LITERARY LH: A GUIDE TO THE CITY

Near La Galerne on Rue Victor Hugo, past Les Yeux d’Elsa up the Cours de la République or along the Bibliothèque Oscar Niemeyer in the arena of the Volcan, the team of the Dragon Déchaîné has visited over the past few weeks the key literary and cultural locations around town, and wrote this article as both a tribute and a guide to our Literary LH. Written by Cyprien Milea, Ana Horvatin, Antoine Faure and Aditya Bhattacharya. Photography by Antoine Faure.


With the end of Le Havre’s reconstruction around the 1960s, the intent was for it to be a strong, industrialised port city for France. Despite the attempts of economic reconversion towards a tertiary city, Le Havre still maintains the atmosphere of mid 20th century industrial France. It would be easy to assume that, at first glance, a literary universe would be underdeveloped here, or even inexistent entirely. However, after walking around the city, one notices the presence of small book re-sellers, libraries, bookstores… 

In fact, literature is an increasingly important element for the Mayor Edouard Philippe, who announced the ‘Plan Lecture’ in May of 2011. The policy aims at promoting books to enable more ‘academic success’, spanning from the reinforcement and renovation of libraries such as in the Volcan, as well as in poorer neighbourhoods, according to the Mayor. This plan has been somewhat criticised for remaining very vague; Mayor Philippe not only agrees with this, he argues that this leaves more room for surprise. This was validated by our very own Havrais student, Paul Louédin, stating “ […] le plan lecture a dépassé ses objectifs. Non content d’avoir encourager les Havrais à lire, il a contribué à dynamiser la vie culturelle de la ville” (“The Plan Lecture has gone beyond its objectives. Not only has it encouraged Havrais to read, it also gave dynamism to the cultural life of the city”).

While the Plan Lecture is the policy we hear the most about, there are many others which concern the city. “Lire au Havre” is another cultural project developed by the Mairie, encompassing most municipal libraries, which mainly aims at developing spaces for reading and literary meeting points. In addition to what the city has developed, the region of Seine-Maritime has launched many similar projects. For instance, stalls and huts have been placed on Le Havre’s beach, among many others of the region, under the “Lire à la Plage” program. There is also the generous “Carte Region” given with a credit of 100 euros to any student or intern that simply asks for it, with which one can purchase professional material but also books. After seeing this, it seems as though there is a dynamic literary environment. We can actually speak of a “Literary LH”, of which we will show you the main areas and gathering points around town. 

Les Yeux d’Elsa

In a faraway land of the Cours de la République, exactly 115 numerical virtual stops up, there is a fairy little shop fairly familiar to most of Sciences Po. Les Yeux d’Elsa has the charm of an office of a 19th century scholarly explorer heading off to Egypt in a hurry, with an overthrowing amount of books stacked on shelves and out one on top of the other, antique sandy-coloured furniture with a confusing mix of patterns and materials, an interesting, most likely intellectual collection of paintings and photographs on the walls… let’s be honest, it is the perfect juicy apple for any bookworm out there. The retro feel of this place carries a comfortable atmosphere, one where a person can relax and take up a book in the bouquinerie to read while sipping on a cup of coffee, although I would not necessarily recommend coffee, not my cup of…well you know. Tea is always nice though.

In its essence, the locale acts as a coffee shop, book shop, literary cafe, art gallery and simply a corner to relax, with a number of events organised almost every evening, such as the café espagnol, the poet’s cafe and many others equally engaging. For all the club members out there working with creative forms, keep in mind this warm ambience in case you run out of a club room as they are more than willing to cooperate with students and are looking to expand their promotion. Unfortunately for the non-francophones, most of these events and books are in French, but there is a section dedicated strictly to foreign literature focusing on the English word where one can find a few classics, but also other tongues just the same. But ultimately, this worm hole contains more than just books, and with CDs, vinyl records and DVDs, one doesn’t need to rely on language to enjoy.

Oscar Niemeyer

One of the most prominent features of our moody Le Havre is definitely Le Volcan, a worthy monument of the modern precedent set by Auguste Perret. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, currently acting as a theatre, this construction has been registered as a UNESCO world heritage in 2005, one of the rare contemporary works, much as the majority part of Le Havre, to be granted that honour. But I am not here to speak of the Volcan. At least only in derivative, as our literary magnifying glass focuses on the Mini Me version of the famous building, the Oscar Niemeyer library, as part of the same complex. It was one of the first projects realised in 2011 in order to expand the literary heart of LH. 

Interviews have been conducted, videos have been made. Generally, the Bibliothèque Oscar Niemeyer has gotten quite a reputation among the Sciences pistes. Considering its elaborate scheme, no one will be surprised. There are 600 places to be filled, most of them connected to some way online, quiet workrooms, group conference rooms, movie and music lounges( and may I point out that the titles are being updated quite often), entertainment rooms, area for children and most importantly a magnificent salon in the middle of the layout. There is an alternate universe feeling to this location, almost as if we have entered into an interior design add, as different modern designs mix into a comprehensive altar to learning. There is an appeal in how different parts of the library target different ambiences, the natural lighting of the reading room at the entrance, the glamorous cafeteria, the dark cinematic surroundings of the movie lounge.

There are a number of secluded places around the hallways of the three floors, suited to hide away and read away. The English literature section is quite satisfying, especially the fiction genre. On my second visit a friend of mine found a book she had wanted to read, but which was forbidden in her home country of India due to controversies – The Satanic Verses, which, I must mention, might be different from what you imagine it to be. With more than 114 000 titles on all possible media and as the queen of our literary journey, it might be possible to find in this palace just that something that slipped our mind, but could blow it away.

La Galerne

La Galerne, located on 148 rue Victor Hugo, is by far le Havre’s biggest bookstore and the second biggest literary retreat, finishing a close second only to the Volcan. I misjudged the size of la Galerne, which left me with a feeling that there was much more to be expected from it.

At first glance, the commanding bookstore already gives you a taste of what you should expect: not only literature, but art and culture too. Established in 1982, la Galerne is old yet new, much like most of the buildings in this city. It is home to author readings, book signings, discussions and other interactions. And past this wonderful mélange of ideas and opinions, begins the real journey into the world of literature: shelves, and why not even book shelves.

The two-floor area is lined with shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, lined with volumes which cover subjects from the basic literature novels, to gardening, cuisine, animals, self-help, sports, tourism, arts, books about Normandy itself and much more. The couches wedged in between shelves offer a quiet reading place to quickly slip through a novel or two. One section sells ‘artsy’ merchandise, like mugs, coffee table books, plates and the like, and there are also displays of photographic works, marking the librairie’s link with the MuMA. There is of course a section on children’s books, and the graphic novel aficionado will also not be disappointed as their interests are catered to as well. By the entrance, a staircase leads down to the basement, which houses books on the beaux arts, human sciences, history and scholastic books for both the school and university levels.

But books and shelves are not enough to create a space where knowledge and literature flutter about unmitigated by the trappings of the mundane world. When I entered la Galerne, I felt like I was entering a library, where silence was not only expected but mandated. However, as I made my way around the thresholds of this repository of words, I realised there was nothing forced about the silence there. It was not a solitude forced by mere regulations, it was a silence of absorption, of reverence for the world one had found themselves in. La Galerne is an embodiment of the cultural pulse of the city of le Havre, nestled in the Les Halles area, across from Hotel de Ville. As one leaves the building, they can see the iconic Volcan, and the war memorial on the other side, and feel as if they’ve just exited an important part of the city and its culture and history as well. If you want to be swept away into another dimension, not just by books, but by the power of books, then look no further than La Galerne.

Le Bouquiniste

To end on perhaps the most magical of all settings, we give you Le Bouquiniste. Hidden away on Rue Marechal Gallieni, in the shadow of the espace Coty, stuck between a restaurant and a hair dresser, the little shop stands as a facade mourning the art of selling books. To enter Le Bouquiniste is similar to walking on the movie set of The Lord of the Rings, in Bilbo Baggins’ study: everything is wood and paper, dust and ink, and only a thin ray of light makes it past the dirty windows to fall gently on a cover here or an image there, amidst the complete silence. The light automatically dims, the air is pregnant with the smell of old paper, it is surprisingly warm. The eye takes time to adjust to the enormous piles of books balancing on old wooden tables and stools. The shopkeeper glances up at you without uttering a word and goes back to his probably outdated newspaper, leaving you to conduct your research among the second edition copies of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and engravings detailing the composition of Napoleonic armies. The wooden shelves cover every inch of wall, such that the entire structure of the bookstore seems to be entirely resting on volumes and copies for its support. 

The walkway is cramped with piles of old history textbooks and past editions of Atlases and encyclopaedia, giving the visitor the unmistakable feeling of navigating a literary ocean, but also the impression of trespassing into a place of memory, where anything from this day is be strictly prohibited. The abundance of bouquins is matched only by its breathtaking diversity: famous authors and renowned classics dwell on the shelves next to small pamphlets of artists and novelists whose names did not make it through the years, and having failed to impress the public, found there way into the shop, to forget and be forgotten, among their own.

La Promenade Literaire

“…depuis l’âge de trente-cinq ans et pendant trente-cinq ans, j’ai habité devant l’arc de triomphe de l’Étoile. Aujourd’hui, je m’installe devant la mer…” (Armand Salacrou). A more concrete tribute to the legacy that Le Havre has left in the imaginary and penmanship of French authors has yet to surpass the efficiency of La Promenade Litéraire. Find in twenty locations in and around the city center with benches welcoming ragged walkers with tired legs for more than a break from their visit: an engraved quote from a prominent French author or famous novel, followed by a short contextual text, offers a silent hommage to the city which seized the authors’ imagination and was recompensed with a sentence here and a reference there. 

Stretching from old nobles like Jean Paul Sartre, Balzac and Louis Ferdinand Céline, quoted on a bench near St Francois, to contemporary, award winning novelists like the very Havraise Maylis de Kerangal, near the train station, each halt on this scholarly stroll reveals a new facet of Le Havre, some of which its own inhabitants might not always see.

Le Bibliobus

At the meeting point between modern services and the old literary references, the Bibliobus is the Havrais’ slightly archaic but enlightened version of an online delivery system: a renovated and decorated food truck drives around town with an embarked computer system – of which we are told that it is the only one in the world – and a collection of 4,000 books. One can walk up to the bus parked at a corner or on a square, borrow any book from the collection, and bring it back to either the bus itself or to a bibliothèque municipale.

Straight out of a road trip by Kerouac gone sideways, the bibliobus makes several stops in the city center, in 17 spots designated spots in the various quarters of town: St Francois, St Nicolas and St Adresse, to name a few. Let the machine cater to your literary needs, and bring you with a hilarious mix of old habits and innovative thinking a book here and a magazine there. It would seem that the Havrais have found the concept of movement brought to perhaps one of the most stationary human activities – reading.

Le Gouts des Autres, a literary feast

In the words of Mayor Edouard Philippe, the purpose of the Festival Litéraire du Havre, held for the fifth consecutive time from January 21st to 24th this year, remains simply to “allow anyone and everyone to discover authors and literature”. At the beginning of this year, as we entered our second academic semester and into the hum-drum life of overdue papers and lectures, the Festival provided a welcome cultural relief and truly went above and beyond the sober description of Mr.Philippe. Over the span of four days, workshops, reading sessions, concerts, political debates, gatherings both formal and informal spanning from La Galerne to Quai de Marseilles, as well as interviews of famous authors and discussion panels were held around the theme of ‘friendship’ – l’amitié.

Among the incredible diversity of personalities and notable figures present in town, the team of the Dragon Déchaîné managed to attend several sittings with some particularly worthy individuals, most impressive of all the Goncourt 2015 (highest literary distinction in France), Mathias Enard, for his novel Boussole. The session on Saturday 23rd included a reading of a short passage of the book by Emmanuel Noblet, followed by an interview with Sylvain Bourmeau, concluded with general remarks from the author himself, Mathias Enard. An hour long gathering full of insights on the long, tedious work of award winning literature but also the crucial relevance of literary criticism as a foil for global contemporary issues.

Among other sittings which members of our team attended, the very compelling interview of Olivier Frébourg and Sylvain Tesson near campus – two highly esteemed French ‘travel authors’ specialising in voyage literature – and the frankly hilarious hour of jokes and light hearted critics on the state of France and Europe given by Daniel Pennac, famous novelist and intellectual known for his humour. Overall, Le Gouts des Autres received our undivided support and complete cultural appreciation – look forward to it next year.

Literature in LH will keep growing and evolving with the city – the future Havrais community will witness the rise of literary hotspots, as the city hall’s Lire au Havre program with be implemented further. Keep an eye out for opening bookstores and shops around the city, such the one opening on the second floor of the Espace Coty.

Author: Le Dragon Déchaîné

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