We’re staying in the countryside near Bussières-Galant, nearest city Limoges, with one of my oldest friends and his wife. On the first day we go for an hour’s walk in country lanes and see three buzzards, a red kite, loads of jays and three black redstarts. At other times there are glimpses of a green woodpecker, a barn owl, a heron and numerous great tits. As we sit out in the evening and watch dusk steal the light from the sky, a churring starts up that sounds a lot like a nightjar.
On a visit to the Dordogne town of Périgueux I leave my companions sitting outside a café to nip back to an alleyway we have just passed – rue de Berthe Bonaventure – and, at No.9, one of the smallest secondhand bookshops I’ve ever been in. In fact, it’s so small that as soon as you’ve entered, all you can do it turn around and go back outside again, and it’s on the tables outside that I find an Editions de Minuit – Forever Valley by Marie Redonnet. I’ve never heard of Redonnet, but the Editions de Minuit logo is an undisputable badge of quality and the books, which essentially all look the same, are beautiful, in that understated French way.
If you want to return to London from one of the cities in the South of France that are served by Eurostar, you have to disembark at Lille and go through security there and then reboard the same train. It’s all a bit of a faff and frankly it’s much more civilised to travel via Paris and spend a night there, avoiding Lille altogether. This also means you can visit any number of wonderful librairies d’occasions like Le Livre à Venir (pictured, above right) on fashionable rue Oberkampf in the 11th, where I find Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 2002 novel Faire L’Amour in Editions de Minuit. When I said all Editions de Minuit books look alike I was of course ignoring their ‘Double’ series of mass-market editions, which are smaller format and have photographic covers. I imagine that when Editions de Minuit introduced the ‘Double’ collection, it was a bit like Dylan going electric, and it’s true that I would always prefer an Editions de Minuit first edition, but the photographic covers can be good and you can have some fun with them (see below). I buy Faire L’Amour, which has a cover picture of Tokyo at night taken by the author himself.
We end up in our favourite bar, Les Pieds Sous la Table, on rue St Maur, also in the 11th. I’m not normally a dog person, but Eugène offers patrons a warm welcome. His owner is friendly, too; plus, she keeps a little library of free books in one corner of the bar. The idea is you bring a book, you take a book. Or take a book and bring one next time. I take L’événement by Annie Ernaux. As with Redonnet, I’ve never heard of Ernaux, but it’s Gallimard, alors – quality, again.
Spending a night in Paris, in a hotel where the black-and-yellow spines of Série Noire crime paperbacks decorate the bar, means we can spend most of the following day indulging the flâneur – and flâneuse – inside us. At Librairie L’Atelier, which seems to have three outlets on rue du Jourdain in the 20th, one of them devoted to secondhand stock (pictured, above left), I find a first edition of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 2013 novel Nue in Editions de Minuit. It’s the final part of the tetralogy that started with Faire L’Amour and it’s only €5, which is not bad going. Toussaint, a Belgian, sent his first novel, La Salle de bain (1985), to Editions de Minuit, who accepted it and have been his publisher ever since.
I’m grateful to my teachers at school and university, in particular Barry Packham and Roger Huss, without whose patience and encouragement I wouldn’t be able to read Toussaint, Ernaux and Redonnet in their original language. Merci, messieurs.