During your stay hold on to the present, because this will never be Paris in the 20s/40s/60s. You’ll need to ignore young men who have adopted names such as Buster. They’ll wear pork-pie hats. Confiscate their movable feasts. Read today’s paper.
Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to form a bond with our favorite bookshop in Paris. Shakespeare and Company has hosted Five Dials events, sold copies of our vinyl album, and even, at one point, provided a bedroom to a member of our editorial team. Although its storied past has been celebrated and celebrated again, the shop maintains a bright pulse. They do sell plenty of copies of A Moveable Feast. They must. But they sell other books as well.
On the evening of 13 November, 2015, the shop’s writer-in-residence, a Canadian named Harriet Alida Lye, emerged from an underground cinema after a showing of the latest Bond film. Her phone was buzzing with missed calls and messages – the inevitable ‘Are you OK?’ When she returned to the shop the doors were shut, the lights were off, but she was soon ushered through the door. ‘True to the bookshop’s spirit,’ she wrote in a piece published a couple days after the terrorist attacks, ‘anyone who didn’t feel comfortable leaving that night was invited to stay; around 20 customers took up the offer, plus all the staff and resident Tumbleweeds. Tea was made. Someone made oatmeal. Phone chargers were lent. Those of us who live in Paris were frantically fielding messages and leaving our own, finding out whether friends were safe.’
It was important to pledge allegiance to a place where it was fine to read at length, read throughout the day, read until they start wiping the tables at the café.
That night, Shakespeare and Company continued its role as a special kind of sanctuary. Ever since we started planning this issue, we knew we’d like to start with an FAQ for those who might someday like to become, like Harriet, writer-in-residence at the shop. The recent attacks forced us think a little harder about why it was important for writers to keep traveling to Paris, to write, look at art and briefly call home a city where bookstores still dot the corners. It was important to pledge allegiance to a place where it was fine to read at length, read throughout the day, read until they start wiping the tables at the café.
One of the most bizarre phrases in the aftermath of the 13 November attacks could be found tucked within ISIS’s statement claiming responsibility. Victims at the Bataclan Theatre, they wrote, were punished for taking part in a ‘party of perversity.’ I can’t imagine who would want to refrain from attending that party, Paris’s everlasting party, even after the events of the 13th. In the appreciation we published in issue number 8, Ali Smith wrote of its perverse wonders, ‘…the filmic city of stone and smoke, knownness and anonymity, chic and chicanery, where classical meets playful in such a wise simultaneity. How lightly it goes deep, how profoundly it lightens things, how generously and indifferently it works its transformations.’ Terrorists who rail against perversities like going to a concert, or perhaps even watching a film at a single screen cinema on the Left Bank in the middle of the day, want a barren Paris, passed over, empty save for a few tumbleweeds. Paris in general, and Shakespeare and Company in particular, have need for only one kind of Tumbleweed. Nothing should keep writers away.
As for the magazine, this issue of Five Dials features an interview with reporter Jason Burke that will help clarify your knowledge of the workings of ISIS. After the attacks, Jason began to produce quick and insightful dispatches for the Guardian. He took time out of his schedule to update his answers in light of the events.
We’ve also gathered writing from two of our favorite Pauls – Theroux and Murray – as well as a gorgeous essay that must be read by anyone who has ever picked up A Confederacy of Dunces. Margaret Eby travels south to New Orleans to examine the history and lasting impact of O’Toole’s book, as well as his mother’s relentless drive to publicize the work and usher it into myth. Both Eby and Theroux explore the soaked, mysterious world of Southern writing. Eby’s book, South Toward Home, is a journey into the heart of Southern literature. Theroux’s latest, Deep South, is a travelogue. Eby sticks mostly to books while Theroux takes on some of the cuisine, although he is not always a fan of dishes like ‘a deep tray of okra, as viscous as frog spawn, next to a kettle of sodden collard greens looking like stewed dollar bills.’
There’s more. An excerpt from Jamie Brisick’s latest book will introduce you to a transgender surfer in the midst of her transformation. Je Banach pleads for better coffee culture. And then there’s a new series, ‘I Knew Nothing’, in which a writer tries to finally, finally learn something, anything, everything about the world. The first entry is entitled ‘I Knew Nothing: About The Word Laconic’. You’ll know something about it by the end of this issue.
But back to Paris. Here is our set of FAQs. What follows is advice for anyone who is thinking of traveling to Shakespeare and Company to become the writer-in-residence. Who knows? Someday it could happen to you. Don’t let recent events take anything away from the experience. Don’t let anything, especially now, keep you away from the city’s eternal party of perversity. On the day this was written, the 4.10pm show at Le Grand Action was Les Yeux brûlés, directed by Laurent Roth. Head to a future showing. It might be a good place to start.
You’re the writer-in-residence. Where will you sleep?
If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll be offered residence in the apartment above the shop. You’ll have to share the apartment. During the day the front room is an office used by bookshop employees. They order stock and plan events. You’ll place your suitcase in the back bedroom. Its walls are lined with books. A red-cloth curtain covers the window on the door. The other windows offer a view of the courtyard beneath.
Occasionally, through these open windows, you’ll hear the sound of someone practising the piano in the shop.
How old will you feel?
At times older than the shop itself. You’ll think: there is too much youth in this place, constantly replenished, because who doesn’t want to come to Shakespeare and Co. to sleep in the back and stack its shelves? Who thinks, two weeks after graduating from university, Shakespeare and Co. and life in Paris might be a bad idea? Tumbleweed is the name given to those who stay at Shakespeare and Co. In the early evenings they clamber the staircase to the upstairs apartment to cook in the narrow kitchen. These meals quickly transform into acts of garlicky socialism. You’ll be offered a plate. Dip the bread in the sauce.
At night you’re supposed to be left alone in the apartment by 10 p.m., but most of the time you’ll let the Tumbleweeds stick around and do what they’ve come to Paris to do: drink red wine and talk about the role of the writer in today’s society. Like an eighty-year-old you will respond in a series of croaks. Cobwebs will waft from your mouth. You’ll mention how important it is to get your invoices in on time. They will stare at you with pity because, as they know, writing will soon change the world. It’s happening already, spreading from their notebooks downstairs.
Tumbleweed is the name given to those who stay at Shakespeare and Co. In the early evenings they clamber the staircase to the upstairs apartment to cook in the narrow kitchen. These meals quickly transform into acts of garlicky socialism. You’ll be offered a plate. Dip the bread in the sauce.
Will your body hold up?
Running along the cobbled banks of the Seine in the early-morning light is something you want to include in emails to friends with young children. There are ways of making this sound less boastful. In reality it is too romantic. The water glistens too much. You will be too urgently reminded of the fragility of life. On that first morning you’ll unpluck your headphones, watch the Seine, take ragged breaths, and then mercifully this moment will end as you continue your run under a bridge with walls sprayed with what must be the most potent urine ever released. The gagging will offset the beauty. Later, writhing in your bed next to the bookshelves, you will cradle your splintered shins and swear off cobblestones and anything resembling a North American fitness regime.
Does it get better?
You’ll walk downstairs the next morning as the shop is coming to life, as employees wheel out the racks of discount books. The streets are still wet. Don’t brag about this quiet moment. It happens all the time. You’ll walk up Boulevard St Michel with folded printed pages in your hand. Stop yourself from thinking: I will remember this some day.
How do you spend your days?
Sometimes productively, sometimes not. ‘What’s the definition of productivity?’ is a good question to ask while spreading butter on a piece of fresh bread. If you’re able to sit and work at the small desk in the upstairs bedroom, you will. You might lose time there gainfully. If the sound of the shop’s piano flickers up the walls of the courtyard and breaks your concentration, take your printouts and walk through the shop, past the Tumbleweeds, and sit in the reading room. Watch the tourists as they enter, loudly discussing Trip Advisor. Hear them decrease their volume. They’ll take a seat, stare out of the window, stop reviewing.
Does writing at Shakespeare and Co. mean solitude?
You will keep moving. If a spot in the shop needs to be used, if a dog needs to lie down, if a group needs to rehearse The Taming of the Shrew, then take the gift the bookshop offers – the improbable real estate – and leave. At night, when the shop closes and the Tumbleweeds take what’s left of their red wine and walk down to the Seine, or, on some rare nights, go to bed early, you’ll get the couch upstairs to yourself. The room is no longer an office, the business of running the bookshop is done. As the screensavers on the nearby computers revolve and change colour, you’ll get to lie on the couch. Each time you shift the book on your chest to turn a page you’ll glimpse Notre Dame through the window, lit up white, and if you get too distracted by the view and the whisper of cars passing on the Quai des Grands Augustins and the occasional clacking of heels against the cobblestones – if it’s overwhelming to think that just for a while your primary living arrangement has a view of Notre Dame – the simple solution is to change positions on the couch. Face the other way. Arrange a pillow under your head. You won’t silence the cars and pedestrians, but at least romantic, intrusive Paris will remain out of sight.
How many people tell stories of this place?
You’ll think about this a lot, sometimes while watching the crowds drink wine on the cobblestones by the river. (You won’t mention your run.) How many people remember this shop as they click a car seat into place or cut vegetables in some North American kitchen? How many wander back to their time at Shakespeare and Co.? One night, on the couch, you will read through some of the one-page biographies of previous Tumbleweeds in binders that stretch back a half-century. Most must remember. Some might still feel connected to the place, to its ideas, and, because of it, to a strange, imperfect, over-romanticized, much-needed, somehow indispensable literary culture. They made their pilgrimage and who knows what happened to them, bio after bio, weed after weed. The binders are the most interesting novel on the bookshelves of Shakespeare and Co. It’s a story made almost entirely of earnest beginnings.
Which books should you read during your stay?
Whatever you like. Best not to muss the new copies on the tables downstairs. Stick with the used. At points you’ll get sick of books. You’ll walk to the local cinemas and watch Ozu one night and a crackling old print of Fire Walk with Me the next. The scratches will make it more menacing. Don’t write emails to friends telling them you prefer David Lynch when his films are shown in scratchy prints in one-room French cinemas on the Left Bank. You’ll notice there’s a Cassavetes week at Le Grand Action cinema.
Maybe those twenty-one-year-old Tumbleweeds won’t understand, as you couldn’t understand at that age, the pain Gena Rowlands feels in A Woman Under the Influence as life barges in, as her control slips, as she strokes Peter Falk’s face and tries to understand the blunt folly of adult life. You’ll feel differently when you come out into the June air. It’s another experience you can’t quite translate. The best you can say to friends is that it’s much better than watching Cassavetes on a laptop.
How does the real world creep in?
Of course. You’ll see that Shakespeare and Co. is the first bookshop some people have been in for years. You’ll witness farce, but don’t pass judgement. A man will enter the room with an SLR camera the size of a cannon and wander the bookshop like it’s a museum or mausoleum. He’ll tell his wife to pick up a book and turn towards the lens. ‘Pretend to read it,’ he’ll say before he shoots. You’ll notice those who mistake the shop’s vitality for novelty. I remember bookshops, you’ll hear more than once.
During your stay hold on to the present, because this will never be Paris in the 20s/40s/60s. You’ll need to ignore young men who have adopted names such as Buster. They’ll wear pork-pie hats. Confiscate their movable feasts. Read today’s paper. You might receive interesting news during your stay, like the International Herald Tribune is going to become the International New York Times. Each story on the metamorphosis features a photo of Jean Seberg.
What’s the gift?
Impermanence. You’ll understand you won’t get this soft bed for ever. Even the best Tumbleweeds can’t own their patches. They have to go back to their old lives, or press forward into new ones. There’s only one way, eventually, to achieve permanence in this place. Go about your day. Eat the salade at Le Methode, eat the croissants at Le Rostand near the park. Eventually wipe the table with your forearm, send the remaining bits of pastry to the ground, and start to work. Thousands have passed through this shop, written their one-page bios, slept on its floors, flipped down the chairs of the reading room.
Clear the table. Brush off the crumbs. The only way to take up permanent residency of any form in Shakespeare and Co. is to finish the book, your book, the one that might just sit on its shelves some day, the one slowly emerging from the endless drafts that rest, one after the next, on the various tables beneath you.