Updates, Live

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man

Shakespeare and Company, on 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris, an incredible place even on the standards of such an incredible city. It is a chaotic English-language bookstore where one can find virtually any book ever (not only in Shakespeare's tongue, possibly in any given gibberish), in the same time a chaotic reading library, also a chaotic shelter for young and older literature lovers. You can find a bed there, among the bookshelves (forget about fresh sheets), also a very bohemian breakfast (forget about food hygiene rules), provided you have written something, or you have in mind to write, in some indefinite future; the general rule is to help in the bookstore during the day in order to sleep there during the night.

Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jacques Prévert, have been among the customers, and seemingly 40,000 people have spent there a night or two, or more, throughout the decades: it is a shelter for any books, as controversial, outrageous, or damned as they could be, for writers and aspiring writers, anarchists et al. and for ideas, radical or crazy, whatever.

The shop was opened in 1951, by George Whitman, an American intensely living the Beat spirit of those years. It had been, some centuries earlier, a monastery on that site, and George built there a shrine for bohemians, a den of anarchists disguised as a bookstore, as someone would later coin the thing.

An old fountain, one of those delicious Parisian paraphernalia, is in front of the bookstore, and the place is superb especially during April, with the silhouette of Notre Dame delicately emerging behind the blossoming trees. The street is just across l'Île de la Cité, on the Rive Gauche. It's an old street, this Rue de la Bûcherie: its name comes from the Middle Ages, when damaged meats were salted and boiled here to feed the poorest (according to wiki). My first encounter with Rue de la Bûcherie was through a famous photo, that I saw at an exhibition: the image of the street, with l'eau, ruisselant prés du trottoir, had been taken sometime in 1865 or 1869 (or in between, scholars are still debating), by one of the greatest Parisian photographers, Charles Marville (le chanteur triste d'une vielle balade... le témoin élégiaque d'un Paris qui n'est plus).

Charles Marville, Rue de la Bucherie Charles Marville, Rue de la Bûcherie, 1865/1869
l'eau, ruisselant prés du trottoir...

The first name of the bookstore has been Le Mistral. Later, in 1964, George Whitman renamed it Shakespeare and Company, as a tribute to the first Parisian bookstore carrying this name. Because it had been a first Shakespeare and Company in Paris, opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, also an American irresistibly attracted by La Ville-Lumière.

That older bookstore had been an epicenter of the modernism during the years of the Lost Generation (Les Années folles, as the 20's remained known), and later, throughout the 30's. Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray, have been assiduous visitors, and James Joyce (who set his office in the bookstore) nicknamed it Stratford-on-Odéon (as the building was situated on Rue de l'Odéon). The bookstore was a host for famous books initially banned everywhere else, Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Ulysses, for instance. Actually Joyce's novel has been firstly published integrally there, at Shakespeare and Company!

Hemingway would warmly recall the memory of the store from Rue de l'Odéon, in his Moveable Feast:

On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.

That first bookstore was closed in 1940, during the German occupation, and never re-opened (though Hemingway famously entered the building in 1944 to liberate it). And in opening the second bookstore, George Whitman had in mind to revive the spirit of the old Shakespeare and Company. George ran the place till 2003 (he was 93 years old then). After that the responsibility of the venture passed to  his daughter (Sylvia Beach Whitman - she was given the name of the founder of the first bookstore).

A whole story, and, as you would expect, the bookstore rose also the interest of film makers. Shakespeare and Company had a cameo in a 2011 movie of Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris. The main character (Owen Wilson), a sympathetic dreamer who's writing a novel about the Paris of the 20's, takes in the end his courage and decides to break with his too pragmatic fiancée and his too pragmatic well-being in California. He chooses La Ville-Lumière instead, whatever will happen: after all Paris is dead drop gorgeous when it rains! And the bookstore from Rue de la Bûcherie appears on the screen just for a second, maybe to reassure us that finding a place to stay in Paris is not that impossible.

A longer apparition was in 2004's Before Sunset: a young American writer (Ethan Hawke) spends an afternoon in Paris, invited to have a reading at Shakespeare and Company. An old flame (Julie Delpy) is there by chance. They had a brief romance in Vienna, nine years earlier. Life went on and many things happened meanwhile, but the chemistry still exists (maybe subtly fueled by the special universe of the bookstore, who knows?)

Well, Shakespeare and Company has also a movie of its own,  a gorgeous documentary made in 2003, Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man. The filmmakers (Gonzague Pichelin and Benjamin Sutherland, directors and screenplayers) mixed archive footage with live shots, and succeeded to render that incredibly bohemian world. George Whitman, his daughter Sylvia, Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Beach, Lawrence Durrell, and all the others, playing as themselves, interviewed on the spot or brought from the archives, the whole bunch of rebels is there, the utopia is alive. And the little stories coming and going now and then, that student who's trying to fix the carpet in one of the rooms, using pancake batter as glue, or George himself, using the flame of a candle to trim his hair, you have to see that to believe. Add to this the great soundtrack, authored by Michael Galasso, who used here the same theme as in Chungking Express.  And George, everywhere everytime, moody and restless, like a devil in a box, comme un diable au fond de sa boîte.

George Whitman passed away in December 2011. He was 98 years old. Shakespeare and Company has remained a miraculous place in Paris. There is only one more place like that in the world, the City Lights Books in San Francisco, whose founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was a close friend of George Whitman.

Speaking about all this, I have the feeling of witnessing a time-space warp, as everything is becoming ubiquitous. All history of Rue de la Bûcherie is there, together with the Lost Generation and with the Beatniks, with May 68, San Francisco and Paris, all this unified in one denominator: the persistence of free spirit.

(A Life in Books)

(Benjamin Sutherland and Gonzague Pichelin)

(Michael Galasso)

(The Fitzgeralds)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home