Daniel Bordin steals. Not just physical objects, though he partakes of these a-plenty (with bounded pages of all sorts being a favorite targets), but everything that can be taken – he steals words and poems and sometimes his own identity. He also wants to steal some fame, but would never admit it, which proves easier than expected when his path crosses with that of self-styled avant-garde rogues who see the world as a stage and themselves as the crowd who rushes it and ruins a boring play.
But everybody plays a role, and Daniel discovers how hard it is to keep multiply parts going at once.
Written by Alessandro Tota, illustrated by Pierre Van Hove, lettered and translated by Edward Gauvin
Daniel Brodin – bibliophile, book thief, self-proclaimed poet – enters the heated atmosphere of the Café Serbier, home of the Parisian literati. A poetry night is taking place and, when one luminary suggests giving the floor to an unknown, Daniel impulsively puts himself forward. Under pressure, he recites not one of his own surrealist poems but an obscure piece of Italian verse he’s certain no one will know. It’s plagiarism – but it’s a triumph.
At last, success. Daniel’s recital marks his entrance into the Parisian avant-garde: a band of cultured rogues and pseudo-revolutionaries for whom life is a playground for art, whether plotting a novel or planning a heist. In such a milieu, the company is as intoxicating as the wine – but will success lose its dazzle if it is built on theft?
“Weaker talent idealizes; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.”
– The Anxiety of Influence
Before we begin the review proper I need to mention one thing – I like, love even, books about books. I like movies about books and comic-books about books. This might be the most unsurprising thing ever written by an English Lit. major but I would do disservice to the readers of this review I failed to explain how prejudiced I am in such a case. I was finishing this graphic novel while co-reading “The Library Book” (about the Los Angeles library fire of 1986) and “Out of Sheer Rage” (about D.H Lawrence). “Memories of a Book Thief” is therefore my jam, my tea and my whatever-you-culture-puts-in-as-important.
Which means I found myself enjoying the book despite the glaring flaws in pacing and presentation. Taking place in a supposed-golden age of intellectual and artistic growth in French, at least if you believe the character in the graphic novel, “Memories of a Book Thief” lays bare all the lies the various people involved in the literati scene tell each other and themselves.
Daniel’s theft both physical and intellectual – his first foray into fame arrives at poetry reading when, flustered with attention, he chooses to translate an obscure Italian poem on the spot rather than to use one his own (despite being convinced of his own artistic greatness); this wins him the adoration of crowd. Later still an act of kleptomania gets him in with a different in-crowd: a group of roguish art-saboteurs who disdain the very institutes Daniel is so desperate to impress (while playing up the image that he, of course, cares not for such things as being published in a prestigious poetry magazine).
Daniel is useful protagonist in exposing the hypocrisies of all around because he himself is the biggest hypocrite of all. In a scene obsessed with identity and being ‘real’ while not ‘selling out’ everyone turns out be a liar to one degree or another; showing us these struggle with artistic authenticity is quite older than pop-culture. The problem is that making the protagonist such a compulsive liar leaves him little room to develop as a character, he starts as a prick and ends-up a prick, which makes the book rather plodding in terms of structure: we jump from occasion to occasion and scene to scene; it feels as though you could shuffle much of this book and not really feel it. A collection of incidents.
The amount of attraction the reader might have for this graphic novel as pleasant read, and whatever else I’ll write it was certainly a joy to go through, might be directly related to how willing the reader is to deep-dive into the world of 1950’s Paris. Possessing neither time machine nor being European I cannot tell how authentic the recreation is (oh, the irony) but it is to Pierre Van Hove that he gives such a strong impression of the place: moving seamlessly from high to low-society, from palaces of culture to dens of thievery and even from sobriety to the many shades of inebriation. His vision of the city is always popping with life – there’s always some place to discover, some unknown street to wander into, someone new and mysterious and exciting to meet. Even though the graphic novel is rather traditionally illustrated and rigid in its structure it never feels cagey or dull.Continued below
My one wish is that the story would allow itself to be as free-roaming as the world it depicts: the critique of the self-styled artists might be justified, cliques have existed in every age, and likewise the mockery of those who seek success without admitting it; but the book makes it point early and has little to go on than to make variations on it again and again – Daniel is bound for failure, as are all the momentary stars. I wish more time would been have spent with his activist uncles, his two would-be girlfriend even with thuggish Jean-Paul (who does at least get a subplot of his own); all of whom feel like they have more to contribute to the themes of “Memories of a Book Thief.”
Because in one thing Daniel is proven right – everyone steals, no one forms himself entirely apart from others. And it matters little if you take booze, money, books or words. We are all thieves together. It’s probably better when we can admit it.