Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the left bank world of Shakespeare and Co by Jeremy Mercer

Earn your place in boho heaven
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The Independent Culture

After the death of Sylvia Beach, who founded the first Shakespeare and Co, Whitman bought her collection of books, and, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, re-founded his own establishment in homage to hers. In both its pre- and post-war guises, Shakespeare and Co has been a haunt for carousing and slumming writers. Ulysses was first distributed by Beach - Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein were her friends.

As a historian, Mercer is not averse to being seduced by these literary myths and by the beauty of Paris - be it two franc bordeaux, the view from Montmartre or no-brand bargain foie gras. However, even in his most enchanted moments, his is a Paris in which post-clubbing crowds "haemorrhage" into the night air and tour buses "disgorge" their school groups. This consistently gritty verbal texture suits the realism that he brings to writing of the almost childlike innocence of Whitman's enterprise.

As its title suggests, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs highlights the dirt and the disorganisation as well as the romance. Actually to live here for longer than a few weeks or months - residents include Simon, an aristocratic, alcoholic poet, and Kurt, a good-looking failed screenwriter from Florida - seems escapist and extreme. Descriptions of mornings at the municipal showers or of re-fuelling by gate-crashing private views and student cafeterias, not to mention brushes with the law, evoke haplessness and desperation as well as hopefulness.

The account of the practicalities of being genuinely down and out in Paris, with little hope of being up and in, doesn't serve simply as a self-deprecating comedy. "The bookstore was catnip for idealistic writers" is Mercer's more serious, melancholic assessment. While for a few (William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Anais Nin for example) it has been a stimulant, these are the famous exceptions. Mercer the memoirist (and aspiring writer) notes in a reporter's brutal, single sentence, "Seven published novels have been written at Shakespeare and Company and thousands more begun." Given the hours that have been spent typing on one of the shop's rickety machines by would-be Hemingways (or, in the case of screenwriter Kurt, would-be Bret Easton Ellises) the statistic just about says it all.

The chance that wasted weeks, months and years could ultimately speak as much of delusion as self-belief and talent, colours each of Mercer's pen portraits of his housemates. For anyone burning to create, Shakespeare and Co - a cross between a kibbutz, a party for college kids doing boho and a zoo for all manner of literary minded waifs and strays - would be intolerable. "Looking back at those months, I realise everyone living at the bookstore had a ghost lurking somewhere not very far behind them," he concludes.

At the centre of this chaos is Whitman. Though no relation to Walt, George energes as a figure of not inconsiderable poetry. His life before the shop was spent as an academic and as a traveller, wandering, he says, "barefoot through the palaces of the world". Though insisting that residents lose themselves in a book a day if they are to stay, his mission has had less to do with literature than life. "I sometimes think the bookstore is an annex of the church," he comments, looking across the Seine to Notre Dame, "a place for the people who don't quite fit in over there."

Along with inventive frugality and capricious favouritism, another of George Whitman's foibles is, apparently, culinary. With salty, weeks-old batter and watered down molasses in place of maple syrup, even starving writers apparently eat his Sunday morning breakfast treat as though "dissecting a frog. I bit. It wasn't that it tasted bad, only so very different from any pancake I'd previously encountered," recollects Mercer. Tender, disenchanted, self-castigating and bittersweet, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs is a book that is consistently surprising.