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Thursday, December 15, 2011


In his comment on yesterday’s post, Jim reported that George Whitman, owner of the legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co., had just died at the age of ninety-eight. I checked the NY TIMES, and found the story on the front page. Today, I shall walk over [it is only a few blocks from my apartment] and see whether any sort of commemoration is planned. Rather than repeat the famous stories of the great literary figures who gathered there in the early days – Hemingway, Joyce, et al. – I thought I would tell a story or two about my experiences at the bookshop fifty-six years ago, when I was traveling around Europe as a young student on a Frederick L. Sheldon Traveling Fellowship from Harvard.

My wanderjahr, as I have recounted in Volume One of my Autobiography, started in the summer of 1954, shortly after I completed my preliminary work for the doctorate, and lasted until well into the summer of 1955, at which point I returned home to write my dissertation. After time in Oxford, Rome, Geneva, and Berlin, I made my way to Paris in April of 1955, planning to meet my undergraduate friend and fellow madrigalist Mike Jorrin, who was studying documentary film making on a Fulbright. Like many other American travelers and expatriates, I found my way to the little English language bookshop in the Left Bank, catty-corner opposite the Cathedral of Notre Dame, generally considered the geographical center of Paris.

In those days, the bookshop, which had been opened four years earlier, was called Le Mistral. It was only some years later that it took over the name “Shakespeare and Company” from Sylvia Beach, who had been running a bookshop of that name in a different location. That year the shop was being managed by a young couple from Harvard – Ted Cumming, my classmate, and his wife, Patsy Arens. [I hope I am remembering the names correctly – it was a long time ago.] Ted later died tragically at a young age, I think in a boating accident.

The quartier around the bookstore is now ground zero for tourists. The tiny ancient streets running from rue St. Jacques to Boulevard St. Michel are jammed with cheap fast food joints and shops selling schlock trinkets, but in 1955 it was the Algerian section of town, with a handful of inexpensive restaurants featuring North African food. My most vivid memory of those little restaurants is that when you wanted the check, you called out “plashta ici.” I have no idea what language “plashta” is.

I was much too poor actually to buy books, but Le Mistral was a place where one could be sure of finding some English language conversation, and inasmuch as my French then was no better than it is now, that was quite an attraction for me. Mike Jorrin did show up, and for the better part of a month, we hung out at Le Mistral. I had found a very cheap room in the Algerian House of the cite universitaire, a big dormitory complex in the 14th at the very southern most edge of Paris. Each day I would take the Metro into the center of town and make my way to Le Mistral.

Generally speaking, not much happened as the days passed, but on one occasion, I stumbled into a quite extraordinary little adventure, which has curious filiations with Woody Allen’s charming film, Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson. Among the folks frequenting Le Mistral were two very attractive young English women with whom Mike and I had struck up a casual friendship. One evening, we were sitting in the chairs set out in front of the bookshop, idly looking over at Notre Dame and watching the world go by, when a fancy car pulled up and stopped. A young Frenchman hopped out, very nicely dressed, and asked the two English women if they would like to go to a party. The liked the idea, but were apprehensive about going off with a man they did not know, so the agreed on condition that Mike and I came too. [I should explain that no one looking at me would imagine I was much protection from white slavers or the like, but Mike is a tall, muscular guy – even now – and I imagine they thought he could protect them.]

Off we went, all together in the car, to a very up market apartment building, and into an elegant flat where there was indeed a party under way. For the next several hours, we danced, drank wine, and rubbed shoulders with some of Paris’ twentieth century jeunesses d’orees. At about midnight, our host drove us back to the bookstore and dropped us off. As the Metro had stopped running by then [Paris is not really a late night town], I walked south through the deserted streets all the way to the cite universitaire.

Shakespeare and Co. is one of two major English language bookstores in Paris. The other, The Village Voice, is in the 6th on rue Princesse, just off rue du Four. Truth be told, the Village Voice is a better bookstore, but Shakespeare and Co. has become part of the literary legend of Paris. I cannot recall ever meeting George Whitman back in the day [when he would have been only forty-three], but I, like generations of others, shall always be grateful to him. Requiescat in pace.


Michael said...

You really like The Village Voice better? I suppose it's better organized, but it lacks the two things I look for in a book store: cheap used books, and enough space to sit and read them undisturbed (the tourists made this more difficult, of course, but so it goes).
Anyway Tea and tattered pages is my favorite. Though mostly for the tea and the cat:

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

How about a tutorial on Brouwer's fixed point theorem?

mesnenor said...

On the subject of Wanderjahrs and Sheldon fellowships, I was reminded of your memoirs when I found this brief autobiography by Dorian Cairns, who was at Harvard in the 20s:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I just read the Dorion Cairns memoir that you recommended, and found it fascinating. He studied with Raphael Demos at the very start of Demos' long career, and I was Demos' Teaching Fellow at the very end of his career. of course, Cairns made vastly better use of his Sheldon than I did of mine, heaven knows. Thank you so much for the link.

Jim Smethurst said...

Hey, Bob:

Besides raising my intellectual level generally, which doesn't take much, I have learned all sort of things about you here I never knew when we worked together (e.g., you can cook and are an early music maven [an enthusiasm I share]. How about a tutorial on Machaut or Dufay?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hi, Jim, wonderful to hear from you. Are you still doing the puzzles on the last page of the NATION? Alas, I try at least to pretend to some knowledge before I do a tutorial, and early music, although a great passion of mine, is not something I can pretend to any expertise about. But maybe a mini-tutorial on the viola and string quartets, about which I learned something during the years I was studying the instrument. At the very least, I could tell stories. Say hello to all my old colleagues in New Africa House.