Posts Tagged ‘literature’

An Evening at Shakespeare and Company

Saturday, September 4th, 2010
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Shakespeare and Company
(c) Discover Paris!

Last Sunday evening I attended an event at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore that featured author John Kirby Abraham speaking about his new book Paris Made Me… I thought that John gave a great presentation, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The occasion was, however, the first time in the eighteen years that I have been living in Paris that I ever entered this venerable institution.

Upon reflection, I now understand why. It is because I do not like to enter narrow, crowded quarters where there is little room to move about and where, in the event of a fire, there is little chance of getting out. The bookshop is a confined, decrepit place, whose history and charm do not, in my mind, compensate for its state of disrepair. As I entered, I had to push my way past customers standing in the narrow halls and climb a narrow staircase up to the room on the first floor where the reading was being held. Then I had to make my way along another narrow hall to enter the reading room, where there were seats arranged for the presentation. But what an arrangement! All of the seats were pushed tightly together to accommodate as many persons as possible. Many were simple stools, and many were fragile-looking things. Fortunately for me, I spotted Sylvia, the daughter of founder George Whitman, removing the “Reserved” signs from two comfortable-looking chairs in the front row. I quickly sprang up from the awkward stool upon which I had perched and occupied one of the chairs. What luck to find a tiny island of comfort in this jumble of a place!

John Kirby Abraham
(c) Discover Paris!

From the moment that he began the presentation, I could tell that John had extensive experience as a public speaker. Indeed, he served as a broadcast journalist for Radio France for many years. He engaged his audience, asking questions from time to time that required specific answers or asking for a show of hands to questions such as “How many here are from the United States?”. His presentation centered on his reminiscences and, given that he has interviewed many interesting people, he had a lot to say. I was delighted when he played a tape of his interview of Josephine Baker that had been recorded just before she gave her last performance (she died in 1975). I found his interview questions thoughtful and her responses equally so. I was also surprised to hear that her voice was a rich, commanding voice—not the tinny one that I have heard in her songs and in the movies.

After the presentation I purchased John’s book, which I asked him to autograph. A young woman came by and handed me a glass of red wine, so I moved out of the reading room in order to drink it. In another room I met a young man who introduced himself as an illustrator from Barcelona. His name is Sergio Lifonte and he is in Paris to find a publisher for a book of strip cartoons that he has written and illustrated. He described the book as an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy in which his principal character recurrently finds himself. Fascinating!

After I finished the wine, I took leave of the place. As I made my way downstairs I noted that the shop was still full of customers browsing through books. It was heartening to see so many people on a Sunday evening engaged in the search for a good book to read.

Like our blog? Join us on Facebook!


By A. D. McKenzie

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

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.