Monday, 19 December 2011

Remembering George Whitman

Me, aged 23, in Paris.
George Whitman, ageless seller of dreams, died last week in the apartment above his legendary Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Co. I was about twenty-three years old when I walked through the door of the shop for the first time. I seem to remember it was raining, it was probably winter, and in my mind's eye the cathedral of Notre Dame was lit up as I walked across the bridge to the little rue de la Bucherie en face.

George was sitting behind his desk, the electric heater drawn close, draftily corralled among the papers and half drunk cups of coffee left behind by careless helpers. Some of the books on the table were beginning to curl at the edges, from the damp or the cold, or from being too often handled by readers without the funds to buy. Not that anyone seemed to mind.

I asked him for a book. He asked me why I wanted it - a strange question for a bookseller. He asked if I had somewhere to sleep. And when I said I didn't he offered me a berth, up the rickety wooden stairs to a three-roomed library overlooking the street and Notre Dame. A place to sleep, in exchange for absolutely nothing. All compatriots of James Joyce, George said, were welcome there. I didn't dare to explain that I only looked Irish. By the time he learned I was a Scot, it was too late. During the day I helped out in the shop, usually finding a quiet corner away from the cold blast from the door, reading the stock rather than selling it. Nobody seemed to mind that either. I got hungry and thin. Occasionally George would send down some food from his apartment on the floor above. More often we library-dwellers shared what little we had, bread, cheese, wine if we could get it. At night I slept among the books, on a little lumpy couch with a red velvet cover, pulling my sleeping bag over my head in case the mice ran over me, tipping my boots out just in case in the morning. My body was covered in bites, from insects of some kind, the scars lingering for months. I didn't like to ask.

I don't think I have ever been happier.

I've tried, in every home I've possessed since then, to find again the spirit of that place and of those months when I could reach out a hand at night and touch a book. There was some unique combination there to do with time, books, hunger, freedom, and yes, with youth. My youth. Looking at my picture from those days though, and at the more gnarled me now, I can see that much remains.

George was about a hundred years old when I knew him in Paris in the early eighties. I noticed this week that the obituaries put his age when he died last week at 98. Strange. As I say, the ageless seller of dreams, though he gave most of the dreams away in exchange for absolutely nothing.

The book I went looking for, by the way, was Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti.