PARIS — Perhaps you can understand what is best about Bernard Pivot and his Paris literary talkshow, "Apostrophes," by seeing them at their worst--a rare occurrence indeed. The other evening, for example, the show hosted Alec Guinness, on the occasion of the appearance of the French edition of his memoirs. Sir Alec is nearly as well known and respected in France as he is in the United States or United Kingdom, and of course Pivot hadn't failed to well advertise his appearance, so the show's usually excellent viewership was up by more than 50%. Roughly 3 million Frenchmen stayed home on a Friday evening to tune in for the 515th edition of "Apostrophes."
Like Phil Donahue (and unlike Dick Cavett), Pivot is nearly always in full command of his five or six guests, all of them writers of recently appeared books, and all of them very glad to be here, for an appearance on "Apostrophes" is usually worth increased sales of many thousands of copies. Tonight, however, the unflappable Pivot is a bit intimidated--not so much, you quickly realize, by Guinness' stature as by his foreignness. Normally when non-French-speaking guests appear on "Apostrophes"--e.g., Saul Bellow, William Styron, Henry Kissinger, John Irving, Lawrence Durrell, Isaac Singer, Gunther Grass, etc.--everyone wears headphones to hear a simultaneous translation. But tonight, on the assumption that Guinness is somewhat conversant in French, they're going to wing it, using just the services of a close friend of Sir Alec's, the French actor, Jacques Francois.
The dimensions of this mistake quickly become evident. Guinness isn't able to negotiate the French language, and Jacques Francois' back-and-forth summaries are more frustrating than illuminating. Pivot, who comes delightfully to life at the sound of the spoken (French) word, remains inert. Worse, he is forced back onto a list of prepared questions that normally he would never use--and with good reason. ("Do you think you look like a spy?," he asks the actor famous for his Smiley. "Is your favorite British playwright, after Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw?" "He was Irish," says Sir Alec.
The point of all this isn't to criticize Bernard Pivot; the man is justly celebrated in France, where he has become a literary (and popular) institution in the 10 years since he launched "Apostrophes." It's, rather, to try to show how completely French the institution is. For the underlying raison d'etre and greatness of the show are its celebration of the French language--written, of course, but especially oral-- and Pivot seems to unconsciously sense this. Each program is oriented around a particular theme (the old regime, foreign affairs, women and feminism, homosexuality, the "new" novel, etc.), and each assembles five or six writers who have recently turned out books on that theme. But theme, writers and books are merely the blocks with which Pivot proceeds to build an hourlong playful edifice of language that is quite distinct from its individual parts (and, who knows, perhaps more worthwhile than some of the books).
How does he do it? For one thing, Pivot insists that guests read each other's books--it can be downright embarrassing if they haven't, for Pivot frequently poses direct, substantive questions. For another, he keeps himself as active or passive as the conversation requires and seems to have no ego to be bruised or vaunted, no theories to defend or axes to grind. (Not the least curious thing about Pivot is that he is no intellectual, nor even--to judge from his taste, style, allusions--particularly literary.)
The show, uninterrupted by commercial breaks, is basically constructed of separate conversations between each author and the host. However, anyone may intervene if he has a mind to, and more often than not, people do. Quite clearly, Pivot's goal is to achieve a kind of self-sustaining conversational fission involving several, or even all of, the guests; and the uncanny thing is how often (perhaps one show in three or four) he attains his wish.
The most brilliant "Apostrophes" in anyone's recent memory--an evening last fall devoted to "words"--assembled, among others, the great French comedian, Raymond De Vos. This is a large, fat, unmade-bed of a man, who perspires when he talks, which is constantly, and whose ebullience, like many comedians, becomes supportable (even winsome) only because of his talent for humor. Supportable, perhaps, but not containable. Supremely confident, De Vos barely let his host (whom he called "Pivot," not "Monsieur Pivot") finish his introduction before he was off on an impoverished discourse on "the meaningfulness of nothingness," which turned out to be his apology for being the only guest who hadn't written a book.