By Laurie Schut
On December 14th, George Whitman, the founder of what is unquestionably the most famous bookstore in the world, passed away. The very next day the famous writer and political observer Christopher Hitchens also passed away. And the day after that? December 16th marked the birthday of Jane Austen. Three events in three days that deserve to be noted.
Be not inhospitable to strangers/Lest they be angels in disguise -Yeats. (Written on the walls of Shakespeare and Co. Paris)
George Whitman, the owner of the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, died peacefully above his shop in his little apartment two days after turning 98. This was no ordinary bookshop and he was no ordinary bookstore owner. Long a fan of the literary arts, George would put up writers in return for a few hours work, usually in his library. And what writers! Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller all shared “a tea and a pancake" with George. Some 50,000 writers have passed through that bookstore since its inception in 1951.
I first heard about this extraordinary place because my boyfriend had packed it up, leaving snowy Calgary in a November so long ago it is almost non-existent, (1979), and gone… to Paris. To write. I was devastated. Not so much because he had left me, there was that, but because, well… I was the writer in the relationship.
He floundered, he wrote long letters ‘home’ to me, much to my amusement and chagrin, about Paris. He had gone to see the semi-mystical place called Shakespeare and Co. and had met a real writer. They were having drinks that night. More to follow. I put the letter away, thinking, yes, more to follow, almost tearing it in half. There were plenty more letters and more than one woman. Giving up, I returned to Victoria BC to continue writing. No Paris of the North, that’s for sure.
How could I ever forget Shakespeare and Co.? When a place assumes so much status as to beckon a young man from Calgary Alberta to cross the ocean to meet a real writer, then it has probably become iconic. George Whitman, wherever you are, I hope you are happy.
The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has — from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness. Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011.
It’s hard to write about famous dead authors, inevitably one wants to write in their style, or at least as well as they did. That's not possible with Christopher Hitchens. Over the past few days I’ve been reading what a wonderful writer he was, how he will be missed, his marathon drinking sessions, his problems with cancer, with smoking, and his rants. Everyone, it seems, has an anecdote about Hitchens. While he wrote for many periodicals he is closely assosiated withVanity Fair, a magazine that is never short on gossip and notoriety. He was famous for skewering that which might be considered sacred cows, like Mother Theresa whom he called her a fanatic and a fraud. He judged the Catholic Church hypocritical for their beatification of herr a scant year after her death; “It's the sheer tawdriness that strikes the eye first of all. It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for ‘beatification,’ the first step to ‘sainthood,’ until five years after his or her death.” (Slate, Monday Oct. 20, 2003). He cautioned that there have been enough fraudulent claims made in her name to make the whole thing suspicious, but she had some heavy hitters behind her, with money. And, as they say, money talks. I don’t know whether he was correct or not, but the sheer nerve of the man to go after someone as high profile as her, with so many worthy things in her name, astounds me. He had a nose for corruption, and followed it, relentlessly.
Jane Austen’s Birthday
Jane Austen was born Dec. 16, 1775 to a family of gentry, making her, I assume, a gentlewoman. She and her sister Cassandra were close friends in a family of six brothers. Jane often reminds me of her character Elizabeth Bennet, the saucy, rather caustic and rather sarcastic one. Cassandra, I imagine, would be Jane Bennet. I assume the rest are purely fictional. Her views on marriage and how it is to be secured have led her to be one of the best loved authors . She has spawned a rather large number of offshoots, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Ben H. Winters, and a slew of movies from BBC. Many want to be her, few can. Jane Austen’s Book Club, for instance, falls short. The number of times I’ve hopefully opened a book with stunning reviews, “the next Jane Austen” only to turn from it in disgust.
Jane is inimitable. "...Jane Austen, of course, wise in her neatness, trim in her sedateness; she never fails, but there are few or none like her."
Edith Wharton, 1925
We put out a table with Jane’s books, her competitors’ books, DVDs and scholarly books. The table wasn’t big enough. Strange to say, only a few were written by her, much more has been written about her, and in copy of her. Isn’t that nice?
Shakespeare: Jane, do have a pastry, they are divine.
Jane: If they are divine, they are of no consequence to me. I prefer the earthly, and the mundane. But to make of that divine, that would be something.
Shakespeare: Oh, dammit Jane, have a pastry and be done. They’ll fatten you up, make you presentable at court and then I’ll write about you. How would that be?
Jane: And of what would you write? A poor writer, an even worse scholar and a failure as a woman? I think not. Thank you.
Shakespeare: What, you would scorn to be immortalized by me?
Jane: I have my embroidery, thank you.
Some people are hard to please. I think that Jane was one of them.