En Attendant Maylis

Literary Tourist in Paris

Time usually flies when I’m interviewing people. It sure did with Krista Halverson at Shakespeare and Company. Of course with it winging by so quickly I wasn’t attending to the clock, so I was late for my next appointment with Maylis Besserie. Maylis is a well regarded radio documentary producer with France Culture. She’s interviewed loads of authors in her time. I wanted to learn her secrets,  to find out why she’s so good at what she does.

We’d agreed to meet at 5.30pm just around the corner from the bookstore behind Notre Dame cathedral in a little treed park. It was now after 6, and she, understandably, wasn’t there.

Luckily the City of Paris provides free WiFi right in the park so I sent off a grovelling, apologetic email. ‘Could we possibly try for later on that evening?’ ‘Yes,’ Maylis graciously responded, despite having waited for me for at least half an hour, ‘that would be possible, near the Strasbourg-Saint Denis Metro stop, line 4, at 8.30pm.’ Whew. I had plenty of time to catch my breath, grab a meal and do a bit more research.

I headed toward the Saint-Michel Metro station, around the cathedral out into the brilliant late afternoon sunshine, to be greeted by this head-on view of the marvelous facade. I wasn’t alone in admiring it.

Notre Dame Paris

Over near the river I ran into a couple of bouquinistes plying their trade, just as their namesakes have since the mid-1500s. Apparently the wait time to become one these days is around eight years. But it’s not all gravy. If you’re not open at least four days a week you lose your spot. Today, bouquinistes’ green boxes – 900 in all – are perched on three kilometres’s worth of quayside wall, from the Louvre along past Notre-Dame. It took a while to manoeuvre me, the booksellers, and the cathedral into position, but eventually I got the shot I wanted

bouquinistes, paris
I’d read that the 250 Bouquinistes who, combined, operate what’s been dubbed as the “world’s largest open-air bookshop,” were applying to get on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and at the time wondered why. Well, it turns out the mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, isn’t happy about all the plastic Eiffel towers and  other tri-coloured touristy trinkets being sold instead of antiquarian books. And of the books that are being sold, many are Les Nul – trash in other words. It’s a privilege to be able to sell books by the Seine, and it looks like some are abusing it.

Not sure how this’ll pan out. A lot, I think, depends on local bibliophiles and book collectors, and yes, literary tourists, stepping up, demanding and buying the genuine article: old, rare books. If they don’t, and the sellers fail to up their game by improving their stock, what has long played an important, charming role in Paris’s biblio-cultural life, will disappear, or deteriorate at least, into just another tawdry tourist trap.

Speaking of the Eiffel Tower: during the time of its construction in the 1880s, three hundred writers and artists signed a petition written in pompous prose condemning this ‘hateful column of sheet metal’; they were certain it would destroy the reputation of French taste. Signatories included J.K. Huysmans, Guy de Mauspassant, Leconte de Lisle and Sully-Prudhomme.

According to the chansonniers of the time, the poets were upset because they couldn’t find a word to rhyme with ‘Eiffel’. Over time, many of the signatories came to admire the tower, but not Maupassant; “I have left Paris,” he wrote, “for the Eiffel Tower was really too boring in the end.”

***

I sat down outside a pleasant enough restaurant – there were potted trees – near the Strasboug-Saint Denis Metro station not far from the Porte Saint-Denis, a massive arch that,

while not as large or well-known as the Arc de Triomphe, is well worth checking out. It inspired the triumphal arch at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge in New York (1910).

‘Could I have the wee fee (that’s how they pronounce it here) password please?’ ‘Non. There is no Internet’ the waitress informed me. How surprising. I hurried across the street to a slightly less pleasant spot, closer to the traffic. Italian. Spaghetti would be nice. I ordered and asked for the password. ‘Yes, of course, no problem.’ Well, yes. Problem. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect. By now I was getting a bit nervous. I had to email Maylis to establish a meeting place, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be late with it.

McDonald’s!  I could see one on the next block. I left the Italian restaurant holding the spaghetti (them not me), and bolted for America’s favourite eatery. If it was anything like at home they’d have password free Internet. And they did. I got the email off. We’d meet out front in 10 minutes.

As I stood waiting, an attractive Asian woman approached me (funny, Besserie didn’t sound Asian). Could this be Maylis? It wasn’t. It was a ‘péripatéticienne’. With a smile, I gently declined her kind invitation, and continued to shuffle around ‘attendant’ Maylis. Minutes later she arrived, caucasian as I’d thought,

and led me across the street to her apartment while I hurredly explained that I never eat at McDonald’s, especially not when I’m in Paris. We tip-toed past her sleeping children’s bedroom, and settled in for our conversation on the art of the author interview. You can listen here:

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Beach, Hemingway and smuggling Joyce’s Ulysses into the U.S.

I met with Krista Halverson, director of the newly founded Shakespeare and Company publishing house, at the famed bookstore in Paris. Listen here to our conversation

We talk, among other things, about the history of Shakespeare and Company, how Sylvia Beach started off, how James Joyce got Ulysses published,  how the United States banned it,  and how Ernest Hemingway figured out a way around this.  Here’s the back-story:

The SS Lansdowne was a railroad car ferry built in 1884 by the Wyandotte Shipyard of the Detroit Dry Dock Company. It crossed the Detroit River from 1884 to 1956, between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario

The first copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses to enter the U.S. came via Windsor, Ontario. The books were printed in Paris and mailed by Hemingway to a friend of his in Windsor who worked for the Curtis Publishing Company in Detroit.

The friend, a reporter named Barney Braverman whom Hemingway had met during his days either in Toronto or Chicago (found references citing both), commuted from Detroit to Windsor each day on the ferry. Braverman reportedly lived on Chatham Street in a house kitty-corner to the back of what is today The Windsor Star newspaper building. Once the smuggling plan was hatched, 40 copies of the novel, published by Sylvia Beach owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, were sent over from Paris.

Every morning Braverman set off with a package under his arm (or somewhere less obvious) containing copies of Joyce’s novel (I’m guessing no more than one or two at a time), strolled downtown  and somehow got past the border guards and onto the ferry. This was the only way to cross the river back then. At the time, construction of the Ambassador Bridge had only just begun.

These were in fact interesting times. Prohibition was in full swing. All sorts of people used to smuggle bottles of fine Canadian whisky across the border tucking them away in their trouser pants and underwear. Booze wasn’t the only thing banned. The authorities were also pretty uptight about ‘immoral’ ‘pornographic’ literature, though this really wasn’t what the guards were on the lookout for.

Each day, for what must have been several weeks on end, this innocent looking publishing salesman crossed the river, went to the Detroit Post Office and fired off first editions of what is now considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Beach’s friends and subscribers throughout the U.S. were on the receiving end, among them Alfred Knopf and Sherwood Anderson (if you’re intrigued by this escapade, check out Michael Januska’s novel Riverside Drive, it includes the smuggling of Ulysses into the States in its storyline).

Image from here.

Today a copy in fine condition fetches $75,000 (twice that if it’s inscribed).  Unfortunately the curious literary tourist can’t take a ferry across the river (only commercial trucks can do this), but he/she can visit John K. King Books on the Detroit side at 901 W. Lafayette Street. It’s humungus. How humungus? Here’s a video I took the last time I was there

Back in Windsor there’s a great shop you can stop off at too, at 1520 Wyandotte Ave. E.  Biblioasis isn’t quite as big, but  it’s filled with a good selection of new (many published by Biblioasis itself) and used books. Here’s one that’s sure to  please the literary tourist.

Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones

Literary Tourist in Wales

Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.

The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.

She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.

I caught up with her at Morgans hotel in Swansea, Thomas’s home town, to talk about poet and place. Listen here:

I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.

He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.

Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,

the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:

***

Unfortunately we couldn’t fit Gregynog Hall,

where the press’s books are printed, into our Welsh itinerary. So I decided Continue reading “Wales, the Gregynog Press, Dylan Thomas and Baritones”

Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

It was a tough trek. Way longer than I expected – from the American University of Paris to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine. I was lugging my laptop too, and the books Daniel Medin had given me after our conversation about translation, plus this

Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Predictably I wasn’t on time for my interview with its editor, Krista Halverson. It wasn’t that I was winded, or, despite the heat, sweating too much; no, I was annoyed because I was unnecessarily late. Krista quickly shooed this funk away, assuring me that she hadn’t noticed, inviting me to join her for a beverage at the store’s adjacent cafe (there on the left,  all dressed in white).

Yes, Shakespeare & Co. has its own cafe now! – a luxury that long-time owner George Whitman could only covet. The store, and cafe, are now owned by his daughter Sylvia –  as in Beach – who I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately for me, she was off on maternity leave, nurturing the next generation of bibliophiles.

I ordered an espresso, Krista chose some sort of energizing berry-carrot concoction. Of course that’s what I should have had – being hot and tired and late and all. We moved to the outdoor patio to plot out how our conversation would go. Krista couldn’t finish her drink and offered me what remained – looked like half the glass. Perfect.

She showed me through the shop, which, thanks to various adjacent rooms and apartments coming on the market and being bought or rented at different times , really does

resemble a rabbit warren.

You need to pay attention to details if you want to get the full bookstore experience. Floor tiles

overhead signs, biblical

and otherwise

(City Lights in San Francisco is a sister store, and sports a Shakespeare &Co. sign above its door), and I really liked this window full of flowers

We even stopped in on some young Continue reading “Tumbling into the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart in Paris”

Fear, Loathing and Literary Tourism in Las Vegas

Literary Tourist in Las Vegas

The Globe and Mail ran a piece a while back on literary travel for the stay-at-home vacationer, getting well-known authors to recommend books that evoke various parts of Canada.

All very well, but, we don’t stay at home here; we believe that if you can, experiencing place in tandem with relevant, related reading, is the way to go.

To wit: when we went to ‘Sin City’ a few years ago, I checked out the bookstores, of course, but I also read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and tracked down some of the locales mentioned in it.

Circus Circus for example.

Here’s one of the best passages in the novel:

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos…but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange Country-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet sisters from San Diego…so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine’s neck…both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”

It’s a light, fast moving read, funnier than expected, and surprisingly thought-provoking – largely because as a literary tourist on the scene, you get face-to-face with these American Dream seekers that Thompson so successfully lampoons…complete with Southward angled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, glazed eyes, Depends tight around their groins, and coins flowing from their pockets into insatiable fruit-buttoned machines, flushing money down the toilet bowl.

Mind boggling really. More fucked up than anyone on drugs could ever be. Knowing the odds are stacked against them. Playing anyway.

***

One way to start off the day in Vegas is with a good breakfast at The Bellagio. Food is excellent, the options plentiful, and the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby as you head into the restaurant, is gorgeous.

There are a surprising number of decent used bookshops in Vegas, starting with Bauman Rare Books located nearby in the Palazzo’s high-end shopping mall – which makes sense given that Bauman owns the high-end of the book market – the shop is more special collections library than anything else, except here, of course, you can buy the books! As then manager Rebecca Romney explained (this goes back a few years, she’s now with Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, and just so you know, what she has to say hasn’t dated at bit. It’s good, timeless advice), Bauman specializes in high-spot literature – typically the ‘best’ work by the best authors in the best condition. As a result you can expect big ticket prices, but you can also expect that the books will hold their value.

Listen to our conversation here:

Moving off The Strip, other shops in town worth visiting include the Amber Unicorn with its enormous cook book selection, Plaza Books (Update: It’s closed. Now online only), Greyhound’s Books (out of business), and the spacious Dead Poet Books (also out of business). All are clean, well organized affairs, and all offer interesting stock. Toward mid-afternoon I hit Academy Fine Books (doesn’t appear to be in business anymore…I’m going to start crying now). It’s located across the road from this heavenly creature

who looks down benignly on the now empty (and sketchy), aptly named Blue Angel Motel. Academy is decidedly disorganized, and as such, more of a treasure hunt than the other stores. Turned out to be my favourite. I pulled out this desirable E. McKnight Hauffer cover

for $10 (later printing, unfortunately, but still a lovely find. And yes, appears that it too is out of business. So much for the surprising number of used bookstores now. Looks like it’s time for another visit to survey the carnage).

Depending upon how bagged you are from all the browsing, you might want to check out Las Vegas Shakespeare. It hosts and produces an interesting lineup of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year (okay this is getting ridiculous. Seems like it too is closed). The studio is located across the road from the Neon Museum, (not closed)

another place worth visiting.

***

I came to literary tourism through the doors of a used bookstore. Via the hunt. And yet, book shopping represents just one of many ways in. One of the most popular, is, as I say, through the pages of a novel. In Fear and Loathing the two lead characters check into The Mint Hotel and Casino.

after booting it from L.A. to Vegas in their rented, drug-laden convertible. Hunter S. Thompson puts it much better: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.”

The Mint sadly is no longer, or at least its name has gone. The place is now known as Binion’s. It’s seen better days. Like when big crowds were still tight around the crap tables. “Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”

So, I called them up and got a tour of the hotel part of what is now a casino complex. Turns out it, the tower, has been closed, awaiting renovation, for some four years now. Nonetheless, we traipsed up in un-airconditioned heat to the 12th and 18th floors, in search of rooms 1221 and 1850. No such luck. Neither exist. We did however visit the 5th floor and a double bedded room that more than likely served as sauce for Thompson’s meatball imagination. We also hit the rooftop patio, complete with empty swimming pool, and a great view of several other buildings that would have been around in the late 60s.

From Binion’s I hi-balled it across town to the Special Collections Library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about gambling and the history of ‘Sin City’. “ UNLV Special Collections houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” Collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.

I talked gambling with former director now Head of Exhibits (now Curator) Peter Michel. Listen here to our conversation:

After our conversation I pulled the files on The Mint, ‘the tallest building’ in Nevada at the time, and saw how it looked shortly after it went up, how they promoted it, and what they stirred their drinks with. I also got to play with a First Edition of Fear (see above).

How did this physical framing of the book affect my experience of it? Rather positively I’d say. Bringing it out into the real world has certainly made both events – the reading, and the visiting – more distinctly memorable. There’s a thrill attached to seeing in real life what you’ve first encountered in your imagination – even if the two don’t always match. Extending my encounter with the book was fun, a continuation, an excursion, a kind of treasure hunt, in a way, which takes us back to the start, searching for things – books in one case, deeper understanding in the other – trying to impose order on the chaos.