In the summer of 2008, the Lawrence Durrell Society held its biannual conference at Université Paris X at Nanterre, France, at which I was scheduled to speak about the lost book of the Villa Seurat Series—Anaïs Nin’s The Winter of Artifice. We stayed in Vincennes, outside of Paris…you couldn’t visually tell it wasn’t Paris, except it was outside the périphérique, the freeway that encircles the city. But once you walked the streets and went into the first fruit stand or café, you realized you were in a place with a definite and unique identity. First, no one speaks English. Second, people don’t treat you as an inconvenience because they are not overrun by tourists—instead you are welcomed with a warmth that arises from curiosity. The first person I talked to was a drunk. I was buying ingredients for lunch (wine, cheese and fruit, basically) and he asked if he could cut in front of me with his two bottles of cheap liquor. When I let him go ahead, he thanked me profusely, and then struck up a hilarious conversation, including the clerk, whom he knew well for obvious reasons, in his banter. When I get into this sort of conversation, I feel warmth throughout my entire body. I get loose, relaxed, and the blood flows. I get emotional (not weepy, but exalted). On the way back to the apartment we’d rented, there was a man leaning on the rail from his first floor room smoking a cigarette. He hung out so far there was barely room to walk around him, in his white singlet, a long black page boy haircut, huge dark eyes and a well-worn face. I saw him there every day, and he would talk to the woman with a baby carriage, want to see the baby, talk to the postman, talk to anyone he recognized. The street was his café; he was a fixture that added character to the entire neighborhood.
I became cozy with the fruit stand people, the Turkish guy who served up the best lamb I’ve ever gotten on the street (that’s not fair, because how often do you get your lamb on the street?)…the proprietor at the bistro, etc., etc. We got familiar with the haunts there, and our apartment windows overlooked the streets, which were in the shadow of the ancient Chateau of Vincennes, where Marquis de Sade was held prisoner for a while.
Thus, going to Paris, as great as the city is, almost was a letdown. Suddenly you are surrounded by the tourists and all those who prey upon them. Accosted so many times by opportunists who want something from you, trying to trick you, make a fool of you if you let them. How many times can a woman pick up a gold-colored ring from the street, vainly try to fit it on her finger, then give it to you for good luck, and demand money from you if you’re gullible enough to take it, before you decide to cuss them all out? One woman I met in Louveciennes told me that she took such a ring, put it in her handbag and ran away, laughing. I suppose that is a better response. But I do love going to the bookstores and trying to sell my books, as well as finding a few rare treasures on the way, such as Christopher Isherwood’s diary or a worn Henry Miller novel.
The last bookstore we visited was Shakespeare & Company. I’d given up years ago trying to sell them anything—it’s the sort of place where you feel honored if they sell a book you’ve given them. So, with this in mind, I asked to see George Whitman, who was 94 years old at the time and has owned the place for decades. He used to be omnipresent in the store (see the video, which runs about an hour), but he doesn’t see many people now. He no longer runs things—his daughter has taken over the daily operations. A very suspicious woman at the cash register told me his health is bad, that he sleeps most of the day, only comes down (he lives upstairs) on occasion, and, like a relic, sits in a special chair and reads while people come to pay their respects. But I told her I had a gift for George. She reluctantly referred me to George’s daughter, who agreed, after scrutinizing me carefully, that I would be allowed upstairs to his living quarters to visit. I was accompanied by a young woman who was my “chaperone”—in other words, to make sure I wasn’t some sort of opportunist or maniac. I was led to a room I’d seen many times previously, but I barely recognized it. It once was crammed with bookshelves and stacks of books so tall they looked as though they were defying the laws of physics. Now, it was cleaned out. There was a table and a bed. Beyond the door was George’s room.
When the door opened, dozens of strange insects came flying out, hovering like tiny silent helicopters. George came out in his pajamas, unshaven, disheveled, but, in a way only he can master, hauntingly handsome, proud, with an air of noble defiance. He recognized me from my previous visits. We sat down at the table, and the chaperone, satisfied nothing terrible was about to occur, left us alone. George told me that ever since he ceased running things he has lost his sense of purpose. “I felt alive when I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the floors,” he told me, “but now all I want to do is to sleep. I never should have given up the store.” He still has a spring to his walk, his voice is still strong, and he was impressed with the book (The Winter of Artifice) I gave him. He told me he was going to put it into the reading room, where patrons can sit all day and read for nothing. This, to me, was even better than selling it. He asked me if I was a writer. I said yes, I’ve written things. He patted the bed and said if I ever need a place to stay, I could stay there for as long as I like, gratis. He told me people have written entire novels in his store. I’ve had this offer each time I’ve visited, and I regret not having taken him up on it—but a friend of mine told me that there were insects in the bed and in the breakfast, and if I didn’t mind that sort of thing, perhaps I’d enjoy the stay. He also added that Shakespeare and Company is perhaps the one place left in which you can experience the Paris Henry Miller describes in Tropic of Cancer, a place where, “In America…you wouldn’t dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was on the bum I slept in better rooms than this. But here it seems natural—it’s like the books you read” (Tropic of Cancer 117).
To read more on Nin’s and Miller’s Paris, get Britt Arenander’s Anais Nin’s Lost World: Paris in Words and Pictures, 1924-1939, which contains vintage photos, maps, and historical context of the many places they inhabited and frequented.
To see a sample or to purchase Anaïs Nin’s Lost World, click here.
To view a sample interactive map drawn from the book, click here.
Visit our Anaïs Nin e-bookstore here.
anais nin, henry miller, george whitman, shakespeare & company, paris, vincennes, marquis de sade, christopher isherwood, tropic of cancer, the winter of artifice, lawrence durrell