Bernard Pivot (1935-2024) | Farewell to “King Read”

The journalists pass and the writers stay, with one exception: Bernard Pivot.

Posted at 1:25 a.m.

Updated at 6:09 a.m.

There is no equivalent in the French-speaking media world of a figure who will forever be associated with the pleasure and importance of reading. Creating Apostrophes in 1975, a show that he hosted live for 15 years at prime time and where the biggest names in literature appeared on his set, as well as Culture broth in 1991, Bernard Pivot democratized the book and its discussion on the small screen, making the writer an essential “pivot” in current affairs. With a big impact on bookstore sales, obviously.

It was not only in France that he played the role of smuggler, since his broadcasts were watched throughout the French-speaking world and, of course, in Quebec. “Moving to Pivot” was a consecration that a few local authors had the privilege of experiencing, notably Gaétan Soucy, Dany Laferrière and Robert Lalonde during the Paris Book Fair in 1999, where Quebec was the guest of honor . I still remember the excitement around the special episode of Culture broth recorded in Quebec in 1996, where the guests were Pierre Falardeau, Lise Bissonnette, Jacques Godbout, Joan Fraser, Neil Bissoondath and René-Daniel Dubois. It was Falardeau who had stolen the show, and we felt Pivot was very interested in the character, of whom he had read extracts from his pamphlet Freedom is not a brand of yogurtwhile Falardeau found the excitement around this special program a little “colonized”.

In fact, we watched Apostrophes And Culture broth especially to discover what animated the French intellectual world, because rants and scandals were frequent.

We never knew what was going to happen on this stage where things were smoking like chimneys, and even more fascinating was to see writers and thinkers messing around in this arena, severely criticized by Deleuze, who was sorry that literature was becoming a show. But like many viewers, I learned so much surrounding looking at books Apostrophes !

And all this in front of a Bernard Pivot who rarely lost his calm – except perhaps with the American writer Charles Bukowski, completely drunk on the set.

This moment appeared on a video cassette that I often watched, which brought together in one broadcast the best extracts fromApostrophes. For the young literary person that I was, it was a bit of an education for me on the sometimes surrealist Germanic chicanery, but also on the art of the interview. We could see Serge Gainsbourg pinching himself with Guy Béart, Denise Bombardier denouncing Gabriel Matzneff, Solzhenitsyn undoing the communist dream of many French intellectuals, the arrival of the “new philosophers”, Nabokov correcting Pivot on the myth of the “Lolita” …

Some extracts from his broadcasts have aged poorly in the light of the #metoo movement, which are today evidence, which made him say, after the Matzneff affair which broke out with the publication of the book The consent by Vanessa Springora, that “in the 1970s and 1980s, literature came before morality; today, morality comes before literature. Morally, this is progress. We are more or less the intellectual and moral products of a country and, above all, of an era.”

But there were also these great interviews with living legends (Yourcenar, Duras, Eco, Simenon, Lévi-Strauss, Kundera, etc.) which have become precious archives, where we can see a very well prepared Bernard Pivot, always respectful and often admiring. You don’t see that much on TV today, big interviews with writers, in prime time, and I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched that Duras interview with Pivot.

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Marguerite Duras and Bernard Pivot in 1984, on the show Apostrophes

A true master class, because Pivot made even the most cutting-edge authors accessible to the general public, while retaining the esteem (or interest) of an environment renowned for having a good share of snobs.

I had the opportunity to interview Bernard Pivot twice rather than once, in his second life after television, during which he wrote books, was the first “non-writer” president of the Académie Goncourt (from 2014 to 2019), and an active user on Twitter. I particularly remember this meeting in Montreal at the Nelligan Hotel in 2007 for the release of his Wine lovers dictionary – the man was also renowned for his passion for football and his defense of Beaujolais.

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Bernard Pivot, in 2015

Far from bragging, Bernard Pivot was very aware of the context in which he had animated Apostrophes, a success that no literary television program has since been able to reproduce on this scale, that is to say millions of viewers. “When I entered television in 1973, it was no longer the era of the pioneers,” he told me. I finished at a time when TV was multiplying and entering into fierce competition. Today, I would be like my colleagues: I would pass around midnight and I would do no better. We must be lenient with my successors, because they do not benefit from the state of grace that I had with me. »

He told me that in fact, all his life he had considered himself a lover (of wine, football, books), which had prevented him from suffering from the imposter complex.

This is probably the greatest lesson he leaves to journalists who cover literature, including myself: we are here to bridge the gap between writers and the public, all audiences, because books belong to everyone and not just cliques.

But for that, you need great readers like him who agree to do the job, and I can imagine what he spent his evenings and weekends doing during the many years he prepared his shows. He wasn’t nicknamed the “Lire King” for nothing.

But I believe that this was part of the human being that he was, who lived (and read) until he was 89, because he also told me this in an interview: “I hope to keep my curiosity until on the last day. I think that not getting older means continuing to be curious. We still age, the body does not obey all our desires, but I think that the mind remains alert if its owner continues to ask questions, to show curiosity about the things in the world around it. There is nothing worse for a man or woman who is getting older than to give up understanding the world, to cover their ears, to say everything is rubbish, everything is bad, that once it was good and that now this world is scary. I then think that aging and death are close. »

Thank you, Mr. Pivot, for being curious for us too.



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