A couple of days ago I was watching a news broadcast on TV when a ticker-tape message wormed its way across the foot of the screen. The first time around, my eye only caught the name Shakespeare & Co and I had to wait for the entire cycle of news to revolve again to discover that ‘the iconic founder of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co has died’. I had read weeks earlier that George Whitman was ill; but my immediate reaction to the news of his death was disbelief. With his passing, it seemed, an essential thread in the fabric of Paris was no more.
So who was George Whitman to me? Had I met him? Yes. Did I know him? No. And it was certain that there would be tributes enough from those who did know him to satisfy the demand for knowledge. But he was important to me in my own, small, insignificant way because he epitomised a Paris that I tried, and ultimately failed, to find.
For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a writer; and in 1976 I travelled to Paris, installed myself in a 5th floor mansarde on the Left Bank, and with a pencil and a 6F cahier purchased from Gibert Jeune, I set to work. One could say that I was living the dream; but in fact my naive ambitions were being steadily undermined by a callous and uncompromising reality. Here is an excerpt from the manuscript I started that summer in Paris:
Since my arrival in Paris, I had resisted buying a copy of Tropic of Cancer to replace the one that I had resolutely left in the pocket of the aeroplane seat. I was determined to live my own life…not merely to follow in Henry Miller’s footsteps. But my own life, at that time, seemed to be going nowhere. I had found no companions, no kindred spirits, no one to give me encouragement or inspiration. And I certainly hadn’t been admitted to the inner sanctum of some esoteric group of literary avant-gardists, as I’d rather hoped I might. In fact, I had achieved nothing by being there. I felt as though I was a castaway, drifting farther and farther away from the security of the past…farther and farther into an empty sea of introspection; helpless; without a sail or a paddle.
Then, one dreary afternoon that seemed at first as futile as the rest, I found myself browsing among the shelves of Shakespeare and Co; a strange, jumbled little bookshop down by the river, near Notre-Dame. In Smiths or Brentanos I could browse without sentiment but it was the name, Shakespeare and Co, that conjured a picture of an earlier bookshop of the same name, the one owned by Sylvia Beach on the rue de l’Odéon, the one that had published the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the one that had provided a meeting place for all the ex-patriot writers of the Twenties and Thirties, the one that epitomised everything I had hoped to find in Paris…and had not found. Seeing Cancer, Henry Miller’s autobiographical account of his own odyssey through Paris when he was trying to find himself as a writer…seeing it there, in that historic bookshop that he, himself, had visited, I found myself compulsively reaching out for something familiar.
My memory of that day, visiting Shakespeare & Co is still vivid. I remember seeing George for the first time, painfully thin, slow of movement, but with the eyes of a hunting bird and a beak as sharp. I had spent quite a long time, browsing amongst the disorderly piles of books, and finally I selected the Grove Press edition of Tropic of Cancer, hoping that it would provide me with the inspiration I so desperately needed at that time. And what I particularly remember was that, after accepting my 17F40 (the price is still written in pencil on the inside of the book), George picked up a rubber stamp, inked it, and with perfect precision, slowly and carefully pressed it onto the inside title page, just below Henry Miller’s name. It was though he was showing his profound respect for the book by ensuring that the mark he made actually enhanced the page. No slap-dash, stamp and go, public servant-like, next please, ring the till, down tools, come back tomorrow affair for George. It was a book, damn it! Henry Miller had laboured over it, writing and re-writing, composing and correcting. What might appear to have been written in the heat of the moment was actually the work of a man who had reached deep within himself, searching in the darkest corners of his being for the truth that only he could tell. All of that understanding that respect, that love, was embodied in the slow, painstaking act of George placing his stamp on the page, like a mortal saluting someone who had attained the heights of Mount Parnassus.
I went back to Shakespeare & Co on subsequent visits to Paris. In fact, I could not consider a visit to Paris complete without visiting that “strange, jumbled little bookshop down by the river, near Notre-Dame”. But I could never pluck up the courage to talk to George, because if he was only half way up Mount Parnassus compared to the literary luminaries who had visited his shop, I was at the very bottom. But as I read his obituaries this week, I discovered one additional fact that made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up; and made me feel that I was connected to George Whitman in another, and unexpected, way. I read that his first permanent home in Paris was a room in the Hotel Suez on the Boulevard St Michel; and as it turns out, on my last visit to Paris, without being aware of the significance, I stayed in that very same hotel.
For another tribute to George Whitman and some marvelous pictures of Shakespeare and Company, exterior and interior, please click here.