By Ben Antao
Paris is famous for its museums featuring the world’s greatest artists, but Sebastian Lobo, the permanent resident of Canada, was most interested in checking out the Shakespeare’s bookshop in that city of light. He was obsessed with Shakespeare ever since he’d studied Hamlet in college. The soliloquy “To be or not to be” played on his mind as the ultimate take on philosophy, far deeper in wisdom than the Book of Wisdom itself in the Bible. So whenever he’d read stories of literary writers, especially those who lived in Paris in the 1920s, he’d dreamed of visiting that bookshop associated with the likes of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.
Now after years of living in Toronto, Sebastian’s dream was about to turn into reality at the age of seventy, an age that makes some men rather blasé with a sense of déjà vu, about the so-called wisdom incorporated into the ages of man as represented in the art galleries and museums of the world. But not this Canadian - most of whose adult life was saturated with Shakespeareana to such a degree as to be a lifetime devotee of Shakespeare, second only perhaps to the American literary critic Harold Bloom.
On the very first morning after Sebastian checked into a hotel on the east side of Paris on the left bank of Seine, he approached the registration desk.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle, can you help me?”
“Of course, what would you like?”
“I want to find a bookshop called Shakespeare and Company.”
“Do you know the address?”
“I thought you’d know --- it’s a famous place like Eiffel Tower. You know where Eiffel Tower is, don’t you?”
“That I know. You want to go to Eiffel Tower?”
“No, I want to find this place, the bookshop.”
“Just a moment, please wait.”
The young woman, personable and business-like, walked towards another woman at the counter, who opened a drawer and handed her a map and tourist guide.
Perusing quickly through the guide, she returned and said, “Monsieur, the place you’re looking for is located at Rue de la Boucherie in the Latin Quarter.” Then she took out a map of the city and gave him directions on how to get there on the Metro.
Unlike the subway system in Toronto, the Metro has 14 routes designated in different colours and numbers. Sebastian sat on the couch in the hotel’s foyer and spent some time studying the Metro map. It was about 9:30, the day was partly sunny in September, as he stepped out and began to walk to the nearest Metro station indicated in red. He walked downstairs to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, a station designated in purple. He purchased a one-way ticket (3.50 euros) to Place Monge as suggested by the woman at the hotel.
While seated in the train, Sebastian looked at the overhead board indicating several routes in different colours and saw that Place Monge was on orange route 7, the line serving the Louvre Museum. He got off at Chatelet les Halles junction.
“S'il vous plaît?” he said to a passing passenger on the platform.
“I want to go to Place Monge.”
The young man looked at Sebastian with an understanding eye and said, “Prendre la route sept.”
Sebastian said merci and walked across to the 7 platform. Emerging out of the Place Monge station, he tarried awhile on the sidewalk, looking east and west. The gray roadway of cobbled stones looked evocative of the past of Balzac and Zola days, he thought. He had worn a light olive jacket over his white shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. He viewed the map again and at once felt a tug of uncertainty that invades the spirit of tourists when faced with a choice: which direction to take.
There was a kiosk on the cobbled sidewalk. The man inside looked like an Indian in complexion, brown like Sebastian whose roots were in Goa. And he spoke English.
“I have to go to a bookstore. It’s called Shakespeare and Company. It’s on Rue de la Boucherie.”
At first the man appeared perplexed, giving Sebastian the impression that he was probably new to Paris. Without saying a word, he pawed through the stacks of newspapers and pulled out a book, a guide for tourists. He opened it, carefully scanned the names of streets and finally put his finger on the Rue de la Boucherie. Then he looked out as though deciding where the location might be and pointing towards the east, said, “Go that way, at the end of this road there is a garden. You will find it there.”
“Thank you.” The cobbled Monge Street sloped downwards. The sky turned cloudy and Sebastian after walking a kilometre stopped again, rather confused. I think I’m lost, he murmured, and this wouldn’t be the first time. Across the two-car thoroughfare he entered a store. A young Parisian woman was inside.
“Bonjour, parlez vous Anglais?”
“Yes,” she said, “how may I help you?”
The sound of her greeting at once cheered him up, as though he was in Toronto. “I’m looking for a bookshop called Shakespeare and Company. Do you know where it is?”
“If you have the address, I can look it up for you.”
After he gave her the address, she looked into her map book and pointed out where to go: straight down Monge Street to the park near River Seine.
Amazing, he thought, that nobody so far has heard of Shakespeare and Company. He walked down another half a mile and soon tired, which forced him to enter an ice cream parlour. This joint was run by a Japanese looking woman, who looked rather sweet and worldly wise. After finishing a cone of vanilla ice cream, he asked her about the hoary bookstore.
Yes, she had heard of the bookstore and also knew where the street was. This was music to his ears, making him wonder why it was that newcomers to a city knew more about it than the locals. It happened to him in Toronto too, where many immigrants would ask him for directions, instead of the natives. But then again, these immigrants could probably not distinguish between the two, seeing how Sebastian walked with a certain air of confidence. As he was reflecting on the Japanese woman’s knowledge of the city, he walked south for a short distance and found the place at the corner of Notre Dame Quay de Montebello. The sun broke through the clouds.
The sign Shakespeare and Company was painted in large capital letters in yellow, across the length of two doors above the façade painted in deep green. Sebastian opened the main door gingerly as though about to enter a secret hideaway that harboured books of immense value. The place smelled dusty and stuffy, with books of various sizes stacked on chairs and benches, in addition to overfilled shelves against the walls. A woman was standing in the right corner, probably the owner he thought, but the space was so tight that he decided to venture further in through an opening leading to the inner sanctum. Here the walls were filed with more books right up to the rafters. The place had the ambience of organised disorder. It reminded him of another bookstore with a romantic name of Golden Heart Emporium in Margao, Goa, where calculated clutter seemed like its drawing card.
At noon on a Friday only a few people were browsing in the shop. Sensing a creeping onset of claustrophobia, Sebastian stepped back into the main section to speak to the owner.
“Are you the owner?” he asked.
“No, I am the salesgirl. What can I do for you?”
“Well, for a start how many books are there in this shop?”
“As you can see, there are hundreds of books.”
“How many books do you sell each day?”
“We sell a lot of books,” she said.
“I noticed a little folding bed at the back. Do you sleep here?
The woman’s eyes flared. “Don’t be rude. I live in my own apartment. But we have young writers who live here. See that young man over there? He’s one of the renters.”
“Thank you,” said Sebastian and retreated from her presence.
The young man she had pointed out was somewhat skinny with brown hair and a beard. He was perusing a book at the shelf.
Sebastian went over to him. “Excuse me, may I talk to you?”
He looked up as though startled and seeing the older man with an eager face, said yes.
“I’m Sebastian from Toronto.”
“I am Danny, also from Toronto, what are you looking for?”
“Let’s go outside and sit on the bench; it’s too cluttered here,” said Sebastian.
Danny nodded and as they moved through the narrow passage, Sebastian wondered about the young man and why he was here. Outside were two park benches, one facing the busy Notre Dame Quay and the other fronting the bookstore. “Let’s sit here,” said Sebastian, “with our backs to the traffic.”
The young man clad in red-and-black wool plaid shirt hung over his dark trousers wore gray canvas shoes without socks. He looked to be about his height, 5 feet 8 inches, with his brown hair shorn closely.
“The salesgirl was telling me you’re a writer. I am a journalist myself. What are you writing?”
“I am what you might call a wannabe writer. After graduating with a BA in English from U of T, my friend and I figured it’d be fun to come to Paris and explore the world of letters.” He paused. “We had heard of this place and the American writers like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald who’d sojourned here in the twenties. We were captivated by the charm of this place, the romantic aura of the lost generation.”
“I believe it was Gertrude Stein who said that,” said Sebastian.
“Yes, it was a generation after the First World War; these writers and artists roamed through France and Europe in search of meaning in the wasteland.”
Sebastian was impressed with Danny’s characterisation of wasteland whose theme was explored by TS Eliot, but he didn’t want to upstage his young pal. “Go on, why this place?”
Now Danny shifted his position to his left the better to face his companion. “This place, as you call it, has history. It was founded in 1913 by an American named Sylvia Beach. Did you know it was Sylvia Beach who’d first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922?”
“You don’t say?”
“Yes, Joyce’s stream of consciousness style made a breakthrough in narrative writing. It was later imitated by Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.” He paused again and raised his right hand to smooth his brownish beard.
“Tell me more, this is fascinating stuff.”
“The bookshop was shut down during and after the Second World War, but restored and reopened in 1951 by George Whitman, another American. Today it is managed by his daughter also named Sylvia.”
“Is that the woman in the bookshop?”
“No, she is an employee, just like me.”
“Oh, this is getting even better. How come you are an employee?”
“Well, it’s a long story,” he said with a smile, a smile that intimated a veiled secret. “But I’ll make it short for you.”
“When my partner and I first arrived here in the summer, we checked this place and liked the ambience so much that we wanted to stay. We didn’t have much money but we could work here for lodging. We asked Sylvia and she said she’d give us a break. We had to pay ten euros each per week and work three hours a day in the store and we would get a cot to sleep on at the back. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity, and here we are two months and counting.”
“And how long do you plan to stay here, you and your friend?”
“Well, he is more than a friend actually; he’s my partner.”
A pause ensued. “I see,” said Sebastian. “That reminds me. Have you heard of the black American writer James Baldwin? He wrote a novel called Giovanni’s Room when he lived in Paris in the late forties. I’m sure you and your partner will find it most interesting. It’s probably there in the bookshop if you search for it.”
Danny perked up. “I shall certainly look for it; if it’s not here I’ll find it in the national library. You can be sure I’ll read it.”
“It will inspire you to write just as this place seems to have done other writers.”
“Yes, we are truly encouraged to be living here, in the company of books and great writers of the twentieth century. Who knows, we may yet advance the glory days of Shakespeare and Company in the twenty-first century!”
“Now that’s a thought,” said Sebastian and stood up. “Thank you for chatting with me. I appreciate it.”
“You are welcome.” They shook hands.
“Danny boy, you’ve crossed over the ocean. I wish you and your partner much success in your literary journey.”
“Thank you,” said Danny smiling and sauntered over to the bookstore.
Sebastian began to walk in the direction of the Notre Dame Cathedral, pondering over the morning’s adventure. Although warmed up by Danny’s story, he nevertheless felt a sense of letdown, seeing how the bookstore was just so ordinary, with no pretensions to its former literary glory. He mused that venturing out to discover a place of former splendour was a fool’s game. It always ends in disappointment.
He now recalled how in 2000 he had visited Cuba and wanted to see the Hemingway bar in Havana. This is what he’d written afterwards:
“The bar called La Bodeguita Del Medio was the place where Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were said to drink in the fifties. Made famous by the Hemingway presence, this watering hole is a small and greasy space with a black wrought iron railing fronting a narrow lane and a wall covered with old newspaper clippings and photographs of the American author of The Old Man and the Sea and his several drinking buddies. The unkempt bar was crowded when I went in and had my picture taken near the wall. Cigar and cigarette smoke and rum smell permeated its tight enclosure and enhanced its nauseating ambience.”
Today Sebastian’s curiosity ended in a similar disenchantment. At the cathedral he crossed over the bridge and walked to his hotel on Rue de Libourne, feeling none too wise but melancholy.
Upon entering the foyer, he heard the receptionist’s voice, “Did you find the place, monsieur?”
“Yes, but I was disappointed.”
“Oh, what happened?”
After his explanation, she said with a smile and a sigh, “I guess some fantasies are better left as fantasies.”
Ben Antao is a journalist, novelist and short story writer living in Toronto. His latest novel Money and Politics (2015) deals with post-Liberation events in Goa. It can be purchased here.