Monday, February 20, 2006

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

What do you do if you have written a true crime book using real names and subsequently are threatened with death by one of the named persons? You drop everything and flee to Paris with your meager saving, of course. You find a cheap place to stay, eat as little as possible, and wonder how you can work without French papers. Eventually, you have to do something to keep from starving. This was Jeremy Mercer's situation when he ducked into the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company to get out of the rain. Had he looked up at the doorway, he would have read "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise" and not been surprised by the sudden invitation to the tea party upstairs.

Time was Soft There is Mercer's account of his lengthy stay among the books at Shakespeare and Company. It is as true as he can make it at this time, he claims. In his "Author's Note," he admits to reordering some of the events and changing a name. He also explains in the book that there have been two stores known as Shakespeare and Company. The first, which was started by Sylvia Beach and famous for the authors who visited in the 1920s, was shut down during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. George Whitman (not really the son of the poet Walt Whitman despite his hints) adopted the name for his store in the 1960s, a time when he was often under suspicion as a subversive. Thousands of writers and artists have lodged free of charge in his bookstore in its half century of existence.

It is not easy being George's angel. While he is very generous, he is eccentric and makes strange demands. Everyone is required to read a book of George's choosing every day. All the common guests (not the renowned visitors) carry book displays onto the porch in the morning and haul them in at night and do odd jobs around the store. They also run errands and gather food from dumpsters. Mercer is asked to expel another guest of whom George has tired; he wins George's favor by failing to do the task. Using his skills as a police beat journalist, he eventually discovers much about George's past.

Time Was Soft There is a quick read, filled with starving artists and misfits living together in a small space. I recommend it to memoir readers.

Mercer, Jeremy. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0312347391

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Ooooh! That does sound interesting! When I was in Paris I met an Irish fellow who lived/worked at Shakespeare and Co., so I'd be curious to learn more about what it was like there. I love reading books about Paris. I'm crazy about it; it's the only city that I actually lust after.