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”

The strangely similar deaths of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe


Okay, after having recently read Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, and just finished Kenneth Silverman’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe, I’m getting a little tired of authors dying miserably in extremely squalid circumstances.

Oscar died poverty-stricken in a seedy, not so seedy now, Parisian hotel. Edgar died broke in hospital after having been rescued from a dive bar drunk or stoned/medicated out of his tree wearing someone else’s clothing. Oscar was diagnosed with encephalitic meningitis, probably brought on by syphilis contracted as a young man. Here’s Ellmann:

“At 5.30a.m., to the consternation of Ross and Turner, a loud, strong death rattle began, like the turning of a crank. Foam and blood came from his mouth during the morning, at ten minutes to two in the afternoon Wilde died…He had scarcely breathed his last breath when the body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth and other orifices The debris was appalling.”

And, from the epilogue:

“It was ostracism – more or less – by two groups, those who could not bear his homosexuality and those who could not bear his requests for money.” “English law had misdone him by punishment, and English society finished him off by ostracism”

According to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, the Baltimore editor and physician who rescued him from Gunner’s Hall tavern in Baltimore, “Poe was sitting in an armchair surrounded by onlookers”. As Silverman puts it “Poe had a look of “vacant stupidity. He wore neither vest nor tie, his dingy trousers fit badly, his shirt was crumpled, his cheap hat soiled. Snodgrass thought he must be wearing castoff clothing, having been robbed or cheated of his own.” A Dr. John J. Moran at the Washington Medical College hospital, to which Poe was driven, “diagnosed Poe’s condition as encephalitis, a brain inflammation, brought on by “exposure.” This explanation is consistent with the prematurely wintry weather at the time, with Snodgrass’s account of Poe’s partly clad condition, and with Elmira Shelton [a love interest]‘s recollection that on leaving Richmond Poe already had a fever. Both explanations may have been correct: Poe may have become too drunk to care about protecting himself against the wind and rain. Whatever the cause, the poet who above all others worshiped Poe also keenly sensed how much his death at the age of forty was demanded of him. “This death was almost a suicide,” Charles Baudelaire remarked, ” a suicide prepared for a long time.”

Both Oscar and Edgar were buried with fewer than 15 people attending each of their funerals. Today both graves receive the attention of thousands of literary pilgrims. I’m hoping the subject of the next literary biography I read wont end quite so tragically.

You can visit Oscar in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France, and Edgar in the Westminister Burying Grounds in Baltimore, MD, but watch out for the mysterious Poe Toaster.

For information on planning your trip to Paris, click here. Baltimore, here.

What they don’t tell you about Victor Hugo’s home in Paris

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by David d’Angers

Victor Hugo lived on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée in Paris from 1832 to 1848. He wrote some of his major works here, including a large part of Les Misérables…and received, among many friends, Lamartine, Vigny, Dumas, and Gautier, along with other noted writers and artists. But he didn’t just dine with them. Apparently he had peepholes installed into guest bedrooms so he could watch their amorous activities. Hugo in fact did more than watch. His mistress Juliet estimated that in one two year period he had sex with more than 200 different women.

The 5/6 room apartment at Place des Vosges presents three separate periods in Hugo’s life: before, during and after exile in Guernsey. You’ll find displays of the gothic furniture he designed, family portraits, memorabilia and some astonishing interior decoration he designed during his exile. There are temporary exhibitions of his photographs and drawings, and first editions of various famous books he wrote. A library is open to the public by appointment. The museum organizes talks in the apartment, and provides guided tours. Plus, entry is free. A visit here gives you a sense of what a multi-talented colossus the man was!

For more information, click here.

Audio: The Literary Tourist and the Flaneur


I interviewed Lauren Elkin about her new book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London at her apartment in the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris. It was an interesting conversation. The more I think about it, the more the Flaneur/Flaneuse and the Literary Tourist seem alike, particularly when it comes to use of the imagination.