A Walk Around the Left Bank


Arts & Culture

Talking about the history of Shakespeare and Company on a stroll through Paris.

From left to right: Sylvia Whitman, Lauren Elkin, and Krista Halverson. Photo: Mathew McWilliams


It was the first of the really cold days when I went for a walk around the Left Bank with Sylvia Whitman, the owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, and Krista Halverson, the editor of a new book on its history, Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Published last November on the shop’s sixty-fifth anniversary, the book is full of stories and documents from interviews, letters, diaries, news articles. It reproduces autobiographies from generations of Tumbleweeds, as the staff calls the young people who live there in exchange for helping out around the shop and the promise to read a book a day. There are amazing photographs (including one of an ill-fated combustible wishing well), and handwritten notes posted on the community bulletin board in the 1950s: EXECUTIVE TYPE WISHES TO LEARN INFORMALITY AND RELAXATION FROM BOHEMIAN FRIENDS; FOR THE LADY IN THE BOIS DE BOLOGNA WHO LOST HER SMILE FROM THE GENTLEMAN WHO FOUND IT.

I’d recently published a quasi-memoir of my own, Flâneuse, about my love of walking in cities, and Paris specifically, and the many women who’ve lived and walked in those cities before me. The chapter on Jean Rhys begins in Shakespeare and Company, where I first discovered her novels as a student in 1999. Excited about the overlaps in our books, Sylvia and Krista invited me on a walk to dish about the shop and all the literary women who’ve been associated with it, making their names in the shadows of more famous men.

We walked from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the Place Saint-Sulpice and then back to the shop across the river from Notre Dame, talking of Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare and Company on the nearby rue de l’Odéon, in 1919; her partner, Adrienne Monnier, who ran her own French-language bookshop across the street from Sylvia’s; and Sylvia Whitman’s dad, George, who is said to have received Sylvia Beach’s blessing to carry on the Shakespeare and Company name after the war. (He named his daughter after her, too.) We began in the Café de Tournon near the Jardin de Luxembourg, where some of the friends of the shop used to gather and drink, including a group of young bohemians who founded the avant-garde literary journal Merlin out of the shop in 1952. 

Stories do not end.
—Anaïs Nin

Lauren Elkin: What were you saying about The Paris Review and this café?

Sylvia Whitman: This was an early hangout for the editors of The Paris Review and Merlin, as well as for African American writers in Paris like Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and occasionally James Baldwin.

Krista Halverson: The publisher of Merlin was Jane Lougee, a young American woman who’d stroll the Latin Quarter in an oversize trench and a Siamese cat on a leash. When I was researching the Shakespeare and Company book, I was really struck by the few bits about her I came across. One of the stories was from George Plimpton. As he told it, the Beaux-Arts was hosting a ball for its students, the Quat’zarts ball, with a competition for living tableaux. In a dark theater, a spotlight would rove around, landing on different scenes staged by the students and other attendees. The poet Alexander Trocchi, who was an editor at Merlin and Jane Lougee’s boyfriend, had the idea for their tableau—he and Lougee would be caught naked, making love, leaning over the edge of the balcony, with George Plimpton standing behind them, holding a fan. This would have been very risqué, obviously. So they’re at the ball, and Lougee and Plimpton are setting up for their tableau vivant—but Trocchi is nowhere to be found. It turns out he was late and, running up the stairs, he hit his head on the low ceiling and was knocked unconscious. The spotlight is now roaming the room and it lands on Plimpton and Lougee both unprepared, still looking around for Trocchi. Plimpton said, And there’s Jane Lougee laid over this balustrade while I just stood there and fanned her!

I asked various people what had happened to Lougee, including Plimpton’s widow. Nobody knew where she was. Then, just this morning, I Googled her after not having done so for six months, and I found an article about her in her hometown paper of Limerick, Maine, written in celebration of her ninetieth birthday. She still seems quite a character—though the newspaper doesn’t mention her life in Paris in the fifties or her association with Merlin and The Paris Review. It got me thinking about women, generally, being left out of official histories, so often written by men. All the other women’s stories we can only wonder about. Here’s Jane Lougee today. [Shows picture.]

[We walk toward the rue de l’Odéon, where Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier had their bookshops, at numbers 10 and 7 respectively, and where they lived together in an apartment at number 18. En route, we discuss Zadie Smith’s new novel, the Tino Sehgal show at the Palais de Tokyo, and nearly step in a mound of dog shit. “Attention—caca!” says Sylvia.]

At the Café de Tournon. Photo: Mathew McWilliams

I can easily do without people (there are days when I could easily do without myself), and … in the country of books where I dwell, the dead can count entirely as much as the living.
—Adrienne Monnier

SW: My favorite description of Sylvia Beach is that she was like a bee carrying pollen, cross-fertilizing the French writers at Adrienne’s bookshop with the predominantly Anglophone writers at her own. Think of her unique situation—being opposite an already-established, really good French bookshop, with Adrienne who’d persuaded the landlord to rent the space to a foreigner and helped Sylvia get through all the red tape. Straight away, Sylvia’s first customers were André Gide and Paul Valéry, French writers who’d crossed the street from Adrienne’s. Then Adrienne published Ulysses in French in 1929, and together she and Beach translated Eliot’s “Prufrock” into French for the first time. They really shared their projects.

[We walk down the road to Adrienne’s. When we arrive, we see there’s no plaque to commemorate it.]

SW: How can there not be a plaque? She was the first woman in France to open a bookshop! I read somewhere that Adrienne Monnier liked to think of her shop as a transitional space between street and home. She didn’t have enough money at first—she was twenty-three when she opened it in 1915—so she just had one wall of books, and the rest were pictures of authors and warm seats and tea. It was very welcoming. Bookselling then was a male-dominated world, and the type of books being sold were leather-bound, hardback, and really too expensive. Most women wouldn’t have had the spending money for them. So, in many ways, Adrienne was directing her shop to a female readership.

KH: One of the first people to subscribe to Sylvia Beach’s lending library, which ran side by side with her bookselling, was a young female medical student. She went on to be the first woman doctor in a Paris hospital.

LE: Adrienne Monnier also knew Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer. She was the one who encouraged her to write her very weird autobiography, which is called Disavowed Confessions, Aveux non Avenus. Apparently Claude would harass her to read her fiction, and Adrienne finally said, Why don’t you write a memoir darling, and she did, and it’s become this classic of twentieth-century women’s experimental writing.

SW: They had such different personalities, Adrienne and Sylvia, maybe that’s why they combined so well. Adrienne was more contemplative. Sylvia was witty and energetic and fun.

LE: I get annoyed when people call her the midwife of modernism, like she’s remembered for helping James Joyce birth his masterpiece child and that’s it. I like your metaphor of cross-pollination so much more. It’s so much more community based, less gendered and essentializing.

[We walk towards Saint-Sulpice, getting bodychecked by a large man en route, dodge a few threatening raindrops, and pause in front of the Café de la Mairie, which is warmly lit, as dusk is falling.]

Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human.
—Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

LE: I love this café—not just because it’s where Perec wrote part of his attempt at exhausting a place in Paris but because before that Djuna Barnes set a scene in Nightwood here, one that leads us to meet Robin, the sleepwalker. Barnes describes her as looking like something out of the Douanier Rousseau.

SW: I love that painting! Those colors, the green, the jungle grass …

LE: It’s such an amazing moment, with this woman who can’t be contained by her hotel room, it becomes wild and junglelike and the outside merges with the inside and the faraway tropics merges with Paris. I love that Djuna Barnes’s imagination takes us to that place. You look around Paris and it’s very gray and mannered, but Djuna Barnes looked at it and thought, there are jungles in these hotel rooms. Djuna used to hang out at the original Shakespeare and Company, no?

SW: She did, and she was close with Joyce. I remember reading she was the only person apart from his wife who could call him Jim.

KH: Didn’t she interview him for Vanity Fair? I’m remembering a sketch she did of him, too …

LE: Yes! She was also close to T. S. Eliot, who wrote the introduction to Nightwood, as if to say, Don’t worry, readers, this book might seem really out there and weird, but if I can read it, so can you. He was domesticating her wildness for his readers.

[We walk east to the boulevard and pause near the massive fountain, just below where George Sand lived in the 1830s.]

Photo: Mathew McWilliams

It was drizzling. Julia walked quickly past the bookstalls and turned the corner by the big café on the Place St. Michel.  She stopped at the kiosk opposite and bought a newspaper.
Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

SW: We’ve been talking about how magnetic Shakespeare and Company was—but Jean Rhys really seems to have been on the periphery of that. I love the quote in your book, Lauren, where she says that the Paris of Hemingway and the rest of that group didn’t exist—it was just America in Paris.

LE: She was there a bit, with Ford Madox Ford—he was the one who took her around to all the parties, introduced her to the people from Shakespeare and Company. They saw her as “Ford’s girl,” and she saw them as just a bunch of Americans and English people in Paris. But her relationship with Ford is interesting—he’s both really controlling and really inspiring to her. Since we were speaking about Djuna Barnes being somehow legitimized by T. S. Eliot, Jean Rhys was invented by Ford Madox Ford. But she saw herself as so lonely and friendless—I wish Sylvia Beach had been able to pick her up and dust her off.

KH: Did Ford Madox Ford really encourage her talent, or was it primarily a sexual interest?

LE: Probably a blend. He helped her get her first story collection, The Left Bank, published, and then he wrote the introduction to it. We see this pattern of female modernists being “introduced” to the world by their male friends. She writes a lot about Saint-Michel, but it’s a lonely place for her. She sets all these scenes late at night, with men following her female characters home. She preferred the Boulevard Montparnasse.

[We walk down rue de la Huchette toward the bookshop, past the Greek restaurants and Tunisian bakeries, souvenir shops and kebab stands.]

SW: One of the things I loved about Flâneuse, Lauren, is the way you’re constantly asking the reader to notice things in the city.

KH: A section that really moved me was where you talk about the Charlie Hebdo march, and how one day the attacks may be remembered only by their plaques, and maybe people will notice them as they walk by and maybe they won’t …

LE: That march really got me wondering—what’s the power of the memorial? Like we were saying at Adrienne Monnier’s old shop, there’s no plaque there, but what does it matter if there is or isn’t—maybe plaques are just an official way of forgetting history, because people just walk by without noticing it.

A photo from Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

This will be our place … no man but you will ever sleep here.
Simone de Beauvoir, letter to Nelson Algren

[We arrive at Shakespeare and Company and realize there are paperback books wedged in the eves of the building, which have clearly been thrown out a window and gotten caught there.]

LE: We should talk about Simone de Beauvoir. How funny that she lived on the same street as your dad’s shop.

SW: Number 11. With her lover, Nelson Algren, in a top-floor flat with a leaky roof and a view of Notre Dame.

LE: Did she ever go into the shop, do you know?

SW: Yes, we know she came in the 1950s and again in the early 1970s with Sartre.

KH: After she died, her adopted heir, Sylvie le Bon, sold de Beauvoir’s English-language books to Sylvia’s dad. He went to her apartment on rue Schoelcher to pick the ones he wanted. The most remarkable were those written by others and inscribed to de Beauvoir, like Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett. Some of the books George sold in the Antiquarian, but others he kept in the shop’s reading library on the first floor.

[We walk over to nearby Café Panis, sitting in the front with a view of Notre Dame, and conclude our talk over vin chaud and grog.]

I come [to the shop] and sit in a hundred years of time with a hundred years more waiting their turn. Books don’t date; the language changes, the problems shift, but the wrestle with what is human stays the same.
Jeanette Winterson, foreword to Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

SW: One of the things we talked about when putting the history book together were themes for each chapter. For the 1970s, one theme is feminism and women’s rights, centering around an event for Anaïs Nin at the bookshop in 1974—apparently the queue was so long that it went from the shop all the way to Saint-Michel!

KH: A news station was there, covering the event. The program aired across France and had an immediate effect—all these young women in the countryside saw Nin and learned of this bohemian bookshop in Paris where you could live for free. The shop was soon flooded with young women! An Italian employee at the time, Giuseppe Recchia, told us about a fifteen-year-old who showed up after having seen the broadcast. George persuaded her to call her parents to let them know where she was, and they quickly arrived from the countryside to bring their daughter back home. But George somehow convinced them that before they returned to their village, they should all have some fun in Paris. So Recchia and George took the young woman and her parents to a bar on rue de la Huchette and had this big party, and Recchia says he ended up having a passionate night dancing with the mother of the young woman!

LE: Tell us about Jeanette!

SW: The first time I met Jeanette, I was with our former events manager, Jemma Birrell. We knew that she was in town because her girlfriend at the time, Deborah Warner, was directing a play at the Théâtre National de Chaillot. So we e-mailed Jeanette and said, Hello! We’re big fans of yours, would you like to come and have tea at the bookshop with us in Paris? Half an hour later she’d written back and said, I’ll come see you tomorrow afternoon! We were shocked! We put on a grand tea party for her and Deborah. Jemma and I were so nervous and excited that we talked nonstop for two hours. I had no idea if they were having a good time because we left them no space to speak themselves—but at the end of the two hours, Deborah looked at Jeanette and said, I think this is the right place for you. And now, ten years later, Jeanette has a flat above the bookshop!

LE: I remember so vividly the festival you had in 2010, when she came onstage to Pink.

SW: We’d asked her, Who do you want to introduce you? And she said, I don’t want anyone to introduce me. I just want Pink playing.

LE: [Sings the opening to “Please Don’t Leave Me.”] And she got up onstage, took off her leather jacket, threw it on the ground, and the crowd went wild!

SW: She is so electrifying. To think she was adopted to be a missionary in a Pentecostal church! She has the ability to convert people to literature. In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she says it was poetry and it was words that saved her life. When she left home the first time, she came across T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and she fell upon the lines—“This is one moment / but know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.” In her introduction to our book, she writes about the bookshop as a “pocket of air in an upturned boat.”


Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is out in the U.S. this month.