Shakespeare and Company – Sunday Miscellany

by John Boland

Shakespeare and Company is one of the most famous bookshops in the world but for fifty years it’s been living under false pretences. Situated on the quays in Paris, just around the corner from Boulevard St Michel and facing the side of Notre Dame, it’s been a place of pilgrimage by tourists who want to relive the time, eighty-six years ago, when Sylvia Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses from these premises.

In fact, she did no such thing. Ms Beach’s Shakespeare and Company first opened at 8 Rue Dupuytren in the sixth arrondissement before moving nearby to 12 rue de L’Odeon. It was from there that she published Joyce’s celebrated masterpiece and if you walk up rue de L’Odeon today you’ll find a plaque on the wall of the building commemorating that historic fact. During the Nazi occupation of the city the brave and resourceful Ms Beach had to flee from the unwelcome attention of the occupiers and the bookshop was closed down, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I knew nothing of any of this when I made my first visit to Paris in the 1970s and, armed with a guide book, I walked down along the quays to 37 Rue de La Bucherie, facing the side of Notre Dame, where I found Shakespeare and Co, its outside stalls crammed with tattered volumes and its nooks and crannies inside overflowing with the masterpieces of western literature. Why, there were even makeshift beds in upstairs alcoves where, at the whim of the proprietor, impoverished students or other penniless travellers could stay for a night or a week.

The proprieteor, whom I later learned to be founder George Whitman, was both visible and audible in the shop. He had the lofty arrogance of the American abroad, spoke with benign condescenion to the  young American acolytes to whom he was providing bed and board and with – or so it seemed to me – an indifferent arrogance to less favoured visitors, people like myself who merely wanted to browse through his shelves and buy a book or two.

I disliked his manner from the outset and if I’d known that he had appropriated the hallowed name of Ms Beach’s bookshop and used it to further a venture unassociated with her, I’m sure I would have detested him with all the outrage that high-minded youth can summon up. But I do owe him something because it was on that initial visit to his quayside shop – which was recently immortalised in the opening scene of the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunset – that I came across a first edition of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and thus began a lifelong love affair with the Dublin-born writer.

This particular copy of the book, which was published seventy years ago by Victor Gollancz, had no dust jacket, but it was in pretty good condition and the asking price of 50 francs struck me as fair. I remember trying to talk to George Whitman as I bought it from him, but he was too busy making some sardonic remarks to one of his disciples and he ignored me. Today I would have confronted him on his ill-manners, but I was a timid young man and so I left the shop fuming, which is a pointless emotion.

But I did have my Elizabeth Bowen and that evening I began to read her novel of adolescent bewilderment and adult cruelty, wondering after a mere few pages how I’d never got round to this  remarkably subtle and understanding and beautiful prose writer before. Soon  afterwards I  read The Last September and The House in Paris and the doomed love story that is To the North – which is still my favourite of Bowen’s books – and the wonderful evocations of wartime London in The Heat of the Day and in her volume of short stories, The Demon Lover.

The fact that her family home, Bowen’s Court, was near where my father grew up in Mitchelstown in Co Cork (where William Trevor was also born), only added to my affection for her books, which are still not as widely known as they should be.

And that’s probably why, whenever I’m in Paris, I always make my way to the bookshop on rue de la Bucherie. George Whitman’s daughter now runs the place and it remains full of obnoxious young Americans who think they own Paris, but let them dream on. Historically, too, it may be an impostor, but it’s where I first encountered Elizabeth Bowen, so I’ll forgive it and I’ll continue to make the pilgrimage.

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