“Hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter…. Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt.”
Earlier we blogged about Shakespeare & Company, an English-language bookstore which sits just across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In its two incarnations, it served generations of authors such as James Joyce, Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
So it was with sweet anticipation that I picked up Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There at the library, hoping for a personal glimpse into the bohemian life in the eccentric world of George Whitman. The book is subtitled “A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co.
“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes… That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”
Mercer’s visit to Paris was not entirely of his own choosing. In 1999, Mercer was a young crime reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, with a couple of true crime books under his belt. Unfortunately, he had indiscreetly outed one of his contacts and, after receiving a threatening note and experiencing a break-in, he fled for his life. He ended up in Paris, penniless.
It did not take him long to discover the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where George Whitman was legendary for offering bed and sustenance to those in need.
On the book’s dustjacket, one reads that he “found himself invited to a tea party among the riffraff of the timeless Left Bank fantasy known as Shakespeare & Co. In its present incarnation, Shakespeare & Co. has become a destination for writers and readers the world over, trying to reclaim the lost world of literary Paris in the 1920s. Having been inspired by Sylvia Beach’s original store, the present owner, George Whitman, invites writers who are down and out in Paris to live and dream amid the bookshelves in return for work. Jeremy Mercer tumbled into this literary rabbit hole, found a life of camaraderie with the other eccentric residents, and became, for a time, George Whitman’s confidant and right-hand man.”
Mercer does go on, in this reader’s view, about his own importance and the deprivations he suffered. And his titillation at petty crime can be a little wearing.
Regardless, Mercer’s account of life at the bookstore is entertaining, and his portrait of George Whitman lovingly details his whimsies and contradictions. His stories of the other bookstore denizens – exotic Nadia, rival Kurt who is constantly polishing his unfinished screenplay, Simon the neurotic British poet – tell us a little about why they are there: travel and adventure, scholarships, disillusionment. The details are there: the petty rivalries; the formation of lifetime friendships; the many rituals adopted as the “tumbleweeds” adapt to the quirky requirements of bookstore residency: writing their biography, reading a book a day, and helping out with the constant cleaning chores.
But so little is said about the Paris of the imagination which conjures up visions of poets in cafes and painters in garrets. Perhaps this reader wanted to see more of that magic and less straight journalism, and perhaps reality never has the same loveliness as dreams. After all, during a return to Paris several years later, even Mercer noted that things had changed since he was part of Shakespeare & Company.
Time Was Soft There is rather like a nice postcard of the Eiffel Tower. It leaves out the soul of the city that has inspired more creativity than any other.