mercredi 20 octobre 2010

Opinion : Left Bank Waltz: The Australian Bookshop in Paris.

The glorious days of the Australian bookshop on Quai des Grands Augustins, on the Left Bank in Paris.

Elaine Lewis. Left Bank Waltz: The Australian Bookshop in Paris. Vintage, 2006, 344 pp. ISBN: 9781740513494.

Elaine Lewis’s Left Bank Waltz: The Australian Bookshop in Paris is not only the account of an Australian expat setting up a business in the City of Lights: it is also the story of a enthusiastic booklover who had a dream. As the author reminds readers in the epigraph of the opening chapter,

“There are two kinds of people in life: people who see the world as it is and wonder why. People who imagine the world as it should be and wonder: why not?”

George Bernard Shaw has made a sensible point there. As a non fiction writer, I must admit I tend to see myself as belonging to the first category of people trying to find all sorts of explanations to cope with the vagaries of life but I also aspire to reshape and improve the world with artistic projects that would bring the poetry of existence to the fore.

This non fiction book also pays tribute to cross-cultural views on Australia and France. It is as much indicative of how French culture and lifestyle are (sometimes humorously) perceived in the eyes of an Australian as it is of the reception of Australian culture within Parisian circles. Elaine Lewis engages emotionally with readers by telling them all about the ups and downs of setting up a landmark bookshop on Quai des Grands Augustins, on the Left Bank in Paris. Now and then, there is the occasional culture clash which makes us smile:

(Left: Herb Wharton in Elaine's bookshop).

I was intrigued to find that the titles and authors’ names on the spines of French published books run from bottom to top, whereas ours go in the opposite direction, so that you turn your head to the left to read the French spines and to the right when reading the titles of books written in English. As I have placed the translations beside the original editions of the books, I imagine heads will be bobbing in all directions this evening. (LBW 129)

Her business venture was unique in its dynamic and festive approach to Australian culture, celebrating writers and their works through a series of rencontres which allowed Elaine to build up French-Australian connections. As she takes stock of the situation, Elaine Lewis realizes that:

Apart from an occasional book launch at the Australian Embassy and at the Village Voice Bookshop, there is no regular venue for Australian writers and artists visiting Paris, yet almost every other country in the world seems to have a culture centre here, usually including a bookshop and tourism office. In a city like Paris, where all the cultures of the world pass through, it seems short-sighted to me that Australia is represented only by bureaucracy and that it is left to the French themselves to try to present Australia’s creative and intellectual ideas, as well as its tourist attractions. We certainly seem to have an island mentality. (LBW 71)

As the book unfolds, we learn about the heydays of Australian Studies in France promoted by dedicated enthusiasts like Xavier Pons, Jean-Paul Delamotte, Martine Piquet, Barbara Glowczewski, Jean-Claude Redonnet, and Denise Coussy, a generation of scholars who have made their marks in the field, most of whom are on the verge of retiring. But who will be the next generation of Xavier Pons and Barbara Glowczewski? A question which is all the more topical that most French universities which still show an interest in Australian Studies are nowadays embracing them as part of Postcolonial Studies. As a result, the importance of Australian Studies (a field which is sometimes seen as off the map) is dwindling to the point of being eaten up by Canadian and African Studies. Hence my not being too sure whether Elaine’s following comment written 5 years ago is still valid nowadays:

I am beginning to think that many European students know more about our Australian writers than does the average Australian student. Not as much Australian literature seems to be taught in Australian universities these days. In general the emphasis seems to be on creative writing courses. (LBW 178)

This quibble aside, I can only acknowledge Left Bank Waltz: The Australian Bookshop in Paris as being of prime importance to all Australianists, as well as people having a vested interest in French-Australian connections and cross-cultural perspectives. This book may also help Australia-based scholars understand the unflagging efforts international academics go into to promote Australian culture worldwide, and most of the time without any Australian financial backup. As Elaine observes,

Through the customers of the Australian Bookshop, I become aware of the teaching of all kinds of Australian Studies in France and other European countries. I don’t think this interest is widely enough acknowledged and exploited by the Australian Government, because these students often go on to become regular readers of Australian books and a substantial number of them visit Australia at some time in their lives. They thus become unofficial ambassadors and have realistic views of the Australian way of life – they know that it’s not just beaches and red kangaroos. In this context, for more than thirty years, as well as buying quantities of books for their library, Toulouse University must surely have produced many lovers of Australian literature and the Australian way of living. It must also have been responsible for the dispersal of a large number of Australian books into France. (LBW 180)

Holding a PhD in Australian Studies from Toulouse University, I can only confirm that Xavier Pons, a former student of Pr. Victor Dupont (“one of the earliest promoters of Australian literature in France”, LBW 178), has been instrumental in encouraging students to research Australian Studies.

(Left: Elaine Lewis standing next to David Malouf. Signing session time!

All these pictures appear in the hardback edition of Elaine Lewis’s Left Bank Waltz: The Australian Bookshop in Paris.

Elaine Lewis has managed to pay homage to Australia’s “unofficial ambassadors”, of which she is definitely the feistiest part, with or without her Australian bookshop. I just wish I had had the chance to visit this vibrant venue between 1996 and 2000. As Nick Earls puts it, “We need more of her, many more of her – we need people like Elaine everywhere there is a flicker of interest in reading.” (LBW 275)

Jean-François Vernay.

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