Shaun de Waal
Shaun de Waal

Elusive books

Perhaps I am over-dutiful as a film reviewer. I often feel I have to read a famous book before I see the film adaptation, and frequently try to catch up with a filmmaker’s other work before reviewing his or her new movie. Sometimes I tell myself that the book/film comparison is unduly academic and probably not very interesting to most viewers, who won’t bother to read the book if there’s a film of the story to be seen, so it’s best to just review the film as though there were no book upon which it is based. After all, there are many films based on books one’s never heard of and has no intention of reading.

Sometimes, too, it works the other way around. I see the film and then feel compelled to go back to the book, if I’ve read it (The Reader, for instance), or to read the book for the first time if I haven’t before. That was the case with the film of Colette’s novel Chéri. I thought I’d better read the book to try and see why the filmmakers were obviously struggling to get this story right. Was it just the actors (Kathy Bates is good, but Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend, in the main roles, weren’t doing very well), or was it a problem of adaptation and scripting?

The conclusions I reached are in my review of the film. What is of concern here is the “backstory”, as they say in Hollywood, the little saga of getting hold of a copy of Chéri. This is a tale of minor woe that is not of earth-shattering importance, but it’s an example of something that has been bugging me for a few years, so I’m going to get it off my chest.

In search of Chéri (and its sequel, The Last of Chéri, with which it is nowadays packaged) I went on to the internet and logged in to the Exclusive Books site, www.exclusivebooks.com. As the biggest book chain in South Africa, I thought Exclusive would be most likely to be able to tell me if and how I could get a copy of Chéri relatively fast. I also thought that since a lot of Colette had been recently republished in Vintage, an imprint of one of the giant publishers (I got Colette’s The Cat not so long ago), I thought it would be easy to find what is probably her most famous work after Gigi. How wrong I was.

The title could not be located on the site, with or without its acute accent. Look up “Chéri” and you get Cherished Tales of the Countryside as first hit, and How to Love Yourself: Cherishing the Incredible Miracle That You Are as the second. Look up Colette as author and you get something by someone called Colette Brooks and another by one Colette Caddle, but no Colette as such. Searching around the site and trying different options, I did stumble upon The Collected Stories of Colette, its price mysteriously given as R0.00 and its availability “unknown”. But when I looked for it again it had disappeared and could not be found again — “No results match your request”. Computer says no.

Getting desperate, I called the helpline given on the site. The person on the other end helpfully said that I should supply an EAN or an ISBN, the universal numbers by which books are catalogued. Rather obviously, I didn’t have either number to hand. (What was I supposed to do? Look it up on another site?) So the helper looked it up and gave me an EAN which I duly put into the site and — lo! Chéri and The Last of Chéri, in one volume, appeared. Odd that you have to have the mystery number before you can find the title, but there you go … At least the book was there.

Except it wasn’t. No copies in the country, it seemed, and anyway the price was rather high — in the R200 range, as far as I recall. The helpful helpline person said I could order it from Exclusive Books, but that seemed a waste of time. Why do that when it’s going to be cheaper and quicker to go to Amazon or another overseas site and order it that way? There are likely to be any number of really cheap second-hand or remaindered copies, and if it’s posted from Britain it will get it here a lot quicker than if it’s posted in Randburg.

Before going that route, however, I thought I’d try Bookdealers of Melville, one of the great Bookdealers chain selling second-hand and remaindered books. They have provided me with many a wonder over the years. A quick call, one that took a fraction of the time consumed doing business with Exclusive Books, not to mention the irritation, and the book was found. It was an old Penguin copy, not in great condition, and it wasn’t at the Melville shop, but it could be conveyed there in a day — and it cost a mere R20. Hallelujah.

So I got to read Chéri and The Last of Chéri for my over-conscientious film review, and the memories of how hard it is to buy a book you really want from Exclusive Books, especially via the internet, faded somewhat. I did remind myself, though, with a rueful shake of the head, that I used to spend between R500 and R1 000 a month at Exclusive — but that was in the old days, when they had a good range and decent depth of stock.

The occasion I nominate as the moment that changed for me was when I saw that the film Iris, John Bayley’s memoir of his late wife, Iris Murdoch, was soon to hit our screens. Now, I had a major passion for Auntie Iris, as we used to call her, about 20 years ago, and I thought it’d be fun to revisit her work. My copies of The Bell and A Severed Head had either been given away or were in a box in a cupboard somewhere, and anyway they were old and tatty. I presumed that if the movie of Iris was about to land in South Africa there would be at least a minor resurgence of interest in her work, and I knew that almost all her novels had been republished in a uniform edition (Vintage, again), so surely Exclusive would have a few on the shelves?

No. Not one. Not one single Iris Murdoch novel in Hyde Park Exclusive Books.

Like a good customer, I went to the front desk and asked if there were any novels by Iris Murdoch to be found in any of the other shops. Any Iris Murdoch? The person at the counter asked: “How do you spell that?” I forbore to ask whether the trouble was with “Iris” or “Murdoch”.

Now I am perfectly aware that bookshops and other retailers, in the interests of paying their exorbitant rents in swanky shopping centres, and to pay for their cedar shelves and the like, need to be able to employ shop assistants with very little training or knowledge. Usually they are varsity students who are probably struggling, at that very moment, to get through Pride and Prejudice.

But it might be a good idea for a bookseller to employ people who are at least vaguely literate, perhaps even keen on books and literature and with some basic knowledge of the field. You used to be able to speak to a shop manager with a palpably deep love of books, with enthusiasms of his or her own, with passions and ideas. Perhaps they are still around; perhaps they are at head office.

Certainly, I didn’t see such a person at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park that day, and similar problems on other occasions left me unwilling to spend too much time ferreting out such people. Friends of mine say they get that personal service and zeal from smaller booksellers such as The Book Lounge or Wordsworths in Cape Town, and now Jo’burg has similar “independent” retailers like the delightful Boekehuis and the nice, if understocked, Love Books. For me, though, the first (and often last) stop is the internet — it’s so easy, unlike Exclusive Books either in the flesh or on the net, and the books are cheap.

Today, and for the last four or five years, the money I used to spend at Exclusive Books has been spent either at shops such as Bookdealers (where, eventually, I found enough Iris Murdoch to get all her novels on to my shelves — about 30, in all, and several of them those very Vintage reissues, presumably remaindered) or the internet.

There, praise the gods or demons of such things, I can find all sorts of books the big retailer simply doesn’t stock because it’s not worth its while to keep on its shelves one or two copies of, say, Modern Music and After, or The Genealogy of Queer Theory, on the off-chance that a weirdo reader like me will want it. Space must be reserved for what will sell to the book clubs, it seems; the shelf space for Iris Murdoch has been colonised by all those airport thrillers that used to be in a ghetto of their own but are now filed under “fiction” in general.

It’s sad to me because the bookshop experience was once so meaningful to me. I spent many of my younger years crouched on the floor of the old Children’s Bookshop in Rosebank, or deep inside the old, first, and at that time singular Exclusive Books in Hillbrow. But that wonderful shop went the way of its neighbour, Hillbrow Records (where I also used to spend a fortune now spent on the net) — they were relocated, bought over, corporatised and shoved into the “mass” market to sell “mass” product to, well, I don’t know: the masses?

I wouldn’t have bothered to spend all this time on this rant, but it happened to me again today. I wanted to find out if Dan Simmons’s novel Drood was in paperback yet, so, foolishly, I went to exclusivebooks.com. Look up “Drood” alone and you get Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood; no sign of the Simmons. Look up Dan Simmons and it’s there, but “Price/availability uncertain”, though contradictorily it also says it costs R224. That, I suspect, is the American edition, hence the price; silly when there’s a British edition, imported by a big distributor, to be had.

But why waste time fighting with the cumbersome dinosaur that is exclusivebooks.com? Try Loot (www.loot.co.za); look up “Dan Simmons Drood” and it comes up first shot, paperback, with publication date (this month), and a reasonable price — R103. It’s even cheaper at Amazon.co.uk (R46!), though you will pay postage of about R86, so it ends up about R10 more costly. On many another title, however, you will find it still comes out cheaper than it would be in a South African retailer, let alone via exclusivebooks.com.

Anyway, enough of this wittering. I have books to read.