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Home Culture Bernard Pivot, the journalist who brought high literature to mass television, dies at 89 | Culture

Bernard Pivot, the journalist who brought high literature to mass television, dies at 89 | Culture

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Bernard Pivot, the journalist who for decades shaped the literary tastes of the French with his program Apostrophes and showed that you could talk about books on television with critical and public success, died this Monday in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. She was 89 years old.

They wanted to imitate it a thousand times, in France and beyond its borders, but no one ever found the formula. A television studio with an audience, a group of people talking about books, sometimes fighting, laughing, drinking. A low table, the cameras filming live. What the literary salons were in the 19th century was Apostrophes in the last third of the 20th century. In the middle of that room, the perfect orchestra director: Pivot, witty and sarcastic, skilled in managing the egos present in the studio and capable of mediating between them and the viewer. His programs ―Apostrophes between 1975 and 1990; Culture broth between 1991 and 2001― were deep and entertaining.

There was a time in France, back in the eighties, when a third of the books sold in bookstores were because Pivot and his band had talked about them. The show had between 2.5 and 6 million viewers. There literary glories were born and died. The guest list is a who’s who of French and Western literature. Some of the interviews Apostrophes ―the interview was an exceptional format, since the usual thing was the gathering about literary news― are classics of the genre, a must-see for readers and fans: Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsin, Marguerite Yourcenar, Georges Simenon, to name a few. There are other memorable programs that continue to circulate on social networks and YouTube. Bukowski’s drunkenness live. Or Serge Gainsbourg berating the singer-songwriter Guy Béart. Politicians also paraded Apostrophes ―a must-see if they wanted to show that they were read―, from Mitterrand to Felipe González.

“His success is explained because he was the interpreter of public curiosity, but he did so not as an intellectual but as a man of the people,” says the writer Pierre Assouline, a friend of his, by phone. “He is someone with whom any Frenchman could identify. And this was a singularity, because the majority of people who make cultural programs are intellectuals. He does not. “He was above all a journalist.”

The historian Pierre Nora, in the prologue to a book of interviews with Pivot, describes his career as “unique.” “Unique in the history of television (…), unique in the editorial and literary landscape that he contributed profoundly to guide and organize (…), also unique in literary and journalistic history (…), unique finally for its duration.”

There were 25 years of literary television, an average of five authors a week, 250 books a year, books that he read at the same time. a to the z in sessions of up to 12 hours a day. Not in vain was the book with the historian Nora titled The profession of reading (The job of reading). There he revealed some of his private recipes. To begin with, talk to the authors in a “rather relaxed, spontaneous and popular” way.

Rules were imposed: “short questions”; consider that “any answer, even a disappointing one, is more important than the question”; “never forget that it is also the viewer who asks and it is also he who hears the answer.” And he added: “In each program I start from this postulate: the public knows nothing, neither do I, and intellectuals and writers know many things. However, having read his books, I know enough to be the mediator between the ignorance of some, who ask nothing other than to learn, and the knowledge of others, who ask nothing other than to transmit their knowledge. A program of Apostrophes Success is one in which viewers leave better informed, more cultured, less ignorant than they were before the program, feel the irresistible desire to know more and, to do so, buy and read the books we have talked about for 75 years. minutes”.

Everything was talked about on their programs, and everything was said for so many years on the air; There were also episodes that she surely wanted to forget. In 1990, Pivot invited Apostrophes to Gabriel Matzneff, who has just published one of his diaries where he narrated his relationships with teenagers. “How come you have specialized in schoolgirls and little girls?” Pivot asked Matzneff. There was laughter among the audience and guests. Among the guests, only the Canadian writer Denise Bombardier thought there was something anomalous: “It seems to me that I live on another planet… Mr. Matzeneff seems despicable to me.” Matzeff replied: “Madam, don’t be aggressive.” When in 2020 Vanessa Springora published The consent, in which she recounted the abusive relationship with Matzneff when she was 15 and he was 50, Apostrophes came out badly. “Obviously, I regret it,” Pivot wrote in the press, “because I also think that I did not say the words I should have.”

Pivot was born into a family of shopkeepers in Lyon. He spent the war in the Beaujolais region: he would end up writing a Wine loving dictionary. “He doesn’t frequent writers, he prefers football and wine,” said Nora. The only writer friend of hers, she confessed to Nora, had been Jorge Semprún. After studying journalism in Paris, in 1958 she entered the literary supplement of Le Figaro, where he learned the trade of what he called a cultural “gacetillero”. He never considered himself a critic. Combining the gossipmonger’s curiosity, reading and dissemination would enable him to create Apostrophes in the seventies and later Bouillon de culture. He lived a second life after retiring from television at the head of the Goncourt Academy, the most prestigious of the French literary awards. He also organized the dictation competitions that are so successful in France: he ended up embodying French literature and language, the authentic core of France’s identity.

Pivot was pure esprit French. French and cosmopolitan. Exportable? Account in The profession of reading who, on his trips abroad, were often asked: “Why don’t we have a program like Apostrophes?”. And he answered them: “Because they don’t want to!”

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