Returning to Paris – Remembering George Whitman

Places are built of the stones that structure them, of the people that populate them.  Of the latter, there are some whose presence is so integral that they render the whole coherent. On visiting old haunts it reassures us and revivifies place to come across these figures: they are a testimony at once to time passing and to the continuity of place. George Whitman was one of these. He stood as one of the stones of Shakespeare And Company Bookshop

I first met him eight years ago. I was, I remember, daunted, petitioning somewhere-to-sleep on the back of a rumour; naïve, dreadlocked, likely barefooted… Then, a later occasion, another memory: George careering down the stairs, hammer in the hand, as I again begged a pillow to rest my head, a shout: “Are you published?!” Pasted on the bookshop walls a sign reads: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise. And so, on these and many, many other occasions I was given a home. I remember too: during a particularly highbrow Shakespeare & Company Literary Festival, George sat with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, bookseller, publisher, of City Lights Books, on the bench outside Shakespeares sharing a bottle of wine. Humble then, who would have known, amidst the glamour of contemporary literati, that these were the real stars, the real literary figures, the visionaries.

One comes fast to understand that one’s individual relationship to person or place inscribes itself in that of a wider history, in a collective memory. George Whitman ran Shakespeare & Co. for 61 years. The scope of his presence is wide as the length of those years. So, pilgrims have marched from all over to visit the famed bookshop, to stay even, or work there. Where Shakespeare & Co. is the inn, George Whitman was the innkeeper. The bookshop: humble as an inn, dusty too and unchanged. An inn, but also a shrine. A structure standing in memoriam. To Shakespeare? Perhaps to Shakespeare, father of literature; or to the original Shakespeare & Co. Bookshop set up in the VIème by Sylvia Beach, where Ulysses was first published. Perhaps then in memorial to Shakespeare, to Sylvia Beach, to Ulysses, or to all the authors housed in the shelves of the bookshop, to the Beat Generation behind glass, or the Lost Generation with their own section. Perhaps too, to all the wanderers, writers and dreamers that have slept between those books, the tumbleweeds, as those that stay are known, blown in from the world over; or to those angels in disguise, the pilgrims that have walked through the doors.

So it was we took the aged red Peugeot 106 on surely its first overseas voyage to Paris Vème, and to Shakespeare & Co. And the trip, overnight from Norfolk, had all the traits of a pilgrimage. The modern pilgrimage, of course, occurs in petroleum-fuelled transport, depends on the whims of P&O ferries, and, minus staff and sandals, has to cope with bad traffic on the Périphérique. We were guided then, overcity and underground, by angels? to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

In the city of Paris, a great space has been carved to house the dead. With its own streets, tree-lined avenues and stumbling alleyways; with structures strutting high and low, some tended, others dilapidated; with its views over and above the city to the North; and where, to the South it sinks below the city’s heights to look out on shopfronts, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, Père Lachaise is worthy of the term city. City, or citadel, walled shadow city within the city. A city in negative. So, after the service held in La Coupole, we walked, thronged behind the coffin through those shadowstreets.

The service was beautiful, quiet, original. The French drone of the Maître de Cérémonie lifted by readings and testimonies in English. Perhaps most harrowing of all was the joyful singing of You Are My Sunshine to end the ceremony. Prior to the inhumation – and, isn’t the French word, now quixotic, wonderful – a reading of Yeats’ poem: Sailing to Byzantium. Beneath winter-grey Paris skies, amidst grey tombs, on grey cobbles, a girl with red hair read:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

The cemetery, the tomb, stands as a memorial in it simplest form, and Père Lachaise is already a heaving centre of pilgrimage. It is home to hefty literary types: Proust, Perec, Molière, and Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. Pilgrimage is the act of inscribing oneself in archetype and ritual by re-enacting motions enacted over years. Walking a way others have walked, one is treading a path other soles trod, a road moulded by other feet, other dreams. The path becomes the measure, the sculpture, the shape in relief form of the pilgrimage. Self dissolves, singularity melds with unity.

George responded to his daughter Sylvia’s complaint, young, of being an only child – but, you have brothers and sisters all over the world. So she does. Those at the funeral were from many countries and spoke as many languages. Was it Georges Bataille who came up with the notion of une communauté de ceux qui n’ont pas de Communauté? So, George Whitman set up a place for this community-of-those-without-community, a home for exiles, wanderers, for dreamers, writers and existential orphans. Where better to do so, than in a bookstore in Paris? For, is not Paris the city of exiles? Is not literature the territory par excellence of exile? So, George, Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter, knew well.

George Whitman is remembered as a maverick, a bohemian, an eccentric. As the soul of independent bookshops. As a visionary. But, most of all, as father, friend and host. His hospitality shaped the inimitable quality of Shakespeare And Company.

Same immense, and unconditional, hospitality was showed to us by all at Shakespeare & Co. on our trip prior to Christmas to mourn, remember and celebrate George Whitman. This welcome read as a prayer: that in a world where the maverick, the bohemian, the eccentric feels ever threatened by extinction, George Whitman’s extraordinary and enlightened vision forge onward, shouldered by his daughter Sylvia and the other angels guided to those doors.

In Memoriam George Whitman – 12 december 1913-14 December 2011

Thank you to all at Shakespeare And Company.

Badaude has done a lovely illustration in memory of George Whitman, which can be found here.


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