The impetus for today’s post is the similarities between books by two writers from two different continents; one young and living in Paris, the other an Argentine, recently deceased. Things kind of snowball from there.
Our Riches by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi, now living in Paris, is a love letter of a novel to the real-life Algiers bookseller and publisher Edmond Charlot who opened Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth) in 1935. The multi-award-winning book jumps backward and forward in time from the 1930s to the present day. It interweaves Charlot’s journal entries about the bookstore and his publishing projects, historic footnotes to WWII and French-Algerian postwar tensions, and chapters about a young man sent by the bookstore’s new owner to clear it out so he can convert it into a bakery.
There’s an almost documentary feel to much of the writing, and indeed Adimi provides a list of sources and a note of thanks to several of Charlot’s literary friends for sharing stories (the Wikipedia page on Charlot confirms the factual nature of many of the elements found in the novel). Charlot’s journal entries offer up a lot of detail about the world of the publisher/bookseller, and a treasure trove of encounters with famous authors such as Albert Camus, André Gide, Philippe Soupault, and many others. These very short notes about his everyday projects and challenges resonate with a trilogy of books by Ricardo Piglia in which he also chronicles his book-world pursuits (I’ve written about Piglia previously here).
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi include the occasional lengthier piece of creative writing, but mostly they are composed of brief journal entries that begin with the alter-ego narrator’s first encounter with books, and his ongoing obsessions with reading and writing, including his long-term involvement in the bustling Buenos Aires publishing world in the mid-20th century (he mentions “temples of used bookstores,” but did not appear to work in one). In the course of these entries he engages with such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Manuel Puig, and notes the influence of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Raymond Chandler on his own writing. He also provides insights into writers such as Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Kafka, and many, many others. In a style similar to Adimi’s novel, Piglia’s books also record the pressures, frenzy, intellectual stimulation, and financial challenges of working in literary publishing while also recording details of the frequent political strife in Argentina at that time. The third volume of the trilogy is scheduled to be released this October.
These books will have the most appeal for world-literature bibliophiles but they have also caused me to reflect on the interrelated spheres of writing, publishing, bookselling, and libraries. A number of well-known authors have opened bookstores, which strikes me as a very generous way of embracing the literary community. Sylvia Beach, founder of the Paris bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Co., famously brought James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses into the world, and Lawrence Ferlighetti’s publishing/bookselling enterprise, City Lights, made waves when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, and went on to publish the work of other Beat writers along with many other authors up to the present day. More recently, in the book-saturated sliver of the internet where I tend to lurk, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm when Deep Vellum opened its Dallas-based bookstore and started publishing some phenomenal literature in translation (including the Trilogy of Memory by Sergio Pitol which shares similar literary enthusiasms as those found in Piglia’s Diaries and Adimi’s book). In Adimi’s novel, Charlot’s bookstore, Les Vraies Richesses, also served as a lending library to students who didn’t have enough money to buy books; for a local lending library example, check out Seattle’s own Folio (though you won’t be able to visit while we’re in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic). And now a number of bookstores offer print-on-demand publishing options for local authors, including Bellingham’s Village Books, and at least one public library is doing the same.
Are you aware of other real-world literary bookstore/publishing ventures or related hybrids? Share them in the comments. In the meantime, as a lover of good books, why not rub elbows with Charlot or Renzi or Pitol, and reflect upon the riches of world literature?
(And if you love bookstores, now would be a good time to show your support. Find local independent bookstores in your community at IndieBound, or consider making a purchase at a Black-owned, independent bookstore.)