It was five or so years ago when I met my French translator, Philippe. We’d been corresponding by email for some time, our discussions initially consisting of questions relating to the translation of my first novel. But once the work was completed we continued the back and forth, establishing a friendship beyond professional matters. We spoke of many things, but the conversation always returned to writing and reading. It became apparent that Philippe’s interest in books, specifically novels, was pathological. This agreed with me; there was much to discuss. I was about to make a trip through Paris, and it was decided we’d have dinner together.
He met me in the lobby of my hotel. My first thought was that he had a slightly unhinged twinkle in his eye; my second was that his English was impeccable. It went beyond mere fluency; he seemed to have assumed some slight Southern lilt, so comfortable was he with his adopted language. When I complimented him, he laughed, and explained he was an American who’d grown up bilingual in South Carolina, then expatriated to Paris in 1991. His wife, Emma, was with him. Emma was then working at a literary agency in Paris; she’d come across my novel in a slush pile and brought it to Philippe, who brought the book to a publisher, who decided to take me on, with Philippe translating. (Emma has since joined forces with Philippe, and they now work as translators together.)
We walked to a nearby restaurant for a large, long, multi-drink dinner. It was a charming and happy evening, and plans were made to see one another the next night. This led to several more meetings, so that by the end of my stay in Paris, the friendship was officially cemented. Over the next few years I returned any number of times, once for four months. I became fond of the city in a way I hadn’t anticipated, this due in large part to my knowing Philippe and Emma. It wasn’t lost on us that our alliance had come to exist through a shared affection for literature.
Their apartment was wall to wall printed matter. The first time I visited, Philippe showed me around his collection, pressing certain books into my hands as gifts– a common occurrence when you call on Philippe, I would learn. This stems from his naturally generous nature, but also a minor outrage that you weren’t familiar with such-and-such a text. Whenever we meet or speak, Philippe’s first question is usually some variation of, “What are you reading?”
We spent a good deal of time in used book shops and stalls. I noticed a curious habit of Philippe’s, which was that he would open a given book, dip his nose between the pages, and discreetly sniff the binding. What manner of perversion was this? When I asked him about it, he explained that a well-made book’s binding had a pleasing smell, while a poorly made book, fabricated with inferior glue, did not. Also he was paranoid about bringing mold into his carefully curated library, and so was always on the hunt for early signs of deterioration. Once, at a stall near the Bastille, a bookseller noticed his sniffing habit, and he asked Philippe, “And how do my books smell to you, sir?”
Last year, Philippe came to Portland for the first time. Passing a bookstore I’d never noticed on Hawthorne, he demanded I turn the car around. The store, sadly no longer, was called Anthology, and was run by an older gentleman and long-time bookseller named Gary Wilkie. From the moment we entered, Philippe and I knew it was an uncommon place. In the first ten minutes I found hardcover first editions of Harry Matthews, Irving Rosenthal, and Gilbert Sorrentino. Upstairs, we spoke in whispers. “Well,” I said, “what do you think? Is this the best bookstore you’ve ever been in?”
Philippe considered the answer. It was such a serious question for us! He finally decided that yes, it was the best, and he went downstairs to tell Gary, who issued a cooing hoo of pure pleasure.
Some days later, looking over my book collection, Philippe took me to task for my habit of underlining passages or phrases of interest in pen. “You’re ruining the books,” he said. I told him that this minor act of vandalism was a necessary part of my work process. Philippe sighed. “If you have to underline,” he told me (the way he said it made it clear he was not in favor of the practice), “for God’s sake, use pencil.” I protested: Why bother? I had no intention of selling my books. “And when you die?” he asked, eyes twinkling. I had to admit I hadn’t considered what would become of my library after I died. Because who does? Philippe does. I’ve since ceased underlining my books.
Portland, OR author Patrick DeWitt won a 2016 PNBA Award for his novel, Undermajordomo Minor. He shares this essay with us in celebration of his second PNBA Book Award. Look for essays from this year’s other winners on this site with the tag “2016 PNBA Awards.”