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France's Literary Return to Work


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Summer is almost over here in Europe. All right so you would be hard pushed to be able to tell it from the weather, which seems certainly to have rejoiced in being almost one long wet spring shower with intermittent bursts of sunshine, at least in this part of northern France.

But the signs are aplenty that we're fast heading into autumn.

And every year a big fuss is made in France about la rentrée - the period directly following summer when the country kicks into action again after the long break.

Telly programmes resume “regular transmission" when once again the viewing public can settle back in their sitting rooms to watch a mix of home-produced series and favourite US imports

In the capital, the banks of the Seine are no longer covered in sand as they have been every summer for the past seven years, and Paris Plage is replaced by rush hour traffic and bronzed motorists fuming at the wheel.

Schools prepare to throw open their doors to a new intake and government ministers get back to the daily task of “running " the country.

But another, and peculiarly French sign that la rentrée is upon us in this country is the deluge of new releases that hits the bookshelves.

That's right, every country might have its return to normal service after the summer break, but as the French website Rue 89 points out, surely only France has what is called here “une rentrée littéraire. "

It's basically the publishing equivalent of going back to school. The period from now until the end of October when publishers hope to capture readers’ imagination by aiming to release as many new titles as possible before the slew of literary prizes starting in November.

This year there are 676 new titles from which to choose - admittedly down from last year's 727. In fact there has been a drop in all categories ( foreign - minus 10 per cent, French - minus 5 per cent, and first-time novelists - minus 10 per cent) for the first time in years according to Rue 89.

But the choice is still big enough to throw even the most eager bookworm into perplexed contortions.

And here's just an admittedly very limited selection of some of the titles the French newspapers are recommending.

One of the biggest hopes in terms of sales and with an initial print run of 200,000 is Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb's “Le fait du prince. " It's her 17th novel and tells the story of a 40-something, taking over the identity of a wealthy stranger who drops dead outside his front door. It's described as “eccentric" and “intriguing" as the main protagonist does his best throughout the novel to maintain his “stolen" life.

Another potential best seller - which is after all what publishing houses really want - is Catherine Millet's “Jour de Souffrance" (Day of Suffering). It's her first novel in seven years, and tackles that age old literary gem “jealousy".

Yasmina Khadra's new novel “Ce que le jour doit à la nuit" (What The Day Owes The Night) is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited new releases. Khadra would probably make the subject of a post in himself. Yes that's right, although writing under a woman's pseudonym (which literally means green jasmine in Arabic) Khadra is in fact the pen name of a former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, and one he adopted to avoid military censorship.

He has lived in exile in France since 2001 and his latest novel is set in colonial Algeria and follows the tale of Younes-Jonas from childhood in the 1930s to the period just after the country's independence in 1962.

The 1986 Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel's new novel “Le Cas Sonderberg" focusses on the themes of Judaism, identity, Shoah, guilt and pardon, starting with a young German woman who is accused by the US justice system of having murdered her ageing uncle.

Years later a Jewish journalist reveals the truth behind the case - the uncle was a former Nazi supporter who still lamented the fall of Hitler.

Among first time novels there's Tristan Garcia's “La meilleure part des hommes" (The best of man). Set in the 1980s gay community, it centres on the relationship between a former left wing activist and his younger lover.

It's apparently full of love and hatred dealing with discrimination and emancipation set against the backdrop of Aids. And the 26-year-old Garcia is quoted himself as saying of the novel, “It's not a made up story as such but a faithful record. It's a tale that I didn't live through myself about a community hit by Aids and a portrait of the very best and worst in mankind. "

Of course it won't just be books by French authors hitting the shelves. There'll also be a fair selection of foreign writers releasing their latest novels and among them are the latest from 2007 Nobel prize laureate, Doris Lessing ("Alfred and Emily") and the former Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie ("The Enchantress of Florence").

And so the list could continue. But to run through them all would probably have you reading this post until Christmas and there has to be an end.

The numbers may be down, as are the print runs, and the publishing industry as wary as the rest of France about the amount of money it has to spend - in this case on promoting books that might only have a limited appeal.

But la rentrée littéraire, that seemingly peculiarly French phenomenon is far from dead, And neither, would it appear, is the country's love of a good read.

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at


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