View from Rue Saint-Georges

The Best and Worst of Times

A weekend trip exposes France’s contradictions

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | June 12, 2019

I spent last weekend in the picturesque Breton port town of Saint Malo for its annual literary festival that brings French and foreign authors together for a series of débats and signings and lots of food and drink. Saint Malo and the two islands that dot its coastline—fortified castles and batteries carved from rugged cliffs—look like something out of the mind of George R. R. Martin, and it’s easy to imagine the presence of the Drowned God when the powerful tide sweeps in. But the literary deity presiding over the terrain is François-René Chateaubriand, his tomb overlooking the ocean from the west coast of the island closest to the shoreline.

The reverence with which everyday French people treat literature is something I will never take for granted. For 72 hours, through sun and rain, attendees filled lecture halls across the city to listen to discussions of books they’ve never heard of by authors who often needed translation. This intellectual bent so infuses the culture, and the country, that it goes a long way to make up for some of France’s other, more frustrating, national characteristics.

I was reminded of this tradeoff on the train back to Paris—an evening TGV booked exclusively for the hundreds of writers and publishing workers. The cash register at the café car suddenly died after only two people had been served. An increasingly hungry and agitated mob seemed on the verge of open revolt as the unapologetic train employee working the counter rejected our attempts to pay cash or work out any kind of compromise in order to be fed. Just as she mentioned her “right” to shut the car, another conductor stepped in and tinkered with the computer for several fraught minutes until it miraculously lit up again. “Ah, there is hope!” one writer exclaimed.

“Yes, a fragile one,” the conductor replied, philosophically, before quietly walking off. “But such is the nature of hope at all times, is it not?”

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