Swans Commentary » swans.com December 2, 2013  



Cold In Colmar — And Mythic, Too


by Jonah Raskin


Travelogue (Continued)



Read Next Stop: France, by Jonah Raskin (the beginning of his Travelogue to France).
Also Paris I: Memories & Laughter
Then Paris II: A Night In The 19th District
And On the Road In Rural France


(Swans - December 2, 2013)   This morning, I'm holed-up in my hotel room in Colmar, which is part of Alsace, on the far eastern edge of France, touching the borders of Switzerland and Germany. Outside it's cold; one might say bitter cold. It seems to be much the same nasty weather all over northern Europe. If you can afford to travel, now would be the time to go to the tropics -- or at least to Florida -- though Colmar is coming apart at the seams with tourists.

In the hotel cafeteria, I hear a lot of German spoken, a bit of French, not a single word of British English, and no American slang at all. Many of the tourists here have come for the 24th annual book festival, which is just outside of town in a large exhibition hall. A bus takes passengers for free from the city center to the festival, and since it only runs each way about once an hour, it can be packed, with standing room only, especially at the end of the day.

Yesterday, coming back from the festival, I sat next to, and had a brief conversation with, an attractive older woman who looked a lot like Marlene Dietrich. But then many of the older women here, no matter what their nationality, look a lot like Marlene Dietrich, at least to me, and not surprisingly, I've been replaying old Dietrich songs in my head. They're just what I need to counteract the blasts of cold air that must be coming down from the Arctic or maybe from far-off Siberia.

Like many of the tourists and the locals, I'm also in chilly Colmar for the book festival. Two of my books have been published in French and I'm here with my editor who's representing the publishing house. I have not counted the actual number of people at the festival, but it's in the tens of thousands. They're very old, very young, and very in-between. Young boys and girls are here with their grandfathers and grandmothers. It's a family-friendly event, though many of the books are about subjects such as sex, drugs, and revolution that protective grandparents probably wouldn't want their grandchildren to read.

Most of all, what strikes me about the book festival is that very few people actually buy a single book. What they do is browse, browse, and browse. Occasionally, they'll stop, pick up a volume, examine the cover, turn the pages and then put the book down again before moving on. "Why don't they buy books?" I asked an editor that very question last night at supper in a restaurant specializing in the food of Alsace, which means lots of meat, potatoes, and sauerkraut. (I have seen more obesity here than anywhere else I have been in France in the last two weeks.)

"It's the economy," the woman editor said in response to my question. "People just don't have the disposable income to spend money on books." But some people do buy books. A charming young man learning to be a bookseller at the University of Strasbourg bought a copy of one of my books, which I autographed for him.

"I'm not sure that there will be a job waiting for me in the world of books when I graduate," he told me. "But as long as there are people like you who write books there will be people like me who sell books." I would have added, "And as long as there are people like my own editor and the editors with whom I had dinner on Saturday night."

One young woman works at a house founded by her father, who publishes the work of the critic and novelist, John Berger, and the San Francisco poet, Jack Hirschman. Around that dining room table, it felt like a small world. Another editor had spent time in Mendocino County, among environmentalists and hippies, she explained, when she was nineteen-years old. More than a decade later, she still has vivid memories of her summer there.

Franck Manuel, 40, a French teacher in a village in the Pyrénées and an avant-garde novelist, was selling and autographing copies of his first novel, Le Facteur Phi, which is published in paperback by Charles-Henri Lavielle, a jovial fellow who operates Anacharsis, a small house based in Toulouse. With short dark hair and a contagious smile, Manuel is engaging and outgoing. In his younger days, he was a facteur -- a postman -- but his novel is far more mythic than autobiographical, with reverberations of The Iliad and The Odyssey and with meditations on time and space.

One might call it a philosophical novel, and, while it soars into the unknown, it's also grounded in the everyday world of the postman who makes his rounds, delivering letters in a town without a name. The postman himself has no first or last name. "You could say the novel is about loneliness and alienation, and about the failed connections between people," Manuel explained.

He wrote Le Facteur over the course of two years, most of the time in the classroom, while the students were writing their own assignments. He has already finished a second novel entitled 029 Alien, in which the main character, a woman from a society in which sex is forbidden, travels through space having intercourse with aliens and filming pornography. He's finishing a third book about a mad woman who is a writer; it doesn't yet have a title. I'm willing to bet there will be a fourth and a fifth novel from Manuel.

As long as there are writers such as him, the novel won't die. In my hotel room, I open my copy of Le Facteur Phi. Merci pour la curiosité, the author has written. Well, yes, my own inbred curiosity is what keeps me going here in Colmar where it's cold and gray all day and where Franck Manuel keeps the fires of myth burning brightly.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 2, 2013