Frankfurt Book Fair? Hah! Eat your heart out!
There’s this bloke I keep bumping into in Carrefour in Baud. He’s English, enthusiastic, and (say it quietly) a bit of a “joiner”. That’s “joiner” in the sense of belonging to the local University of the Troisième Age, the French Arts and Crafts society, Les Boulistes, you name it, he’s on the committee. For ages he’s been talking up an annual event in his little village ~ a “Rendezvous des Ecrivains”. Last year’s event, the very first, he said, had been amazing! Wonderful! Superb! Positively heaving with people. There were more than twenty writers selling their books! The public beat down the doors to get in! You’re a writer, he said, why don’t you come too?
He asked Madame la Secretaire to envoyer moi une inscription ~ which is a sort of entry form that has to be sent to the local Mairie promising to take part ~ because the Mairie apparently gives financial support. Unfortunately Madame la Secretaire wasn’t terrifically efficient. She sent me two emails promising to post me the form, and I sent three reminding her. In the end, I contacted Enthusiastic Bloke, who dropped one into our mailbox. At which point I noticed that there was a fee of 20 euros payable (which did, fair do’s, entitle me to lunch) plus another 10 yoyos for my husband’s lunch (he was coming along to act as cashier while I signed books for the hordes of English people queuing to buy them.) That’s another thing: the “inscription” described the event as being for “French, Breton and English” ecrivains. I pointed out that I’m actually Welsh, but they were quite joyeuse to bienvenue moi anyway.
So, on the appointed Sunday we piled a couple of boites of livres into the voiture and on y va’d. We reached the village, found the Salle Polyvalente where the event was being held, and tottered in (well, Himself did. He was carrying all the books). I found Madame la Secretaire Très Inefficient and proffered my 30 yoyos. “Mais non!” she said. “You must pay only if you don’t come!” Better and better, I thought. I proffered 10 yoyos for husband’s lunch. Non encore: he counted as my guest. I was directed to a stall and we unloaded. I’d taken the precaution of packing a table cover ~ a large version of Owain Glyndŵr’s red and yellow standard. Not that anyone noticed.
One by one they filtered in until the Salle was en pleine avec ecrivains and one or two ecrivaines aussi. When everyone was unpacked and settled (I’m usually early for everything thanks to Himself who is Enthusiastic about Punctuality) I took a wander round the hall. Enthusiastic Bloke leapt out at me from behind a pile of chairs on a trolley destined for the salle a manger. “You came!” he said. “Good, isn’t it?” Then he delivered his chairs and disappeared off home, having been there since 7am setting up.
I checked out the merchandise. There seemed to be a powerful lot of self-publishing going on in Brittany. Bound photocopies of local histories, children’s books, cookery books, gardening advice books, you name it, all self-published. Of the twenty or so writers in attendance, two (other than me) had with them books published by real, live, publishers that paid them, rather than the reverse. One of them was sitting at the next table. He had just one book ~ a murder mystery. Boxes and boxes and boxes of copies of his Very First Book. He’d driven down from Brest (two hours). He didn’t sell even one. There was a Breton “Bande Dessiné artist (comic strips) who was supposed to be dessiné-ing his bandes while we watched and marvelled ~ but he mostly sat about yawning and scratching and didn’t actually pick up a pencil all day.
Ten o’clock: braced for the onslaught. Which was not so much a tsunami as a dripping tap… At no time during the day did punters outnumber the ecrivain(e)s. No. To be exact, throughout the entire day the punters failed to outnumber the writers. Altogether, that is.
I spoke (in French) to a man; he suddenly said, in English, “Do I detect a trace of Cardiff accent?” He wasn’t French, though he’d lived in France for 30 years. He was Kaaardiff born and Kaaardiff bred, apparently, apart from a brief sojourn up the posh end in Penarth. Then a committee member arrived who was also English so we had a chat to her. She bought a book! I signed it! She brought her friend over, who also bought a book! I signed it! Both ladies were apologetic about the turnout ~ it was so much better last year! Thousands of punters! Millions, even! Dozens of books were sold by everyone! The bloke on the other side of me had a couple of books about plant disease and how to cure them. A lady stopped by. He pricked up his ears. Sat to attention. Pasted on a smile. Patted his cashbox. Raised his pen ready to sign… She picked up one of his books and leafed through it (have you noticed how writers twitch when their stock of books is carelessly handled?). She stood for approximately 25 minutes bending his ear. She picked up another book. And another! She riffled pages! She was holding four books! She was going to buy them! Yesss! No. She put them down and walked away. He didn’t sell one, all day ~ and he was the “headline act” whose name and photo got into Le Journal!
Lunch was good. Lots of vin, great food. We found ourselves sitting with a French couple. Our French isn’t that bad (actually it’s terrible but we get along with a good vocabulary and lots of hand signals), and we were making ourselves (more or less) understood, but he had a lisp and a Breton accent, so our level of comprehension wasn’t so great and the conversation was sporadic. We were sort of desperately grabbing at words we recognised and trying to make sense of them. His wife was perfectly comprehensible, but wasn’t chatty. Then our companion asked (somewhat desperately, I thought) if we liked “le rooogbee”. Well, that’s talkin’ the talk, innit? They were off, Himself and Monsieur, and his wife and I helped out occasionally with translation. Forget Esperanto: talk rugby. It transpired that he’d played against Himself’s old boys’ team. Took us a while to find out, mind ~ “Harlequins” might be a French word, but boy, did he mangle it!
By 2.30 Himself and me were looking surreptitiously at our watches. At 3.15, according to the programme, someone was going to give a talk (in French) on micro-publishing. So at 3.20, we thought, when everyone else trooped into the dining hall to be educated, we could fold our tents and silently steal away. Except that the talk didn’t start until 4.45, and when it did nobody went to listen except the bandes dessinée bloke and the committee. There weren’t any punters at all by then.
I’d had enough. We packed my remaining books and walked the gauntlet to the exit. French jaws dropped. “Vous quittez?” they said, or words to that effect. “Oui” I said. “Vous bet. Ça suffice!” Seven hours, a numb bum and two books sold. Life’s too short! We were the lucky ones. Some of the ecrivain(e)s had driven for more than two hours to get there and had sold nothing. Somehow, I don’t think the event will happen next year.
Lunch was good, though!
(posted by Frances Thomas for Jenny Sullivan)