who was himself not all that well known. Queneau continues:
I thought I knew Paris pretty well, but in working on the questions, I realized that not only did I not know Paris, but that hardly anyone could say they knew Paris all that well. I started with Rochegude [Le Marquis Félix de Rochegude, author of Promenades dans toutes les rues de Paris par arrondissement, 1910], replaced these days with Hillairet [Jacques Hillairet, author of Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris, 1935], and even though they were separated by less than 30 years, Rochegude had noticed many things that had since disappeared, quite simply, without revolutions or bombing… “The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal” [Baudelaire].
Queneau’s questions are usually about location (where did Debussy die?) or date (when was the Saint-Louis Hospital founded?) or the origins of street and district names (where does the name of the Quartier des Enfants Rouges come from?).* Should you ever have to play a game of Trivial Pursuit based on your knowledge of Paris, the book would come in handy.
Like Queneau, we have found that in attempting to convey knowledge about Paris, we are learning all kinds of things we didn’t know before. One day, perhaps, we will write our own version of Connaissez-vous Paris? It probably won’t have as many famous personnages and street name origins as Queneau’s book, but judging by the page-views on the blog, we can provide some answers to questions people actually have. For example:
1. Why are there bits of rolled up carpet in the gutter? (check last week’s blog)
2. What caused the flood of January 1910?
3. How does one get change for a 500-Euro note?
4. Where was the first Ferris wheel in Paris and what happened to it?
5. What are those stone or iron objects at the edges of archways into Paris courtyards?
6. What is the story behind Rodin’s famous bronze casting of the Burghers of Calais?
So many questions, so many stories to tell. And because each blog takes us quite a while to research, we have decided to publish every second week from now on instead of every week. We wouldn’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity.
So we’ll see you in two weeks, and the story we tell may be the answer to a question you didn’t know you had.
Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball
*Claude Debussy died on March 26, 1918, at 24, square du Bois-de-Boulogne. The Saint-Louis Hospital was founded in 1607 by Henri IV for plague victims. The Quartier (and the Market) named for the Enfants Rouges (Red Children) comes from an orphanage in which the children wore red uniforms.