Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Writing this upstairs at Shakespeare and Company, the traffic flowing by outside. The reading yesterday went like a dream - quite dreamlike for me in fact - since it was outside, with a mic, to a very large audience that included Marilyn Hacker and the marvellous Romanian poet Denisa Comanescu who happened to be in town. Intent audience and lots of conversation afterwards.
Our first contacts were Jemma and Hilary who are working here, and Sylvia Whitman, daughter of 95-year old George who took the name over from Sylvia Beach's original shop in the rue de L'Odeon back in 1962. I expected Sylvia to be a middle aged woman at youngest but she is only in her twenties (if that, I almost add). She now runs this extraordinary ship of books and memorabilia. Heather (Ungvári) Hartley introduced my reading and led the questions afterwards. She is herself a poet and the Paris editor of an international US review - Tin House. Bought one this morning and read it, impressed. The magazine has quite a history. Her first book comes out very soon. cannot speak too highly of these people, and indeed of everyone in the place.
Jemma gave us a tour of the house this morning, all nooks and crannies, all filled with books and pictures and slips of paper. Finally we arrived at the top and had a brief audience with George himself, frail and in bed. At first I thought he was going to bawl us out (C & I) for not staying in the house itself. He has always been intent on making the house a place where writers stay and work then move on. And what writers! But Jenna explained we were being accommodated at the Esmeralda round the corner. George relented and smiled.
As for the Esmeralda, Jemma says it is the hotel Jeanette Winterson insists on staying in when in Paris and I can see why. C and I are in Room 18, top of the building, up several flights of winding wooden stairs. No lift, so a hefty drag of luggage there (very like my Sisyphus poem). The whole house is darkly floral from wall to ceiling. Narrow doors all rustic, some stained glass. Facilities are basic but clean. Our room is wallpapered in roses every which way. It's like sleeping in a bower. Even the lamp shades are in the shape of flowers. As you lean out of the window and look to the left you are in full view of Notre Dame which seems almost close enough to touch, parallel with the west front.
Downstairs sits a one-eyed elderly woman who is presumed to be the owner. We are keeping fit but going up down four floors of narrow winding stairs.
After this morning's guided tour, a walk over to the Places des Vosges, my favourite square of all, sitting and reading in the square itelf before taking a long light lunch in the cafe at one corner. Then stroll over to meet Marilyn H as arranged. She is up three flights of narrow winding 17th century stairs, which we quickly descend to have coffee at the cafe below.
It is hot but we walk generally in the shade. I have often been to Paris but not so much walkabout in recent years and the route we took - Left Bank to Marais - is a wonderful walk - Paris streets at their most intimate, elegant yet quietly restrained. Budapest is beautiful and blowsy. Paris is le bon gout almost everywhere.
As for the bookshop it is more an old galleon than a house. You almost expect Captain Jack Sparrow to come bounding down the stairs. A black dog and a white cat weave in and out of it. And books and books and books. Even a piano. And old armchairs. Bliss.