Departed: George Whitman and Vaclav Havel

Eastern European French History Modernism Tributes Bookselling

There were two incarnations of the fabled Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

The first store was the labor of love of Sylvia Beach, an American expat from New Jersey. It lasted from 1919 until 1940 when it was closed by the Nazi occupation. But during its best years it was the haunt of “Lost Generation” writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. James Joyce used the shop as his office, and it was here also that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922.

In 1951, another American (and English language) book store sprang up on the Rive Gauche, on the banks of the Seine, a stone’s throw from Place Saint Michel. This bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, was opened by bohemian wanderer George Whitman. His goal was to create“a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Under the sign “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, Whitman opened his bookshop not only for browsing and reading, but he also provided couches and beds for tired literary travelers to spend the night.

On the death of Sylvia Beach, Whitman changed the name of the bookstore to Shakespeare and Company, which it has remained to this day. This new incarnation of Shakespeare and Company became a hub of literary life in Paris, and was frequented by such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs when they lived at the Beat Hotel in Paris.

Sadly, the dynamic George Whitman’s life came to an end Wednesday, December 14 2011, a mere two days after his 98th birthday. His generosity, his eccentricity and his free spirit will long be remembered in this quiet corner of Paris.

His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, had been in charge of the day-to-day operations of the book shop for some time, and the delightful readings and other events will continue on.

Bookstores like this are becoming few and far between, so if you have the chance; make a literary pilgrimage to Paris and to the wonderful Shakespeare and Company. Your life will be fuller for it.

* * * * *

East of the Latin Quarter in Paris, another major figure of the 20th century has also passed on.

Vaclav Havel is best known as the hero of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a revolution compared to velvet because of its smooth, swift conclusion and lack of bloodshed. (And also, allegedly, because of Havel's fondness for the music of the Velvet Underground).

Havel was primarily a literary man – a playwright and essayist who produced numerous plays, essay collections, volumes of poetry and other writings. His best known play is The Memorandum, produced in 1965. This play, a satire upon the absurdities of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, had its American debut at the Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre, and won an Obie for best foreign play.

Politics was not far from Havel’s art, however, and after his activities in the Prague Spring in 1968, he was banned from the theatre, and become more and more politically active. He spent much time in prison as a dissident, and was under constant surveillance by the secret police. He became the leading figure of the Velvet Revolution that brought down the Czech Communist regime in 1989. He was then elected President by unanimous vote, and served until 1992, when he stepped down during the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, not wanting to preside over the dissolution of the country. However, he was elected President of the Czech Republic, and served until 2003, when ill health forced him to resign.

Havel garnered many awards over his career, and in 1990 he was awarded the Prize for Freedom from the Liberal International.

After his Presidency, Havel returned to writing and literature, as well as remaining involved in European affairs. He was close friends with the band Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident musical group that was banned under the Czech communist regime, and he was also a big fan of Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground.

Havel died Sunday morning December 18 2011 at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. He was 75.

Vaclav Havel represented something that is rarely, if ever, seen in a politically leader. He was an avowed pacifist, and he sought change through non-violent protest in the manner of Gandhi. He was an artist, and he understood the role that art plays in society, either to satirize and bring change or to express truth. He will be missed as a major player on the European and World stages.

4 Responses to "Departed: George Whitman and Vaclav Havel"

by Claudia on

Michael, thanks for this commemoration of Vaclav Havel, who left an incredible and rare legacy, both culturally and politically.

by Eamon on

In 1996 I visited George Whitman. Having heard that Whitman was actually a character in Jacues Yonnet's classic underground novel "Paris Noir" (which I never could confirm). Back in those days you couldn't jump on a computer and find things out in a few minutes, oh no, you had to dig... This usually meant spending hours at a good library or, of course, consulting book store owners. Somehow I found out about Shakespeare & Co. I shook Mr. Whitman's hand, though he was busy talking with more inquisitive visitors in German, I believe. The store was just how you would imagine it, stacked high with valuable books. Books you can now buy on your phone, fer chrissakes.

by tolmsted on

Hi Levi - I'm going to apologize in advance for my sappiness.

I fulfilled a long dream of mine this past summer thanks to the best of friends and visited Paris. While there I made my pilgrimage Shakespeare & Co.

I'm not a well traveled person by any means - and I've no doubt that I horrified the French (who were more than kind and patient with me, despite their reputation) with the 12 words of the language I could successfully mispronounce. Being surrounded by words I didn't understand, and uncomfortable in my own ignorance - it made me appreciate how George Whitman had created an oasis for fellow travelers. I'm glad to learn that his daughter will carry on that wonderful legacy.

I have spent many a happy hour at Shakespeare and Company - weeks probably - I was a busker in Paris during the Seventies and lived just around the corner. I have revisited several times and took my daughter there when she was 16. She asked if she could play the piano and, of course the answer was, " of course, that,s why its there.
I have just finished editing my latest novel that features the magical aura around that wonderful bookstore and of George himself, in one particuilar chapter. I would have sent him a copy had he been around. The last time I heard him speak he was asking, where the hell Sylvia was! What a man and what a legacy.
Thank you for the blog.

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