Monday, August 06, 2012

time was soft there -- book

Time was soft there A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co., Jeremy Mercer (St. Martin’s Press, 2005)

In addition to being merely a sojourn in the famous Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., this was also obviously a great and significant experience for the author. He does not present it as a great adventure but, rather, as a more or less straightforward factual account of his time with George Whitman, the eccentric communist owner of said bookstore. This was not the original bookstore of that name, started by Sylvia Beach, that became famous and successful during the years between the two great wars, but a newer bookstore opened in 1951 called Le Mistral, but re-named Shakespeare & Co. in Beach’s honor in 1964.

It would obviously impossible for any bookstore to become as exciting as Shakespeare & Co. during the l920’s and 30’s, what with the presence of so many literary giants in Paris at that time: Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Ande Gide, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, among many, many others, and especially James Joyce whose famous book, Ulysses, was first published by Beach, causing her much financial hardship. Rarely is so much talent centered in one place.

Although George Whitman could not outdo the original, he kept alive the tradition of helping young writers by giving them support, free board and room for a time, and encouragement. It is said that during the more than fifty years as proprietor more than 40,000 guests enjoyed time at Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co., helping out with the store, enjoying free food and lodging, and supposedly writing or otherwise engaged in the arts, misfits or temporarily down on their luck travelers needing assistance.

It was into this milieu that Jeremy Mercer, previously a reporter for a Canadian newspaper, but now on the run from a death threat, and with no idea of his future, found himself one winter in Paris, broke, not knowing what to do until he found temporary sanctuary and became friends with Whitman, a dedicated communist almost all of his life, with a philosophy of helping others. His motto was essentially “Give what you can, take what you need.” And painted over one of the doorways: “BE NOT INHOSPIT ABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE.” Whitman insisted that each of his guests write a brief autobiography of themselves, which they did, and as they came to know each other they found themselves confessing their own problems and listening sympathetically to those of others. There were characters galore passing through the bookstore, each with a story to tell, problems to deal with, works in progress, and the usual foibles of humanity. Mercer swears that his account of his life as well as the lives of some of the others he writes about are true. I believe they are, and some are indeed “stranger than fiction.” Perhaps strangest and most interesting of all is that of George Whitman himself. Prudent to a fault, spending as little as possible for food, clothing, and supplies, he was at the same time incredibly careless with money, often leaving franc notes in books or lost somewhere among the clutter of the office, trusting others, even complete strangers, he was obviously taken advantage of by many, but he believed in community, in the idea that people should share and help one another. He was a perennial optimist when it came to the possibilities of communism, possibilities he believed had never truly been fully developed and thus abused by the likes of Stalin and others.

In the months that Mercer spent at Shakespeare and Co. he became close enough to George Whitman to become his confidant and played a major role in reuniting George with his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who eventually returned to her father and took over management of the bookstore, a very happy ending that George had desperately wished for. As she installed a telephone for the first time, and began accepting credit cards, Shakespeare and Co. will never be what it once was, but “there will always be Paris.” George Whitman died not too long ago at 98 years of age, knowing that his beloved bookstore had survived and was in good hands.

“time was soft there” is not a great book, but it is a good book, both interesting and edifying, and revealing a good deal about the nature of human nature, as well as useful hints about how to get along in Paris when “down and out.” If you are interested in books, bookstores, people who revel in books, Paris, sanctuary and redemption, and even biography, you will probably find this book of interest. The title, by the way, is adapted from prison parlance, where it is said you can do either “hard time,” or “soft time,” although I do not believe that is a very good comparison.

I know that Nicholas Basbanes did not have Shakespeare & Co. in mind when he wrote his fine book about” Bookpeople” (Among the Gently Mad), but there is no doubt the denizens and characters of Shakespeare and Co. should be included under that rubric.

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