France's version of Johnny Carson wows 'em with literature

Bernard Pivot is perhaps France's most popular television star. But he isn't glamorous. Or even an actor. The slight, rumpled, ordinary-looking Mr. Pivot plays host to a literary talk show.

The program called ''Apostrophes'' is to France what ''Monday Night Football'' is to America: a national institution. Every Friday night, some 5 million Frenchmen begin their weekends watching Pivot and a group of authors discuss subjects such as ''love in the ancient world'' and ''East European literature'' for an hour and 15 minutes.

Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and scores of other renowned authors have talked with Pivot. Even politicians clamor to appear. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing analyzed his favorite author, Guy de Maupassant. Francois Mitterrand has been on twice.

''Giscard wanted to be known for more than his expertise of flow charts,'' Pivot explains. ''Taxi drivers tell me all the time that they don't read, but that they love the show. They want to follow the intellectual debate.''

Writers have traditionally played an important role in forming France's political and social fashions. On average, Frenchmen don't read any more books than Americans, according to the National Publishers Association. But authors are placed at the top, above and apart, in the social pecking order. So it is not surprising that a literary show has become a hit.

''Frenchmen love intellectual debates,'' Pivot says. ''Before 'Apostrophes,' these debates took place in the College de France and the newspapers. Now everybody can follow them.''

The main reason for the program's success, however, seems to be Pivot himself. Many imitations have been aired, only to flop.

'' 'Apostrophes' always attracted about 2 million more viewers than my show, '' recalls Georges Suffert, a noted journalist who played host to one of the unsuccessful book broadcasts a few years back. ''Pivot simply has more talent than I do.''

Pivot brings to the show a light, friendly touch - and a sense of spectacle. Each show is plotted around a theme, and the host's acute questioning talent keeps the discussion moving at a brisk pace and away from the too-esoteric.

''Pivot has a remarkable eye,'' says philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy. ''He has a profound authority, he detects lies.''

In a recent program about ''love,'' for example, the noted psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva began to become pedantic, recounting in the driest academic way the semiotics of a particular passage in Freud. Pivot stopped her, changing the conversation by gently asking, ''and who, Mme. Kristeva, would you like to put down on your couch to talk about love?''

Both author and audience burst into laughter - and the show had recaptured its rhythm.

As the incident demonstrates, Pivot reads books and asks questions like Jacques Dupont (the French version of Everyman). He comes from a small town in the Beaujolais region and does not consider himself a Parisian intellectual, but rather a son of this fun-loving, wine-growing, culinary-obsessed region.

''My passions are soccer, cinema, and gastronomy,'' he says. ''Reading is work, not pleasure.''

Dressed in crumpled corduroy and a casual sweater, he greets a visitor to his apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. He makes his way around stacks of books, offers a hot drink, and, in his simple, straightforward way, launches into light conversation.

''I fell into this job totally by chance,'' he explains. After he graduated from journalism school, the only job he could find was with a French literary review. He started in television equally by chance.

''I never thought I would be on television,'' he says. ''But they came to me and asked. I accepted without great enthusiasm.''

From this inauspicious beginning in 1975, ''Apostrophes'' grew steadily more popular with the public - and the book industry. Today, an appearance on the show can make or break a book.

''It's our best publicity,'' says Michele Bourguinon of the National Bookstore Association.

''If an author makes a favorable impression, the reaction is immediate. Saturday morning after the show, we are swamped with people asking for the book.''

This popularity makes Pivot enormously powerful. Authors cross their fingers hoping for an invitation.

''When I was writing my first book, I dreamed of a spot on 'Apostrophes,' '' recalls Ania Francos. ''It proved that I was really a writer.''

Some think this position as cultural arbiter gives Pivot too much sway over French publishing. Last year, leftist intellectual and presidential adviser Regis Debray criticized ''Apostrophes'' as a spectacle unfit for intellectual consumption and one that was debasing French literature. Denouncing the ''dictatorship exercised by Bernard Pivot,'' Debray demanded the show be canceled.

But the public and the publishers roared to Pivot's defense. ''Sure, Pivot is powerful,'' says Anne-Marie Supiot of Denoel publishers. ''That's good, though. It induces people to read more.''

So intense did the public pressure become that President Mitterrand finally felt obliged to declare publicly, '' 'Apostrophes,' I like it very much.'' With that, Debray caved in, announcing that he ''regretted'' using the word dictatorship.

For his part, Pivot feels no guilt. He says he will continue to exercise the full force of his position. Recently he scored a scoop by arranging the first interview of Solzhenitsyn in his Vermont home, an interview he hopes to sell to American television.

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