IF GEORGE WHITMAN still kept Shakespeare & Company alive and flourishing on the Quai de Montebello, at least one corner of literary Paris remained intact. I traveled there by subway from the Boulevard Voltaire and discovered more guitarists than ever working the M,etro, harmonicas attached to their guitars this summer, all singing oldies but goldies from Bob Dylan and the Beatles, every accent in the Western world. When I first stumbled upon Shakespeare & Company, I too was part of the jeans and backpack crowd. That was when I published a first story about buskers in Paris, so my heart goes out to the guitarists this season, and my spare francs into their cowboy hats. But my time was when the Beatles repertoire was new, George Whitman barely had a toe-hold on the quai de Montebello, and there were maybe three guita-troubadours in all of Paris.
"Stay here, stay here," George insisted when he saw I was in transit. For the bookstore is more than a store spilling over with books (though it is very much that), but also a labyrinth winding through two ancient structures, a dozen rooms or more, rooms on offer to writers adrift. George practices as well as preaches the admonition: "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise."
George Whitman once claimed a tenuous genealogical connection to Walt Whitman of the vast flowing white beard: George's own pert goatee has turned white with the years (he has written a treatise on beards) but the eyes are as keen a blue as ever, and ever restless, watchful. (He has abandoned the genealogical connection, but celebrates the great American poet as a leitmotif throughout the shop.) Watchful? -- it is George who sees the rain sweeping across the Seine, and hustles me outside to help cover the book racks with plastic.
The downstairs shop bears a name taken from Yeats, "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart," while the upper rooms -- just as crammed with books as the space below -- are part of the network of apartments and crashpads known as "The Tumbleweed Hotel," home of the peripatetic literati. In the Tumbleweed library was to be a reading that night, two poets: "One widely published, the other not published at all, but just as good." Besides attending Shakespeare & Company's soir,ees, I warmed myself many winter nights in the '60s at George's fire, wrote in a room full of James Joyce memorabilia, drank tea and browsed the reading rooms on every floor. Anais Nin, James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg (along with an entourage of Beats), James Jones, Lawrence Durrell -- established writers and a host of unknowns, in their fluctuating literary seasons -- have brewed tea and poetry in George's "Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart."
I could not stop over at the Tumbleweed Hotel (since I was staying with my son, living now in Paris at the age I was when I first came here), but I would be back next day to meet Noel Riley Fitch, biographer of Sylvia Beach whose original Shakespeare & Company was the genesis of all such bookshops- with-a-heart. Noel Fitch and I were both writing about Paris in the '20s and knew one another's work, so George was eager to extend the hospitality of Shakespeare & Company as a meeting place. I was steered to George's own upstairs flat to meet the attractive blond Californian (Noel is the masculine form of the name, but Noel Fitch is very much a woman; she is originally from Vermont, perfectly at home in Paris). George left us alone with a bottle of cognac and two glasses -- as if this were the '20s, and we were in our twenties -- and with a view of barges flaunting their pennants of laundry as they floated below the window. We talked about what writers always talk about, publishers and money; and while I was thumbing through a volume of Paris on the Seine that I wanted to show Noel, 500-franc notes began spilling out from the pages like stray bookmarks. George had trusted us with his apartment, his books, his cognac and his money -- for we may have been angels in disguise.
THE PONT DES ARTS has been sadly missing from the riverscape for several years, but this summer is restored and even embellished. There are full-length twin benches now, perfect for this touring Scandinavian couple to lie side by side on, arms crossed like carved figures on medieval tombs, tubs of flowers at their tanned heads and bare feet. Painters and photographers love this bridge for its juxtaposition with Pont Neuf where the river splits at the sharp prow of the Ile de la Cit,e. A prudent French afterthought is the placement of life rings at either end of the bridge, with a telephone number to call in case of suicide attempt (but no telephone in the vicinity, also very French).
On the Right Bank, at 37 Avenue de l'Op,era, is Brentano's, the best-known of the English-language bookstores in Paris (part of the landscape in Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited). The hardcover and best-seller stock shares the display floor with an unfortunate assortment of ceramic ashtrays and souvenir paperweights; the paperback collection is now shelved at street level, resurrected from years of exile in the basement, and is extensive enough for a quick selection of something to read on the plane. Librairie Galgnali, at 224 Rue de Rivoli, is primarily a French bookstore with a large section of British paperbacks (categorized according to publisher) and a smaller selection of English- language hardbacks at the rear of the store. Farther along the Rue de Rivoli, at the corner of rue Cambon, is the Paris outpost of the W. H. Smith chain of bookstores: well- stocked, crowded, with the added feature of an English tearoom (with French specialties) upstairs.
These are the commercial outlets in Paris for large-scale English-language publication: there is little awareness of avant-grade publishing at the Right Bank bookstores, and no particular rapport with the literary community -- much to do with attitudes, something to do with space. The bridge to the stir and ferment of today's literary scene leads inevitably to the opposite bank.
ODILE HELLIER is as diminutive and provocative as her cafe-bookstore, the Village Voice, on the rue Princesse (just off the rue du Four). A vivacious and remarkably informed bibliophile, Odile has a memory and feeling for books (and their authors) beyond any catalogue raisonn,e in France. In the tradition of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Odile has made bookselling into the art of cultural entrepreneurship. The Village Voice has become the meeting place of the arts in Paris, and its narrow confines something of a center of gravity for a shifting population of artists and writers in the expatriate colony.
Since she is French, I asked first about the French literary scene.
"What literary scene? I cannot become passionate about French writers since the Thirties and Forties. I go often to La Hune (an important French bookstore on the Boulevard St. Germain), and there is nothing to engage my interest. The French have become frozen in their private little world of words."
Odile pronounces her English in that accent so charming to American ears; she is indeed French -- in speech and manner -- but completely lacking those overtones of chauvinism characteristic of so many French intellectuals. Her cultural interests range far beyond the borders of France, to the new writing coming out of Africa, clandestine literature circulating in Russia (Odile is fluent in Russian) and Eastern Europe; young Canadian novelists and poets -- any dynamic and significant thrust from any quarter, especially if the work is written in -- or translated into -- English. A love affair with American writing began at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where she studied Afro- American literature; she then made an even closer examination of Afro-American life during a journalistic tour of the Deep South in the '60s, that crisis time of confrontation and upheaval. This encounter with the nightmare aspect of the American dream did not diminish her determination to pursue film- making in Washington, D.C., but eventually Odile realized that her roots in France (she was born in the Midi; her father, an officer in the Resistance, was killed during the Occupation) went too deep to ignore. Her expatriate experience, combined with her attachment to things literary, led to the founding of the Village Voice in 1982 in a narrow storefront (decor by her architect brother) on the rue Princesse. Odile Hellier became local ambassador to the arts.
Ted Joans, jazz poet and literary diplomat- at-large, stopped at our table (drinking Guinness from a bottle in a paper sack) to discuss two novelists e had introduced at a recent Shakespeare & Company reading. Odile did not flinch at hearing the word on activities sponsored by her competitor, George Whitman. A natural and inevitable overlap of interests (Noel Fitch has had book-signing evenings at both bookstores) has not led to the personal rivalry -- sometimes bitter and lifelong, as with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound -- that marked the competing salons of the 1920s.
A Japanese painter worked his way through the crowded downstairs to call out an au revoir to Odile, after which she explained: "A fantastic painter, and I would love to show his work here but the canvasses are huge, much too large for my little walls."
With all else -- mail-drop, grapevine, bookstore with caf,e ambiance -- the Village Voice is the launching pad and promotional center for the new literary quarterlies and avant- garde publications: Paris Exiles, Moving Letters, Frank, Sphinx (literature from the women's movement), as well as the fashionable Passion, a lively new general magazine.
Possibly, as in the Paris '20s, editors and contributors to the literary magazines will be the names to follow in the years to come: Jim Haynes of Handshake Editions, Edmund White (Caracole), Kathy Acker (Don Quixote in America), David Applefield, editor of Frank, Pierre Joris, poet and translater . . . but there are more names than Odile can list at a sitting, some of them only transiently associated with Paris.
On my return to the Right Bank I took the venerable Pont Neuf, soon to be completely enshrouded in sailcloth by Christo and his 145 assistants. For 20 years I have strolled across the Pont Neuf and althought I prefer this work of art au naturel to gift-wrapped, I am intrigued and somehow elated to know that the air and artifacts of Paris continue to inspire acts of creative originality, even daring. (I am also relieved to know the bridge will be unwrapped two weeks later.)