Bernard Pivot, host of an influential French television program about books, has died at 89

Bernard Pivot, a French TV host who made and unmade writers with a weekly book chat show that attracted millions of viewers, died Monday in Neuilly-sur-Seine, outside Paris. He was 89 years old.

His death, in hospital after being diagnosed with cancer, was confirmed by his daughter Cécile Pivot.

From 1975 to 1990, France watched Mr. Pivot on Friday nights to decide what to read next. The country watched him cajole, cajole and flatter novelists, memoirists, politicians and actors, and the next day he went to bookstores to buy plates marked “Apostrophes,” the name of Mr. Pivot's show.

In a French universe where serious writers and intellectuals fight fiercely for public attention to become superstars, Mr. Pivot has never competed with his hosts. He achieved a kind of elevated chatter that flattered his audience without straining his guests.

During the program's heyday in the 1980s, French publishers estimated that “Apostrophes” drove a third of the country's book sales. Pivot's influence was so great that, in 1982, one of President François Mitterrand's advisors, the left-wing intellectual Régis Debray, vowed to “get rid” of the power of “a single person who has real dictatorial power over the money market.” book”.

But the president intervened to quell the resulting protest, reaffirming Pivot's power.

Mr. Mitterrand announced that he liked Mr. Pivot's program; he himself had appeared on “Apostrophes” in its early days to promote his new memoir. Mr. Pivot received Mr. Mitterrand's condescension with good humor. Already in that 1975 episode, the distinctive traits of the young television host were evident: serious, passionate, attentive, affable, respectful and prone to gentle provocation.

He was aware of his power without appearing to enjoy it. “The slightest doubt on my part can end the life of a book,” she told Le Monde in 2016.

French President Emmanuel Macron, reacting to death on social mediahe wrote that Mr. Pivot had been “a transmitter, popular and demanding, dear to the hearts of the French.”

Pivot's death made the front page of the popular tabloid newspaper Le Parisien on Tuesday, under the headline “The man who made us love books.”

Still, “Apostrophes” had its low moments, which Mr. Pivot regretted in later years: In March 1990, he welcomed the writer Gabriel Matzneff who, smiling, boasted of the kind of exploits that 20 years later had him put on criminal trial. Investigations for rape of minors. “He IS a real sex education teacher,” Mr. Pivot had said with good humor when introducing Mr. Matzneff. “He collects little treats.”

The other guests chuckled, with one exception: Canadian writer Denise Bombardier.

Visibly disgusted, she called Mr. Matzneff “pitiful” and said that in Canada “we defend the right to dignity and the rights of children,” adding that “these 14- or 15-year-old girls were not only seduced, but they were subjected to what is called, in relationships between adults and minors, an abuse of power.” She said Mr Matzneff's victims had been “tainted”, probably “for the rest of their lives”. As the discussion continued – Mr. Matzneff said he was outraged by his intervention – Ms. Bombardier added: “No civilized country is like this.”

In late 2019, as the allegations against Mr. Matzneff piled up, the old video sparked outrage. Mr. Pivot responded: “As the host of a literary television program, I would have needed a lot of clarity and strength of character not to be part of a freedom to which my colleagues in the written press and radio have adapted.”

In his program there were sometimes clashes between rivals; often it was just Mr. Pivot and a guest. Six million people watched him and almost all of them wanted to be on his show.

And almost all of them were, including giants of French literature such as Marguerite Duras, Patrick Modiano, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Marguerite Yourcenar and Georges Simenon. In one episode, Vladimir Nabokov, introduced to talk about his novel “Lolita,” asked that a teapot full of whiskey be made available to him and that questions be asked in advance; he simply read the answers. In another, a haggard-looking Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, recently out of the Soviet Union, spoke through an interpreter.

In 1990, after the show ended, Pivot told historian Pierre Nora in the magazine Le Débat that his favorite programs had been with the grandees whose residences he had been allowed to enter – citing, among others, the anthropologist Claude Lévi -Strauss. “I left them in the spirit of a conqueror who slipped into the private life of a 'great man,'” he told Mr. Nora. “I also left with the delicious feeling of being a thief and a predator.”

Most of Mr. Pivot's guests have since been forgotten, as he acknowledged in the interview with Mr. Nora. “In 15 and a half years, how many forgotten titles, covered by other forgotten titles! But journalism, as I understand it, is not necessarily just about what is beautiful and profound and lasting,” he said. Mr. Solzhenitsyn, she admitted, “he made me feel really, really small.”

The responses he elicited were often perfectly ordinary, humanizing his exalted guests. “Literature is just a fun thing,” Duras said quietly, after winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984.

The TV host was not satisfied with his remark. “But, but how come you create this style?” he insisted. “Oh, I just say things as they come to me,” Ms. Duras responded. “I'm in a hurry to get things.”

Numerous American writers also appeared on the program: William Styron, Susan Sontag, Henry Kissinger, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy and others. The poet Charles Bukowski was there in 1978, drunk and chugging bottles of Sancerre, harassing another guest and getting kicked off the platform. “Bukowski, go to hell, you're annoying us!” shouted the French writer François Cavanna, also a guest. On a later programme, a young Paul Auster basked in his host's praise for the American writer's French.

Bernard Claude Pivot was born on May 5, 1935 in Lyon, to Charles and Marie-Louise (Dumas) Pivot, who had a grocery store in the city. He attended schools in Quincié-en-Beaujolais and Lyon, enrolled at the University of Lyon as a law student and graduated from the Center de Formation des Journalistes in Paris in 1957.

In 1958 he was hired by Figaro Littéraire, the literary supplement of the newspaper Le Figaro, to write the kind of news about the literary world that the French press delighted in, and Mr. Pivot was launched. He had various television and radio programs in the early 1970s, helped launch Lire, a book magazine, and on January 10, 1975, at 9:30 p.m., he aired his first of 723 episodes of “Apostrophes” . Another program led by Pivot, “Bouillon de Culture”, lasted 10 years and ended in 2001. In 2014, he became president of the Goncourt Academy, which awards one of France's most prestigious literary prizes, a position he has maintained until 2019.

In 1992, Pivot refused the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest civilian honor, from the French government, saying that working journalists should not accept such an award.

“My father was very modest,” his daughter Cécile, also a journalist, said in an interview. “He didn't want anything to do with that.”

Mr. Pivot was also the author of nearly two dozen works, mostly on reading, and several dictionaries.

In addition to his daughter Cécile, Mr. Pivot leaves behind another daughter, Agnès Pivot, a brother, Jean-Charles, a sister, Anne-Marie Mathey, and three grandchildren.

“Do I have an interview technique?” he asked Mr. Nora rhetorically in the 1990 interview. “NO. I have a way of being, of listening, of speaking, of asking again, that comes naturally to me, that existed before I started doing television, and that will exist when I don't. I will do more.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed a report from Paris.

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