In a few hours I was to return to England. A majestic deeply orange and crimson sunset the night before had prefigured this glorious November day: the sun shone and the sky was high and white and atomic blue. And so the day began.
Years and years ago I had passed in front of the remarkable bookshop that is named ‘Shakespeare and company.’ But I had almost forgotten what it was like so I decided to spend my last hours in Paris walking down to the Seine and re-visiting that special place. I was also searching for a second-hand illustrated book that I had seen in a Paris book stall a few days earlier. I had hesitated to buy it and by the time I had resolved to do so the book had gone. Maybe ‘Shakespeare and company’ would have the book …
There is a wonderful series of monuments that I passed on that splendid day; amongst them was the Musee des Arts et Metiers (full of inventions) and the cloisters of the Lutheran church, the Église des Billettes, and the ‘Centre Beaubourg’ – with its high art and celebration of all the rejections of artistic convention and tradition. There’s the wonderful Tour St. Jacques – and then all the lovely bridges that cross the Seine and the views of Notre Dame – this time from the back.
One of the most attractive features of the Seine is that it lent itself to the eyes of the Impressionists with its huge ripples that are such a pleasure to paint – and its various shades of green or grey or sky blue. If you follow a ripple you get lost in a kind of visual impossibility: nothing stays the same. And just to help the artist, leaves, the colour of raw sienna or Vandyke brown or lemon yellow, still cling to the many trees that line the quays of the river. There was even a huge slow-moving barge that edged into view as I was crossing the bridge. I had to stop and watch its dignified progress. Maybe Marcel Proust had once seen the same barge!
Then I was over and onto the left bank: it’s a nostalgic realm, once a place of the great writers and poets and playwrights and philosophers – all those people who, not so long ago, made Paris the artistic and ‘ideas’ capital of the western world. Their ghosts and echos remain. But now it’s a space for rich Americans and rich Asians – and rich but discreet and elusive French – and droves of alert tourists looking for the paradigm photo. (Oh well.)
I’d forgotten where ‘Shakespeare and company’ actually was; ‘Further on, past a small square and turn to the left and then you’ll see it’, a woman in a bar told me. She was right.
The bookshop is a kind of ‘must see’ and ‘must visit’ if you’re in Paris and wish to enjoy the high points of printing press culture. It’s here that words matter. I loved the place. Outside there were signs telling you which department was where and there was an homage to Walt Whitman – quite high up on a wall. Outside, too, there was a small table with a chess-board top. I sat at the table and my wife took a photo of me. I was looking for a pencil at the time. Nearby there was a small stall selling second-hand books at very reduced prices. Frantz Fanon’s ‘Peau noire masques blancs’ was there. (A propos literature, his observations include the remark “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” His more famous remarks concerning the psychological effects of colonisation are devastating.)
Inside there were sections on cinema and poetry and the classics and – well sections on everything really. And there were serious literary types and lots of young students from all over the world who were insouciantly ignoring the signs: ‘No photographs please’.
I couldn’t find the book I was searching for.
But I did find an area with a host of books concerned with the feminist struggle – and I thought that they would serve as a valuable resources to complement the International Day for ‘The Elimination of Violence against Women’ – which is taking place on 25 November. Moreover, I discovered that in various bars and restaurants all over Paris, debates and discussions have been planned to take place all through the night in an attempt to develop theory and practice in relation to the prevention of such violence against women.
It was now half past three in the afternoon. My train would be departing for London from the Gare du Nord in a few hours time. What a shame I could not find that book.