Pelletier and Laplante debate the future of Québec in Canada at le Salon du livre de l’Outaouais, Feb 28, 2013
Tonight I went to le Salon du livre de l’Outaouais with the Ottawa chapter of the Sciences Po alumni association.
First of all, I think it’s hilarious that having attended both universities in Ottawa, I’m involved with the alumni association of a school across The Pond where I’ve only spent four months.
In the weeks leading up to tonight, I was under the impression that it was going to be an intimate table ronde politique et littérature where the alumni discuss Benoît Pelletier’s Une certaine idée du Québec: parcours d’un fédéraliste de la réflexion à l’action and Laurent Laplante’s Stephen Harper – Le néo-Durham. *Meanwhile, the Ottawa U alumni association is having a wing night.*
As the day approached however, I began to panic. In between applying to a national public policy fellowship that the Department of Justice nominated me for, I barely had time to crack open the thinner of the two books. When I ran into a fellow alumnus and colleague at the Chief Legislative Counsel’s (aka chief lawmaker of Canada) retirement party, I tentatively asked her how far along she was in her readings. “I’m halfway through the thick one,” said she. “Oh s%^#!” thought I, knowing how rigorous Sciences Po expectations are.
However, after slapping together a fellowship application package that involved a Skype consultation to Britain regarding the Hansard; using Department of Justice connections to trace down an archived policy; nearly having to phone up a senator to get first-hand account of the “particular moment in Canadian history” I was asked to write about; using all of my banked goodwill to get public service executives to write me recommendation letters during the end of fiscal year chaos; and getting through to a professor during his “unplugged” vacation via his in-laws, you can be sure of two things: 1) I pursue what I want doggedly, and 2) I wasn’t too keen to read about Lord Durham.
So tonight, I decided to wing it.
Lucky for me, the activity turned out to be attending the regional book fair. All I had to do was to watch the authors squirm in the hot seat while I looked at them with appraising eyes (my specialty).
The highlight of the evening however, was the book fair itself. I’ve heard about book fairs in Europe and notably the world’s largest in Frankfurt. This was my first and attending it made me realize how infrequently people here buy books, let alone paw through the collections of different publishing houses. To North Americans, this must be as bemusing as watching an exquisitely-dressed French woman determinedly squeeze through a basket of plums until she finds one that’s juuust right.
My colleague and I giddily raced towards Éditions Gallimard, France’s leading publishing house. “Ici, c’est Paris!” my colleague exclaimed, probably reminiscing her years of studying in the City of Lights. “Paris est ici!” thought I, remembering with a smile walking past the publisher’s headquarters on my way to school. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I trotted those revolution-friendly winding streets.
Gallimard sells “serious” books, the works of every author entombed at the Panthéon. So basically, what I wish I had the time to read in Paris, the city in which most of them were written (or written for). These are the books and authors you know by name but have never read (Voltaire, Sartre, Dumas, Sand, Rousseau, Kafka). Yet, you think everyone else must have so you nod knowingly (as does everyone else) when these titles are brought up.
However, Mom always told me it’s better to be dumb when one is young than when one is old. So I summoned the nearest associate and began with: “SVP excusez ma ignorance mais…” (humble, right?) “…I’m looking for a representative work from a famous French author that would impress people when I tell them I’ve read it.” (…yet still far from true humility.)
It turned out the associate is a retired French literature professor and he graciously humoured my crass request and my obvious ignorance that didn’t take long to surface.
Me: “Alors Kafka, est-il français?” (Seemed like reasonable, it was a French book fair)
Me: *tentatively “Jaaaponais?” (Getting mixed up with Kafka on the Shore by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami)
Lui: “Il est Pragois.“
After following him down a few aisles.
Me: “George Sand…“
Lui: *cutting me off* “est une femme…“
Me: *cutting him off* “Ça, je sais.” (I’ve seen her statue in Jardin de Luxembourg and it was definitely that of a woman.) *feeling relieved of complete disgrace*
Lui: “Mais on prononce son nom sans ‘d’ à la fin. C’est un vieux nom français.”
Me: “Oh!” (I always thought she was an American expat who mastered French but this makes a lot more sense) *a shameless save* “Good thing I warned you I was ignorant!”
Despite my dramatization above, the older gentleman actually made me feel really at ease. He took the specifications of my request with as much care as a grocer at a French marché ouvert (and this is a compliment). In Paris, I’ve seen locals confide in their grocer as if a therapist:
Shopper: “I’m serving ça avec ça and finishing par ça.”
Grocer: *after nodding pensively* “Alors ça c’est le type du champignon to make your soup with.” *weighs a handful of plump but knobbly fungus I’ve never seen before in my life*
In the end, the professor and I decided on Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques in which the dude (whose coffin I saw at the Panthéon) gives his two cents sur le commerce, sur le parlement, and sur les quakers.
This should be fun.
My newest snobcessory