Paris. Even now, twenty-four years after my one and only visit to the city of lights, hearing the sound of the name or seeing it in print sets my imagination on fire. True the Paris I envision in my head hasn’t existed for close to one hundred years but it seems not to matter. If I close my eyes they are all their, the famous and notorious who made Paris the place to be if you had any pretensions to being an artist in the early to mid twentieth century.
In fact there is still a pull exerted on me by just talking about it. To walk the streets where Victor Hugo once stood, to sit in the cafes where a half blind Joyce would be led to his table by who ever was taking his dictation that day, to pull back your chair and move tables aside to make room for Hemingway’s infamous boxing match with Morly Callaghan, or just to watch the beautiful women drink red wine, smoke cigarettes and be passionate about life.
It was in Paris that I made my first hesitant, embarrassed almost, attempts at writing. Sitting in the shadow of the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral in a café on the Isle de Cite, drinking a bowl of café au lait, with my battered copy of Ulysses in a shoulder bag and scribbling in a small blue, hard covered, ledger book, I could almost believe that I was a writer.
It was with these memories and feelings in mind that I opened Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There, hoping to re experience some of the romanticism of the literary life of Paris. It was the book’s subtitle that I placed most of my hopes in, “A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co.”
Shakespeare and Company is an English language bookstore that has existed in two incarnations: one pre- war and one post war. Both bookstores served their respective generations of authors by offering succour against the rigours of a difficult world. Joyce’s Ulysses was first published by then owner Sylvia Beach, while in its second incarnation George Whitman provided shelter, and research space for thousands of writers including Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
Perhaps it was the weight of those expectations, or maybe reality never has the same bloom as dreams, but Time Was Soft There does not manage to convey the sense of awe I remember experiencing while walking the same streets that the author does. While he does provide an entertaining account of life living in the bookstore, and a lovingly sketched portrait of George Whitman the owner (no relation to Walt Whitman the poet) Mr. Mercer’s preoccupation with detailing the lives of the transients who reside in the bookstore becomes tedious to the point of distracting.
While he may find it titillating to recount some of their less than legal means to scrape by, (buying items from a bargain bin, scraping off their price tag and returning for the original price) or their drinking parties by the Seine river, I found myself wanting to experience more of the mystique associated with the book store.
As Mr. Mercer admits, even his sojourn at the bookstore can’t rid him of his middle class sensibilities, and perhaps this is why he is so concerned with detailing things like the state of the toilets, or the level of dirt and the presence of insects. For a former crime scene reporter he seems to be rather squeamish when it comes the state of amenities.
This can be excused to some extent by the fact that his abiding in France was not entirely of his own choosing. As a crime scene reporter in Ottawa Canada he had become familiar with people on both sides of the law. Due to his own indiscretion he had infuriated one of his contacts and was forced to leave Canada virtually penniless. He had ended up in Paris because a former colleague was going to be there temporarily.
Unable to work, what little money he had was quickly evaporating when he stumbled across Shakespeare & Company bookstore. Learning of George Whitman’s policy of offering bed’s to those in need, and food to those who were hungry, he resolved to ask for the use of one of the beds. Of course nothing in either his adult life or childhood had prepared him for living in the type of accommodations offered by the bookstore.
Having stayed in hotels in France where the plumbing pre-dates the founding of New France, and lived in my share of cold-water studios, I have some sympathy for him and the culture shock he must have experienced. But the insistent recitation of the deprivations begins to reach the point of sensationalism and self-aggrandisement.
I think what bothers me the most is that he shows himself to be capable of capturing the elusive quality that makes Paris the Mecca it is for dreamers and romantics, but quickly hurries on as if he’s afraid of committing himself to their lot.
“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes… That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.” Jeremy Mercer, Time Was Soft There. St. Martin’s Press, 2005 p.84
Perhaps it was his journalist background, but Mr. Mercer seemed content with providing only the facts necessary to provide a history of his stay in Paris. His straight ahead reportage style while adequate for that task is unequal to the arduous job of capturing what it was that brought all of these disparate souls to the city of lights.
Yes he tells us of their practical reasons; heartbreak, disillusionment with family, scholarships, for travel, but Paris herself is given short shrift as the glittering light that attracted these migratory moths. What is it about Paris that still stirs the imagination and brings visions of poets in cafes and painters in garrets to mind? Why do thousands make the pilgrimage every year to worship at and seek out places that people who have been dead close to a hundred years used to haunt?
While Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There is a fact filled history of both his stay in the bookstore, and the bookstore itself, I was left feeling that a key element had been omitted from his recounting. The soul of the city that has inspired more creative thought than any other is nowhere to be seen. Like a nice post card that gives you a solitary view of a landmark, Time Was Soft There leaves you feeling that you’re not getting the complete picture.