I spent some time yesterday wandering around South Kensington, through the slick wet streets, which were dark already by half past four, a sure sign that winter is upon us. As my umbrella struggled valiantly against the wind and the rain soaked through my boots, I had one of those London moments when you feel like you’re walking through a film set. The Christmas lights at Harrod’s were already up, twinkling in the cold dusk while tourists and locals alike popped in and out of those lovely boutiques and cafés that fill the area.
Anyone who has been in South Kensington in the last couple of years might have noticed that walking around the museums or sitting in the up-scale coffeehouses, you hear more French than English being spoken. The area is home to a huge population of French ex-pats as well as the French Institute and French schools, cinemas, cafes and, yes bookshops. One day I’ll return for Au Fil Des Mots and Librarie La Page, but last night, The French Bookshop stole the show.
Bute Street, just a few minutes away from the tube station (which is seconds away from the wonderful South Kensington Books) is a quiet street that is home to several small independent businesses, the loveliest of which is The French Bookshop, where warm wooden shelves (there’s just something about wooden shelves, isn’t there?) hold an impeccably organised, tidy and straight selection of books from every genre and for every age written in, or translated into, French. I always love going into other language bookshops because you get a glimpse into another culture, expressed in terms of the different publishers, authors and categories define the reading experiences of another culture. And being in this bookshop in particular made me want to go to Paris, a city full of beautiful independents in a country which recognises their importance, tries to keep them viable and gives them the love they deserve.
The shop has a large selection of French books, classic and contemporary in many genres, including fiction, history, philosophy, biography and poetry. There are also children’s books and books for learners of French, so there really is something for every reader at every level of French, which only served to make me feel more guilty about the fact that I’ve neglected my French in the past few years and gone from being quite nearly fluent to awkwardly forgetting the words for things like ‘keys’ or ‘cup.’ So when the booksellers at The French Bookshop started talking to me in French and I could barely string together a sentence, I was rather embarrassed, but if there is any place in the world where hope springs eternal,it’s in a bookshop, where behind every corner another story is about to start and beckons you to come along. So one of these days, I promised myself, I’ll pick up a book in French (though perhaps I’ll start with a children’s book) and let the adventure begin anew.
But there are many forms that adventure can take! Of course you can seek out a classic French novel, your essential Zola or Hugo or Proust if you fancy a long haul, but you can also find out about the best in contemporary French literature, which is always refreshing. Alternatively, there are titles originally written in English (in the top left corner there you’ll see a translation of Joyce Carol Oates) and other languages ranging from Arabic to Swedish, if you felt like re-reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or, Les Hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes, a translation that’s quite a bit closer to the (depressing) original Swedish. And, for those who are more into cold hard facts than escapism, there’s also a better selection of high-quality newspapers and magazines in French than you’re going to find anywhere else in London. Go on, look, I dare you.
As you enter the shop, there’s a poster on the wall next to the fiction section which I just have to share. It sets the tone for the rest of the shop and makes any reader, regardless of native language, feel right at home. It’s Daniel Pennac’s ‘Les Droits du Lecteur’ or ‘Rights of the Reader,’ which are:
1. The right not to read
2. The right to skip pages
3. The right not to finish a book
4. The right to re-read
5. The right to read whatever you want
6. The right to ‘Bovarysme’ (the error of identifying too much with the book)
7. The right to read wherever you want
8. The right to dip in and out
9. The right to read out loud
10. The right to silence!
I had never seen this before but I just love it, and a friend has told me that Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator, who I had the good fortune to hear speaking at The Hay Festival) has an excellent poster of the rights, which sounds like it would make a perfect Christmas gift for your favourite book-loving child. And if you can track down a copy in an independent shop, all the better! Just a helpful hint from The Matilda Project!
The French Bookshop offers so many new ideas and opportunities to discover that you may never want to return to boring old English again. If that’s the case you can buy your travel guides and maps of all of France’s regions on the spot and ride off into the sunset with Flaubert under one arm and your pocket map of Paris close to hand.
That very fantasy got me thinking about cultural exchange, and how books are a huge part of the way that different cultures learn about each other, particularly here in England, where Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens are more loved at home and abroad than many living celebrities. I’ve always felt that when traveling you should go to a bookshop or a library, since the insight they give into a new place is always interesting and one you might not otherwise get. I also try to read books about the places I’m going or written by people who call those places home. But it’s only recently that I’ve started reflecting on the importance of carrying books and writers and special words with you from the place you come from. I think we enrich the lives of the people we meet if we can bring some unique line of poetry or some unique, untranslatable word from our language out into the world with us. But maybe we also enrich our own lives, by carrying a piece of home with us.
The French Bookshop, you might say, is a concrete illustration of that principle, a way for ex-pats and émigrés to bring something with them from one home to another, so that they can stay connected to their culture while also bringing it with them as a gift for new neighbours. And I think there’s something lovely about the thought that when people leave home for unfamiliar shores, the thing they create to remember where they used to be is a bookshop; the things they carry with them to remember who they used to be are words and stories.