It's sink or swim in a sea of books

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Paris is in the midst of the rentrée littéraire: roughly, the literary "return to work".

Paris is in the midst of the rentrée littéraire: roughly, the literary "return to work". Book-reading France, the phrase implies, takes a break each summer to play beach volleyball or lounge in deck chairs. When the bronzed bookworm returns in September, he or she is confronted by an Eiffel Tower of new books - 672 works of non-fiction and 661 novels this year - all published in the space of a month.

The September literary explosion is bizarre, driven by the publishing industry's craving for a large injection of cash from advance sales to book shops and the fact that most literary prizes are announced in the late autumn.

In theory, the tradition is good for writers and, especially, new writers. Of the novels appearing in France this month, 121 were written by previously unpublished authors. More than a hundred new novelists published in one month? Who says that France has lost its creativity?

In truth, many scores of these new titles will be refused by all book shops, which have no room to display them and cannot afford to pay the publishers up front for them. Others will sell a few copies, to friends and aunts of the author, and disappear without trace.

As the newspaper Le Monde pointed out, French book publishing is as rational as throwing bottles into the sea. Young writers can find themselves published relatively easily. Afterwards, it is sink or swim. Mostly sink.

François Busnel, editor of Lire magazine, says that the September avalanche of new books - and similar avalanches in January and March - are "uniquely French, driven partly by cynical motives in the publishing industry but, on the other hand, they do have a positive side."

There are no literary agents in France. Aspiring writers have to make the rounds of the publishing houses themselves. The fact that publishers need to stuff lists for the September rentrée gives young writers a chance, which some of them deserve, says M. Busnel. Press comment and word of mouth can occasionally turn an unknown into a winner.

One such unknown went on to become one of the great, book-shifting phenomenons of French fiction-writing in the 1990s: Amélie Nothomb.

Mme Nothomb, 36, is, like so many celebrated French people, a Belgian. She was refused by dozens of publishers before her first novel, Hygiène de l'Assassin ("The Hygiene of the Murderer"), became an unexpected runaway success in September 1992.

French novels are usually advertised by pictures of their authors looking rumpled and truculent and smoking a cigarette. Mme Nothomb's books are advertised by her well-scrubbed, elfin good looks and her Mona Lisa smile.

Every year she produces a short novel for the rentrée littéraire. Year after year, her book shoots to the top of the fiction bestsellers' charts. Year after year, she is overlooked for the biggest literary prizes, such as the Goncourt, the Femina and the Medici. She did win the less sought-after Académie Française award in 1999, for Stupeur et Tremblements, or "Fear and Trembling". (The prestigious prizes are widely assumed to be fixed to allow the publishing houses, and their favourite writers, to take turns. The prizes remain prestigious.)

Mme Nothomb's father is a senior Belgian diplomat and her books - beautifully written in a poised, rather old-fashioned French - are based on her experiences as an anorexic-bulimic, observant, rootless young woman, who spent her childhood and teenage years in a string of exotic locations, from Tokyo to New York. Her 12 novels are starting to attract attention abroad. A couple of them were published in English earlier this year.

Mme Nothomb's latest book is called Biographie de la faim ("Biography of hunger"). It is a monologue by an anorexic-bulimic, observant, rootless Belgian woman called Amélie whose father is a diplomat etc etc. There are no characters, dialogue or plot. In other words, it is not really a novel at all but a tedious, autobiographical essay and nowhere near as good as her earlier books.

Biographie de la faim has nonetheless been published as a novel. It has shot to the top of the French fiction charts and has recently been included on the first long list for this year's Goncourt fiction prize.

"Ah ha," I said to one of my literary acquaintances. "It is plainly Mme Northomb's 'turn' to win the Goncourt prize at last."

"Not the slightest chance," I was told. Her publishers, Albin Michel, won last year. It is another publisher's turn. Furthermore, Mme Nothomb is popular. The Goncourt always goes to a writer who is much too important to be popular. Ah ha.

Bright memories of a grey city

I first visited Paris 40 years ago with my sweet, funny, querulous Belgian godmother. I was startled to find that, compared with the well-ordered streets of Brussels and Macclesfield, the French capital looked scruffy.

Outside the central area, the buildings were a leprous, peeling grey.

That Paris - the post-war Paris - has long been obliterated by fresh paint and by mandatory stone-blasting. I rediscovered it, with delight, at a wonderful exhibition of colour photographs at the Maison Européene de la Photographie, 5-7 rue de Fourcy, in the fourth arrondissement.

The photographs were taken by a Japanese photographer, Ihei Kimura (1901-1974), who was sent to France by Fuji to try out new types of colour film. On a series of visits between 1954 and 1960, Kimura sought out the most colourful sites in the city - the markets, the shop fronts - but there, in the background, is my fondly remembered, leprous, peeling Paris of 1964.

On the day that the exhibition opened, my Belgian godmother died in Brussels at the age of 95, sweet, funny and querulous to the end.

Football tactics

Late football result: French press 4, English press 2. The match was played during the visit of Chelsea to Paris last week. The cunning French arranged for the contest to take place at 10.30am, which was a little too early for some of the sports reporters from the UK. Only seven turned up. Four places on the English team had to be filled by Frenchmen. Just like the Premier League, in fact.

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