An Incredible Book Journey: Time Was Soft There

Over the next six weeks, I will have the joy of visiting independent bookstores in 23 cities. Follow the trip and meet the many wonderful friends, book people and random characters I encounter along the way.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Seeing George

Let us just say that George Whitman can be a difficult character. While in Paris, I dropped by the Shakespeare and Company bookstore to give both George and his daughter Sylvia copies of the book. Sylvia was charming and gracious and wonderful. George, as cantankerous as ever, snarled and closed the door on me.

I concede that it must be difficult to read about yourself in a book, to see yourself in the mirror of another person’s eyes. And I know that George believes that if I was his true friend, I would have presented a more bucolic vision of Shakespeare and Company and written a romantic fairy tale. But, the journalist in me dies hard, and I wrote about everything I saw and experienced, both the magical and the unsavoury, and George still doesn’t forgive me.

His rejection is harder to take at a time when Diane Johnson (Le Divorce etc) has published such spurious rumours about George. How can he be angry with me writing about the lack of proper bathing facilities at this store when she raises such ugly spectres with no proof or attribution? If nothing else, my book was written with love and respect for the man who created Shakespeare and Company and I hope George comes to see that.

In blazing contrast was my visit with Simon Green, the extremely talented and rabidly eccentric poet who lived at Shakespeare and Company and figures largely in my book. He invited me and our mutual friend Ryan McGlynn to an apartment in Clichy where he was dog-sitting. Ryan had his video camera with him and thankfully so for nobody will ever believe Simon’s manic genius unless they see it for themselves. Simon offered us bourbon and other combustible treats, regaled us with photos of his garden on Belle Isle, and soliloquized on everything from Mao’s atrocities to Bob Dylan, all while wearing 150-euro designer T-shirt. To think this man used to scrape baguette money from the wishing well.

A final note about my Paris visit. I had lunch and beer with Buster Burk and learned that he had received a stunning 18 on 20 on his D.E.A. thesis at the Sorbonne. The D.E.A. is a one-year degree between Master’s and PhD and in the soul-devouring French system, students are happy with a 12 or 13 on 20 and over-the-moon delighted with a 15 on 20. For Buster, an English speaker from South Carolina to write a 100-page thesis about Apollinaire in French and get an 18 is unheard of. The boy is talented and I tip my cap to him.