Patrick Cash

The Tundra

A year after the First World War the young émigré Sylvia Beach, thwarted by capital from opening a French bookshop in New York, instead opened the doors of Shakespeare and Company, her American bookshop in Paris. Situated initially in a former laundry on the Rue Dupuytren, within the Left Bank’s Quartier Latin, the somewhat diminutive establishment became a beacon for various expatriate moths haunting the city, specialising in radical English-language literature that was increasingly unavailable at home. ‘I didn’t foresee… that it was going to profit from the suppressions across the sea,’ Beach writes in her ersatz 1956 memoir, Shakespeare and Company. ‘I think it was partly to these suppressions, and the atmosphere they created, that I owed many of my customers – all those pilgrims of the twenties who crossed the ocean.’ These Lost Generation pilgrims included a young Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and, from closer shores, a half-blind, financially encumbered James Joyce, battling to finish Ulysses.
…….True to the bookshop’s spirit of championing the free word, shortly after upgrading to 12 rue de l’Odéon, Beach put her money where her admiration was and financed the first thousand-edition publication of Joyce’s landmark in 1922. So dedicated was she in ensuring the ‘banned book’ reached international subscribers, she enlisted Hemingway’s underworld connections in Canada in order to smuggle Ulysses into the USA; a daily copy sequestered down a daring bootlegger’s underpants (given the novel’s renowned length, and the bulkiness of such hardbacks, we can but imagine the logistics). Although Ulysses earned Shakespeare and Company a certain notoriety as a purveyor of erotica, and attendant punts for publication from Alastair Crowley to Tallulah Bankhead, it also landed the bookshop firmly on the world’s literary map. By the 1930s, Beach records that ‘the bookshop was now famous’, to the extent it even featured as a stop on the Parisian bus tour for wealthy American Express customers.
The German occupation of Paris finished Sylvia Beach’s incarnation of Shakespeare and Company. Fittingly, given Beach’s loyal history of supporting Joyce in both advocacy and money, the fuse sparked around Finnegans Wake. In 1941, with the Nazi command installed in the nearby Hôtel Corneille, ‘a high-ranking German officer’ stopped outside 12 rue de l’Odéon to examine Joyce’s novel in the window. Upon an enquiry, Beach outright refused to sell the novel, claiming it was her last copy. Not long after, she was informed that her stock would be confiscated, whereupon she enlisted a resourceful coterie of friends to remove every book from the premises, take down the shelves and light fixtures, and paint out ‘Shakespeare and Company’ from above the door. The Nazis never obtained any of the shop’s books, nor that particularly incendiary copy of Finnegans Wake, but Beach spent six months in an internment camp.
It was after the war that a young American G.I., by the name of George Whitman, arrived in Paris. He frequently swapped his ration cards for book allowances, quickly amassing such a large collection that, so the story goes, the door to his hotel room would not shut. In 1951, Whitman trucked his tottering tomes over to an ex-grocery store opposite Notre Dame, and opened his own bookshop and library at 37 rue de la Bucherie, barely a promenade from the rue de l’Odéon. Whitman’s shop was originally named Le Mistral, after the French wind that allegedly incited van Gogh’s tinnitus, but when Sylvia Beach died in 1962, Whitman renamed his establishment in tribute to her legacy. Hence in 1964, on the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s birth, Shakespeare and Company began its second half, after a brief intermission. Krista Halverson records in her book, Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart (2016), that Whitman thought of his shop as a book itself: ‘I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.’
Perhaps it was this ‘magic world’ conceptualisation that led Whitman to practices that thumbed their nose at Western hegemony. Having spent time himself as a ‘vagabond’ in Los Angeles and South America (the diaries of which are included in Halverson’s work), Whitman nurtured a lifelong gratitude to the generosity he received in those years. A quote that Whitman paraphrased from the Bible and painted above his shop’s doorway famously reads ‘be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise’, and he proclaimed his own creed to be: ‘My country is the world. My religion is humanity.’ To this end, Whitman expanded his bookshop from merely an enterprise to a sanctuary for writers, readers and general bibliophiles, colloquially known as the ‘Tumbleweed Hotel’. People who drift in and out, like ‘tumbleweed on the winds of chance’, are invited to stay rent-free at Shakespeare and Company, sleeping amongst the books, in return for two hours’ help each day. An estimated 30,000 Tumbleweeds have stayed at the shop, most of whom were young, penniless and inspired by literary aspiration.
Today, Shakespeare and Company stands as an oasis in the Western tundra. Its current proprietor, Sylvia Beach Whitman, the daughter of George, continues the bookshop’s socialist-leaning tradition, but it also represents a social nexus for the anglophone ex-patriates in Paris. As [George] Whitman is quoted as saying: ‘I could have dedicated my life to being a campaigner in a political party, or writing a novel, or living for one great love; instead I gave myself to serving the community.’ This entails a place where, crucially, one can stay; be it to sleep or to read – both Beach and Whitman’s ventures operated as libraries as well as bookshops. In a society that increasingly pivots around extraction, where homogenous chains measure time afforded by amount purchased, a flattening of our mental landscape occurs. The flavours taste the same, there’s no sanction to rest, the music melds into one. Everything is flat; it’s a tundra that morphs façade but never changes.
And yet, walk into Shakespeare and Company and the world may suddenly come alive with trees, birdsong, the rustle of leaves overhead, and an interplay of shadow and light. The beauty of it, the feeling of respite, gives breath back. Bookshops and libraries are particularly fertile grounds for the retainment of community, filled with empathic portals between human minds, the written word a temporal bridge to communities disparate and past. Jean-Jacques Lebel is quoted in Halverson’s book on the cultural wave in Paris of May 1968, in which Shakespeare and Company acted as a pivotal field hospital: ‘culture has a long-term social function. Gilles Deleuze puts it very well: culture works as a rhizome, meaning that it goes via the summit… not by the roots. If we go by the roots, we’re nailed to the spot. With a rhizome, we float throughout the world, transcending generations and geography.’ In Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept, knowledge flows through an ‘intermezzo’ multiplicity of avenues.
The rhizome was also invoked in Edmund de Waal’s ‘library of exile’ installation at the British Museum last year, created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, featuring over 2000 books written by exiled authors. In the accompanying book to the installation, the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer writes that:

through their signatures on the ex libris bookplate of their favourite works, visitors leave a trace of their presence. The library is an archive of the indomitable rhizome of reading and engagement, of the unpredictable paths a book takes through the minds and hearts of its readers, and the creativity it can trigger.

Places that collect these unpredictable paths together, providing access to the rhizome through bookshops and libraries, find a similar significance in people’s emotional lives. Elsewhere in the same text the British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak writes that ‘the bookshops of Istanbul, and their chaos and diversity, keep travelling with me. I carry them everywhere. Inside my head, inside my soul.’
…….The library of exile texts are now part of the rebuilt University Library of Mosul, after Daesh destroyed the original in 2015. To certain keepers of power, a draconian form of tundra is an attractive imposition; when the first tarmac of Hong Kong’s recent National Security Law was laid, it began with Chinese authorities targeting the independent bookseller, Causeway Bay Books, arresting five of the staff. Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Oxford, recounts in Burning the Books (2020) a ‘history of knowledge under attack’; from the destruction of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal and the infamous conflagration of Alexandria; to the Nazis’ public bonfires on the Unter den Linden of ‘un-German’ books, amongst them Jewish, gay and communist writers. A state that aims for total control can tolerate no diversity of inner psyche deviating from the ‘iron band of terror’ that, as Hannah Arendt defines it, ‘destroys man’s ability to move, to act, and to think’. In such circumstances, books become dangerously subversive as avenues for dissent – yet it would prove a Sisyphean task to destroy the metaphysical flame of thought. Ovenden quotes from the deaf and blind writer Helen Keller’s riposte to the Student Body of Germany, who organised the 1933 fires: ‘You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.’
Perhaps this is why George Whitman, upon discovering his Shakespeare and Company was built on the site of a medieval monastery, described himself as the frère lampier of the Latin Quarter. If our bookshops are oases by daylight, they’re lanterns at nightfall. Sylvia Beach’s passionate championship of Ulysses would have shared an intimate understanding of her own oppression. Since the inception of her shop in 1919, Beach was in a same-sex relationship with Adrienne Monnier, who rather delightfully ran the French bookshop La Maison des Amis des Livres across the street from No 12 rue de l’Odéon. Diana Souhami records in her recent history, No Modernism Without Lesbians (2021), how their relationship was respected and embraced by the Parisian ‘crowd’ of the day. Conceivably on account of its repeated immersion within extrinsic lives, the literary mind appears to easily embrace the perceived other, long before social mores update. George Whitman summated his own attitude, when he wrote: ‘I believe in the value of every human being, whatever his accidents of birth and conviction… We are all links in the chain of simultaneous events whose dimming echoes will one day be called ‘history’ after we and our prejudices and follies have disappeared.’
The Western tundra is an antithesis to such ethos, for the only value it acknowledges is homo economicus. It’s a myopia, a blinker-like virus that spreads between minds, designed to expand ad infinitum like Arendt’s concept of a movement. It would not be so overt as to extinguish light, as totalitarianism attempted, but it would exchange those swinging lanterns, and the sweep of the lighthouse, for an immobile, halogen gleam. It manifests in a catatonic inability to tackle climate change, an epiphenomenal increase in depression, and an inertia when walking past homeless on the streets. In his novel Inside Story (2020), Martin Amis quotes Saul Bellow’s perception of American society in the twentieth century:

[the country] takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childlessness, madness, drunkenness and despair of these martyrs… So poets are loved but loved because they just can’t make it here.

It shouldn’t be lost that both Beach and Whitman were Americans who chose exile in Europe from the coalescing that Bellow observed. Eugene McCarraher provides, in his 2019 book The Enchantments of Mammon, an exhaustive retelling of America’s birth from the English puritans who brought early capitalism to the new world, and how worship subtly morphed from Christ to the advent of Ford and commodity consumerism. By the turn of the twentieth century, a network of voices were joined in decrying the sacramental adoration of industry and profit that held sway over an increasingly anodyne culture. McCarraher cites William James’ 1899 essay ‘What Makes a Life Significant?’ where James states ‘an irremediable flatness is coming over the world’. But it was folly to imagine that the old world would provide sanctuary against the new; from America’s melting pot of power, so to the globe. The tundra has inveigled its way into lives with a cunning creep. It does not burn books, but it reviles them in popular representation, where the very word ‘bookish’ has become an antonym to the twentieth century phenomenon of ‘cool’. Or it finds early outlet in a class-slanted education system.
…….The era of the internet has engendered an advancement of the tundra’s façade. The digital realm, once hailed as a utopian respite, has now largely melded to the dominant offline modes. Though there is an increasing public awareness of privacy protection, it is Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), who dissects technology firms’ use of data to engineer behaviour. ‘Surveillance capitalists declare their right to modify others’ behaviour for profit according to methods that bypass human awareness, individual decision rights, and the entire complex of self-regulatory processes that we summarise with terms such as autonomy and self-determination,’ she writes. Zuboff borrows a phrase from Sartre to describe this evolution as the desiccation of the general population’s ‘will to will’. In this context, the well-documented struggle of independent bookshops against Amazon becomes more than just a David versus Goliath battle: retaining bookshops is preserving multiplicity of thought against a monolith. It is the vital difference between discourse and exhortation.
Bookshops, of course, operate under the laws of capital. The pandemic has laid bare their fragility, with Shakespeare and Company sending out an aux-armes call for support. The outpouring in response provides hope, and a sense of their continued necessity in the fabric of society. In her introduction to Halverson’s Shakespeare and Company, Jeanette Winterson poses the question: ‘as the world becomes ever more obsessed with wealth, as all of the people and all of the planet must be turned into one vast money-making machine, I wonder what will happen to the creative drive deep in all of us?’ We need room in which to nurture that creative drive, to breathe, to play unfettered in knowledge. How enervating then that Sylvia Beach Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company has inspired off-shoot bookshops across Europe, in Atlantis Books in Santorini, Desperate Literature in Madrid and Typewronger Books in Edinburgh. London’s bookshops range from the beautiful Daunt Books, the pioneering Gay’s the Word and the newly opened Book Bar, dedicated to ‘bringing people together through books’. For all who prize the spirit, there’s a pleasurable necessity to frequent such spaces. We find woodlands in the tundra, bluebells strewn beneath our feet, and at dusk, lanterns hanging from the trees.

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