It's that time of the year again in France. La rentrée, the start of the school year, is just around the corner - and with it comes the annual avalanche of new books known as la rentrée littéraire.
This frenzy of publication never fails to amaze me. Coming from a third-world country where publishers' lists of new books are counted in tens, not hundreds, I find it astonishing that French publishers can produce hundreds of fiction titles in a single month. In September 2010 there are no less than 701 novels on offer. Yes, you read correctly - 701 novels. These 700 new books do not include non-fiction or biographies, children's literature or poetry, cook books or travel books or beautiful coffee-table books. We're talking novels, only novels, nothing but novels. Now isn't that something?
And among these 700 novels, only about 200 are translated from other languages, the rest are as French as the Eiffel Tower. Well, not quite. Some are from other francophone regions in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. In fact, the best-selling French author is the Belgian Amélie Nothomb, who has been coming up with a novel each September, as regularly as clockwork, for more than a decade. Her 2010 offering, Une forme de vie (A Form of Life) has the highest print-run of all the rentrée's novels (220 000 copies), followed by the British Ken Follet's Fall of Giants (150 000 copies in France, but simultaneously published in 13 other countries) and the French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq's La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory), which has an initial print-run of 120 000 copies.
Among the 200 odd translated novels there are some Big Names too. South African Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee's L'Eté de la vie (already published in English as Summertime) is the eagerly awaited third book in the series of 'auto-fiction' starting with Boyhood and followed by Youth. French fans of American fiction can look forward to Vice caché, the translation of Inherent Vice, a comic-noir crime thriller featuring ukulele music by that infamous Invisible Man, Thomas Pynchon, as well as works by Bret Easton Ellis (Imperial Bedrooms) and my own American favourite, Don DeLillo. Although I'd prefer to read the inimitable DeLillo's Point Omega in the original English, of course.
But the best thing about la rentrée littéraire, I've always found, is the surprise element. The unexpected and unpredictable hits by authors who are still completely unknown, but might just be, who knows, among the Big Names by the time the next fictional avalanche hits France in September 2011. Watch this space. I'll keep you posted.