While other nations reach for their guns when they are attacked, France looked to its bookshelves Friday.
In a repeat of a publishing phenomenon that followed the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket attacks in January when Voltaire’s 250-year-old “Treatise on Tolerance” became a bestseller, another classic text is flying off the shelves as France turns to literature for comfort.
Ernest Hemingway’s love letter to Paris, “A Movable Feast”, has shot to the top of the book charts since jihadis killed 130 people and wounded more than 350 in shootings and bombings across the city last Friday.
Copies of the American great’s tender account of his bohemian adventures in the 1920s are being left, along with flowers and candles, in front of bars and cafes targeted by the gunmen.
Remarkably, the rush to the bookshops was sparked by a woman in her seventies known only as Danielle, who quoted one of the book’s most famous lines when she was interviewed in the street by a French rolling news television channel.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Thanks to French laws which protect neighbourhood booksellers from the ravages of competition from Internet giants like Amazon, people inspired by the mysterious pensioner did not have far to go to get hold of a copy.
Most districts of the city still boast several bookstores.
– ‘What makes us different’ –
“Reacting to barbarity through books is a very French thing,” the writer and journalist Pierre Assouline, one of the judges of country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, told AFP Friday.
“Our relationship with books is one of the things that makes French culture different,” he said, with reading as much an act of resistance as a refuge.
While Voltaire offered the consolation of philosophy, brandishing a memoir in the face of the havoc wreaked by AK47s was not just tilting at windmills, he argued, but an affirmation of the best of French values.
Hemingway’s classic, which was not published until 1964, three years after his own death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, is far from misty-eyed about the city.
From its opening line — “Then there was the bad weather…” — it is by no means a romantic portrait of a city still scarred from the terrible human loss of World War I.
– ‘We ate and drank well’ –
“Hunger is good discipline,” he also wrote of his life as a starving young writer. But “we ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”
That paeon to the French way of life is probably the reason why the public have taken the book to their shattered hearts, its publisher Folio — who have are quickly printing 20,000 more copies — said.
“The book renews our bonds with our history, our civilisation and shows how different it is to the culture of barbarism and obscuranticism (that has attacked us)” said Bertrand Mirande, who was responsible for reissuing Voltaire’s tract.
“More than the book itself, it is probably its title — “Paris est une fête”, Paris is a party — which has struck a chord, Assouline said.
“The title is symbolic while the message of (tolerance in) Voltaire’s essay and its political and moral stance was a (direct) response to the January attacks,” he added.
To further hammer home the point that the written word was stronger than the sword, the Pompidou Centre modern art museum unfurled a huge banner Friday of the Cubist painter Fernand Leger’s famous illustration of the phrase, “Liberty, I write your name.”
The verse, written in 1942 by the poet Paul Eluard during the darkest days of the German occupation, was draped across the facade of the iconic building in the centre of Paris.