Host Bows Out of French Literary Talk Show 'Apostrophes'

Times Staff Writer

For almost 15 years it has been one of the most remarkable shows on French or, for that matter, any television network: a prime-time, live, literary talk show featuring discussions with serious authors about their latest books.

The weekly show, "Apostrophes," made Bernard Pivot, a genial former sportswriter who loves books, soccer and Beaujolais wine in no particular order of preference, one of the most popular men in France.

But at a press conference here Monday, Pivot, 54, announced he was hanging up his bookmarks. After June next year, Pivot said, he will no longer host the Friday night show that has become a French institution.

"When I began 'Apostrophes,' " Pivot explained in the network auditorium packed with more than 100 journalists, "I was 40 years old. When I finish 'Apostrophes' I will be 55--that's 15 years when every Friday night I had a rendezvous with viewers. But it was 15 years in which, except for weekends and holidays, I worked 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day."

Pivot, who said he is a slow reader, claims to have read every word of each book featured on his show.

Over the years his guest list has read like a literary anthology, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Tom Wolfe. In 1983, Pivot was the first man to interview Alexander Solzhenitsyn on television. This fall, espionage master John le Carre will be on Pivot's show, a rare TV appearance.

In a typical "Apostrophes" broadcast, Pivot leads four or five French authors in a lively discussion of their books and the books of their fellow guests. "People sitting around a table and talking. It is one of the most banal forms of television," said Pivot, smiling impishly.

In Pivot's hands it is also one of the most popular. As many as 6 million people regularly tuned into his show. Pivot's show has been able to successfully compete with American serials and two rival versions of the same literary format.

Over the years, Pivot has had his detractors. In 1982, French writer Regis Debray accused him of having "a virtual dictatorship over publishing markets." However, Debray continues to appear on the show.

Occasionally, publishers wonder if sometimes Pivot doesn't keep people from actually buying books by giving them just enough chat to survive in a literary discussion without having to read the books.

There is no doubt, however, that Pivot exercised enormous power in the publishing community. Publication dates are often changed so they correspond with an open slot on the Friday Pivot show.

"I was going to publish the memoires of (Italian film director) Franco Zeffirelli last May or June," publisher Pierre Belfrond told Agence France Presse. "But Pivot told me his show was full before the summer holidays but that he was interested in the book. I decided to delay the publication until September so that the director (Zeffirelli) could appear. He will make a special trip here from New York, just for the show."

Reaction to news of Pivot's departure in the active French publishing community was mainly shock and sadness. "It will leave only emptiness," said one editor at the Grasset publishing house.

"Bernard had an almost mythological role," said Francoise Verny of Flammarion publishers, "with his pleasant face, his soccer, his Beaujolais. He had the distinction of familiarizing the public with authors they would never had dared meet themselves."

In the midst of the press conference Monday, a woman who identified herself as a Yugoslavian journalist stood up and begged Pivot not to leave the show.

"Are you aware how much this show will be missed?" she asked him, before breaking into tears. Another woman, who said she represented an organization for quality television, said she feared that literacy and love of language would be set back by Pivot's departure.

Despite the emotional appeals, Pivot said his decision is final. "Once I make up my mind I almost never go back," he said. He said he was considering other "adventures," including a possible role as an actor playing a journalist in a television movie.

Serving as host to "Apostrophes," he said, has been an "exhorbitant privilege."

In the end, he said, he did not want it to become a chore.

"No show is immortal. I had the fear that the routine would defeat me. I feared that exhaustion would submerge me."

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