Saturday, April 7, 2018

noir, metaphysical and hopeless - having fun at the Quais du Polar

The core of the Quais du Polar is a giant bookstore.  The big hall of the Bourse, the 19th century stock exchange, is occupied by ten local booksellers, all medium to small independents, with huge heaps of books, the piles sometimes concealing the authors.  How the authors are assigned to particular bookstores I do not know.  C. J. Tudor, signing away, took better photos than I did.

The last time I was in this hall, it was for an organic wine expo.  That was also nice, and much less crowded.  The French are more serious about crime novels than about organic wine!

The other surprise has been how muted the publishers have been.  Aside from sponsoring the hamburger truck, they are concealed.  I cannot help but contrast to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was about publishers, agents, and book rights, not books.  The Quais du Polar is about books and writers.  And readers.  I see people reading more here, reading one of their new, newly-signed books.

I had the public library’s copy of Jean-Bernard Pouy’s A Brief History of the Noir Novel with me, and I wanted to get him to sign it, but ma femme seemed to be against that.  I asked Pouy and he seemed fine with it, but he would be, since one chapter of his book is devoted to pessimists and nihilists and two chapters contain nothing but weird stuff, the craziest books.  Has anyone wandering by read Peter Loughram’s The Train Ride (1966), for example?  “[T]his descent into hell is one of the most noir, metaphysical and hopeless novels that the history of the genre warms in its moist and malodorous folds” (p. 80, translation mine, be suspicious).

So anyway I bought my own copy; he signed that; the library book is pristine.

I went to an event featuring Patricia MacDonald, Camilla Grebe, C. J. Tudor, and two debut novelists, all of whom have recently written novels about old crimes that have returned, so that the novels have multiple time frames.  The moderator said that his Belgian teen students hated flashbacks because flashbacks are for adults, who look into the past, while young people look to the future – I congratulate whichever Belgian kid came up with that bit of sophistry.  The mystery writers were dismayed, visibly dismayed, every one of them.  Otherwise, this panel of professionals gave predictably professional answers.  Patricia MacDonald only spoke in French, which impressed me.

More doomy and interesting was a panel of Deon Meyer (South African) and Yana Vagner (Russian), both mystery writers who have written disease-apocalypse novels.  Meyer’s book was openly a kind of Year Zero Utopia, but Vagner’s seemed truly grim.  Her direct quote about her characters, transcribed into my notebook: “They all know that they are doomed.”

The happy part of the story is that Vagner, not a professional writer, not a fiction writer, wrote the novel directly to her blog, a chapter at a time, picking up an audience, and a publisher, and a movie deal along the way.  It’s the blogger dream!  Meyer was stunned, and kept interrupting her with questions.  Stunned and impressed.  Me, too.

One more crime day.


  1. I would likely be a part of the organic wine gathering rather than the crime book meeting. The latter takes more understanding for enjoyment than the former.

  2. The wine event was pleasant and instructive, palate-expanding.

  3. That really is the blogger dream!

  4. Yes! You’re becoming a genre fan! Enjoy!
    There is BTW a large body of serious litcrit focused on the genre. I even taught an elective course on crime fiction about 16 years ago. ‘Twas not looked upon kindly by chair and other stuffed shirts in department. Perhaps I should attempt a blog version of the course. Hmmm. Enjoying your epistles from Europe!

  5. Even worse, Lizok thinks Vagner's book is pretty good.

    I am not sure I see the signs of fandom yet. I mean, the first chance I got, I went to the festival's only science fiction panel! I am learning a lot about the genre, certainly.

    But I think of "fan" as a pretty strong term, really.

    I've followed Rohan Maitzen's accounts of teaching detective and pulp fiction classes for many years now, so I have at least that sense of how a class might work. A blog version of your course is a good, good idea. A lot of good directions to go; effectively endless numbers of good books and stories.

  6. I guess a question is how she found her first blog readers, or whether she had a well-known blog to start with...

  7. That's different: "written in installments on Yana’s blog, and incorporating feedback from her readers – very Dickensian." Feedback from readers... I don't like that idea because it sounds too much like writing by committee or like movie "focus groups," but I guess the mode worked for her!

    I like Вонгозеро as a title better than "To the Lake," which seems so bland and familiar... Reductive.

  8. Vagner did not quite answer the question about what her blog was or did before she posted the novel. Deon Meyer asked, but there was a little hop in the answer.

    Vagner said she had readers who thought it was non-fiction - "why isn't this on the news." Her first lesson about the perils of fiction.

    It would take a specific and likely rare temperament, wouldn't it, to write like she did.

  9. I saw Vagner 2 years ago in Lyon and she had written her first book like that too. Apparently, her publishers were not too keen for her to write her second book in the same manner, but she was adamant. Sounds like you had such a good time at Quais du Polar - I am very, very envious, it's my first time without it in five years.

  10. It is an unusual event. Large, but concentrated, and as I said yesterday, it puts the books and authors up front, the publishers behind the screen. Very nice.

  11. I did, indeed, enjoy Vongozero (To the Lake, in Maria Wiltshire's translation) very much. I read it after it had already been made into a book and particularly loved all the snow. (I'm also a sucker for a good cataclysm novel...)

  12. “They all know that they are doomed.”

    This is why I love Russian literature!

  13. That was the moment I knew I was encountering the real thing, true Russian pessimism.