we headed off for La Charité-sur-Loire, about two and a half hours south of Paris, where I was to interview John Crombie on his famed Kickshaws Press. Along the way we stopped at Caroline’s cousin’s place and stayed the night. I arose early the next morning and went out into the garden to find this
Sarah Crown, books editor at The Guardian back when I used to contribute, had tweeted out a beautiful flower photo a few days earlier; I fancied a little war of the roses. Didn’t last too long – only amounted to a friendly skirmish. Nonetheless, I figure there’s always room for flowers on Twitter, it being such a bilious platform and all.
After gingerly navigating our way out of the narrow driveway, we hit the road for Charité.
It’s still known as a “book town,” despite the fact that there don’t seem to be many bookshops around. We only saw a handful. A lot seem to have gone out of business. Words were more evident. We saw quotes all over the place, written on windows and walls. I picked up a program (62 pages long!) from the Festival du Mot that had just taken place in June. Quite a lineup of writers. Impressive for a small town. There’s also an antiquarian book and ephemera fair that takes place in July, a “book night” in August, and a book market on the third Sunday of each month between October and March. So, despite a rather unsanguine appraisal from John, the town does at least seem to be trying to uphold it’s claim to be bookish. Downsizing from the book to the word, in difficult circumstances, seems to me to have been a pretty smooth move.
Louveciennes is, for the most part, a quiet little village on the outskirts of Paris. We drove there from Le Mans for a meeting I’d arranged with the renowned children’s book publisher Alain Gründ. Louveciennes was a favourite spot for the Impressionist painters. All told, more than 120 paintings of the place exist, limned by the likes of Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet.
Entrée du village de Voisins by Camille Pissarro, 1872
Anaïs Nin lived here at 2 bis rue de Montbuisson from 1931-1935 with her husband Hugh Guiler. It was here where she first met her lover Henry Miller, where she launched her writing career with the famous Diaries, “There are two ways to keep a diary: live a day and describe it in five minutes, or live five minutes and spend the whole day describing them,” and where, in this “laboratory of the soul,” she entertained Antonin Artaud, Brassaï, Lawrence Durrell and other famed artists and writers. Here’s one of her descriptions of the house: “Every room is painted a different color. As if there were one room for every separate mood: lacquer red for vehemence, pale turquoise for reveries, peach color for gentleness, green for repose, grey for work at the typewriter.” Some visitors in recent years have been lucky enough to catch glimpses of these evocative colours, however, despite various efforts over the decades to turn the house into a writer’s museum, none have met with success. You can read more about Nin in Louveciennes here.
After picnicking in the shade of an old stone church in the village’s centre square I strolled over to this gentleman
to discern directions to Alain’s house. He’s the barber. Has been for 25 years. His customers bring him back exotic combs from all over the world.
Alain’s place was only a five minute drive away, on rue Auguste Renoir. I was greeted at the gate by his wife, Monique. We walked up the garden path and met Alain sitting at that table over there on the patio.
We settled on a bottle of chilled rosé. It was warm outside. I sat down and methodically turned on both microphones, ready to engage in some ripping good conversation. The only thing that ripped however, was the soft, silent air, as a chainsaw burst full-throttle through it, obliterating any hope of a good recording. The noise kept up for much of the next hour and a half. I left the machines on anyway but the results were unusable. I’d have to play stenographer.
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.
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
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:
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).
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
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 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: