For seven years in the 1980s, Jean Rouaud financed his dream of becoming a published author by working at one of the newspaper kiosks which form such an iconic part of the Paris street scene. These kiosks seem better suited as the subject of, not a book, but a Sunday colour supplement article, illustrated to show how their design has evolved over the years: the domed roof with a curvy green frieze round the edge designed for Haussman’s Paris; the stark angular plexiglas version of the type in which Rouad worked, and the most recent, controversial version of a “walk-in” green structure shielding customers from the elements.
Rouaud has needed to pad the book out, initially with descriptions of the eccentric anarchist friend who ran the stall, the rather sad ageing men employed to run errands, the motley stream of locals who came by for their favourite paper or magazine. He includes chapters on some of the controversial modern architecture of Paris 1980s, to which he seems opposed: the famous pyramid at the Louvre or what we call “The Pompidou Centre” with its pipework displayed on the outside. He writes about his family, but bearing in mind they have been the subject of five previous books, commencing with “Les Champs d’Honneur” which eventually made his name, this seems repetitious.
Having exhausted these themes, he turns more frequently to navel-gazing, wondering why he has such an urge to write, fearing that he will be as unsuccessful as the painter who is reduced to serving on the stall as well, deriving encouragement from other writers who achieved success late like Henry Miller. He tells us how sorting the newspapers has made his writing more organised and controlled, which makes one wonder what on earth it was like before. He continues to agonise over the style he should adopt, clearly wanting both recognition and the freedom to plough his own furrow.
I found this memoir particularly hard going, not just because French is not my first language. Despite implying that he has “toned down” his preferred style, Rouaud’s sentences remain long, sometimes lasting for an entire page, and tortuously garrulous, often performing mind-boggling flits without taking a breath between several tenuously linked ideas – from an Elvis lookalike with his banana-shaped hairstyle to “primitive” Flemish painters. The style seems like a throwback to the past, pretentious and laboured, larded with heavy-handed attempts at humour which invariably turn out overdone. The subject matter oscillates between the banal and the obscure. One minute he is describing in tedious detail the process of sorting magazines, the next referring to some anecdote about an obscure writer from the past, or to an artist with whom we are assumed to be familiar. Are Chardin’s painting of a skate, for instance, or Jan Van de Meyer’s unfinished portrait of Saint Barbara so well known that there’s no need to include photos of them – and why has he digressed into writing about them anyway?
Some themes are interesting, such as Rouaud’s fascination with haiku, and his habit of recording impressions using this form, in his attempt to engage more directly with realism in his first love of poetry (although he cannot abandon the belief that “l’irréalisme poétique” can be the most effective approach). The section on how Flaubert made a transition from romantic writing to “le mot juste” of Madam Bovary could also be quite enlightening, but all these disjointed topics are jumbled together in a mentally exhausting fashion. The whole book seems to be a rambling mess of ideas which needs to be reorganised.
I suppose one could regard this book as a French equivalent of “Flaubert’s Parrot” but Julian Barnes has the knack of doing it much better. Yet this style is clearly an acquired taste which some will enjoy.