A Review of
Originally published in the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2017
Shakespeare and Company, Paris:
A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
Edited by Krista Halverson
Shakespeare and Company Paris, $34.95
Any young writer who’s passed through Paris at any time over the past six decades and didn’t stay at least a few nights at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company has simply not done Paris correctly. Founded in 1951 by American expat George Whitman and evolving through a series of names and incarnations until eventually being rechristened after the bookstore that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, Shakespeare and Company has housed more than thirty thousand writers and wannabe writers as they explored the City of Lights at invaluable leisure, as well as in considerable squalor. In exchange for free lodging in the upstairs library’s makeshift bunks—or, in the high season, on the floor of the store itself—George only asked for an hour or two of volunteer work per day, a two-page autobiography for inclusion in his vast files, and a commitment to reading one book for each night spent in his sanctuary. Most Shakespeareans stayed for two or three nights, but many stayed for weeks or months, and a few inmates remained in some guise or other for years. George offered these accommodations as a form of forward payment for the hospitality that he’d received in his early years of tramping all over globe, and with his Left Bank bookstore’s Seine-side view of Notre-Dame cathedral he gave more than half a century of writers an inestimable gift of time and space. Virtually every one of his guests has written about the store in some form, and now that George has passed away and the store has been taken over by his daughter, Sylvia (who was named after the founder of the original Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach), an official history has finally appeared: Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.
|A Young George Whitman|
Edited by Shakespearean Krista Halverson, this multifaceted and multi-genre history collects nearly a century of material about George and his bookstore, including an account of Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company, a selection of George’s early travel journals, clips of newspaper and magazine articles about the man and his freeform Paris utopia, narratives by scores of store denizens—including an introduction by Jeanette Winterson—several exemplary (and often bizarre) volunteer bios, poems by some of the more well-known store associates, excerpts from an unsurprisingly diverse number of authors mentioning George and his store, and decades of evocative and beautifully laid-out photographs. Threading it all together, Halverson’s exceptionally well-researched and deftly crafted narrative paints a portrait not just of George and his store, but of a city and a country and a century, in rich and informed perspective. Many of the writers and publications associated with the store over the decades have been notoriously shoddy, and Halverson manages to capture the slapdash flavor of the place and its people while transcending the first-draft quality of many of its past exemplars. Perhaps a large part of this book’s gleaming polish can be attributed to the influence of George’s daughter, Sylvia, who inherited the bookstore in 2011 when George passed away at the age of ninety-eight, and who brought it into the twenty-first century while somehow managing to retain much of its original bohemian integrity. Straddling several overlapping and contrasting worlds, this book captures the madness and squalor of the place while being in no way squalid itself, which is a seriously impressive feat.
|Sylvia Whitman, her partner David Delannet,|
and editor Krista Halvorson
The most valuable part of this book for people who knew George is the selection of his early travel journals, because it captures his mind and voice in a way that was almost totally inaccessible to even most of his best friends. As the book’s narrative mentions, George was not at all a conversationalist, and his essentially solitary personality often seemed miles away from the store, even as he stormed through its center. In fact, many Shakespeareans doubted that this mad King Lear even knew anything about literature, often judging him by the sub-literate Beat and wanna-Beat writers who abused his hospitality, and it’s enlightening to see how extraordinarily well read and sophisticated and intellectually resourceful he was—as well as how good a writer he was, his early voice very quickly maturing in the most curious directions. If this book serves its central character as well as he deserves, it will spawn a fuller collection of his journals, as well as an in-depth biography. These pages are a revelation, but they also seem like a preface to deeper volumes, because it would be a tragedy to let this fascinating man fade away into mere cameo appearances in books by the writers he hosted and inspired.
|Sylvia and George Whitman|
That’s not to say that this great man was also a really great guy. Halverson’s narrative dances around his personality by referring to him as “irascible” and “cantankerous” while illustrating with kid gloves a few slight shades of how abusive he could be. For a more gloves-off portrait (that’s still entirely loving and grateful), see Jeremy Mercer’s 2005 memoir Time Was Soft There. Clearly in the employ of Sylvia Whitman, who has a deeply moving last word here in a heartrending afterword that more than makes up for the book’s gentle circumlocutions, Halverson has her hands tied in what she can convey in this history, but despite what got left on the editing-room floor (or what was perhaps hidden from her), Halverson mirrors George’s complex sophistication in how she juggles so much competing information and influence to create a document that feels both so satisfyingly full and so tantalizingly suggestive of what’s missing. Halverson is so adroit an editor and writer that for readers who don’t know the bookstore’s ins and outs she only leaves one gaping lacuna in the book’s surface: the relationship between George and his daughter’s mother, who’s never named or described or even alluded to in this book, even when narrating Sylvia’s unconventional upbringing. Like an Old-Testament patriarch, George was nearly seventy when Sylvia was born, but the girl’s mother is completely and conspicuously elided from these pages. Nearly perfectly balancing her dual duties as hired editor and truth-telling chronicler—and outshining any quibbling critique of her herculean efforts—Halverson satisfies insider and outsider alike with this book, creating a work that serves as a brilliant standalone history while simultaneously inspiring untold future volumes. With so many thousands of writers in George Whitman’s prodigious debt, surely this is not the end of his story.