PARIS City of Light, definitely. But also City of Literary Ambitions.
There are few achievements in life more highly sought-after or gratifying than publishing a novel. Literary Paris, expat Paris, the Paris of Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Henry Miller, James Baldwin… continues to excite the literary minded, the wordsmith dreaming of greatness, the tourist whose heart flutters in the presence of historical authenticity…
Yesterday, December 14, 2011, Expat Paris, lost its greatest bookman, George Whitman, founder and iconic skipper of the Shakespeare Company Bookshop at 37 rue de la Bucherie, in the Fifth Arrondissement, en face de Notre Dame cathedral.
George Whitman died in his bed on the third flood above the bookstore he belovedly referred to as the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, a quote from Yeats.
He had turned 98 on Monday. We all knew he would die one day, but some of us had our doubts. He was tough and feisty and strong-willed.
At a time when the continued life of independent literary bookshops is perilously at risk, the death of George Whitman comes as a strong reminder of just how indebted we are as thinking and feeling humans to the world of books. Ideas. Good stories. Poetry. The life of the imagination. The invention of brilliant minds. And the beauty and power of language.
Losing George Whitman gives us pause. He was an original. And the shop, founded in 1951, originally as Le Mistral, was the moral equivalent of the “clean well-lighted place” in Hemingway’s 1926 short story of the same name which celebrates human dignity.
George represented a world of literary aspiration, poetry, and a bohemia that was the real thing, not the aesthetics of marketed “down and out”, but the noble belief that the pursuit of well-written chapters and enlightment through narration was richer than any other gain.
Poverty has always been a respected cloak for the undiscovered writer, the unpublished, or the literary author whose writerly values always win out over the pressures of commercial compromise. We have drifted though as a culture, and success is rarely measured any longer by literary achievement alone.
|And George Whitman understood that writers not only needed readers; they needed plates of hot soup and stew, goblets of ice tea, a mattress in the corner, and companionship. It was the writer’s journey in the world that moved him, and thus for George, the acts of writing and traveling merged, with the bookshop being the wayfarer’s vessel.
If you had an unpublished manuscript, a stack of poems, the ambitions of authorship, or simply brought news of a shared friend whose paths you’d crossed in Prague or Managua, George Whitman invited you into his shop. You often stayed for weeks, and you almost always gave a reading in a crowded book-lined part of the store on a Monday evening.
Those of you who knew George Whitman, or had at least met him, will know in your heart that there was only one George. And the world today feels a bit emptier.
In my first winter in Paris, and my first time in the Shakespeare & Co shop, in the days when George looked like a Wild Bill Hickok in a crushed velvet smoking jacket, and sat at a makeshift desk with a cashbox and a hissing gas heater. As I walked into the shop on a chilly December night, unknowingly, he rose, handed me the cash box, and told me, young man, to watch the store. He’d be back soon. Before I could utter a word, he was gone, and I was left with the indelible joy of being at the helm of the capital of expat Paris. The thrill of suddenly being asked by strangers if we had used copies of Rilke’s Collected Poems or Ashbery’s latest or Durrell’s Bitter Lemons continues to excite the blood.
What a job! To look after the printed words of the grand and the great.
Will you take ten francs for this copy of Miller’s Quiet Days in Cliché?
a girl asked with a Greek accent.
George returned two hours later, asked me my name, and offered me a reading for the following Monday at 7.
I’ll never, ever, forget the feeling of returning for my first literary gig and seeing that name scribbled on a paper sign in George’s handwritten scrawl. It was on that night that I heard the sound of my own voice for the first time.
Shakespeare & Company has enjoyed an illustrious history, filled not only with the visits of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated literary figures (I spent an evening with Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perles), but also scandal, fire, bedbugs, and skirmishes with French administrators. At a time when some bookshops in the world were either modernizing with theft-detectors and credit card boots, and others were gobbled up or driven out by profit-driven chains, Shakespeare & Co remained committed to both the published and the unpublished writers, their readers, and good books only.
George flirted constantly with publishing himself, and was always inviting someone to put together a magazine or collection of stories. I wrote about literary Paris and my own journal FRANK in the second issue of George’s Paris Magazine, which followed the first issue by 17 years!
That was George.
Fortunately for George Whitman, but also for the world of books, and the continued pulse of Paris’s literary expatriats, George had a daughter in 198, Sylvia, whom he always claimed was named after his mentor and l’ame soeur Sylvia Beach Whitman, the owner of the original Shakespeare Company (12 rue de l’Odeon) and original publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Sylvia has quite miraculously maintained the original spirit of a soulful, independent, friendly expat bookshop, while modernizing its systems, organizing its inventory, adding a world-class summer festival to its list of events, while keeping her father and his vision vibrant.
George Whitman will be buried in Pere Lachaise, not far from Balzac and Gertrude Stein and of course Oscar Wilde. And thus his future will be busy with lots of travellers and writers stopping by. Just like he would have wanted it. In this world of Amazon.com and Facebook, we need the memory of George Whitman as our eternal keeper of good books and defender of people like you and me and our stories and poems.
By David Applefield