Home > 1990, 20th Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, Epistolary Fiction, French Literature, Novel, Pancol, Katherine > Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Un homme à distance by Katherine Pancol. (152 pages) Not translated in English. The title means “A man at a distance”

Un homme à distance is a disconcerting little book. It’s an epistolary novel between Kay Bartholdi and Jonathan Shields. Kay is a bookseller in Fécamp, Normandy. Jonathan is American, travelling across France to write a tourist guide. He stopped in Fécamp, left a note and bank notes at Kay’s book-store. The note includes the addresses of the hotels he will stay in during his tour of France. The money is for Kay to send him books. They start a correspondence, talking about the books they like. They bounce on each other’s references. Jonathan guesses right. Like the reader, Kay is disconcerted.  

Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres?Est-ce que les livres sont le moyen de tout se dire, même l’inavoué, le plus terrible secret?Si vous m’aviez parlé de livres qui m’indiffèrent, si je vous avais annoncé des livres qui vous laissent froids, auriez-vous pensé à moi comme si vous saviez tout de moi?

Et pourquoi me suis-je livrée à vous aussi facilement?

Pourquoi suis-je allée vers vous en aveugle confiance?

Parce que j’avançais sur des livres, complices muets, farfadets malicieux?

Parce que vous me répondiez en glissant d’autres volumes sous vos pas?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?Are books a way to tell everything, even the unspoken, the most terrible secret?If you had talked about books that are indifferent to me, if I had chosen books that left you cold, would you have thought of me as if you knew everything about me?

And why did I open to you so easily?

Why did I go to you with blind trust?

Because I was walking on books, silent accomplices, impish elves?

Because your answers would slip other volumes under my steps?


 A thought-provoking question, indeed and I don’t have the answer.

Unlike my Guernsey marshmallow friends from the other day, this doesn’t turn into ridiculous mawkishness. And I was surprised by the denouement.

I’m embarrassed with this post because writing more about the text would reveal important pieces of the plot. It’s a book about books but it is more than that. It’s a book about love, but it’s also more than that. It’s a book about how book lovers can find help, comfort, shelter in novels.

It’s a book about the freedom brought by solitude. He has a bird name. She has the name of the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Each of them has their idea of what freedom is. In French, Un homme à distance means at the same time a man who is far away and a man to keep at a distance. And Jonathan is both.  

I enjoyed this one-evening read and I thank Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for recommending it to me. I’m curious about the books Kay and Jonathan talk about, especially The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, since I really loved Letters to a Young Poet last year.

I wish Katherine Pancol had made a moderate use of exclamation marks, but apart from that, her style is flowing. It improved in her following novels, Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles and La Valse lente des tortues. In the latter, there are references to Romain Gary. In this one, Jonathan is American but has spent his childhood in Nice, where his father was a consul. My one-track-Gary mind saw here a discreet allusion to Gary’s own adolescence in Nice. And as he was the consul of France in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help thinking about him. Incurable me.

Something else. I always have a lot of fun reading clichés about CPAs. They are always dull and shy little men with glasses. They supposedly love nothing else than numbers and usually have no imagination. Whenever a writer wants a boring character, you can be sure he’s an accountant. No writer can imagine a CPA as a thirty-something woman who loves books. Life is more imaginative that literature, I suppose.

PS : For readers able to read in French, it is easy to read.

  1. February 10, 2011 at 6:43 am

    I like reading a review by someone else on a book I have read. It does bring it back to mind. I loved The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge when I read it but that was such a long time ago. The books she mentions are mostly very good and I try to read those I haven’t read yet one by one. As you have seen I just finished the de Luca. I also read Confidence Africaine but I did not like it. The choice of novels is rather a gloomy one. No joyful books but that was to be expected seeing the outcome. I am relucant to speak about it because of the spoiler… I didn’t see it cming, did you? At first I was a little bit disappointed but then I realized that my version would have been schmaltzy. No comparing this to The Guernsey book at all. I do not understand why this book has not been translated into English. It would be easy and it would be read.


    • February 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

      I’m not happy with my review. It makes of this book a sort of silly romance, and it’s not that at all. You think she’s been hurt like anyone who would have been left by a lover. But it’s a lot more than that. I didn’t see the end coming either. You’re expecting basic romance and you get something twisted. Very French and un-Hollywood.

      I’ll probably pick books in their list, but I want to browse through them in a bookstore first, except for the Rilke. I wish I could read in German. Confidence Africaine is by Roger Martin du Gard. I didn’t like The Thibault, though I learnt things about politics in France around WWI. I didn’t like the characters, I found them tasteless. Reading your review again, I understand why the characters of Un homme à distance talk about this.
      I think all the novels Kay & Jonathan talk about have a meaning and explain the plot. (apart from writers’ correspondance maybe). Each of them must have a key or a special light on the characters. It’s terribly intriguing.

      Perhaps it will be translated since the Crocodiles / Turtles / Squirrels series is successful. Don’t you know a publisher ready to translate this ? 🙂

      The question “Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres” (I’m not happy with my translation) lingers in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it since the moment I read the sentence. I can’t make up my mind about the answer. It echoes strangely with blogging.


      • February 12, 2011 at 9:44 pm

        This one sounds good. Do you remember the characters in The Novel Bookstore? I thought Francesca and Van were going to end in a sticky romance because they liked the same books and she was so unhappy.

        I like epistolary novels (point taken about marshmallows).


        • February 12, 2011 at 10:09 pm

          Yes, I remember A Novel Bookstore. I thought it would happen too. But in the end, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better than this ridiculous relationship between Van and Anis.

          Un homme à distance is only available in French, but it’s a short book and it’s easy to read (no slang, short sentences, not too many special expressions). I think you’d like the end too, no sticky romance.
          I’m really really curious about the books they talk about. According to the reviews Caroline has already made and the ones I know — unlike in Cossé’s book, the list is available at the end of the novel — each of them has a clue to explain the characters.


  2. February 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    It is one of those books that I call deceptively simple. It is multilayered and when you start lloking at the books she mentions in detail even more so. I have read Les letters de la religieuse portugaise, they are heartbreaking, very beautiful. I don’t remeber anymore if they are real letters. Yes, the accountatnt stereotype, but apart from that there are not a lot of stereotypes. I was puzzling over the translation of the sentence. I can’t come up with anything much better. I would have said love the same books. Enjoy seems toned down. I would say no in answer to that question. Maybe if you found someone who has only one favourite novel and it happens to be the same as yours, maybe you know more but only maybe. I realize more and more than we can like or even love the same book for very different reasons. And then there is like and like. I can really like something but am not moved by it. What strikes me is that even when we write that we like something we hardly ever are very explicit about why. At least I am often not. There is always also a personal reason why we like something. Either it has nothing to do with us and our life and that is what makes it oddly fascinating or it does tell something about our own life.


    • February 10, 2011 at 10:51 pm

      You’re right, the best translation is probably “Do we know everything about someone who loves the same books?”
      I’m not as sure as you about the answer. Of course, you can’t know “everything” about someone, not even about yourself. I agree with you that we like a book for different reasons, due to our personal life or because we acknowledge it is well-written or that it brought something new to literature or because it is very far from our own life and we’re fascinated to read about so different human beings.

      So answering “yes” to this question may sound foolish. But for example, I didn’t like The Red and the Black or Wuthering Heights. No doubt they are masterpieces. Masterpiece or not, they didn’t speak to me. And the notion of “speaking to me” or not is the reason why I hesitate about the answer.

      As you say, sometimes it is difficult to explain why a book moved us so much. It’s because something happens which is beyond the story or the literary qualities of the book. A good writer has a voice, an internal music, a way to look at life in a certain angle. A great author has his/her own way to talk about human experience, explicit or not in his/her work. When we love a book, we have a kind of connection with the writer, either because we share his/her views on life or because he/she has a special sense of humour or because he/she has a unique way to describe and “make see” the beauty of the world. It’s very personal. And that’s why I think we share something personal with the other readers who love – in the sense that they are moved by – the same books as us. They are moved by the same voice.


  3. February 11, 2011 at 6:32 am

    I agree about sharing something. I was being literal “do we know everything”. And then it depends what we mean when we say “like”. I make a big difference between being moved intellectually or emotionally. It is the latter that counts when it comes to sharing, I suppose.


  4. February 13, 2011 at 3:50 am

    I like the title of your post and the conceit of the book although I, too, am unsure about the answer to the question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I suppose. It’s always upsetting to discover how somebody whose tastes are very similar to your own in matters of great importance can be a real asshole, though, or view you as one (whatever the case may be). P.S. I’m back to reading Proust again and loving his observations (the brilliant, funny, and the brilliant AND funny ones). Cheers!


    • February 13, 2011 at 7:36 am

      I agree with you. The other way round, I’m also puzzled because two persons I really like have Le Rouge et le Noir as their favourite book. It can’t be simple. Knowing someone doesn’t mean you like/love them. But still, if “to know someone deeply is to know someone softly”, then reading someone’s favourite books is a soft way to know them better. I’m tempted to read those books when I’m interested in knowing someone behind the social face.

      Otherwise Good Reads would be a dating agency. But in these times of Valentine’s Day, you can spread the rumour. Maybe it would result in people rushing into bookstores to read the books they need to know to answer the questionnaires and find their kindred spirit. Unlike Un homme à distance, it would be a good Hollywood cheesy Valentine film.

      I thought I’d been careful not to miss your post(s) on Proust but I did. I’m going to check that.


  5. February 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I agree about Van & Anis (The Novel Bookstore). She was a very annoying character.

    What a great idea to list the books discussed.


    • February 13, 2011 at 8:01 pm

      I think I’m going to publish the list on the reading list page. Some books are really famous (like Wuthering Heights) but others are less known, it gives ideas.


      • February 15, 2011 at 8:54 am

        It’s done, the list is on the reading list page, if anyone is interested.


  6. February 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

    This morning I heard a song by Vincent Delerm (son of the writer Philippe Delerm) named Quatrième de couverture.

    A man is standing side by side with a woman, at a secondhand bookseller by the Seine. They’re both browsing through books and he’s imagining who she is by watching the books she picks up. It made me think of Un homme à distance and the question raised by my post title and I thought I’d share about it.

    If anyone is interested in the lyrics, here is a link :

    I can translate them upon request.


  1. July 30, 2011 at 8:19 am

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