Diary 2020-2022, part X

Saturday August 28, 2021

This morning I woke up at eleven. Too late for my taste and on other mornings this would have bothered me. Today, however I woke up feeling rested and healthy (which doesn’t happen often), which made me feel grateful for the extra hours of sleep.

I made coffee, put on an Oscar Peterson record: Oscar Peterson Plays The Cole Porter Songbook, and sat down to read Shakespeare & Company: A History of The Rag & Bone Shop of The Heart. I read about the early years of the bookstore under the tutelage of George Whitman and I feel alive.

Everyone – and by everyone I mean of course that minute group made up of readers with bohemian pretensions who fantasize about being someone else in another time and another place – knows about the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, located on the bank of the Seine, with a view to Notre Dame Cathedral. A kind of bookish mecca where bibliophiles from all over the world make a pilgrimage to admire not so much the books, but the space they occupy, the crowded shelves, the crooked steps, the walls covered entirely with photos, messages and postcards, the armchairs, the piano . Of course, there are those who enter simply to buy books or souvenirs, and those who do so just to be able to say they’ve been there, but there are also those who enter with their eyes lit up, with a laughable, ridiculous hope, (moving nonetheless for its earnestness) that something in that air which once filled Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s lungs, and something of that light which once lit the readings of André Gide and James Joyce, somehow communicates or infects them with meaning. In other words, there are devotees who enter Shakespeare & Company like Catholics enter the cathedral on the other side of the Seine – hopeful of receiving a message, of being redeemed, of being touched by the otherworldly.

Anyone who knows about Shakespeare & Company also knows about Sylvia Beach, its legendary founder. A woman to whom the famous «lost generation» owes as much or more than to Gertrude Stein. Beach was the courageous first publisher of Ulysses and an even braver friend, patron and nanny of its irredeemable author, James Joyce, who apparently would have starved to death had it not been for Beach’s generosity which at times bordered on self-flagellation. However, I knew nothing of the man who inherited the bookstore when Beach died. I had seen him in photos and had been struck by his enviable quixotic beard and mustache and his explorer’s gaze: George Whitman was his name. I am getting to know him now and I like him better and better with each turned page.

At the beginning of his diary, in July 1935, when he was only 21 years old, George embarked on a trip around the world (which he started in Mexico, by the way) and he wrote in his first entry:

“My journey is undertaken to penetrate, wherever possible, the secret meanings of existence, to observe in all regions of the earth the influences of those supreme forces – love, destiny, and death – and to enjoy, in meditation and solitude the soft illumination that the true, the beautiful, the adventurous, and the heroic shed like the stars from another universe on meadow and metropolis.”

Ah, George, my namesake, I am eight years older than you when you wrote those words, and your life seems to me much richer, much more exciting and much truer than mine, and yet reading you I am reconciled with life. Because in moments like this, listening to this music, reading these books, life is good.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Actually, it’s already Tuesday, August 31, since it’s past midnight. I keep reading Shakespeare & Company. George writes:

«In the year 1600 this building was a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. In the Middle Ages, each monastery had a monk called the frère lampier, whose duty it was to light the lamps at nightfall. I am the frère lampier here now. It’s the modest role I play.“

And I think, with regard to the figure of George Whitman, of his life mission to which he surrendered everything, that perhaps my vocation is the same: to light the lamps. To create spaces, cervices and cracks through which to share what I love most in life.

Who am I to do it? Who gives me the authority? Easy: it’s me and I give myself permission. I’m nobody and I don’t have any credentials, but I do have passions and I can’t, I don’t want to keep them to myself.

Tuesday, September 7, 2020

I finished reading Shakespeare & Company. A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. I loved it, in the original sense of the word. It kept me spellbound from beginning to end. Reading it made me perfectly happy.

What a life, what a work of George Whitman. He played the same role Sylvia Beach did with the lost generation, but he with the beat generation, and with other illustrious expatriate fellow citizens such as James Baldwin and Henry Miller. And his bookstore was a refuge, either for a few hours from time to time, or for many a night, for people like Anaïs Nin, Louis Aragon, Julio Cortázar, Lawrence Durrell and countless youngsters who spent their best days there, despite the discomfort and the precarious facilities.

Under the brilliant tutelage of George Whitman, S&C was a free utopian university, a makeshift inn for travelers willing to work a little, a concert hall, a student shelter during the 68 riots, and even a film set for a movie called Les autres based on a Borges story. It was the only commune I would have liked to be a part of. And it was and still is a bookstore.

Booksellers like George Whitman and Sylvia Beach are geniuses on par with the writers they harbored. Their work, like that of good translators and good publishers, is carried out in silence and in the shadows, away from the noise, from the spotlight and – almost always – from the money, but it is as necessary for literature as writing. It is equally and maybe more so a labor of love.

J.L.F.

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