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.
In a nod to my childhood fascination with Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I still reserve the month of October for books about dark subjects. I’ll sample the latest in horror fiction or bury myself in non-fiction accounts of unsolved mysteries or infamous killers. This year, my October selections were two recent works of historical non-fiction: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith.
At a glance, these books might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they both take place in France. Monsters of Gévaudan, after all, is about the well-documented events that took place in the rugged, rural mountains of south-central France from in the 1760’s, when a mysterious creature – known simply to the French as La Bête – viciously attacked over 200 women and children, killing at least half. Death in the City of Light, on the other hand, takes place in more modern times, telling the story of a mad doctor who used the chaos of the Occupation to murder scores of Parisian Jews and gangsters eager to flee the beleaguered city. But beyond the French connection and the murderous monsters at the center of each book, many more striking similarities exist.
CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical ...
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.
I recently read You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. This book was a best seller in 1926, and was a favorite of William S. Burroughs. As I read it, I could see how Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, was influenced by Black’s history. But what came to mind more often were recollections of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
In The Stranger, we follow the events in the life of Meursault, Meursault is a pied-noir: a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria. The title of this book in French is L’Etranger, and the primary of definition of "étranger" is "foreigner". Meursault appears as a foreigner or outsider, living life through physical sensations, but with little meaningful connection to the society around him. At his mother’s funeral he displays no emotion. He is alive only to the sensations of the sun, the sea, and casual sex with Marie, a woman who used to work in his office.
Meursault thus drifts along through life, reacting rather than acting. Through a seemingly meaningless series of events he finds himself on a beach, in the blazing sun, confronting an Arab that had had an altercation with Meursault’s friend Raymond. Meursault has Raymond’s gun in his pocket, and when the Arab draws a knife in the blinding sun, the light glinting off the blade “like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead”, Meursault pulls the gun and shoots. He then fires four more shots into the body.
Dylanologists rejoice! I've heard from a semi-reliable source that Renaldo and Clara, a much-discussed and little-seen 1978 epic film by Bob Dylan, will soon be finally released on DVD.
This astounding, rich and often frustrating movie represented one of the most dramatic episodes in Bob Dylan's long career. An ambitious, intentionally difficult postmodern art film, Renaldo and Clara was panned by critics for being pretentious, incomprehensible and painfully long (all of these things are true). Released in the early years of the punk-rock/new-wave era, the film's windy self-indulgence revealed Dylan as completely out of step with his times. Stung by the criticism, Dylan has refused to release the film ever since. It has not shown in theatres since the 1970s, and has never been officially released on VHS or DVD.
But this movie is a masterpiece in spite of its faults, or perhaps because of them. Conceived by Dylan as an early experiment in cinema verite (a genre now typically known as "reality tv"), Renaldo and Clara tells a single story but deliberately confuses the identities of all the characters, several of which are played by Dylan, his former lover Joan Baez or his then-wife Sara Dylan. Bob Neuwirth, T. Bone Burnette, Ronee Blakely, Mick Ronson, Scarlet Rivera, Ronnie Hawkins, Rob Stoner and countless other friends come along for the ride. Various improvised or real-life scenes introduce themes of love, politics and the meaning of America, and by the end none of the themes are easily resolved. The film quality is erratic, the direction is often unclear, and the acting is often clumsy (guitarist Mick Ronson is particularly wooden, and Dylan is no Brando himself)
However, stirring scenes and images emerge. Most importantly, the narrative scenes are intercut with stunning complete performances of great songs like Tangled Up In Blue, It Ain't Me Babe, Never Let Me Go, When I Paint My Masterpiece and One More Cup Of Coffee. The film features Dylan in a peak moment of live performance with the Rolling Thunder Revue (the largest and, in my opinion, most exciting band he ever played with).
A link on Terry Teachout's blog to a super-rare full-length kinescope recording of The Fantasticks from 1964 brought back lots of memories for me, and not just ancient ones, because I've seen this great Off-Broadway musical at least eight times, most recently only a few years ago with my kids. It's a musical comedy about two young lovers whose fathers pretend to be in a bitter feud (they secretly like each other a lot) so their children will want to rebel against them and marry. The ruse works, until the young lovers find out they'd been set up, at which point a whole lot of romantic confusion and angst ensues, followed by a happy ending. The moony overtones of the story are nicely undercut by a deliberately frothy, self-consciously aesthetic staging: there is a character known as the Mute; sets and props are minimal; the orchestra consists of a piano, a small drum kit and a full-size harp.
I saw the play most often at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City, where it ran for four decades. The 1964 kinescope now viewable for the first time is an abbreviated version shown only once on Television. Cut to an hour, the show omits a few characters and at least two songs "It Depends On What You Pay" and "This Plum Is Too Ripe". Still, I watched the whole thing with joy and appreciation, especially relishing the chance to see the two great comic stars Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway harmonize as the two fathers (Lahr was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and Holloway was Doolitle in My Fair Lady).
(In June 2009, Michael Norris began a series of explorations of Marcel Proust's long masterpiece In Search of Lost Time that concludes with a personal coda today. Thanks to Mike Norris and artist David Richardson for this extensive work! A page devoted to the entire series has just been created here. -- Levi)
I awoke to a hellish clanging. Bells! Sunlight filtered in through the shutters. I shifted gradually from sleep to consciousness, and as I did, I remembered where I was. Combray. Well, Illiers-Combray. The French village that inspired Marcel Proust. The town started its life as Illiers, and was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth.
The bells continued relentlessly. Of course! It was early Sunday morning. It was the bells of the church, Saint Jacques (Saint Hilaire in In Search of Lost Time) summoning the townspeople to mass. My wife was still sleeping, oblivious to the din. I slipped into my clothes and went downstairs.
The hotel where we were staying, Hôtel de l’Image, is the sole lodging in the center of town. The only other hotel is near the railway station. The Hôtel de l’Image stands on the town square, sandwiched between a grocery store and a pharmacy, just a few steps from the church. There is a single café on the square. The hotel bar serves as an alternative to the café for those who want to get in out of the hot morning sun.
I took a seat at the far end of the bar and ordered an espresso. It was wonderfully cool inside, and a breeze blew in from the door that opened on to the street. Outside, I could see the bright sun already beating down on the outdoor tables of the café.
Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.
Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009
Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009
Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009