Thursday, February 9, 2012

An American Cathedral

I was thinking last night that it is very difficult to convey cold visually.  Perhaps a great storm cloud of breath escaping the lungs is one way.  But generally speaking, it's hard to tell someone in a photo just how cold it feels.

So trust me when I say, it feels very very cold walking around Paris these days. 

That is why it was such a joy last night to find this  - a tiny American island in a sea of French:

Warmth and refuge, in English
Shakespeare and Company is a bookshop that has been a home to expats of generations yore and now, and a writers' haven - Hemingway famously posed for a photo in front of the store many moons ago.  It speaks America to an American in Paris, and on a clear cold night, I took refuge therein.

It is not twee.  Its authenticity has not gone anywhere, and it reminds me of a time when the world wasn't hyperconnected, when it was not possible to follow every jot and tittle of "friends" wherever on the surface of the globe, when there was a "cool" that was contrarian and deliberately sought to be outside the mainstream of things.  When to be a writer was to partake in a revolution of sorts, of the spirit if not of the street, and words were more than just copy.

I only needed to hear the pompous but eager young man in the second floor reading room strutting his literary know-what to a young woman who was desperately trying to find him interesting to be reminded that Paris is made for just such a moment, and few places are better for it in Paris than this.

If either one of them bothered to look out of the small window, they would have seen Notre Dame.

She ultimately could not overcome her dislike because he ultimately was a terrible bore, a testimony to her good judgment, it seemed to me. 

In my wanderings of the store's maze of small chambers stuffed with books, I found one that my friend Craig Kelley had urged me to seek out.  It was not for sale, but was for reading there.   

Walt Whitman is looking over my shoulder

Is Paris Burning? is the sad and frightening tale of the German occupation of the city during World War II.  Hitler had ordered the city destroyed upon the arrival of the Allies, and it was only through the delay of his German general that it still exists to us today in the way it is.

Warsaw by contrast did not survive the war as well.  There the full fury of German brutality, abetted by the unmitigated political cynicism of the Soviets, played out with terrible consequences for the Poles who rose up in insurrection.  Paris escaped Warsaw's fate for a combination of reasons, but in the end perhaps for no reason more than luck, and a blessed aberation from the psychopathology of 1940 to 1945. 

Shakespeare and Company is a good place to linger with one's thoughts.

The war recedes, but not entirely.

The dark nights are remembered in the City of Light.

I sat and read for a while longer, as Craig had bid me do.