Édouard Louis opened the door to the apartment at the top of the Tour Perret, the only skyscraper in the northern French city of Amiens. He said hello warmly before resuming his position in front of a large window, which looked onto a boulevard that cut through town and then vanished into green fields. The apartment belonged to someone called Noppe, who must have been an amateur artist and collector with a nostalgic idea of globe-trotting. On one wall hung a painting that bore the owner’s name, which somewhat stereotypically depicted four African masks suspended in a cloud of hieroglyphs; across from it stood a display case containing regional glassware and a number of vintage die-cast cars. Louis was in the midst of a preliminary shoot for a documentary with the working title “Édouard Louis, or the Transformation,” and the filmmaker, François Caillat, had rented the apartment for its views. “Now you have Amiens at your feet,” Caillat said. “When you arrived, it wasn’t like that.”
A cameraman and a sound operator closed in on Louis as Caillat positioned him. They requested a sound test, and Louis, who attended a performing-arts high school in Amiens, sang a short tune, an old song by the ’70s French pop star Daniel Balavoine called “The Singer”: “I want to succeed in life, be loved, be beautiful, earn money/Above all be intelligent/But for all that, it’s a full-time job.”
At 28, Louis is tall, statuesque, with sharp, angular features. He is also one of France’s most widely read and internationally successful novelists. He seems, however, to have skirted the complicated psychological dynamics that youthful fame can inflict. His sentences are punctuated with a lighthearted, reassuring laugh. Occasionally, you could see the drama student’s checklist reel through his mind: He would straighten his spine, press his shoulders back and down as he looked into the camera. Caillat asked if he could swing open the giant window to film Louis leaning out over town. Louis concurred, though with a faint cry of protest: “I’m not at all the type of person to open a window,” he said.
Until this month, independent bookstores were experiencing something of a cultural, if not necessarily financial, renaissance. Where they’ve persevered, they are often beloved community institutions, not just selling goods but bringing people together around events and serving as a central gathering place. They can also be ad hoc sanctuaries in times of difficulty. “Historically, we’re the ones who’ve served as havens of comfort, reassurance, and information to many people in need during a crisis,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in D.C. “We feel a closure to the public particularly acutely given that we’ve always prided ourselves on being there for communities in need during past crises.”
That many of these businesses have become such neighborhood fixtures helps explain the anguish and betrayal many people felt when two of the best-known bookstores in the country abruptly cut their workers as the pandemic began shutting down retail in mid-March. On March 16, McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in New York City, announced it would lay off more than 80 employees. Then two days later, Powell’s Books, the giant independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, laid off the “vast majority” of its staff.
“Memento mori,” from Latin, means “remember death.” From victorious Roman generals humbled by “memento mori” chants to Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos, people of many cultures have embraced this philosophy. To remember death is to acknowledge our brevity. To remember death is to value life. To remember death is to remain humble.
We have Halloween, but that centers around campy movies, candy corn, and rumors of meth-laced Milky Ways. Skulls and tombstones serve as fitting reminders, but we are desensitized to these images. Too many of us deny our own mortality until the smiling mortician stands above us. Ferlinghetti knows the world, despite its beauty, is an evanescent place. But most people avoid poetry and art. We can ignore death all we want, but we can’t escape it. As Alan Lightman asks, “Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?”
The Penguin Book of Mermaids brings together 60 such mermaid and mermaid-adjacent stories; the collection is notable for its wide scope, both in terms of region and time period. Linguistically, as well, the collection provides novelty: 20 of the tales appear for the first time in English (translated from Japanese, Estonian, Persian, and other languages). Editors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown bring their expertise in a variety of academic areas to the assembled texts as well as to the book’s highly perceptive introduction, which weaves together insights from the study of literature, folklore, narrative, postcolonial theory, and more, while nevertheless remaining accessible to lay (nonacademic) readers. In their consideration of mermaid stories’ continuing appeal to audiences, they muse on how [w]e humans do not deal well with betwixt and between — liminality makes us anxious. We prefer our world organized into well-ordered and sharply defined categories, and we prefer to be in charge of it. Nonetheless, we are strangely drawn to the other who is in part a mirror image of us and appears within reach, even if mentally ungraspable.
Dealing mainly with contemporary art and anglophone writing, the collection’s binding sensibility is indicated in its subtitle. The “emergency” in question is the one that distressed Crudo’s author-narrator, who “saw the liberal democracy in which she had grown up revealed as fragile beyond measure, a brief experiment in the bloody history of man”. In a foreword, Laing acknowledges that she values art principally for its political capacities of “resistance and repair”. Art can and should change the world, she insists; it reveals the interior lives of others, “makes plain inequalities” and suggests new ways of living.
Standing at the window
looking between icicles
I can barely see across the street.