By A. D. McKenzie

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Shakespeare and Company
(c) Discover Paris!

Literature lovers were in for a treat recently when more than 30 famous writers descended on Paris for the fourth Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival.

The three-day event drew hundreds to the René Viviani Square – across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral and a few steps from the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore itself. Readers came to listen to authors such as Martin Amis, Petina Gappah, Philip Pullman, Jeanette Winterson, and Hanif Kureishi.

The theme this year was “Storytelling and Politics”, and the writers rose to the challenge of discussing topics that included “what the World Cup means for Africa”, “politics and violence in Pakistan” and “how to write a book in a military dictatorship.”

Novelist and film-maker Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia) gave a witty presentation titled “Writing the Suburbs, Writing the City.” He told the audience that he now believed the “identity novel” is dead. He said he realized the “game was up” when he found himself on a panel in Asia with three beautiful Indian first-time novelists who all lived in New York.

Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) spoke about the effects that literature can have on people’s lives and thinking. She said she was convinced that the much talked-about demise of the book was premature – and she seemed to be right, judging from the number of people that bought books after each session.

The bi-annual festival in fact highlights the unique role that the Shakespeare and Company bookshop has played in Parisian literary life. The original store was opened in 1919 by an American ex-pat named Sylvia Beach, who welcomed writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Her store became a meeting place for many wandering English and American scribes, as well as for readers who could buy or borrow books.

The shop was shut down in 1941 during the German occupation of France, but 10 years later a second English-language bookshop was opened on the city’s Left Bank by another American – George Whitman. This store acquired the Shakespeare and Company name when Beach died. It now houses the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library on its first floor, “where free readings and writers’ workshops take place, where visitors sit to read all day, and where young writers stay at night,” according to the shop’s own lore.

Whitman, now 96 years old, still keeps an eye on things, says the literary festival’s co-organizer Jemma Birrell. She said the theme of “Storytelling and Politics” was in keeping with his view that a bookshop is a political act because of the titles it chooses and the writers it promotes. Whitman’s daughter Sylvia launched the first festival in 2003 and currently does the day-to-day running of the store.

We wish to thank A. D. McKenzie for her contribution to the Paris Insights blog.

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