The old world and the new

April 4, 2009

It’s a good thing President Obama married Michelle when he did, because otherwise one of my two sons would have whisked her away. Or possibly both. Never mind that they are only 22 (yes, both of them) and spend most of their time in London; age and distance are no object when it comes to their reverence for the gorgeousness of the First Lady.
You see, Europe loves the Obamas. My husband now gets greeted excitedly by customs men at London’s Heathrow airport, simply because he is American and wearing his Obama hat. French publishers struggle incoherently (zut alors! C’est merveilleux!) to express their excitement over a bottle of wine in a Bologna restaurant, even as Monsieur Sarkozy hovers gnat-like at the President’s shoulder in his desperation to absorb some radiance from the Sun King. And now even the Queen has dropped centuries of stiff-upper-lip and let Michelle embrace her. What is the world coming to! Touching? Smiling? By rights, the First Lady should be in the Tower by now, waiting to have her head chopped off.

These last two weeks have been all about Europe – both in the big, bad world of politics, in the children’s books industry, and for me personally. It’s not all been easy. Protests in London (I’m sorry, but what on earth is there to protest about? None of us are exactly thrilled about the economic situation). And then for me, getting sick just before I flew to Bologna for the book fair, and staying sick for the whole thing. In fact, I couldn’t speak (though Julia might say that was a welcome relief). I can tell you, I was mad as a hornet to be lying in bed with a tray of room service while my buddies were sauntering over the cobblestones to La Antica Osteria Romagnola for another smashing dinner, but hey ho, one has to at least try to be mature. The main thing is that it was a great fair for the Greenhouse. Julia and I had bags of appointments (even if I did have to whisper and croak), there was loads of interest in our foreign rights, and follow-up manuscripts are going out to publishers all over the world. Oh, and we’re also anticipating our first Japanese and audio deals, which is all very cool. Sure, the fair was a bit quieter than usual in terms of the number of feet on the floor, but the editors who were there definitely felt they had a great opportunity to score the best projects around, which made them feel pretty smug.

Then it was on from Bologna to Paris, and a few great days’ vacation in the city with French family and friends. I love it, I love it, I love it. I love the grandeur of the architecture – the insanely splendiferous vision of Louis XIV (really quite a small dude, but with awfully big hair) who popped up new palaces on a weekly basis. Louis XVI who just didn’t see the end coming, and whose Marie-Antoinette was playing milkmaids down at the farm instead of contemplating the possible severance of her head. I love the epic vistas, the gleaming gold leaf, the sun turning stained-glass into jewels; the centuries’ old collection of armour over at the Musee de L’Armee (sorry, no accents on this keyboard), the squares, the gardens and ‘etoiles’. And I love the wallopingly huge edifice of Napoleon’s tomb.

Yes, I have a weakness for a really good tomb. Because at a tomb you can stand and imagine; a tomb is the ultimate leveller; it sorts out the ones you need to go and visit, even in death, and those whom history has passed by. And in Paris there are some crackingly good tombs for all of us obsessed with books and writers. Here on my blog photo is Jean-Paul Sartre, ensconsed down at Montparnasse with Simone de Beavoir. But I also paid a visit to Voltaire, Dumas, Victor Hugo – and Baudelaire. None of them may quite have the tomb-perfection (thin blue light, gloomy hugeness) of General Foch, or the panache of Serge Gainsbourg’s last resting place (‘je t’aime, je t’aime, Jane Birkin . . . ‘), but we know, don’t we, what they contributed to books and letters and how, in their strange and magisterial ways, they influenced us to follow behind, struggling in their wake to master big ideas and this great and difficult craft of words.

Europe. Here is history, untold centuries of it, layered in buildings, books and language. But also the present day – a political community, hub of commerce for the children’s books industry and so much more. Europe is like the glass pyramid outside the Louvre – the startlingly new abuts the casual grandeur of antiquity.

Can we make what we write and create speak to the present day and to a global marketplace – but also worthy of the vast literary heritage from which we come?
Now that’s a tough one. But you know what? I think we should try.